Globe, Migrants, United Kingdom

How the Latin American diaspora reached the UK

The 1970 ’s saw the arrival of the Latin American community in Great Britain. More than 50 years later, Latinos have forged a path to the UK. This is the official estimate; the actual number could well be much higher.

After gaining independence from Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule, Latin American nations kept only basic trading and commercial ties with the UK.

It was not until the 1970’s that the Latino population began to emigrate here, opening up a migratory route lasting until the present day. According to a study carried out by Queen Mary University, entitled “No longer invisible: the Latin American community in London”, an estimated 186,500 Latinos now live in the UK, of which 113,500 reside in London.

In the study, which compiles data on different aspects of life in the Latin American community in the capital, a picture emerges of a population characterised by a fighting and optimistic spirit.

With a history spanning 51 years in London, the Latin American community continues to face important challenges, but has ceased to be as invisible as it once was, becoming an organised and recognisable force in the city.

Although there may not be a well defined or consistent Latin American identity in the community, the first immigrants arriving in the UK to find work have left an important legacy: their children, the second generation who have been born and educated in London.

They are masters of both English and Spanish, and mix with British young people, naturally integrating themselves into British life and culture.

1970s: the refugees

One of the first waves of immigrants arriving from Latin America to the UK was made up of exiles and refugees fleeing their native countries’ government coups and military regimes.

Many Chilean citizens, for example, emigrated and arrived in the UK as political refugees after Salvador Allende’s government was overthrown and the coup d’état of 1973 gave rise to the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Before them, in 1969, Brazilian citizens had arrived, fleeing from the regime imposed by the coup d’état of 1964. Among the thousands of citizens emigrating were important intellectuals and artists such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. It was not until the 1980s however, that Brazilians would migrate to the UK in much greater numbers.

As well as immigrants coming from Chile and Brazil, victims of political persecution in Uruguay and Argentina also moved to the UK in this same era, the majority of which were intellectuals or left leaning politicians.

Other Latin Americans arrived too, mainly from Colombia, and were the first immigrants who came to obtain permission to work, emigrating to earn a better living and carve out a new start in a new country.

They filled their suitcases with belongings at the start of the 70s, and became the main protagonists of the first great migratory route of workers coming from Latin America to the UK.

Along with the Colombian majority, a significant number of Ecuadorians and Bolivians also made their way here. At first, they would travel here to work in low skilled employment in hospitality, cleaning, and catering.

1980s: the settlers

From the 1980s onwards, Latin Americans began to cement their immigrant status, getting to know the reality of the country and serving as points of contact for friends and family also wanting to live in the UK. Some families were reunited, as those who had stayed in Latin America arrived along with students coming to further their education.

Those who were already settled would help the new arrivals find work, as still happens today. The cost of travel went down too, at the start of the decade, allowing better transfers and the continued arrival of Latin American immigrants.

Throughout the decade, the first community organisations began to appear with the aim of defending the rights of the Latin community in the UK and improving their quality of life. It was then that today’s associations began to incubate, flying the flag for the well being of Latinos.

Along with them, other groups also began to appear which are still going strong today, raising the rest of the world’s consciousness about their countries’ plights.

1990s: significant growth

At the end of the 90s and the start of the new millennium, the migratory flow to the UK from Latin America got larger still.

Amongst other factors, countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia were going through complex political and economic processes and were experiencing great social unrest, causing many citizens to leave. For example, conflict in Colombia intensified, which, combined with the adoption of neoliberal policies, struck a blow to levels of employment in the country. Also in Ecuador, in the year 2000, social movements and the overthrow of three presidents damaged the economy.

On top of that, from 11th September 2001 the USA stepped up their border controls, causing many who had originally intended to immigrate to North America to change direction and head to Europe.

In the year 2000, the flow of immigrants coming from Brazil to the UK increased significantly, making the Brazilian immigrant population the largest immigrant group in the country.

In the 90’s it was also becoming increasingly complex to enter the UK, due to the introduction of more stringent visa procedures, so the majority entering the country did so with visitor or student visas.

The new millennium

With the arrival of the new millennium the characteristics of the Latin American community began to change, incorporating a growing presence of students and workers with medium to high level qualifications. Another important recent phenomenon has been the emergence of Latin American immigrants not arriving directly from the Americas, arriving in London having spent some years in other European countries. The most significant numbers are Latin Americans who migrated to Spain and who, with the economic crisis, decided to relocate to the UK given the difficulties finding work in Spain.

Now, Latinos in the UK have set up business ventures and developed a structure of services to satisfy the commercial and social needs of their own community. Businesses, associations, meeting places, restaurants, cafés, bars and clubs have emerged, allowing the community to socialise and integrate.

The negative face of all this migratory flow has been illegal immigration, on the increase since the year 2000. It turns new citizens into people without rights, vulnerable and invisible to society at large, yet continuing to work and take part in the daily fight to advance the country.

(Translated by Claudia Rennie – Email: – Photos: Pixabay

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