A Latinx New Yorker feels at home in a Latinx community searching for its identity in London

[Originally published in The Washington Post on February 7, 2020]

On a recent trip to London, I took the Underground from Oxford Circus to the city’s northern reaches in Tottenham, home to one of the centers of its Latinx community. A few steps from the Seven Sisters stop is the Latin Village market, also known as Pueblito Paisa, a nod to its thriving Colombian population. Once I was inside, I was immediately engulfed with familiar aromas of cilantro-laden soup, the sweet scent of pan de bono, and a cacophony of paisaaccented Spanish. Although I’d been to London years before, I’d only heard rumors about a Latinx hood. Since I had been invited because the British Academy had shortlisted my book Latinx for a prize it administered, I felt compelled to seek it out.

For a lifelong Latinx New Yorker, this festival of Latin American senses was straight out of a fever dream of an endless afternoon on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens, where a strong Colombian ethos envelops a simmering mix of Ecuadorans, Argentineans, Peruvians, Mexicans, Dominicans, and yes, old-school Nuyoricans. But this was London, with its own kind of multicultural stew, where up High Road you can find El Botellón Tapas Restaurant and Cuban Cocktail Bar, or around the corner on Green Road, British Caribbean and African businesses offer “New York City Style” hair extensions and Congolese food. It was like a parallel universe, a different way of seeing that urban Afro-Latinx culture that had shaped me since my youth.

Latinx in London are just beginning to come into an awareness of themselves as a community, entering a stage parallel to where U.S. Latinx were in the 1960s and ’70s. Yet like contemporary U.S. Latinx, the London community has similar problems of visibility and is threatened by indifference, at times open hostility, and urban displacement. There are some important differences: Migrations from Latin America to London have been limited in size compared to the United States, forcing disparate groups to bond quickly. London Latinx are also coming together during a time strongly informed by evolutions in U.S. identity politics that didn’t exist 60 years ago.

As I sat sipping sancocho de gallina at the counter of La Esquina de Blanca (Blanca’s Corner), one of the 60 small businesses inside the Latin Village market, local filmmaker Romano Pizzichini, originally from Brazil, told me about government plans to demolish it in favor of a 40,000-foot retail space to be built by Grainger, a large-scale developer. Although retailers are being offered space in a temporary market across the street, they would have to wait two years to move back in, and the developer will not disclose the new rent guidelines.

Pizzichini, who immigrated to London via Toronto, tells me the market is an essential space for the Latinx community, where he “felt like a little bit of home,” despite having never been to Colombia and only being fluent in “portuñol,” which he describes as speaking Portuguese with a Spanish accent. Because it’s small and just coming together, and perhaps because of the greater distance from Latin America, Latinx in London make easier connections between what would be disparate groups in the United States. Whereas in the United States, Brazil’s status as Latinx is debated because of language difference, in London Brazilians and Spanish-speaking South Americans and Caribbeans find it easier to make common cause.

Pizzichini’s new short, called “More Than Other,” is a stark, intimate portrait of London’s Latinx community, featuring community activists, young feminists, a rapper and an actor whose father runs a taekwondo studio, all riffing on their fledgling identity and what it means.

Although the title of the film sheds light on the ambiguity of Latinx identity that exists in the United States, there is a governmental bureaucratic twist in the United Kingdom. There is no opportunity to identify yourself as someone of Latin American descent on the British census form, despite a detailed listing of white categories (English/Welsh/Scottish, Northern Island/British, Irish, Gypsy or Irish Traveller), mixed categories (white + black Caribbean, white + black African, white + Asian), Asian categories (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese), the Black/African/Caribbean/Black British category and “other ethnic group,” which includes “Arab.” As a result, Latinx, who as of 2013 are estimated to make up 250,000 in the U.K., are forced to check “other” boxes on the census and other government forms.

In the United States, Hispanic, an ethnic group whose members can belong to any race, is listed as a separate category on the census. On the 2010 and the 2020 census, Latinx can identify as “black” or other racial groups. In the lead-up to the current census, there was some debate as to whether to make Latinx a separate racial group — a contradiction in terms since Latinx comprise several different races — but that narrative was drowned out by the Trump administration’s controversial attempt to include a citizenship question, something the Supreme Court ruled out last year.

