Migrants, Multiculture, Our People, Uncategorized, United Kingdom

Immigrants and activists: My fire comes from my family’s pain

Her family’s struggles, their stories of violence and environmental damage motivated Alejandra Piazzolla to study Conservation Biology and Ecology and utilise this knowledge in her role as joint coordinator at Extinction Rebellion, internationalist solidarity network where she fights for social justice, anti-racism and anti-oppression.

 

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Elle McHale

 

A childhood infused by the natural world, Piazzolla grew up playing in the river forest of her hometown, Neiva (Colombia).  But her fond memories today stumble against the reality of those lands that were bulldozed.

Where she was once surrounded by endless shades of green, beams of light pervading their way through the leaves, free flowing water from the small ravine there is now a huge bridge and a large road that connects two neighbourhoods. Trees were felled to open up large spaces. Water that was once so clear that you could see the fish, is now littered with plastic cans and riddled with dirt. This experience, together with a plethora of stories told and lived by her family about the violence of poverty, marked Piazzolla.

“A lot of the fire within me comes from the pain my families endured, even though it didn’t happen to me it gets passed down. Nobody should have to go through the trauma of being raped in their homeland because there is nothing but poverty and violence”.

It is painful to move country and see how the violence doesn’t just end there because you still experience racism at school and from landlords. It never ends”.  

Today, Piazzolla lives in England and fights against factories that abuse their workers and the land just to make millions of pounds. She spoke to The Prisma about her journey so far and the internal struggles of being an activist. 

Why are you interested in international struggles?

Whenever I do activism, I cannot help but think of my family and friends and people back home in Colombia.

I can’t talk about climate change and the injustices of ecocide, without thinking about the ecocide that’s happening because of the mining corporations, the pesticides and Monsanto back in Colombia.

These issues are all related and our world is becoming more globalised.

It is a global system of death.

To fight against it, we need to international solidarity because the big multinational mining companies are in the same boat. BHP Billiton and Shell have their headquarters on the same road in London.

They are not necessarily doing the destruction in the UK, they do it elsewhere: out of sight, out of people’s minds.

It is not enough to protest outside Shell’s headquarters, the weave of action that conjoins these multinational corporations to their governments is so complex that we need to organise internationally.

You have lived in multiple cities across the UK. Have you found the demonstrations are different in each city?

I came here when I was 17 years old and since then I have changed and grown considerably in the way I think.

Falmouth was a very white space, but I didn’t give that much thought at the time because I had just moved here, I didn’t expect it too not be white.

After I moved to Bristol and worked in a restaurant where the majority of my co-workers where South American or were from a black Latin African heritage and it felt so different.

They were involved with anti-fascist and anti-racist groups, one of the guys was a rapper and that type of activism was what I liked.

That was more me. I just felt so much more at home and at ease.

In my experience, there tends to be a separation when you attend environmental activist groups. It is mainly a white middle class hippie vibe. Whereas the other groups seem to be more working class, ordinary and non-racialized.

This creates a conflict because people think you can only focus on one societal issue and neglect the others. This is silly because environmental destruction affects everyone, non-racialized white the most. So, if someone should care, it should be us.

Also, in Scotland, people bring up drugs and Pablo Escobar all the time. Although, my friend said that English people have the same thoughts, but the difference is, Scottish people talk more and just say it.

I have felt more racism in England than Scotland because despite unnecessary comments, they are more normal in the way they treat and act around you. Whereas, in parts of England it is really hard.

How does your family feel about your activism?

Once I started getting more serious, conducting civil and disobedient community organising and taking the streets, I told them this was what I wanted to do.

I could see the pain and fear in their faces because they come from Colombia and being a social leader or community organiser, that’s pretty much having a death sentence.

Even though it is not the same in the UK, they have grown up surrounded by big protests therefore they have witnessed, firsthand, the violence of the system when it comes to people fighting against it.

I know deep down they are immensely proud they know I am doing this for the people back home in Colombia and that makes them happy.

It is definitely a life path that they found really hard to accept. They know it means life is going to be a lot harder for me.

I think they wish that I had an engineering job to make good money and live the whole European dream.

That was what they were expecting after sacrificing everything and leaving their homeland but now their daughter lives in a squat.

For me, internally, it is really hard especially when we have arguments, and they say: “You have never had to struggle like we did”.

Do you feel guilty for choosing this lifestyle?

I personally didn’t experience the same struggles as my parents so, to a certain extent, I can’t relate.

I have always had a roof above my head, I don’t know what hunger feels like, but I have seen it in them.

I can see the trauma that remains in my loved ones. Every summer I would go to Colombia for two months to see my granny and everything is so in your face. I remember seeing kids as young as me, like eight or nine years old, inhaling glue and drugging themselves in the street.

Or walking down a street and encountering babies who are sleeping on the floor, their mothers praying.

There are so many images that will never leave me. My family made an effort to pass down their stores and so you see how much they’ve suffered and how much of that suffering still lives within them and I don’t want anyone to go through this. Just because I haven’t lived it doesn’t mean I do not care.

Is social media a useful way to raise awareness about your movement?

I think it’s useful, but people just need to start talking. You learn so much from other people’s stories. While social media posts have their effectiveness, what we need to do is build community and that sense of collectiveness.

Social media promotes a lot of individual learning and that is what the neoliberal system encourages to separate us because our strength comes from working together.

Once we realise this experience is collective and act together, that is when real change can happen.

Phones are a distraction because people post and then they feel like they have done their feminist or anti-racist act of the day. They liked or shared a photo and feel good about themselves, but the world doesn’t change because of a like open Facebook. It is more likely that you will make a difference by having a conversation with your neighbour about imperialism, what a girl goes through walking home in the evening, experiences in the workplace than an easily forgettable like on Facebook.

(Photos supplied and authorised by the interviewee for free publication)

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