Migrants, Multiculture

Isaac Bigio, from AIU: “In the UK, we all belong to the same group, we have the same traits and the same problems”

Isaac Bigio is Peruvian with a Haitian background and a Bolivian education and is part of the Ibero-American community in London where he has lived for 25 years. He continues to be defined by his roots: after having spent half of his life living amongst the British, his native language continues to determine his ethnicity. His Minority.


Rocío Ovalle

With Bigio there is no need for questions. Educated at the University of London, Bigio lectured in Political and Economic Science.

His speech is ordered, he memorizes facts and figures. He likes to impose his own rules, in his own time and he shifts constantly from one point to another. The ‘Alianza Ibero-Americana y Luso-Hispana de UK (the Iberian American Alliance in the UK, AIU) chose him as its coordinator a year ago, according to him: unanimously.

Through this movement he has campaigned so that Spanish and Portuguese speakers living in the UK mutually support each other in their demands for regularization, respect and recognition of their community.

What is an ethnic group?

A group of people who define themselves as belonging to the same group for historical, cultural, traditional or linguistic reasons.

Who are the Ibero-Americans?

People from Latin America, the Iberian Peninsula and African countries who speak Portuguese, such as Angola and Mozambique. We need to see things from a British perspective: in each region an ethnic group is defined by differing criteria. Although, in other places the Andean and the Brazilians want to be differentiated, here in the UK, we all belong to the same group, we have the same traits and the same problems.

The Spanish and the Portuguese do not share the same problems in terms of regularization as Latin Americans or Africans do, which is one of the 3 R’s defining your campaign.

They can’t deport you, but when they deport your friend, a client from your shop, an employee from your restaurant, then it affects you albeit in an indirect manner. In any case, ethnic groups cannot be constructed on migratory issues. Take the Argentinians for example, many of them have European Passports. And, you Spanish have also suffered cultural persecution here and have had to adopt to a very different legal and cultural system.

Isn’t it more a question of there being two different ethnic groups: the Celtic and the Iberian on the one hand and the indigenous on the other?

The Celts were an Indo-European group who migrated towards the Iberian Peninsula and gradually integrated with the previously established local population, in the main the Iberians, thus forming the Celtiberian group in the final parte of the Pre-Christian era. In the same way the descendants of the Celtiberian group reached the American continent and mixed with local groups and also to a degree with the groups from central Africa creating a new group: indo-ibero-african which together with the other groups have come to make up a homogeneous group called Central American, South American or Caribbean.

Is an ethnic group also a nation?

No. Every group having a differentiating factor from the rest, whether it be for racial, cultural, linguistic or religious reasons or due to its geographical origins may wish to claim itself to be an ethnicity. Every ethic grouping, in turn, may be made up of other ethnicities.

From this point of view we can talk about hundreds of native ethnicities in the Americas (from the Inuits or Eskimos, who are not Amerindian, to the Mapuches) as well as numerous other Afroamerican ethnicities.  In the same way there are many Iberian nationalities, (Catalan, Portuguese, Galician, Basque, Majorcan, Valencian etc.) which are something more than ethnicities. In London there are 300 or more ethnic groupings, the majority of which are not recognised. To assign each of them a box is impossible. That is why all of these ethnicities group together in blocks.

Many of them not considered to be Caucasian British or Irish are classified as different types of “others”…

We want a block to be created in which all those whose origins are in the Hispanic world are grouped together, like what happens in the USA or Canada. In the USA there are more than 50 million Hispanics and Canada has 1 million. In the UK we cannot use the term Hispanic as, contrary to these two countries, here the majority of our community is Portuguese speaking and the largest Latin American community is by far the Brazilian one.

That is why we believe a block should be created under which all descendants of the Ibero-American community nations are integrated. This includes from the Amerindians and Afro descendants to the Iberians. This would make us better off as it would give us greater opportunities for our people and allow those of African or Indigenous descent to have greater support.

Why is an Alliance between Spanish and Latinos an advantage?

It interests us because together we have a strong numerical and electoral base which will benefit our demands that those without legal immigratory status will obtain it through regularization. In addition, the Spanish and Portuguese can vote, in the same way as the bulk of the Afro Caribbeans and Asians in General Elections.

