By preparing dishes from her homeland she not only offers a helping hand to her fellow citizens but also delights Londoners with these flavours from Colombia.
Marcos Ortiz. F.
She is one of those people who just keeps on smiling. Not even the memory of leaving her children – who were 8, 10 and 19 at the time – to try her luck in London can wipe the smile off her face.
“It was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made in my life,” she says as she remembers that day back in the year 2000 when she said goodbye to her hometown, Buenaventura. María Luisa, now 53, was 35 when she crossed the ocean for the first time to join her brother who was already living in the UK.
“Finding a job when you’re over 30 is very difficult in my country. Whenever I went looking for a job employers would ask me my age, and rejected my application when I told them how old I was,” she explains. In Colombia, she travelled on foot to deliver documents, letters, and parcels to different clients. She also firmly made up her mind not to work as a house cleaner. Her plan was to go to the UK, save money for 3 or 4 years and then return to Colombia.
The first shock she had after leaving her home country was when she arrived in the British capital. “I always thought that black people would be discriminated against in the UK, but when I got to the airport I saw people who looked like me,” she recalls.
She could not even speak a single word of English when she arrived in the country but still managed to secure her first jobs. “I ended up doing what I didn’t want to do in Colombia,” she says. She started saving up money by working as a cleaner for two hours in the morning and another couple of hours in the evening. As time went by, she got more hours.
María Luisa’s children managed to follow in her footsteps and came to the UK by the time she had married a Portuguese man. She lived frugally while working in the UK. However, this is what helped her stop doing what she did not want to do and start selling coffee, buñuelos (fried doughballs), and pandebono (Colombian cheese bread) – specialties from Valle del Cauca – at London markets. These flavours from Colombia were popular amongst Londoners and the rising Latino population that crowded together around specific areas of the city.
The final leap came on the day that María Luisa successfully set up a small food business near Elephant & Castle station, in the south of London. The small but well-run business was nothing more than a bar on which she served typical Colombian dishes.
There was growing demand for María Luisa’s food and before long her savings allowed her to buy the space next to the bar, which was divided into 10 mini businesses at that time.
She knocked down the divisions and created La Barra, a restaurant where customers arrive in groups to taste Colombian specialties.
“The most popular dish is la bandeja paisa (paisa platter),” she claims without any false modesty.
Her children are now adults and they work and study. Behind the till María Luisa exchanges a knowing look with her son-in-law who also left Colombia to come to the UK. In fact, it was he who urged her to share her story.
He is one of the four Colombians who work at La Barra during the week, a figure which doubles on Saturdays and Sundays. “They’re all Colombians. Giving them a job is my way of helping people who came to the UK with the same hopes as I had,” she states, with that gentle smile of hers still on her face.
Photos: Pixabay – (Translated by Shanae Ennis-Melhado – Email firstname.lastname@example.org)