Carlos Cruz left Colombia 21 years ago and headed for the United Kingdom, leaving behind his wife and kids, because of holding political ideas contrary to those of his government. Today he works in the department of education at the trade union Unite.
Things began to get complicated in Colombia when Carlos Cruz decided to leave the country, given that, in his own words ‘the situation of those who oppose the government is very difficult’.
At that time, Carlos used to write for the newspaper ‘El Otún’ in the city of Pereira which published various columns of his which were not to the liking of paramilitaries, and groups linked to the far right, nor were they to the taste of some state members and state intelligence agents.
For this reason, Cruz was forced to move from city to city to escape persecution, until the situation became so difficult that the only alternative that he found was to leave Colombia.
How does one go about making such a decision?
Obviously it’s not easy. It’s a decision that you make as a last resort and against your will. Besides that there is an ever-present worry about the situation that you leave behind. I came by myself, leaving my wife and kids to start again from square one.
Why did you choose London?
Often there’s no obvious way to just leave the country, because you never think that you’re going to have to do it in a hurry. So when choosing a place to go in this sort of situation, if you’ve got a friend or relative that can help you out, then you tend to opt for wherever they might be. That is why I chose England.
How was it at first?
I arrived in 1991. At first it was very hard; arriving in a strange land, with a different culture, an unfamiliar language and a whole new set of traditions. Even more so as you get older, at 36 it is not as easy as it would be for a child.
What were your first jobs?
You’ve got to start by doing what everybody who doesn’t speak English does. I started washing up in a kitchen, and also worked cleaning buildings. This happens to a lot of Spanish-speaking professionals. The have to do things which fall completely outside of their experience and study. At first, the problem is always the language. Immigrants are vulnerable because they are cheap labour and they do the kind of work which natives might refuse.
In Colombia I was a teacher, and so a Colombian friend of mine who had joined Unite called me and proposed that I organize some courses in Trade Unionism in Spanish, for immigrants. In the end it didn’t work out, but I ended up being associated with the department of education at Unite in the role of coordinator of the education project for immigrant workers.
How do you maintain your links to the Latin American community?
Mostly through work, although the project was not conceived exclusively with Spanish speakers in mind, but for people of all communities. However, recently 70% of those who come to the project are Spanish or Portuguese speakers. This in turn brings more people along from the same communities and it becomes a focal point for everyone.
Do you think that the Latin American community is integrated in London?
It is difficult to feel integrated. Integration is a term which you can play with. It seems that there is a good emphasis on cultural integration on the government’s part, but really for them this means that people must adapt to the English way of life without necessarily respecting the culture, diversity and tradition of ethnic minorities. Bringing different cultures together can be enriching, healthy and positive, so long as tolerance comes as an implicit part of this.
What should Latin Americans do in order to integrate?
I am absolutely convinced that a large part of the problem can be solved through education, and that is why I have so much involvement in these kinds of projects. It’s not just about education through the traditional system, with a teacher bombarding students with information for them to absorb. You’ve got to do something different. Not only do you have to learn English, which is of course fundamental, but also Maths and Art. It’s important to get an idea of what is going on politically, to know how to respond to the question: What am I doing here? I was asked once what it meant to be an immigrant. An immigrant is someone who dares to cross the Atlantic, risking his own life in the quest to recover what is theirs.
How do you perceive the native population’s response to the question of immigration?
It is full of prejudice, stigma, discrimination, racism… on many occasions exacerbated by the tabloids which refer to immigrants in a derogatory and disrespectful way. In terms of access to public services there is often discrimination from the moment they see that you have a non-English surname. In the case of Colombians there exists the immediate association with drug trafficking. In this sense, the question of immigration is far from being answered.
In London there is a tradition of diversity. It is a city where many minorities live alongside one another, and cultures mix. It is a cosmopolitan city but this doesn’t mean that you’re always accepted. Racism exists but it is more common in the north, because they aren’t so used to immigrants.
What is your opinion of legislation concerning immigration in the United Kingdom?
It is a law that works against immigrants; it does not favour or support them. It blames them for social disturbance and the question is never posed in academic or political circles about why an immigrant might have to leave their home country. If we did this we might be able to get closer to a solution.
(Translated by Thomas Wright)