It has been said that Latin Americans will obtain less benefits as “Ibero-Americans” than as “Latin Americans” given that the Iberians, the first part of the support base, already have the right to live without restriction in the UK. Further, the Race Relations Act prevents the Ibero-American from being considered an Ethnic Minority. Is there any truth in that?

An ethnicity is not based on migratory status. Amongst Caribbeans there are those who hold British nationality due to having been born in British overseas territories, who have the right to vote in all elections or who may need a visa to enter the UK. If a “Latin American” category were to be created there could be a wide inequality in immigratory status. Brazilians and Argentinians do not require visas and many of them are European Passport holders. The Andeans need a visa before arriving at the airport.

Our communities change over time. Until a quarter of a century ago the Spanish and Portuguese were not part of the EU and shared the same immigratory status as the rest of the Latinos (there were many ilegal Iberians deported).  Furthermore, the fact is many Iberian communities were formed, in the same way as the Chilean one, escaping from Fascist dictatorships.

Since the end of the Eighties many Andean refugees have arrived and the Iberians have entered into the EU. Today, however, with the new immigration restrictions we have a significant number of established Latinos (some awaiting their papers), and increasingly more and more of the new arrivals do so on European passports.

As far as Ibero-Americans not being able to be classified as an ethnic minority due to this act (the Race Relations Act), this seems to me to be nonsense. Gypsies, Arabs, Indians. Pakistanis or Bengals are classed as an ethnic group in spite of being muti racial. Within the Latin American or Ibero-American community all races exist, the same as in India or the Arabs.

What is the advantage of joining together in this way?

To us Hispanics it is of benefit to join with the Brazilians, Luso-Africans, Spanish and Portuguese, as together we can be one of the 4 main communities in the Olympics, we can obtain a period of time every year to celebrate our culture and a giant festival in the centre of London, we can obtain services in our own languages and we can obtain positive discrimination. Furthermore, we have the advantage of having a foot in the door of the European Union.

It is not possible to recognise our community dividing us by language (Spanish or Portuguese) or by continents (old or new world) because the Hispanics of America mixed a lot with the Brazilians and the Spanish (and also Portuguese and Angolans) and the Brazilians feel very much linked to the Portuguese and Luso-Africans as their country has 85% of Lusophones in the world.

How can anyone dare to insinuate that joining together Ibero-Americans from the old and new world in a category goes against racial norms if the largest ethnic minority outside of Asia is made up of 50 million Hispanics in the USA, within which are included people from all continents including Spain?

Why do you want to form part of a big community?

We lack strength as members of a small community. In a process of negotiation it is not the same to say we are 200.000 undocumented people than a million citizens – the quantity of Ibero-Americans that is estimated to live in the UK, double the number of Caribbeans, – among whom there are 250.000 votes. If we unite we will be the 4th largest minority in the UK: separately, the Brazilians will be the 30th community, and the rest of us will tail behind.

But we don’t all speak the same language…

The Spanish and the Portuguese understand each other perfectly without the need for translators. Other ethnic minorities recognised in the UK come from many different countries and they don’t understand each other.

Or rather is it that the Portuguese have to understand Spanish?

The Portuguese have always felt overlooked by the Spanish and the Spanish language, it was almost an obligation to have to speak Spanish to be able to communicate. Perhaps this is due to the geographical situation: both Brazil and Portugal are surrounded by Spanish speaking countries. But the majority of Latin Americans are Brazilian. In AIU we want them to speak both languages so that we are all integrated into a big community, because in this case the language is not a difference.

Why then exclude the Caribbeans, if the majority of them speak Spanish?

When we talk about Caribbeans, we talk about the Commonwealth countries, and they don’t feel part of us. They don’t want to belong to our community because they have more rights than us, they speak English, they can vote here and they are recognised as a minority.

The term “Ibero-American is rather ambiguous….

