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Latin Americans in the UK: an increasingly visible population

Colombian Shop. (c) Cathy McIlwaine

Back in 2004, I visited Seven Sisters market in north London and discovered a vibrant cluster of mainly Latin American cafés, shops and restaurants. Most people were speaking Spanish, vying with various types of Latin American salsa, merengue, vallenato and reggaeton music blaring from all corners. On the way home, I walked past St Ignatius church on Seven Sisters Road and noticed a sign for ‘misa en español’ (mass in Spanish) and later discovered that it was oriented almost exclusively towards Latin Americans. This encounter, together with the work of a former PhD student, Anastasia Bermúdez, who was working with Colombian migrants in London and Madrid, was the beginning of my interest in what at the time was a nascent Latin American population in London and the UK more broadly.

Of course, to speak of the ‘Latin American community’ is deeply erroneous; the population comprises people who have migrated from many countries, who speak multiple European and indigenous languages, and whose socio-economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds vary enormously. This said, our work on estimating the size and profile of the Latin American population in London and the UK grouped a set of specific countries (Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, Venezuela.), while acknowledging that any definition is contested. We took the lead from the migrant organisations with whom we worked, especially my long-term collaborator, the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, who argued that there are enough similarities to warrant making generalisations and that by grouping the countries together, there is more scope for being able to apply political pressure for addressing the needs of the community. Also important in terms of definitions, is that I am using ‘Latin Americans’. Others use ‘Latinos(as)’ or increasingly ‘Latinx’ (singular) and Latinxs (plural) to ensure gender neutrality and to allow those identifying outside a gender binary to be included. These are mainly based on personal preference although the term ‘Hispanic’ is not used in the British context, being associated mainly with the United States (see below on ethnic recognition).

How many Latin Americans are there in London and the UK?

One the most pressing issues facing Latin American migrant organisations in the days before we conducted the No Longer Invisible (McIlwaine, Cock and Linneker, 2011) and Towards Visibility (McIlwaine and Bunge, 2016) research, both in collaboration with the Latin American Women’s Rights Service and funded by the Trust for London, was the size of the community. Estimates varied wildly up to a high of a Foreign and Commonwealth Office report that suggested that there were between 700,000 and a million (this was based on a blogpost by an oral historian who never meant for it to become official!). When we began to work on an estimate we realised just how difficult it was due to lack of appropriate statistical data, especially between the census period (every 10 years) and because Latin Americans could have insecure immigration status or be second generation.

Our first estimate published in 2011 was based on the 2008 Annual Population Survey (APS) and supplemented by a range of other data and suggested there were 113,500 Latin Americans in London (more than ethnic Chinese at the time and not much less than the Polish population) and 186,500 in the UK.

Our second estimate published in 2016 was based on the 2011 census and adjusted up to 2013. This showed that there were 145,000 in London making them the second fastest growing non-EU migrant population, and 250,000 in the UK. Across both time periods, Brazilians and Colombians are the two largest nationality groups with sizeable proportions of Ecuadorians, Bolivians, Peruvians, Argentinians, Mexicans and Venezuelans. In both cases, we worked on an estimate of 19% of the population having irregular status which was derived from a survey we conducted with over 1000 Latin Americans for No Longer Invisible.

Where do Latin Americans live in the UK and London?

Analysis of the census showed that around 60% of the Latin American population is concentrated in London as well as in the South East and East of England (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Latin Americans in the UK Source: ONS Census 2011, Office for National Statistics © Crown Copyright 2013 (McIlwaine and Bunge, 2016: 16)

In London, more than two-thirds reside in Inner London with concentrations in the south in Lambeth (10% of the total) and Southwark (9%) as well as in outer north London in Brent and Barnet with high concentrations of Brazilians (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Latin Americans in London Source: ONS Census 2011, Office for National Statistics © Crown Copyright 2013 (McIlwaine and Bunge, 2016: 18)

Who are Latin Americans in London?

It is important to note that although two-thirds of Latin Americans had arrived since 2000 according to the census, they are not new to London or the UK. Indeed, London was the home to several independence leaders, including Simón Bolívar, as well as a subsequent range of politicians, diplomats and commercial emissaries. Yet not until the 1970s such Latin Americans arrive in any significant numbers, first as exiles from Chile, Argentina and Uruguay among others, with many Colombians entering with work permits and employed low-skilled jobs. These flows diversified in the 1980s and 1990s as Colombians fled the armed conflict and were also joined by Ecuadorians and Peruvians. It was also in the late 1970s and 1980s that the earliest organisations for Latin American were established, such as Carila, Latin American Women’s Rights Service, Indoamerican Refugee and Migrant Organisation (IRMO) and Latin American House, most starting off as solidarity groups who changed into support organisations. After 2000, the numbers of Brazilians and Bolivians increased significantly. While most of the early migrations were directly from Latin American countries to the UK, after 2008, the numbers arriving via other European countries (mainly Spain, Portugal and Italy) increased linked with the global recession as well as favourable immigration regimes. Indeed, in 2011, our survey showed that more than a third had lived elsewhere before arrival in London (36.5%), comprising what we have identified as onward Latin Americans (OLAs).

