This Colombian woman has been War on Want’s Director of International Programs since 2008. She’s also an activist.
But the 46-year-old didn’t come all the way from Bogotá to take on this job straight away, but instead had to do other, more menial things, such as being a waitress. She had no problem with this and even managed to find a kind of “freedom”, as her last job in Bogotá was a big burden for her. With the idea of leaving the country to learn a new language, the Colombian arrived in the UK in 2000 wanting to know the “other”, the coloniser, the country where power lies.
What did you work as in Bogotá?
I worked for an international organisation where I was regional coordinator for food sovereignty, working with indigenous and displaced people.
So what brought you to the UK?
I wanted to get to know the “other”. I’m an anthropologist and archaeologist and I have always studied perceptions of the “other” from the perspective that this “other” has power. I wanted to come and get to know the coloniser.
When you left Colombia did you say that you wanted to become acquainted with the “other”?
I thought: I’m going to the UK for six months to learn English and then I’m going to France to study. But those six months in London, which is a magical, multicultural place … it has a way of keeping you there. It’s like a melting pot. So I decided to stay for longer under the pretence of learning English and the money I paid to study in France went to waste.
Did you arrive with enough money to not have to work?
I didn’t move here because I needed money. I arrived with some money saved up. I organised it through a package that included classes and accommodation. They didn’t explain to me whether I could do one thing or the other. But now I’m here I realise that your budget goes quickly. Our currency is weak against the pound.
The time had come to do something…
I thought: I came here to study and I’m not going to live like a third class citizen. But here either you’re very rich or you can’t keep up with the pace of life of the pound. So I started out as a receptionist in an office for three months. But that was only for a certain number of hours because the number of hours a student can work are restricted.
Back then I brought my son over so I had to find something, and I became a waitress. In a way it gave me freedom because in Colombia I was burdened with job responsibilities and here it was a relief not to have any. “I have a free mind,” I used to think.
As a waitress you mustn’t have had so much responsibility…
Obviously not. But the job involved being around Africans, Chinese… and we were all immigrants. And that really appealed to me.
However, you became tired…
I was going to go back to Colombia with my son because I thought that my time here was finished. “I’m not going to stay here as a third class citizen,” I repeated to myself. Then a job came up for me in Scotland at an organisation to manage programs in Latin America and I spent six years there.
And then there was War on Want.
Has it been easy for you, as a Latin American, getting to where you are now?
No, because this society only gives you opportunities to do jobs that English people don’t want to do. When a certain place gives you a job it is because the people here don’t want to do it.
Are there restrictions for you?
The first things are learning the language and money. But they also tell you, for example: “We don’t process work permits”. Europeans don’t have any problems in that area.
Have you been on the end of any racist incidents?
Yes. One time I was told that I was being bullied because I was a woman, a Latin American and for being small. It was tough to have someone telling me this in a place of work. On another occasion a man said to me: “Another Colombian coming over to take our jobs”. And in Scotland I was speaking in English and they asked me whether I was speaking in English or Spanish.
Latin Americans have a big problem and that is the language. A large number of those that come here arrive with a basic level of English. Also, if for example they have children and they want to send them to a school in their local area a lot of obstacles are put in their way and it may end up that their child can’t go to school for months. If someone comes here as a student, his or her working hours are limited. And we get no help from the state: not for housing or for employment… since many people say that we come here “to sponge from the State”.
Does the State help these people to integrate?
It isn’t in the interests of English society to help immigrants integrate. They are interested in having them as a cheap workforce. They don’t want to teach them English because then they will look for other jobs. Is it that immigrants don’t want to integrate into society or that they can’t?
Of course. But that is part of human nature. The same problem surely exists with Africans, Chinese… I think that the Latin American community is very supportive to its members: when someone arrives here, he or she goes to places where there are other Latin Americans and they help each other to find work. There is a great sense of solidarity among the Latin American community. We have to help each other.
Changing the subject, you are also an activist… what does that mean for you?
It is a political attitude towards life. It is about taking actions that you think are correct according to your attitudes. It isn’t a job; it is something you fight for without expecting anything in return.
Since I was in Colombia. There has always been politics in my family in one way or another. Also, the National University of Colombia, where I studied, is quite belligerent with people’s struggles for their rights.
You thought about leaving the UK because you didn’t want to be a third class citizen. Are you still a third class citizen?
Unfortunately, I still am. Regardless of my position at work or my salary. That’s part of it, but it isn’t everything. I’m a Latin American; I’m from the Third World. Wherever I go, it’s the first thing people see in me. And even more so now with the government trying to stigmatise immigrants.
(Translated by José Stovell)