It’s not the perfect terminology, but for the moment it is the best one adapted to who we are. Before, Latin Americans were “Spanish of America”. “Latin America” is a colonial term created by France; the term “Ibero-America” was born in Latin America, later we welcomed Spain and now also the African countries. But the fact we are Latin American does not mean that we are in any way lagging behind the Spanish: in the G20 Argentina, Brasil and Mexico are participating, but Spain isn’t.

It is said that the Alliance overlooks the aboriginal cultures and their languages, such as quechua and aymara, by defining itself by its use of Spanish and Portuguese.

Stupidities. AIU, our name are the vowels of the Quechua language and very similar to another word, “ayllu”, which means “community”. We are indigenous supporters, we celebrate Inti Raymi in London,  but here we have to look for what makes us all equal, what makes us part of a large community.

What is AIU?

It is a social movement, an Alliance of the leaders of different communities and citizens who meet to discuss issues that effect them. We are inspired by the American model in the USA, where there are more than 55 million people recognised as Hispanics, with a lot of political weight behind them in the country. The Alliance was created six years ago with the Frente Latino (Latin Front) as an attempt to enter into discussion with the politicians, and we have achieved great victories such as the Pueblito Paisa, the market that they could not demolish even under a legal ruling, which set a precedent for consulting with the communities affected by urban renewal programmes.

Many people do not understand the concept of “Ibero-American”, linking it to the Colonial age …

When the liberators fought for our independence they used terms such as “American” to refer to the continent as a whole and “Colombian” to refer to the American lands of Iberian language. With the passage of time, both terms came to be employed whether it be by the larger republic of English speakers in North America or by the more densely populated Hispanic republic of South America. Faced with the lack of a concept to integrate the America of the Spanish or Portuguese, the term Ibero-America was struck in our own countries. Initially this denomination was used to refer to the sum of Hispanic Americans in Brazil exclusively, but in time Ibero-America came to embrace Iberia and at that moment the term evolved until it included all those countries in Asia and Africa who have come to be governed by the Latin American Viceroyalities.

Ibero-America is not a colonial imposition. On the contrary, it is the extending of Latin America towards its old dominators and towards other overseas territories  that previously made up their own political, social and cultural world.

And in the case of the UK?

We can’t talk about creating a category for those originating in Latin America and the Caribbean because this would be ideologizing and being ignorant of the truth of the matter. Here those that originate from the English speaking Caribbean are members of the Commonwealth, they have the right to vote in the general elections (something the Spanish, including the wife of the Deputy Prime Minister, Miriam González can’t do) and they don’t have real issues with the language or English law. They don’t consider themselves Latin Americans, but Caribbeans. British reality has shown that in all our churches, celebrations, festivals, institutions, legal advice bureau, restaurants etc. people of Spanish and Portuguese speaking origin mix. This is because we all understand each other and we share the same problems: we can’t adapt to the language, we have never been governed by the English Monarchy, we are discriminated against for our pronunciation of the English language or for not understanding it well etc.

The term “Ibero- American” is now being used by many institutions. By the first and only bilingual directorate in our community, by the main cultural institution in our community (Canning House), by the main Business network (Cook your Business), the churches, by the Metropolitan Police and its association of Luso-Hispanic police officers. etc.

When the local elections took place in London in May 2008 we organised two electoral Ibero-American forums. That was when we said to the candidates that our community was not made up exclusively of voters with British nationality but by tens of thousands of the electorate with a European passport. We held the biggest pro-immigration march in British history on the 4th of May 2009 with more than 4,000 insignias or banners proclaiming ‘Ibero-Americans united for their recognition, regularization and respect”. Then we began the 10,000 signatures campaign demanding the recognition of the Ibero-American minority and a month dedicated to its culture. I do not know of a single Latin American community organisation of which all or the majority of its leaders or members have not signed.

Don’t you think that when one has to explain an ethnicity so much it’s because people don’t identify per se with it?

When we refer to ethnicity we commonly mean a group of people whose members identify with each other through a common hereditary baggage such as language, culture, a tradition originating in their shared roots and common ancestry. According to the last census, the majority of Latin Americans do not even identify themselves as Latin Americans. There were more people who self proclaimed themselves as being South American, a concept which includes Guyana and Trinidad, and excludes Central and Ibero America. We have discovered that those who speak Amerindian in the majority tick the category of Indian, despite the fact that this refers to those from the country of India. According to research at Queen Mary University only one in 7 Latin Americans interviewed identify themselves as such.

