Two men sit locked in combat over a chessboard to a lively salsa soundtrack. Couples tucking into chilli-laced pasties and mango juice argue animatedly in Spanish. It could be Buenos Aires or Bogotá. But this is sultry south London.
Welcome to the Tiendas del Sur shopping arcade, a bustling slice of Latin America in the heart of Elephant & Castle, where Ecuadorians, Bolivians, Colombians, Peruvians and other members of Britain’s burgeoning Hispanic population come to relax among the sounds and flavours of home.
But this hidden gem, a tiny ghetto of Colombian hairdressers and Ecuadorian grocers, is emblematic of a wider issue plaguing Britain’s 200,000-strong South American community – a lack of wider recognition that campaigners say has left nearly half its number trapped in menial jobs, cut off from services and forgotten by policy-makers.
This sense of “invisibility” among Latin Americans has now sparked a campaign by community groups, diplomatic missions, MPs and academics for the population to be recognised for the first time as a distinct ethnicity and added to official forms, including the census, to boost its socioeconomic standing.
Despite a work ethic which sees 85 per cent of Latin Americans in employment – compared to 61 per cent of Londoners as whole – and a population which outnumbers Poles or ethnic Chinese in the capital, so far only one borough (Southwark) has declared the community a separate ethnic category.
As Miriam, 49, from the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, who with countless others rises at 3am to clean offices in the City, put it: “London without Latins would be filthy.” Despite 70 per cent having education beyond secondary school level, nearly half of Latin Americans living in Britain – some of them trained teachers or accountants – work in low-skilled and low-paid areas.
A combination of language difficulties and the fact that 19 per cent of Latin Americans are “irregulars” in the country on expired visas means the group is vulnerable to exploitation such as arbitrary wage cuts and broken contracts.
Lucila Granada, co-ordinator for the Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK, one of the groups leading the campaign, said: “Everybody knows a good Latin American restaurant, a salsa club or where to learn tango, but we remain invisible as citizens, as part of the community.”
With only 20 per cent of Latin Americans receiving any form of benefit such as tax credits, and four out of five never having visited a GP, they are also at pains to point out the light burden that Latin Americans place on the welfare state.
Claudio Rojo, consul general at the Argentinian embassy, said: “The British do not dislike Latin Americans. But we are a community which can contribute so much more – it is not just football players or cleaners.”
Stefanie Quishpe, 21, is sitting outside the grocery store owned by her Ecuadorian mother. “I will raise my daughter like I was – to speak English and Spanish, and know all about Ecuador,” she says. “But England is my home and this is where I will make my life.”