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Recognising the ‘invisible’ Latin Americans in Lambeth

This article originally appeared on the Brixton Blog and in the newspaper equivalent, the Brixton Bugle.

There are an estimated almost 200,000 Latin Americans in the United Kingdom, with the largest number in Lambeth and Southwark, yet they remain a largely invisible community. Brixton councillor Martin Tiedemann, himself of Latin American descent, explains why the campaign to officially recognise Latin Americans is so important

When my mother arrived from Argentina 40 years ago, she was one of a small number of Latin Americans in London. Basic Argentine staples like polenta, aubergines and gnocchi were footnotes in fancy cookbooks. Born a few years later, I grew up in a small Latino émigré community of Chileans, Peruvians, Argentines and Mexicans, made up of refugees from dictatorships and homophobia, embassy staff and those simply looking for a better life.

Fast forward to now and Argentine malbec fills supermarket shelves, there are Argentine steakhouses across London and some of Argentina’s finest footballers, from Ossie Ardiles to Carlos Tevez and Crystal Palace’s Julián Speroni, have graced the pitches of the ‘English game’. And of course, there has been the small matter of a war.

And that’s just Argentina. Sitting on a bus through Brixton you’ll hear Colombian, Ecuadorian and Brazilian accents. Local Tesco and Sainsbury’s stores here in Brixton even have Latino food sections, cashing in on a growing market for cassava and guaraná. There are an estimated almost 200,000 Latin Americans in the United Kingdom, with the largest number in Lambeth and Southwark.

For all their impact on Britain’s cuisine, sport and economy, Latin Americans remain invisible in official eyes. The recent report No Longer Invisible: the Latin American community in London from Queen Mary University estimated some 113,500 Londoners are first or second generation Latin Americans, with something like 186,500 across the UK. In parts of my ward of Brixton Hill and neighbouring areas of Streatham, the last census revealed some 10% of residents speak Spanish or Portuguese as a main language.

Most Latin Americans in London – 85% – are in work. This is much higher than other foreign-born Londoners, or London as a whole. Some work at the highest levels in London’s banks, businesses and legal firms. Many other Latino Londoners are London’s cleaners. Colombians, Ecuadorians and Bolivians make up the backbone of the cleaning industry, hoovering the skyscrapers of the City and Canary Wharf and scrubbing down the restaurants of the West End and government offices in Whitehall. Half work in low-paid and low-skilled jobs, with long hours and often exploitative conditions, despite their often higher status back home and relatively high levels of education.

The Latino contribution to the London workforce and economy can’t be disputed. Yet this community remains largely invisible. Concentrated in less fashionable parts of London and working at night in hidden industries, with few political champions, we should also recognise that 1 in 5 are in the UK without valid documents. Latin Americans have also failed to bring a coherent sense of common identity with them from a continent that reaches from close to Antarctica to the Texan border and beyond. Many Latinos live in London with Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and British passports and are keen to make clear a European identity. But most of all, crucially, there is no opportunity for Latin Americans to identify ourselves – no box to tick on official ethnic monitoring forms, no place on the census.

The inclusion of Latin Americans has been quietly gaining support. The Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK‘s last conference was hosted by the Argentine Embassy in the presence of Ambassadors, Jeremy Corbyn MP, councillors, a Catholic bishop and the Metropolitan Police. It scored its first success last year when the London Borough of Southwark made the decision to officially recognise Latin Americans in September 2012. Now Lambeth, our borough, is hoping to join Southwark later this year. Campaigners are meeting officials from other boroughs and Westminster.

Recognising Latin Americans officially would mean officials would have sound data about the level of access of Latinos to public services. We estimate that a fifth of Latin Americans in London have never been to a GP and 40% use private health services despite the average Latino wage being just £7.07 an hour. It will make the needs and barriers experienced by Latin Americans, like the struggle for a London Living Wage for cleaners, more visible. Resources can be more fairly allocated and local authorities and service providers can develop better provision.

But above all, by official recognition of Britain’s growing, hardworking, vibrant Latin American community – a year away from Brazil’s FIFA World Cup – a community of almost two hundred thousand can come out of the shadows and become a proud part of the UK’s melting pot.

Martin Tiedemann is a Labour & Co-operative councillor in Brixton Hill.

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