What we want is a block which integrates all of our community, which we liken to a hand with 5 fingers (1 Latinos or Hispanic Americans; 2 – Brazilians; 3 – Spanish; 4 – Portuguese: 5 – Ibero-Africans. We want a category to be placed on the forms which unites the hand and then underneath their is a subcategory representing each finger so that in this way those who want to be identified as Latinos have the advantage of being expressed as such but also they are part of a wider community which empowers them in all respects. If some people want to add into this category Hispanics, Lusophones or Latinos there is no problem. For example, the Brazilians, Portuguese and Luso-Africans have told us that for them it is very important to include the concept of Lusophone and we have agreed to their request.

AIU is currently focused on the campaign for the “Ibero-American”category in the British Census which is a work in progress. What will happen if the campaign does not achieve this or if the category is approved under the term “Latin American”, as another campaign is asking?

We will continue to fight for our rights. The census campaign is only another part of our struggle and what is important is not the name, but that our community is recognized. We do not want subcategories, divisions imposed by others, but rather an autonomous category for our community and within which Hispanic Americans, Brazilians, Spanish, Portuguese and Lusophones are differentiated.

¿Are community advances which integrate Ibero-Americans positive, independent of the organisation from which they originate?

Everything which serves to assist the Ibero-American community to promote itself and unite is positive. Whoever puts their personal or group interests above and against the community damages it.

Do you think that people are interested in this matter?

Yes, more than 5,000 people have signed the campaign and more than 20,000 were present on our march in conjunction with Citizens. People are interested in having their identity recognised.

In real life, nobody is classified with a neat box. What do you think about the fact that  the Anglo Saxon world classifies its citizens according to their ethnicity and not like in other countries where they are simply citizens?  We have to adapt ourselves to the context in which we find ourselves, and here things function like that.

In what way can an “Ibero-American” category in the census be of benefit?

If we have been counted in the census we know how many of us there are and we can tell the politicians how many votes we have, thus we can participate in politics and the parties will interest themselves in the issues that affect us; for example, the children of Europeans cannot be British, they live in limbo, and we need to change that situation. In order to gain respect we have to show that we vote. Once we are a recognised ethnic minority, the government and companies will assign resources designated for us, which will benefit our businesses. Up to now, there isn’t even an Ibero-American Councillor and of the 10 languages the Mayor’s Office in London is obliged to translate its official documents into, 9 are Asian languages and the remaining is Greek.

Your objectives are the 3 R’s: Regularization, Respect and Recognition for the community. What will your activities focus on once the census category has been achieved?

The census is not the most important thing. We are also fighting to have a month dedicated to Ibero-Americans in which all schools explain our history and our achievements: the Ibero-Americans built London and more than 80% of the English are from Iberian ancestry. If the Blacks, the Gypsies and the Gays have their month, why can’t the fourth largest minority in the UK? We also want our community to be taken into account in the rebuilding of the Elephant & Castle, just like in  Pueblito Paisa, a district with an important Latin presence. In order to achieve this we are in regular meetings with members of the Government and David Cameron’s cabinet.

Any final thoughts?

Your newspaper has a left wing leadership and through your newspaper I would like to remind them all that the Left does not look to provoke the rest of the community but to work with them. In order to obtain more rights we will be stronger if we show that in the UK we have powerful roots as all Latin Americans, although we may have African or Amerindian blood (something which I also have). We also have Iberian heritage in our blood, names or surnames, language, beliefs or culture and that the Iberians were the first to arrive on British shores, they were among the founders and builders of London and figure among the great figures of British history. We need to learn to look at our concrete reality and live according to what happens in our society, we have to leave behind the formulaic and narrow visions that those who continue to think in the manner of our countries of origin hold.


(Translated by Maria-Anne Moore. Contact: maria_annem@hotmail.com. Tel 07714 220 159)

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