Britain's got rhythm

South American art and music is everywhere this summer. But it isn't just confined to museums. As immigration from Latin countries has increased, so has the cultural tempo of our nation, says Ian Burrell
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It's a scene straight off the Pampas. The midday sun is high in the cloudless sky and the men in Gaucho sombreros and neckerchiefs are circling a dozen roasting carcasses of lamb, each intricately wired to a well-used metal cruz. The fire was lit at 6.30am prompt and is by now giving off towering waves of heat that wrench moisture from the skin.

The men in sombreros tend their lamb, splashing it with water, and feed their crackling furnace by shovelling logs on to molten ashes. The scene is part Casey Jones, part Dante and most appetising, unless you are vegetarian. Beside the crucified lambs there are racks groaning with 1,600 chorizos, 800 mosillas (black puddings) and 1,000 chicken pieces.

You would struggle to find a Gran Asado of such scale and authenticity in South America and yet, amid the shouted greetings of "Hola che! Qué tal?" these pallid Gauchos converse in English with the clipped elocution of the privately educated. But then, we are stood in the grounds of a rugby club in a leafy corner of Surrey.

This is the social world of the Anglo-Argentine, people such as Derek Gibson, who was born in Buenos Aires in 1957, a fourth-generation descendant of Scottish settlers. With knife on hip, he watches the family asado traditions being continued by his strapping 19-year-old son James, who wears the rugby shirt of Los Teros of Santa Fe, a gift from his cousins in faraway Argentina.

Alongside this pair is a new compañero, who tells another part of the complicated story that is the relationship between the United Kingdom and South America. Santiago Garcia Costa, 31, arrived in England last August, to take his Masters in law at King's College London, one of a growing number of young Latin professionals who have recently joined the 62-year-old Anglo-Argentine Society. He appears taken aback by this cross-cultural occasion in the village of Hersham: "To be honest, this is the biggest barbecue I have ever been to. I'm serious, 1,600 chorizos – it's crazy."

A day earlier I had been somewhere altogether different. Inside the raucous indoor market that runs alongside the Seven Sisters tube station in north London, where Spanish is everywhere in the air. In the window of the Merca Express rum shop, a poster advises Colombian ex-pats how to participate in their country's elections (by casting their vote at a London branch of the Holiday Inn). At his Latin American carneceria, Manuel Pelaez Grisales is selling his corn-fed Brazilian beef fillets to Bolivian and Peruvian customers, while in El Parador Rojo, Latinos are grazing on empanadas. Posters in the aisles advertise that the Colombian national football team will play a friendly at West Ham United, and promote countless parties such as La Mejor Rumba Latina at the nearby Tropicana Discoteca.

From his family music stall, Lucho Jurado, 47, serenades shoppers with various Latin genres; salsa, reggaeton, romantica. He makes his best money through sales of telenovelas, the long-running soap series that dominate television schedules back home in Colombia. At £1 per DVD, they offer Colombian families three hours of evening entertainment and a reminder of the life they left behind, or at least a danger-strewn, glamour-laden version of it. As Jurado calls up some popular series on his flat-screen television, it's clear the telenovela genre doesn't try to hide the role of the narco-trafficker in Colombian society. El Capo (The Boss) is the story of a drugs lord and Las Muñecas de la Mafia (Dolls of the Mafia) depicts the WAGs of organised crime. El Cartel 2: La Guerra Total is part of a hit show that has run to 20 DVDs.

Jurado, who came to Britain 12 years ago from the Valle del Cauca outside of Cali, is anxious to emphasise the hard-working nature of his community. "We are not egotistical and we accept our responsibilities. All the Latin Americans here are clean, the great part of them," he says. "I feel a respect and trust for this country, it's rich in culture and wealthy. But it's difficult for us because everybody speaks English. We have made great sacrifices for our children and grandchildren to live here because London is very cold."

