“I long to see my community, visible, strong and fully integrated in English society.” There are few examples like the one of Ecuadorian Juan Carlos Piedra in London. After his arrival at the English capital in 2002, one of this cleaner’s objectives was to organize the Ecuadorian community in London, currently one of the strongest communities in the city of the Thames. The Prisma’s Memoirs. January 2011
Juan has a rare profile: he is a DJ in his spare time and when it is asked for, he works tens of hours per week cleaning, he sings and it is one of the most heard voices at protest marches; he has about him a mix of happiness and restlessness when the organisation of a protest or a community party approaches, he smiles frequently and is always full of energy. He is modest, but also proud of what he does, for his people and for himself; that is, the dignity of an immigrant with his head held high and the constant fight of not giving up to the reality of exile. So, little by little, since that year in which “to believe something” and “to do something” was already going round in his head, Juan Carlos Piedra shows signs of being a true organiser, of which there are few in this multicultural London. His constant rushing, and his continuous political activity; he knows that you have to fight in politics, but never forgets that recreational, cultural and sporting aspects cross paths within society. In other words, he is an organising leader, and for this reason, The Prisma decided to interview him.
In his eight years here in the United Kingdom, Piedra has managed to bring together the Ecuadorian immigrant residents of London with a strength and ability of organisation and leadership which is rarely seen in the Latin American community. This eagerness became apparent in 2007 with the creation of the United Kingdom Ecuador Movement (Movimiento Ecuador del Reino Unido) (MERU), of which he is founder and coordinator.
Married with three children, he was born 34 years ago to the bosom of a humble family of the Ecuadorian city of Loja. When he was 15 years old his father left and he was obligated to work 15 hours a day harvesting and cultivating bananas to finance his studies. “It was then that I became aware of the exploitation and abuse that workers suffered”, he mentions, and from this experience a strong desire to ease the work problems suffered by most workers was born.
Although his economic situation did not allow him to fulfil his dream of studying architecture, he did register on a course of Educational Psychology at Loja State University.
His desires to “improve the situation of the masses kept growing”, after having been the president of the Student Council of the Emiliano Ortega Espinoza school. He also led the Loja University Student Movement. During this time he combined his work obligations with his student activity, which he admits he would not have been able to do without the support of his family.
Now in the United Kingdom, Juan Carlos Piedra began to work as a cleaner, a post from which he has made his name as a defender of workers’ rights and as an organiser of the Ecuadorian community. Victimised and intimidated for his union work, he has maintained various struggles to defend the working rights of workers, in particular those of immigrants.
In 2009 he was made redundant from this place of work as cleaner at University College of London (UCL) by the contracting company Office & General, who had previously questioned his participation in the “Justice for Cleaners” campaign, and for his work against deportations and in favour of the rights of illegal immigrants.
Despite everything, he managed to unite the support of the UCL unions (UCU Unite and Unison) to make his rights heard and organised a campaign, in which MERU and the Asociación Latinoamericana de Trabajadores (LAWAS) also participated, to achieve his reintegration to his job post. Thanks to this struggle, Juan Carlos Piedra has regained his post as cleaner in London, now in Westferry (east London), and in the same way his work defending the rights of migrants.
What drove you to leave Ecuador?
A great political disappointment. Many of us young people realised that the objectives of the Student Movement were being lost. We denounced this and it created an incredible hunting of witches, persecution, and isolation. My disappointment was so great, that as soon as the opportunity arose, I left the country. However, despite the disappointment, my experience in the Student Movement was the base of my learning which led me to eagerly continue to improve things.
What were your aims upon arrival in the UK?
To start with my aim was to work to be able to return to be with my family as soon as possible. Luckily our separation only lasted two months. I also thought of forgetting everything and fully incorporating myself in family life. Days went by and I found myself becoming disillusioned. I realised that I was living in a very hypocritical capitalist society. I remember a friend of mine from Bristol told me, “You live in a depressed area”, and at that time I thought, “This guy is mad!” Then, as the months went by, I began to think that he was right, for the social inequality that existed, the lack of education, health, security….and that’s the sum of it!
I saw the exploitation, the discrimination, the low wages, the unfair dismissals, the persecution of those without papers; I saw that this was a system which offered few opportunities in community centres for children and young people’s development. Regarding housing, the high prices made it impossible to buy one or live in the privacy of your family. And I noticed a complete imbalance between wages and the basic family necessities.
