Multiculture, Our People

José Luis Sánchez: an immigrant fighting for the immigrant community

An Activist, disciplined and tireless fighter, the Bolivian talks to The Prisma about his experiences in the United Kingdom and about ‘LAWAS’, the organisation in which he is temporarily acting as secretary.


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José Luis Sánchez arrived in London in 2006. He had been working as a cleaner until he lost his job a year and a half ago.

It was then that became more involved than ever in the Latin American Workers’ Association (LAWAS) doing what he loves and believes in most:  Helping those who have had their rights violated. He claims that there are more Latin American organisations than ever, but that they are very divided  This is due to various reasons, such as the inability to recognise their own mistakes.

He hopes to continue helping others through LAWAS and that the Latin American community can come together to stand up for what they believe in.

What were you doing in Bolivia before coming to London?

I worked in radio and television for a while. I also owned a small company which bought and sold cowhide.

What made you decide to cross the ocean and come to the United Kingdom?

All of the emigrants who leave our country do so for two reasons: to flee from poverty or unemployment, that is, to seek better living conditions, or, because their lives are in danger (perhaps because of their race or religion…).

And on arrival…

Well, the first thing you have to do is rent a room. This means you must pay a deposit and the month’s rent – whether you have a job or not.

Then I started to meet more Latin Americans which was a start, in terms of finding some sort of job.

What was your first job?

Cleaning. I had been working in cleaning up until a year and a half ago when I lost my job. I had became a supervisor.

Other Latin Americans enter into the cleaning industry and fail to move on to better jobs. Why?

One of the main barriers is the language. But the majority of them come with intention of working for a while, earning a lot of money then returning to their home countries.

However, many end up staying longer…

Yes. In fact, there are others who realise that if they learn the language, the environment and other things, they could enter into other fields of work. I know a few Latin Americans who don’t work in cleaning.

Do you think that the government, the system, or whatever you want to call it, make the integration of Latin Americans difficult?

Yes. Even the lack of recognition of the Latin American community as an  ethnic minority group is a form of discrimination. London is a multi-ethnic city therefore I believe that as an ethnic minority we should be part of it.

With the “manhunts” on immigrants established by David Cameron’s government, is it a good time to come to the UK?

It is clear that the government is seeking ways to get rid of non-European immigrants. The problem is that I cannot tell someone whether they should come or not. Everybody makes the decision of where they wish to live or want to go to work, taking into account all the risks involved, of course.

With regards to English citizens, have you ever felt that they have discriminated against you simply for being an immigrant?

I recently had to go to talk to some and tell them to do something. When talking to them and asking a favour of them, they told me no and asked who was I to go and tell them what to do. That said, you also meet people from the British community who are really nice.

Another feature

For the past year and a half, since becoming unemployed, he has been involved in LAWAS (The Latin American Workers Association)…

Not exactly. I have been a member of LAWAS for about 4 years, but I am now more involved than ever and acting as temporary secretary until the next general assembly.

Were you also an activist whilst living in Bolivia?

Yes, mainly through the radio. I had a program called “Joven rebelde” (young rebel), during which I spoke with students about hot topics occurring in our country: politics, the economy… and I got really involved in Evo Morales’ first election in 2002.

What does being an activist mean to you?

An activist promotes the right to human respect, people’s dignity, their social well-being; living as a community…They do things not for themselves but for the good of others.

What do you find most satisfying about your work in LAWAS?

I like to help everyone, although it sometimes leads to arguments with my wife. I dedicate my whole day to my work, on a voluntary basis. I think that it is in my blood.

LAWAS helps those immigrants whose rights have been violated, but, have you yourself seen yours violated?

Yes. I worked as a cleaner in a school and even the janitors spoke down to us. We fought to obtain holiday pay, overtime and we managed to reduce our heavy workload. Even the supervisor, who was Latin American, told me that if I left I wouldn’t be paid.

Latin Americans hassling one another is also a problem which sometimes arises…

I think this happens within every community. Those who have official documentation think that they have the absolute power to do whatever they want. Others, despite being able to speak English, are ignorant about  labour conditions.

What are the various Latin American organisations like now?

They are really solid and they work for the community. But many have been divided for various reasons. Sometimes it is because we don’t express our feelings. Over time, organisations have broken up;  now there are more but they are more divided than ever.

Or rather, there are now more than ever but with less influence…

Exactly. I would like all Latin American associations to find a way to establish fellowship bonds, exchange information, organise meetings, create ideas….

Because they were more united before…

Yes. I remember a march that was organised for the mass regularisation of immigrants and all the groups participated. It started from Elephant & Castle and finished at Trafalgar Square. I would love to witness  movement like that again, to come out t as Latin Americans and say how we feel. The Latin American community has become so divided  over the years.

Why?

Many don’t own up to their mistakes. Sometimes through personal interests, such as certain people believing that they are superior to others. Or simply because some want more power, they want to be “key figures”. But mostly I think it comes down to selfishness. This country isolates people and perhaps we have been caught up in this.

(Translated by Coleen Tumilty – Email: ct147@hw.ac.uk)

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