Although an estimated 113,500 Latin Americans live in London, their political representation is practically non-existent. For this intelligent, slight, smiling Ecuadorian activist, however, anything is possible; she’s gone from waking up at 3:00 am for her job as a cleaner to be a key figure in effecting change within London’s Latin American community. She is a councillor for Canning Town South in London.
Virginia Moreno Molina
Belgica Guaña decided to leave Ecuador in pursuit of “opportunities and dreams of forging new path”. Although the most popular destination for Latin Americans in the 1990s was the United States, she took the advice of one of her friends and decided to try her luck in England. Moreover, no visa was needed to do this in 1997.
As a single mother of two children, it was clear to her that she would have to make many sacrifices. “I have been through difficult times, but I know now that every tear and every obstacle were worth it. Thanks to those times, I learnt how to achieve things by myself, something I continue doing now”.
Like the vast majority of Latinos, Belgica Guaña began working as a cleaner when she arrived in the UK. However, although she respects all jobs, it was clear to her that cleaning was not for her.
She began studying whilst continuing to work. As she was doing courses, she received free childcare that made it easier for Guaña, as she could study without the stress of simultaneously looking after her children. She managed to take around 20 courses, she says, laughing, and her intention was to repeat them before her children went into full-time education. In this way, she studied for two days and worked for the rest of the week.
With the course director’s help, she changed her career path and enrolled at a university to study accounting and finance and, later, a master’s.
However, she emphasises that it was difficult and that the Latin American community defined her as a single mother, marginalising her.
Problems within the community
Since Guaña arrived, she has faced latent discrimination in her life, especially from Latin Americans and for being a single mother.
In fact, her greatest obstacle has been her own community. “I never felt supported, only by those close to me”, she explains, referring to the support that she needed when she decided to start studying, building a more promising future for herself.
This is partly due to the “Latin American machismo culture that still exists; you are a single mother, so you are therefore less worthy of respect. In this way, the blame is always on you”, she says. Without a doubt, this problem also exists among Latina women themselves because there is an absence of “sisterhood”.
“We need to have an empowering attitude as we come from a society where everything was imposed on us”, explains Guaña. In other words, the community needs to become more involved with local programmes, people should participate and make suggestions, therefore having a say in decisions and creating a space for the community. Her objective is “to help women understand each other better and learn to be supportive, for there to be more sisters, friends and women producing this generational change”.
Guaña’s career as an activist dates back ten years, when she started attending protests. This was her basis for learning; it is because of this that she feels closer to struggles.
Her career within the Labour Party started four years ago and she has also been involved with various Latin American workers’ unions.
Guaña makes it clear that she began as a cleaner and that this is part of her life, something that she will never forget. “I did not arrive here and immediately become a councillor. I understand what it means to wake up early, clean houses, look after other people’s children, work in hotels…”
As a councillor for Canning Town South, she now wants to focus her attention on women and especially on ensuring that the Latin American community becomes more involved in both professional and political spheres. “We have to be part of the change. I want the future to bring more people who will continue progressing in these areas”, she explains.
Politics in London
Regarding her principles, she identifies herself with the Labour Party. She joined the party to find her own space and be able to gain the confidence to implement projects.
Guaña used to attend every meeting and demonstration, and she would knock on doors, canvassing. Some councillors supported and encouraged her, but she never believed that they would vote for her.
“I realised that I had become a councillor and that when I arrived I didn’t even know what that was”, she comments, laughing.
She seems proud of the position that she has reached and she remembers how, 20 years ago, she would wake up at 3:00 am to take the bus to her cleaning job. Many things have happened since then; she can hardly believe that she is now the Labour Party’s first Ecuadorian councillor.
For her, the message is clear: “Nothing is impossible”.
“People lack resilience and the rebelliousness that turns dreams into reality”. She adds that “this does not mean stepping on others but rather making sacrifices and being ambitious”.
The reality is that she has sacrificed time with her children. “They have been very sweet, they are very down-to-earth and value everything that I give them, they don’t demand anything from me”, she states proudly.
Conversely, Guaña feels that the the Latin American community are not making the most of her new role. She also mentions the big divide that exists amongst her compatriots, instead of an environment of mutual support and cooperation on projects.
She wants people to understand that the councillor role is not hers, but that it is a temporary position and she wants to do the most she can to help her community.
“I will not get as far alone, the position I have gained is not intended for me, it is for the community and it is a necessary step towards integration”, she states.
In her opinion, Brexit “is a very complicated issue that is difficult to assess at the moment. The numbers say one thing, but the reality could be very different, worse, despite the solutions which are being presented”.
“Many people voted only because of anti-immigrant propaganda, but the reality differs”, she says. Guaña claims that when Brexit happens, the UK’s finances will deteriorate, and transactions will become more expensive.
“If Corbyn were to win, I think the pressure of some Brexit resolutions could be reduced”, she says.
“I don’t think they can close the borders. On the other hand, many Latinos voted for Brexit, as they did not want more immigrants to come”, she explains.
Brexit also means that no more Latin Americans will arrive, as many of them come with European passports.
“Many people forget their roots and how they got here, there is no need to be ungrateful for your life nor to shut others out, because that way we lose part of our humanity”, she reflects.
Judicial attacks or ‘lawfare’ in Latin America
“Dominant countries will never allow South American countries to have total independence”, explains Guaña.
Latin America has sunk into a spiral of incidents and attacks against the left. The councillor explains how, before, this was done through coup d’états and the School of the Americas. Now “there is a school of judges and lawyers and everything is built on lies”. She gives the example of Lula, the former Brazilian president, who has been jailed without any proof.
“Power is bought by outside forces, just look at Lenin [Moreno]; he swore eternal love to Rafael Correa, and the next day he hated him. Either he’s out of his senses or it was planned”, she says.
She supports this fact by mentioning the emails that have appeared concerning a connection between Moreno and the U.S. embassy in his first years as vice-president.
The right-wing revolt is a fact in Latin America. “This is due to the buying out of mass media and networks that demonise good people and make bad people into saints”, Guaña asserts.
Nevertheless, since 2008, Guaña has been working with the new Citizen’s Revolution movement in Europe, alongside former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who is currently in Belgium. However, they still don’t have an official political party because their registration was denied in Ecuador.
“Rafael Correa aims to create a party with a good structure alongside good political training. I’m sure that, with structures and training already in place, leaders, both male and female, will emerge who will continue to form the future party”, she explains.
“Recently, we hosted a workshop with Rafael Correa to address initial structures, organic statutes and rules. In fact, I was elected to be the European director”, she says proudly.
“I have always greatly admired him; he inspires me, along with women such as Transito Amaguaña and Dolores Cacuango, indigenous people who, without knowing how to read or write, never stopped fighting until their final years”, says Guaña.
One of the movement’s main objectives is to train leaders under Rafael Correa’s guidance.
(Translated by Zosia Niedermaier-Reed – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org) – Photos provided to The Prisma by the interviewee