There are many sides to Latin American Britain. There are those who enjoy the opportunities that come with City jobs at global corporations, and there are others who barely survive. But what is clear is that the relationship between this country and a continent that a generation ago was largely defined in the British imagination by Pelé and the Falklands War is undergoing drastic change.

"I remember the day when a friend's father in the North of England told me I was the first Mexican he 'had ever seen not riding a horse' – meaning in John Wayne films and The High Chaparral," says Libertad West, a Mexican-born recruitment specialist who arrived in Britain 20 years ago. "The perception of Mexico and Latin America was very different to today's sophisticated knowledge of the younger generation as a result of free movement across continents. People are very familiar with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. When the British Museum organised an event to celebrate Mexico's the Day of the Dead last year, it had to shut the entrance gates for the fifth time ever in its history."

It's barely a decade since the Carnaval del Pueblo began in south London as a Latin alternative to the Notting Hill Carnival. The 4,000-strong crowd that attended that first event in 1999 had by last year grown to a seething, swaying 130,000, the largest celebration of Latin American culture in Europe. When they reconvene in Burgess Park at the start of August, the carnavalistas will attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the most couples dancing salsa at the same time. "It shows that we are touching people with our culture more than ever," says Colombian Paola Estrada, event co-ordinator of the festival.

Almost all South American countries are represented in the Carnaval but many of the other dancers will be Britons. Cheaper travel and broader horizons have enabled a generation of backpackers to experience Latin cultures first-hand. The thirst for samba, salsa and capoeira reaches across Britain. Bloco Fogo is an 80-strong samba band from Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Truro's Salsa Salamanca offers bachata by the beach in Cornwall, Butta-Batu bash out batucada rhythms in Newark, and there is a Newcastle-upon-Tyne branch of the famous Grupo Senzala Brazilian capoeira organisation.

In recognition of such trends, Festival Brazil, a groundbreaking summer-long arts event which opens next week at London's SouthBank Centre, will be asking patrons to take a quiz entitled "How Brazilian Are You?"

"I think that Brazil is a place that people who are not Brazilian now identify with," says Jude Kelly, the festival's artistic director. "We all have a Brazilian side of us. It's a comment on the fact that Brazil has many qualities; it's not just high energy and samba and fun, it's also philosophical and thoughtful. The audiences will be very different from how they would have been 15 years ago because Brazil has become a fascinating place for people to go to." She also expects large numbers of Brazilians to attend a festival that will incorporate literature and debates alongside dance, music and the visual arts. "We have a huge number of Brazilians that live in the UK, a lot more than I realised. I've heard of 300,000 unofficially, but I genuinely don't know."

Kelly is not alone in this. The data on the number of South Americans living in Britain is very unclear, although all anecdotal evidence suggests that there are more Latinos here now than at any time in history. At the turn of the 20th century there were fewer than 1,000 residents in the UK who could trace their origins to Latin America. Some estimates suggest that the equivalent number today is more than one million, comprised of in excess of 250,000 Brazilians, more than 100,000 Colombians and significant communities from Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela and Peru. After Spain, Britain has become the destination of choice for Latinos who head to Europe.

Much of this movement has come in the past decade. The 2001 Census put the UK's Latin American population at around 85,000 and the Brazilian community at 15,215, but no one doubts that the current figures are many times higher. Just as there are designers and photographers drawn to London's creative industries from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo, so too there are domestic cleaners and motorcycle couriers from the poorer states of Minas Gerais and Goias. Significant Brazilian communities are established in Brighton, Manchester and Birmingham.

Eight years ago, the Rio journalist Juliano Zappia set up the magazine Jungle Drums to reflect the growing Brazilian presence. "The doors to America closed after September 11 and lots of Brazilians started coming to the UK – this meant the community grew not just in numbers but in quality," he explains. "We didn't just have people coming to work to send money back to Brazil, but photographers, designers, DJs, chefs, yoga teachers, engineers, financial services workers. It created a different community here."