How did you feel changing country and culture?
The language was my first obstacle. I also felt lonely having left my loved ones behind. The memories of my last days in Ecuador are still fresh in my mind. The dreams of building a new society, I left behind the achievements that had been realized with so much effort. Sometimes I felt as if I were drowning because I was stuck on an island and it was impossible to go home.
And your process of integration into the new culture?
I began joining up with groups who worked for the rights of workers; I made contact with Latin American solidarity campaigns and I looked for ways for my normalisation. I remember that with a great friend, Roberto Fernández, his father Héctor, my wife and my daughters, we used to go out to protest. We were only five people shouting in Spanish. But with time, people from Honduras, then Bolivia and Columbia joined us, and the shout got increasingly stronger. I knew people who were very interested in working for human rights and I participated in the creation of a radio programme, Todas las Voces Todas, which was a social criticism.
Why your eagerness for uniting the Ecuadorian community?
Because of all the things I have already mentioned (exploitation in the work place, illegal immigrants, etc.) and because I saw the community as totally disorientated in some respects. For example, one of my relatives suffered the deportation process. Furthermore, I felt the abuse that some Ecuadorians imposed on their own people. The community lacked presence as a group and we were only represented by a small group who had money. Furthermore, at that time the Ecuadorian diplomatic body distanced themselves from the service to the community, and mistreatment in the consul offices was obvious. I reported on these issues over the radio programme and received certain slanderous allegations from the Consul during this period.
Another very important point for the organisation was the call from President Rafael Correa to build the fifth region. This is the region of migrants of the nearly 3 million Ecuadorians who live outside Ecuadorian territory, giving them the great opportunity to be able to make their presence known through democracy, participating in the vote on Election Day, and having representation outside your home country. To make them consider our needs and allow us to propose ideas.
I remember that after President Rafael Correa’s possession in 2007 I spoke with my work colleagues about the president’s speech and more than one cried. Somebody said, “At last someone remembered us, at last they know we exist and that we need help.” These words touched me deep inside.
But when you decided to come to London, did you already have in mind the organisation of the community?
Truthfully, no. I wasn’t aware that we had such a large Ecuadorian community. But as soon as I saw the need and the power of a growing community I looked for the solutions to achieve this in an organised fashion.
Who did you join up with when you were starting out in London to organise the community?
I remember that in 2003 I participated in a conference about Ecuador under the name “January 2001” and I managed to contact Andy Brown, from Social Workers, who happened to live in Newham municipality, where I used to live as well, and had been detained in Ecuador for his supposed work with leftist groups.
Furthermore the link with the radio programme allowed me to meet many organisations, and Chilean, Columbian, and Bolivian refugees. We held out ties of friendship and worked on the case of the murder of Jean Charles Meneses by the British police (Meneses, a Brazilian electrician, was shot on 22nd July 2005 in the London Underground by the Metropolitan Police having been confused for one of the 7/7 terrorists of the same year.) We worked for the first time as a united front for “Justice for Jean Charles Meneses”. This front included groups of people from different places across Latin America. The campaigns of these other countries told me about the importance of having an Ecuadorian group.
How was it to begin with trying to form a cohesive community?
It was in March 2007, when they called a meeting of Ecuadorian professionals led by Ernesto Ortega. They invited me to comment on the Citizens’ Revolution to the axes of the Ecuadorian government and to speak about the Consulta Popular. There were many opportunists who presented themselves as candidates for the Assemblies for Ecuadorian Migrants, something which was uncomfortable for the majority of the people present.
The meeting decided that I should lead a political group to ensure the representation of the community. I started work alone, due to the apathy that represented, and still does represent, politics. Of course, later we received a call from the University of SOAS, who offered their services, and from the Columbian Solidarity Campaign, who collaborated with us on 5,000 flyers. I am convinced that for the community we have to save every last breath.
What do you think the community sees in you as an organiser?
I am aware that I have some critics for my impetus at work, because I have never looked the other way in the face of injustice, because we do not allow them to continue using the name of the community for their own ends. But I know that a good proportion support our management, our directness and the dedication that we show to the community with our voluntary work.
I know that the community trusts the work that I have developed along with the other activists. I know that they show interest in our management and proof of this is the daily meetings with us.
