United Migrations?

Walk around London and it’s hard to avoid the Spanish vowels swirling around the air. The recent influx of Spaniards and Latin Americans arriving through Spain adds yet another layer to the original Spanish speaking communities. To the English ear, it may all sound the same, but of course, a plethora of perceptions, prejudices and experiences that unite and divide Latinos, let alone Spaniards and Latinos, are all bubbling underneath. Maria V. Luna explores the relationships, both between Spaniards and Latinos, and between London’s original Latin American community and the new wave of Latino migrants via Spain.

The Melting Pot of Spanish and Latin migration

Miguel Lopez Alacon, a web designer from Spain residing in the UK never thought he had much in common with his Latin American brothers and sisters. “We Spaniards don’t much like Salsa,” he says bluntly.

Miguel, like most of the 137,000 Spaniards in the UK (double the number in 2011), came in search of work as Spain continues to grapple with an unemployment rate that only just recently dipped below 20% compared to the UK’s 4.8%. While Spanish migrants do find work, most agree language barrier keeps them from higher paying jobs. “When I first came here, I didn’t really speak English so I was just doing what everyone else does when they come to the country and don’t speak the language. I was working in hotels and at coffee shops.”

While back in Spain, many like Miguel may not have felt a shared identity with Latin American immigrants, here in the UK, they find themselves in the same boat, with the many Ecuadorians, Colombians and other Latinos who have also come from Spain in recent years, for the same reasons.

Indeed, many of the new influx of Latin American migrants to the UK, like Elvis Lonsson Sanchez, 28, originally from the Dominican Republic, come via Spain. This has added a new, complex layer to the Latin American community in the UK, as these new Latin American migrants bring with them the baggage accumulated from their experiences in Spain.

Elvis, who moonlights as an MC and promoter for Latin clubs in the city, says of his migrant experience in Spain: “In the beginning it was a little bit rough. It was weird. Kids would look at me and say ‘Oh mom, look it’s a black guy.’ I started feeling a bit awkward but you live with that and soon you don’t care. It’s a mentality that is changing now though.” 

Elvis was also called a sudaca by Spaniards— a derogatory term that is extremely offensive for Latinos. “Ignorant people say this to South Americans but I am from the Caribbean. They say it to Mexicans and Central Americans too. They are ignorant and think everybody is from South America.”

Since his arrival in London, however, Elvis says he has not experienced any discrimination from Spaniards. “When the Spanish go to London they start to see the immigrant life, how it feels, challenges with language. So they start becoming more integrated with Latinos, ” he says.

Spaniards get together in London

However, there are still tensions between the two migrant groups. “The Spanish come to the UK with their European passports. They can work with no problems. They have the same rights [as the British]. They can get benefits and public assistance. But there are Latinos who have been living in the UK for along time and don’t have papers—they hate the Spanish for that. And that is where the controversy is.”

Latin American Migrants in the UK

The UK’s Latin American community, which has grown over the last 40 years to an estimated 250,000, is still largely invisible. An unknown amount of migrants remains undocumented, which often hinders them from obtaining access to public services, housing, employment and healthcare.

While the Latin American community in London may be small, they no doubt make their presence felt. Latin Americans have contributed greatly to the business and cultural landscape in areas like Elephant & Castle and Seven Sisters. Gentrification threatens to undo this progress, but community members and local business owners are taking steps toward organizing and fighting for official recognition.

The early Latin American arrivals that staked a claim in these neighborhoods, created for later migrants a soft landing. New arrivals now have a place to go, a community to receive them and guide them. Yet some community members say the new, and often younger, migrants are reluctant to put in the hard work, as did earlier migrants.

César, a Colombian who has lived in London for 20 years, notes the conflicts: “though we are all Latin American, our experience as immigrants has been very different. So there is a clash between the people of the same culture. Those [Latin Americans] who have come through Spain, have a completely different experience and expectation. The way they do things and express themselves is completely different.” Cesar also notes how much harder it was for early Latin American migrants who arrived without documentation, as opposed to newer migrants who arrive with documentation allowing them access to better jobs.

Santiago, a Colombian Uber driver who spent 10 years in Spain before arriving in the UK, confirms. “There is a different mentality. I know Colombians who been working here 30 years cleaning buildings. That’s so depressing. I just couldn’t do it.” Santiago, however, is considering moving back to Spain, finding London too harsh.

Latinos get togthere in London

Culture and Language Unites

While the numbers tell stories and anecdotes abound, it is often on the dance floor where the barriers are really broken. While many Miguels (and certainly not only Spaniards) don’t like Salsa, Latin DJs in London are telling another story. “I’ve been DJing many years and I’ve definitely noticed in the last couple of years that most of the people requesting tracks are Spaniards, especially urban Latin tracks and pop. Latin music is such a big part of Spanish pop, this has broken down a lot of the old prejudices” says Jose Luis, one of London’s most established Latin DJs.

And beyond the dance floors, music and culture tells a similar story. Amaranta Wright, who runs the Latin UK Awards, describes how the Spanish embraced the idea of celebrating their culture and achievements alongside Latinos. “We were quite wary of including Spanish artists in the Latin UK Awards because we didn’t know how much Spaniards would want to identify themselves with Latinos. But they totally embraced the opportunity, because in the end they saw how useful it was to them. They were immigrants just like the Latinos were, wanted recognition for their talent and had no problem sharing the same platform, especially when there are obvious overlapping identities.”

She adds: “The LUKAS has brought diverse communities together. Not only do you have all different kinds of Latinos –from Argentines to Mexicans and Bolivians – celebrating their commonality and diversity, but now we had Spaniards in the mix, and I feel it was really something special and unique to London.”

Latinos and Spaniards celebrate their shared identities at The LUKAS

The realities surrounding Spanish and Latin American migrant groups could see another change. The UK’s exit of the European Union continues to manifest in ways still too early to determine, but a key area of discourse remains that of immigration. Through all the scaremongering and conjecture that will inevitably develop as details of the UK’s exit of the European Union take shape, solidarity is paramount. So while the Spanish and Latin Americans living in the UK may have distinct cultures and migration experiences, they still share a language, a history, and spaces to share their own journey stories, dreams for their children and plans for a collective, united future.