Caramba! Latin America takes a hold on London

The size of the Latin American community in London has grown nearly fourfold over the last decade with more than a third of the population migrating to the capital in the last six years.

There are now approximately 113,500 Latin Americans in London, a number that dwarfs the 31,211 residents recorded in the 2001 Census. The largest national group is Brazilians, followed by Colombians. There are also large numbers of Ecuadorians, Bolivians and Peruvians, according to a report published today by Queen Mary, University of London.

While 85 percent of Latin Americans are in employment, more than half are employed in low-paid jobs in cleaning, catering and hospitality services, found the report. More than one in ten workers is paid below the national minimum wage, a rate that is ten times higher the average rate for the UK.

Tania Bronstein, Chair of Latin American Women’s Rights Service, who jointly commissioned the report, said the government has underestimated the number of Latin Americans living in London. “For too long the Latin American community has been ignored. The population estimate shows we are comparable in size to the capital’s Polish, Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities,” she said.

The recent surge in migration is thought to be partly due to tougher border laws in America following the 11 September terrorist attacks and an increasing number of Latin Americans leaving Spain for the UK, said the co-author of the report, Cathy McIlwaine. The total number of migrants leaving Spain nearly doubled from 120,000 in 2006 to 232,000 in 2008, following the decline of the economy.

“People have been looking for other places to go and London was a clear choice – there have been a core group of Latin Americans here since the 1970’s,” McIlwaine said. “Most people come with temporary visas in search of work and London is seen as a booming place with a high demand in the service sector, which other countries don’t necessarily have.”

Professor Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at LSE, called the change in population numbers “remarkable.” He added that the very fact that a report had to be done into the population of Latin Americans suggested how easily the population had assimilated into London.

“Latin Americans have blended into the capital very well indeed. They have moved into Britain, worked hard and contributed to London and Britain’s economic growth,” he said. “Without doubt, the increase in numbers further adds to London’s unrivalled variegated character.”

The largest communities of Latin Americans are found in east and south London, especially Lambeth and Southwark, but their cultural presence can be felt all over the capital. There are now Latin American music, film and dance festivals, as well as an abundance of Latin clubs, eateries and art exhibitions that have sprung up over the last few years.

Marysol Sanchez, 43, moved to the UK seven years ago and set up her Mexican restaurant, Mestizo, in north London, a year after she arrived. Now a permanent resident in London, she said she came to the capital to “promote Mexican food and culture.”

Citing the “surge” of several Mexican “street food” restaurants over the last few years, including the Strand’s Lupita in 2009, central Lonson's Wahaca in 2007 and west London’s La Tacqueria taco café in 2005, she said: “I don’t think it will take long until Latin American food rivals Chinese and Indian food in London. It’s starting to happen now.”

Fernando Stovell, a Mexican chef who appears often on BBC’s Saturday Kitchen, said there has been a “revolution” in Latin American restaurants and entertainment since he came to London fifteen years ago.

“There has been a drastic change in the perspective of Londoners when it comes to embracing out culture, food and music. As more and more people want to turn away from pompous restaurants and nights out, they are starting to interact with what Mexican and South American culture is all about. We tend to be very happy – maybe that is what people want to discover.”

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