In terms of the main characteristics of the population, according to the census, women comprise 55% of all Latin Americans in England and Wales and 53% of those in London. Also according to the census, Latin Americans in London are youthful with two-thirds aged under 40 with 90% of working age. In addition, they are well-educated with more than half having some form of university education. However, 20% struggle with English language which means that many find it difficult to secure jobs that match their qualifications. With very high employment rates (almost 70%), a quarter were working in elementary jobs (especially contract cleaning) with another 20% in service, caring and processing jobs occupations. It is important to note that many Latin Americans also work in the professions in London in a wide range of jobs including finance, academia and the arts. Yet it is the case that many experience deskilling and de-professionalisation on arrival in London. This emerged as a major issue in the survey and interview research we conducted for both No Longer Invisible and Towards Visibility with around half in each survey identifying exploitation at work as a major issue in their lives, mainly revolving around not being paid for work undertaken.

In terms of housing, the census identified that around three-quarters of Latin Americans lived in rental accommodation (compared to half of all Londoners) with 70% living in private rental housing (double London average). The survey also identified housing as a problem. For example, among the onward Latin Americans, one-third thought their housing was overcrowded.

In relation to take-up of public services, this emerged as low. In No Longer Invisible, for example, the survey showed that 1 in 5 were not registered with a GP, 6 out of 10 were not registered with dentist, 4 in 10 had used private health services and 1 in 5 received state welfare benefits. Among the OLAs, the situation was broadly similar; 1 in 6 were not registered with a GP, 1 in 5 had used a private doctor. This is in the context of the fact that most Latin American pay taxes and contribute to the UK’s tax base.

Another area that is important to mention here is ethnic recognition. As noted above, the identification of Latin Americans as a group is deeply contested and there have been several attempts to mobilise around this among the community. The first is a movement (Ibero-American Alliance) to identify Ibero-Americans/Iberian Americans in an effort to group together all those who speak Spanish and Portuguese. This was recognised by the Greater London Assembly in 2010 who agreed to use ‘Latin American/Ibero American’ in their community monitoring forms. However, around the same time, a Latin American Recognition campaign also emerged to focus on those who had been born in Latin America rather than being grouped according to language. The No Longer Invisible and Towards Visibility research was closely aligned with and underpinned the work of the Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK (CLAUK) which recommends and lobbies for the term ‘Latin American’ to be included in local and national government monitoring. In 2012, Southwark became the first borough to recognise Latin Americans and they have since been joined by Lambeth, Islington, and Hackney. More recently, there have been recent calls for pushing for recognition in relation to the upcoming 2021 census.

Finally, it is worth pointing out that Latin Americans have also transformed the urban landscape in many parts of London (and in other places in the UK where we really need more research). Just as in Seven Sisters market mentioned at the outset of this piece, so too has Elephant and Castle been a major hub for Latin American businesses. What is much more concerning is that both these commercial and community hubs have lost long-running battles with developers and local councils. While individual shops survive, while multiple cultural outlets and initiatives thrive, while newspapers for the community continue to be published, and while various organisations continue to provide invaluable support for Latin Americans in London, the struggle to recognise the community and their contributions to British society, economy and culture must keep going. There is hope. Not least because the second and even third generation of young people with Latin American heritage are starting to make their voices heard.

‘Towards visibility’ is an ongoing process across numerous fronts, both academic and in terms of the work of the various organisations who serve the community, mainly in London, but also beyond. Indeed, none of the research included in this blog would have been possible without the organisations; first, the Indo-American Refugee and Migrant Organisation (IRMO), then Carila Latin American Welfare Association, and subsequently the Latin American Women’s Rights Service and Latin Elephant, all of whom I have worked alongside and been inspired by in researching the lives of Latin Americans living in London.

For more information:

McIlwaine, C., Cock, J.C. and Linneker, B. (2011) No Longer Invisible, QMUL, London.

McIlwaine, C. and Bunge, D. (2016) Towards Visibility, QMUL, London.

Short versions of both reports are available as well as Spanish and Portuguese summaries of No Longer Invisible.

Various video resources and other information on other projects with Latin Americans in London are also available at my website:

Organisations working with Latin Americans in London/the UK:

Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK (an umbrella organisation with links to individual groups)

Other individual organisations:

Professor Cathy McIlwaine, King’s College London

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