Routes Through Latin American Identity

By Claudio Chipana

Member of the Latin American Recognition Campaign

Latin American identity, as an ideal and a dream, precedes the creation of the Latin American nation-states which - since their beginnings – were inseparable from an ambition to become independent and to achieve national sovereignty, rights for their indigenous peoples and democratic freedoms. This identity, which is rooted in the ancient civilisations preceding the European conquest, is still perceptible in the indigenous communities comprising Latin American reality today.

Such an identity implies a long history and the need to take into account certain factors such as representation, migration processes, the formation of diasporas and the struggle for recognition.

From a historical perspective the presence of the Latin American diaspora in the UK can be traced back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, particularly with the celebrated presence of exiles and revolutionaries such as Vizcardo y Guzman, Francisco deMiranda, Simon Bolivar, San Martin and other heroes of Latin American independence.

Although Latin American migration in the UK is considered to be relatively new, the Latin American diaspora has multiple long-standing roots both here and in the rest of Europe. There have been many reasons for migration; Latin American immigrants have entered the United Kingdom at different moments in time and were driven by diverse circumstances.

Roughly three key moments can be identified in the history of the Latin American diaspora in the UK. The first dates back to the late eighteenth century to the 1970s, followed by a second stage beginning in the 1970s with the arrival of refugees fleeing dictatorships particularly from Argentina and Chile, and a third stage - from the mid-1980s to the present - which is characterised by a substantial influx of Latin Americans escaping the economic crises in their countries of origin. The next phase will begin with the first official recognition of Latin Americans as an ethnic minority, approved in 2012 by the borough of Southwark, London.

The ‘Latin' community in the UK – numbering approximately 200,000 according to the No Longer Invisible Report by Cathy McIlwaine (Queen MaryUniversity of London) - should be studied according to the characteristics of their particular migratory development, their integration and acculturation in British society. For the Latin American community in the UK, mainly settled in London, a new stage in their existence as a diaspora has begun with their official recognition, directly related to their economic and cultural contribution to British society and demographic growth.

Diasporas are important because they enrich and shape original national identities. The so-called ‘Latino identity’, for instance, is the expression of new meanings attributed to the Latin American diaspora’s praxis in different parts of the world, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon nations.

The Latin American community has expressed its identity in many ways: through music, dance, photography, film, painting, education, solidarity and community work. But, who are Latin Americans? What does being Latin American mean?

The answer to this question depends on the perspective or focal point from which the diaspora is observed: geographical, historical or cultural, or all these together. It is commonly accepted that someone is ‘Latin’ if they belong to or descend from any of the countries in the region, from Mexico to Patagonia, including Central America, Brazil and some - if not all – the Caribbean countries. All these countries speak primarily Spanish and Portuguese.

Today Latin America refers to the entire region. However, an identity also involves a consciousness, a passion and above all an acceptance. To be Latin American means to feel Latin American, to identify with Latin America’s history and culture as either a native or an immigrant. It also means committing to the future of this region in search of a more equitable, inclusive and just society. This way Latin American identity becomes a position of self-consciousness and self-awareness.

The creation of regional blocs such as UNASUR and CELAC, amongst others, is an indication that Latin American identity is more than something individual and every-day. It is a more extensive, more fluid identity: the "Patria Grande" (the “Big Homeland”), which includes the Latin diaspora. On the other hand, Latin American refers not to just one race or one language. On the contrary, it is multilingual and multiracial. As the Peruvian writer José María Arguedas affirmed: We are "of all kinds of blood", that is, all races.

Latin Americans in the UK aim to be recognised and represented as a community that seeks integration and inclusion as an ethnic minority with equal access to opportunities in employment, education and social services. The community is diverse and it is essential to find a category that identifies and unifies it. With the emergence of organisations such as the Latin American Recognition Campaign (LARC) and the Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK (CLAUK) in London, the consensus is that the category that identifies and recognises such a group should be officially ‘Latin American’. Its recognition as an ethnic minority by the London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth represents a sure step towards its recognition in the national statistics.

Pablo and Roxana Allison are two talented photographers who offer us their project Uncovering the Invisible in which the central subjects are all members of the Latin American community in the UK, each with a message and a personal story to tell. Through their lens, Pablo and Roxana interweave the subjectivities captured in each portrait and enable us to understand the much larger story: the story of Latin American identity.

London, January 4th 2014

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