Despite U.S. Latinx identity’s long gestation period, we still struggle to be defined and understood by mainstream America — the recent controversy over the novel “American Dirt seemed emblematic. This invisibility is something Latinx in London are just beginning to cope with. “Latinos end up being permanently in this state of otherness,” said professor Nathalie Teitler, co-editor of the just-published “Un Nuevo Sol” (A New Sun), the first significant anthology of British Latinx writers. “It’s almost like a form of violence, it’s very dangerous. There are racial attacks against Latinx people, but it’s not really classified as a racial attack because there’s no actual race.” In her introduction to the volume, Teitler writes that “to be British Latinx is to live in the experience of translating yourself on all levels, to be accustomed to people addressing a version of you that bears little resemblance to your actual identity … to know what it means to be both present and invisible.”

Stereotyping as hypersexualized haunts women on both sides of the Atlantic. In Pizzichini’s film Cecilia Alfonso-Eaton, who is half Cuban and half-English and a member of a university group called Latinxcluded, bristles at the way stereotypes paint her as “fiery” and demand she dress and act a certain way, something that arises in the vacuum created by her designation as “other.” Yara Rodrigues-Fowler, whose short-story collection Stubborn Archivist, was published by Mariner Books this past July, says she underwent a gradual process of understanding her identity as a university student and now a trustee of an intersectional, trans-inclusive organization called Latin American Women’s Aid, which runs two women’s refugee shelters. 

“The hyper-sexualization of Brazilian women is not something I could opt out of, so I decided I should own it and deal with it,” said Fowler. She embraces the term Latinx as a forward-thinking, inclusive term that appeals to millennials and a queer scene that is not necessarily connected to academia or activism, but “hesitates” to call herself a person of color because even though racialization shifts depending on location, “I don’t know how helpful it is for me to disavow my whiteness, certainly in a Brazilian context.” 

One of the most jolting things about Pizzichini’s film, made in collaboration with Rio-based production company Capuri and Breno Moreira, is seeing his Latinx subjects, with their varying racial appearances and mostly “urban” apparel so typical of Jackson Heights, the Bronx or East Harlem, speak in thick British accents that can become almost indecipherable. It’s evidence that Latinx identities are fusions of what is remembered from the home country and the linguistic-cultural reality of one’s new home. Aspiring actor Bryan Solarte, whose family is from Cali, Colombia, explains he’s influenced by a kind of generalized aesthetic that came together in the now-gentrified black Caribbean neighborhood of Brixton. “The way I speak might make you think I’m wearing a puffer jacket with my hoodie up. I grew up around a lot of black people, so my accent is more like that. It’s more relaxed, as opposed to Central London, where it’s more posh. A lot of that Black Caribbean and patois has influenced the way Londoners speak.”

Solarte also faces a problem I’ve heard for decades from U.S. Latinx actors — all the roles he’s offered are drug dealers or other criminal stereotypes, and he almost never sees films or TV shows, like the very popular “Black Mirror,” feature any kind of Latinx characterization. He does this in a lilting banter that sounds Scottish/Irish to me, though filtered through black Caribbeans in Brixton, near where he grew up in South London. “I get called Mexican because of TV shows like “Narcos,” and when I tell them I’m Colombian, it’s more of the same thing,” said Solarte.

While London Latinx are having a renaissance moment, it remains to be seen how mainstream Britons will come to embrace or even have a basic understanding of them, despite the fact that Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is married to a Mexican businesswoman who actively campaigns for him. The relative indifference of Mayor Sadiq Khan to the upheaval at Latin Village, and a similar project planned for Elephant and Castle, London’s other major Latinx district, is disappointing anti-gentrification activists in a way eerily similar to New York activists’ reaction to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s coziness with real estate developers. Evictions of Latin Village tenants have already begun.

“When you see how the council assists the developers from the beginning, when this community that’s underfunded with limited resources, we’re always having to play catch-up before we go into court,” said Stefanie Alvarez, a barrister in training whose mother, Vicki, is one of Latin Village’s most active defenders.” Alvarez, whose cousin Manuella appears in “More Than Other,” has a cautious yet optimistic view of the future.

Maybe that’s because of what she sees when she looks across the Atlantic at her original Latinx forebears in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and beyond. “I’m so inspired by what’s happening in America,” said Alvarez, “like the women’s collective Latina Rebels and that councilwoman, what’s her name? Ocasio-Cortez? When you see Latin American women do that it’s really empowering.”


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