On various occasions I have responded to those who ask me why we put our all into the community, and what are interests are. In these instances I tell them, “Because I have a dream, to see my community, visible, strong and fully integrated in the English community”. That is my dream.
What do you think the current needs of the Latin American immigrant community are?
Firstly, the regularisation of migrants and equal respect for regular and casual workers, as well as integration in a new culture like the British one. To achieve this it is important that Ecuadorian diplomacy plays its part in the service to its compatriots, something that they are doing, and that didn’t happen before.
What is missing to make the Latin American community more organised?
The strengthening of political, social, cultural and sports groups. The opening of spaces so that the recognition of work comes from the social base. The integration of the community so that it creates its own spaces, allowing the community to be the protagonist of this strengthening. We need open diplomatic bodies, so that institutionally together, they may work from and for the governmental call to a Latin American unity.
Regionalisms must be avoided, as they only serve to weaken us as a community. We have to call out to the Christian, Evangelists and Catholics, sports groups, artists, Latin American unions and political groups, to encourage a great Latin American agreement, where the interests of the individual are overshadowed by the interests of the group. We need people on the alert, ready to fish in a stormy sea.
Why has the Latin American community failed to unite up till now?
There are delicate questions, in particular political questions, such as the conflicts between Latin American countries. These political differences between nations are also reflected in the Latin American community, but I believe that we are overcoming these hurdles, and that the relationship between Latin Americans is getting better every day. On the other hand, the British system structure also serves to prevent this unity from occurring.
By dividing the community. By differentiating between legal and illegal immigrants, those who receive benefits and those who don’t, for example. A type of class war is created, a struggle that the system creates, as well as that which exists due to the imposed regionalisms that we have brought with us.
What initiatives can be taken to lessen this?
Legal immigrants have to make proposals to achieve the regularisation of illegal immigrants, to improve the conditions of this forgotten collective and that this allows them to create networks of migrants from other countries with the same problems, as well as integration in the British networks that are in a daily struggle against deportation.
The MERU, an initiative for Latin Americans in the UK
The first of April 2007 a hundred Ecuadorians organised themselves as the Ecuadorian Movement in the United Kingdom (MERU). From that a commission was born to be able to work for the needs of the Ecuadorian community. “Later”, as indicated by Juan Carlos Piedra, “problems were discussed in the Ecuadorian consulate, the exploitation of Ecuadorian workers, the union to groups that were struggling for the regularisation of immigrants and a declaration was made to support as an organisation the process of the Citizens Revolution started by President Rafael Correa”.
“A fundamental point for the creation of the MERU was the call made by President Correa to organise the Fifth Region”, confirms Piedra. This is supposed to be taking into account the migrant community dispersed all over the world as another region of Ecuador, with its rights and duties”. Due to the economic crisis that the country suffered in 1999, 3 million people have emigrated, many of them to the United States, Spain, Italy, United Kingdom, amongst other places, 20% of the population at that time. From then, in 2007 a network of Ecuadorian organisations was configured across the whole world in order to create the Fifth Region.
Since its beginnings, MERU has been organising social and cultural initiatives such as the creation of the Ecuadorian Library in Elephant and Castle, for which there is a campaign for the recollection of bibliographic material, as well at the festival for Women’s rights in London.
They have also participated in marches for the regularisation of migrants in the years 2007 and 2009, and various members of MERU have joined the campaign, “Justice for Cleaners”. In 2009 Piedra organised a festival for the International Day of the Migrant and now has a Little Community School in Newham which was started up last year, where language, mathematics and theatre for children, and in the future, English and computer classes for adults.
For Juan Carlos one of the most important aspects has been the growth of the MERU in the European sphere. In this way, they have participated in the World Social Pre-Forum of Migrations, held in Valencia in March 2010, and that brought together tens of organisations from Spain and the rest of Europe, and from which REDEC, and the European network of Ecuadorian organisations.
“My work now,” concludes Piedra “is to ensure that the links are not the same as the Citizens Revolution. From all this work and our desires as migrants we informed ourselves in Ecuador during the IV World Social Forum for Migrations that was held in Quito and in the Ecuador National Assembly”.
(Translated by Sandra Young – firstname.lastname@example.org) – Photos supplied by the interviewee