A Colombian, she has been Labour Councillor for a year. She suffered an attack in her country as a result of which she lost her sight and hands, but she has not ceased in her struggle for the community. She believes that Boris Johnson is an impulsive and racist man, that a general election should be held, and that Brexit will not help the country.
Virginia Moreno Molina
Fotos: Maria Victoria Cristancho
She arrived in the United Kingdom in 1972 to reunite with her mother and sister who had arrived seven years beforehand and although she had studied business administration in her country she began to devote much of her time to serving the community and people in need – and she got involved in Labour activism.
But, in 2007, she started visiting Colombia occasionally and unfortunately during one of those trips in 2010 while in Barranquilla a man riding a motorcycle fired several missiles at her at point blank range. His identity and the reason why he attacked her remain unknown. The upshot however is that Rosa was disabled: she lost her sight and hands.
However, in 2011, when she was discharged from hospital she decided to return to London, rebuild her life and resume her political activism. Finally, in 2018 she was elected as one of three councillors in the borough of Redbridge, one of the most multicultural in London.
Rosa Gómez Collante spoke with The Prisma about her career as a politician and activist, her political plans and discrimination.
How has your career as an activist been in the United Kingdom?
I studied administration and worked in this for a while, and then I continued with it in the area of immigration, first as an advisor at the Citizen Advice Bureau and later in detention centres.
I was also a coordinator in the human resources department at Carila Latin American Welfare, a community advisory body and committee promoting solidarity with Colombia, Cuba and Nicaragua.
I worked at Latin American House coordinating advisory services with the Colombian community and I later worked in social housing. I served the community and people in need almost all of this time.
What was your career path like on the way to becoming a councillor?
Full of challenges. I had to break down barriers that prevented me from advancing. When I arrived in London, my mother lived in Islington and Jeremy Corbyn was our MP. He has always helped the Latin American community and supported my sister who founded the Latin American seniors’ group.
So, I have been a Labour activist for many years and have always come out during campaigns to help. In 1993, I launched myself for the first time as a candidate for councillor when I lived in Hackney – on Diane Abbott’s list. I was unsuccessful and did not try again.
How was your return to the UK?
When I returned disabled in 2011, I returned to the party, attending meetings and getting on with my life again. And last year I tried again.
It was difficult because people like me need assistance in filling out forms, interviews, etc.
So, it was a surprise: there were three of us contending as Labour candidates and I was the one left at the end. I don’t know how I managed to inspire voters to trust me.
On the day of the vote they told me that I had been elected councillor along with two Conservatives.
How do they get along with Labour colleagues?
Grudgingly (She laughs). I really try to carry out my work without too much bickering. My interest is in working for the good of the community that all three of us represent. I don’t compete with them – I’m confident in the work I do.
People see me as a capable person who works very hard. In the council, when I have to raise my voice or stand up against the Conservatives I do. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible either. I have gained the sympathy of the residents because they say I inspire them and am good at helping them when they have problems.
What was your agenda when you launched your political career?
The same manifesto as the party: fighting for improvements, increasing education funding, social housing …
Since the Conservatives took over in government nine years ago, 20,000 police officers have been cut. We have youth violence, car crime and discrimination against women … the police don’t have the resources to deal with gender violence.
In my area alone we have a 15-year waiting list for social housing. We have to accommodate families in converted shipping containers.
This is not acceptable in the world’s fifth richest country.
Are there any projects you are currently working on?
Yes, with young people: all of them have a future and you have to help them to believe in themselves and avoid getting into gangs or drug dealing. I want to listen to them and find out what I can do to make their lives more gratifying.
How have the political classes received you?
A bit mixed. As there are normally no blind councillors let alone without the use of their hands, they do not know how to react at first. It has been a learning process for everyone, but I think I have their respect.
You have worked on policies for women – have you campaigned also for people with disabilities?
I am doing that right now. I have had a couple of meetings with Michael Morley, the director of Job Centre Plus and with the minister for work and pensions, Justin Tomlinson, to discuss the support the state must give disabled people to access employment and make use of “Access to Work”. This involves providing the disabled person with a personal assistant, as in my case, who assists them in their job.
I have made two presentations to companies encouraging them to employ disabled people. You have to look at the individual’s ability, not their disability.
When I asked Justin Tomlinson about goals, he told me that by 2027 he wants a million people with disabilities in the labour market.
Have you been affected by the present climate of general discrimination in the United Kingdom?
Discrimination happens when I go to a presentation using Power Point and everyone can see the figures and my assistant is there trying to read them on my behalf; and I cannot follow what the presenter is saying because they are speaking too fast.
So, I usually ask for the presentation beforehand, but it’s something people don’t think to ask for. The discrimination is constant.
As a Latin American woman, I got involved in Redbridge because it is an area with a male majority and as a woman I wanted to do my bit and represent my gender.
As regards being Latin American, every day throughout the entire country we are being discriminated against, except in Southwark. This is because everywhere else we are not acknowledged as Latin Americans.
When I became councillor, I met with some colleagues to debate my intention for us to be recognised throughout the UK.
I know there was a group that tried this years ago: I want to meet with them and take this up again, to bring it to the attention of the mayor’s office in London and on a national level – so that we gain recognition nationally.
How do you think Brexit will affect British society and its multicultural character?
It will have an impact in particular on the economy, the labour market and our rights. We will be adversely affected with respect to the supply of medicines. We do not have a pharmaceutical industry – they come from Europe.
As for the NHS, our nurses come from Spain and the European Union. We are stronger in Europe than outside. I fear that when we separate, we will be tied to the United States: and with a Donald Trump on good terms with Boris Johnson it will be a disaster.
Especially with his attempt to prorogue parliament …
What Boris Johnson is doing is a disgrace because if he prevents MPs from debating Brexit, he is doing away with democracy.
He is a coward and is merely trying to run the clock down so there cannot be a fair debate on Brexit.
He is an impulsive, racist, discriminatory, foul-mouthed…liar. How can we trust a man like this who has offended my colleagues, many of whom are Muslims? And the worst part is that as prime minister he was not elected by the country. We need a general election now. There is no one better than Jeremy Corbyn: a man who cares about people and who puts the interests of the nation above his own.
(Translated by Nigel Conibear MCIL)