Crossing Borders: Latin American Exiles In London

By Sofia Buchuck
photo shows map of Latin America with faces of refugees superimposed on it

Crossing Borders - people from across Latin America who are now Londoners.

Sofia Buchuck is an oral historian, originally from Peru. She recently carried out an oral history project with Latin Americans in London - you can see the results both on the CD Crossing Borders and in the Museum of London's upcoming Belonging exhibition.

Here she talks about the experiences of Latin Americans in London since the 1970s, and how they have changed the capital.

'Already in 1976 Latin-Americans use to gather, especially Chileans exiles at the football peach of Clapham common, the reunions included barbecues, mates, folkloric dances and serenades, not necessary by professional folklorists, it was mainly performed by exiled workers, who in their spare time on Sundays use to gather and celebrate their cultural heritage, it was like being there in your homeland'
Interviewee: Berter Techera - Uruguay (2005)

photo shows people in field

The Cancha community. c. Sofia Buchuck

Latin American In London

There are probably somewhere between 700,000 to 1,000,000 Latin Americans in the UK. The Brazilians make up the largest group of around 200,000, then there are about 130 - 160,000 Colombians, 70 - 90,000 Ecuadorians and 10 - 15,000 Peruvians. It is hard to quantify the number of Chileans in the UK - many have gone back to Chile, or move fluidly between several places.

These numbers are guesstimates from embassies, community centres and refugee groups, but there has never been a precise census of Latin Americans in the UK. Still, an article in the Guardian in September 2005 argues that Latin Americans are one of the fastest growing communities in the UK. They have gained confidence, creating Sunday schools, taking jobs, and being responsible for many of the 800,000 salsa classes that take place across the UK every night.

An oral history of Latin Americans in London

During 2005 we ran an oral history project led by the Evelyn Oldfield Unit and based at the Latin American Association on. We interviewed people from different walks of life and different cultural backgrounds – from television journalists to poets to musicians. The only thing they had in common was the fact that they were all refugees from the different countries of Latin America such as Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador and El Salvador. The result was a CD that looked at reasons for leaving their countries of origin and the experience of life and home-making in London. Many have used the arts to express and hang onto their culture. There's a vivid Latin American arts scene in London, and images, poems and music from the community are reproduced on the CD.


'The historical experience has shown us, and the reality confirms, that there is a invasion towards the rich centres from the basins of the World, this is the invasion of the invaded, before they have suffered in the times of conquest, from the soldiers of the colonisation.

Today the invaders are not soldiers; they are workers who come to offer their labour. That generates a huge quantity of contradictions which can only be solved with unity, not only of the ones who arrive but also with the ones who are settled here. The immigration drama , is the symbol of our times, this reflects that there is people of first, of second and third category, It is false that there is democracy and that we are all equal'

Eduardo Galeano- interview for Que Magazín- 2004.

Latin Americans migrated for two reasons: firstly people fled political persecution from the military dictatorships of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile during the 60s and 70s and more recently in Peru and Colombia. Then there are a second group, not exactly political refugees, but rather those who are who are fleeing economic hardship and violence of many of the countries in that continent. Status will determine what life as a refugee in London will be like - a professional refugee who arrives with no English may take many years before they are able to resume their previous careers in London.


Many Latin Americans are faced to not only with having to learn English but with the subtle cultural codes of Londoners. They have to adopt new values and combine their own culture with the English one; embracing a cross cultural identity to deal with everyday life at one of the most cosmopolitan cites of the World.

Some hybridisation of English occurs, just as in the New World, Spanish itself was changed. Latin American Spanish is influenced by the native languages such as Quechua and Aymara in Peru, and Bolivia, while in Mexico and Guatemala it is influenced by the Mayas and other native languages. This heritage provides a new musicality and rhythm to the Latin American speaking of the English language. Some Latin Americans in London have an older Latin American language such as Quechua as their native tongue, rather than Spanish or Portuguese.

photo shows butchers shop

A butchers shop in Brixton

Shopping And London Areas

Latin Americans also bring their own native products and food. Increasingly, there are places where people can purchase exotic products, for example at Brixton and Seven Sister markets, where sellers even speak Spanish.

Latin American culture dominates shopping centres such as at Elephant and Castle or Peckham Rye, where they promote different facilities for their community including work opportunities, and international phone centres for calling families abroad.

photo shows line of partygoers in traditional andean clothes

Andean event in London.


Latin American culture is widely exposed at established festivals across London. It allows Latin Americans not only to share their culture with the vast diversity of races at London's main festivals such as the Notting Hill Carnival, and the Thames Festival. The Caranval del Pueblo is a specifically Latin American festival that takes place each year in early August: it's the largest Latino festival in Europe. Originally lead by Colombians, in the last 2 years it has had a more Andean presence - especially Peruvians, Bolivians and Ecuadorians.

The Art Of Belonging

'Two things in reality are part of the same, one of them belongs to the past and the other to the present. One is the possession of past memories and the other is the actual memories, the will to be together and live together, the will to keep the great love for your historic heritage....'

Ernest Renan- La Sorbona 1982.

A sense of belonging becomes urgent especially for refugees and exiles who for political reasons can not go back to their countries of origin. Therefore the concept of community becomes a unifying element, helping to give exiles a sense of ownership – and reach a point when they are able to create a new cultural identity abroad.

First generation migrants in particular prefer to reproduce very similar cultural expressions to the ones familiar at home – keeping their heritage in the most traditional form. It represents a way of returning or holding on to their homeland.

Migration and remigration

Some migrants find that when they are finally able to return to their homeland after many years, they still feel as if they are in a foreign society. It's perhaps particularly been the case for Chilean exiles, some of whom have returned home, only to come back to England once more, feeling that their homeland has changed beyond recognition. Latin American governments have yet to put in any support mechanisms to help returnees readjust: one of the coming issues of a globalised world.
photo shows man

Alfredo. c. Sofia Buchuck

Recreating family

' In exile we adopt each other, we tend to fill in the gaps of friends, parents, and sons, and replace them by new friends, for example I have adopted the Latin American community and my friend Denis as my family'
Interviewee- Alfredo Cordal - From Chile 2005.

Families, and replacement families often become stronger once abroad. It's perhaps because of this that Latin Americans expand their horizons by identifying themselves as Latin Americans first, and only then to clarify the country they actually come from e.g. Ecuador. People call themselves 'Latin Americans' only when living outside the continent: the national seems less relevant than it might do back home.


Music allows us to enter different emotional spaces. It can vary from simple entertainment to music with social meaning and ritualistic music to pay respect to the dead. The last of these is especially used by people who lose their families abroad and can not travel to pay their respects. When refugees die in the UK, music becomes a conductor of memory to celebrate culture, identity and to provide a Ceremony for the dead.

This song is by Henry Bran a refugee from El Salvador. Written about the harshness of his home country, it is nevertheless a perspective from abroad - written in English, talking to a London audience.


Literature provides a platform for the under-represented, especially refugees, as they were silenced in their own countries of origin. They find through literature the a channel to express themselves and tackle problems of racism, clasism, sexism and other problems of repression which post-colonisation, are still unsolved.

Hence the arts are a way for Latin Americans in London to keep their identity, and celebrate their cultural heritage. Interviewing refugees for this project has often given them an outlet for expression for the first time, and has succeeded in linking them closer to their communities.

You can get a free copy of the Crossing Borders CD by emailing the Evelyn Oldfield Unit

  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share