The most recent issue of the magazine manifests this: it focuses on dance and is being guest edited by Thiago Soares, the Rio-born principal dancer of the Royal Ballet. "He is a good example of how Brazilians have penetrated into British culture," says Zappia.

In the past three years, Jungle Drums has reported on the wave of Brazilian restaurants, cafés and party venues opening in London, a process that has recently been slowed by the financial downturn in Britain and the comparatively strong performance of the Brazilian economy. This will make life harder for cleaners but make Britain more attractive to Brazilian students.

Other Latin American communities are more likely than the Brazilians, many of whom are transitory visitors, to put down permanent roots. Immigrants who left behind Augusto Pinochet's junta in Chile in the Seventies arrived in Britain as asylum-seekers, as did Colombians fleeing paramilitary violence in the Nineties. In between, many thousands more South Americans arrived as domestic workers and students, often overstaying their visas.

When Maria del Pilar Blanco, who is of Cuban and Puerto Rican ancestry and lectures in Latin American history and culture at University College London, recently attended a British citizenship ceremony at Islington Town Hall in north London, she was taken aback by "the amount of Latin Americans who were receiving their certificate alongside myself. I was really surprised at that, there were Colombians and Ecuadoreans [with me]".

During recent research at the British Library, del Pilar Blanco was intrigued to uncover a Victorian newspaper, The Echoes of Both Worlds, written for those seeking economic opportunities in Latin America, just as Latinos do in Britain today.

The British Library has just opened an exhibition, !Viva La Libertad! Spanish American Independence Movements 1810-1860, showing that 19th-century immigration between the two societies was heading south from the British Isles. Among that movement was the British Legion, more than 7,000-strong and recruited in Britain and Ireland to fight for Simon Bolivar and other liberators in their wars with imperial Spain. "After the Napoleonic wars many soldiers were unemployed and this was a way for them to get work," comments Aquiles Alencar-Brayner, curator of the library's Latin American collections. "Many people didn't come back, either they died or they took up residence in those countries."

Among the exhibits is a love poem written by Bolivar to Mary English, who travelled to South America with her husband James Towers English, a Dublin-born commander in the British Legion, who died in Venezuela. Mary stayed in South America and worked as a financial agent for Barclays.

Judging from Eduardo Galeano's classic history, Open Veins of Latin America (a book which Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez gave as a gift to Barack Obama), Britain never seemed slow to exploit the continent, such as, for example, when the botanist Henry Wickham destroyed the Brazilian rubber trade by smuggling the yellow fruit of Hevea brasiliensis out of Amazonia and back to Kew Gardens, where it was developed for rival British plantations in Malaya.

But Alencar-Brayner is less critical. "The British were necessary for the South Americans who were afraid of retaliation from the Spanish," he says. "When the Spanish lost these colonies there was almost no one who could invest. The British brought modern machinery and money to revive the mines. I don't think it is exploitation so much as a commercial relationship which was good for both parties."

Not all will agree, for it's a complex story. Take for example the experience of Peter Edbrooke, the now 71-year-old vice-chairman of the Anglo-Argentine Society. Within months of the Falklands War, he was obliged to make a rapid return to his home town of Buenos Aires to attend the funeral of his mother. Yet by 1982 he was an international businessman living in Brussels, and when he sought visas for his daughters for the trip to South America, the British Government refused, telling Edbrooke they were fourth-generation Argentines. Travel documents were eventually obtained and when the family arrived at customs in Buenos Aires they were treated with courtesy, in spite of the war. Tensions over the Malvinas remain but Edbrooke says any squabbling between the two nations is "like in a family, not like with somebody you don't know or like".

The cultural mélange in modern Britain is creating a deeper understanding. At a concert at London's Jazz Café by the Colombian Pacific coast hip-hop group Choc Quib Town, the audience is sprinkled with those who are working to that end, from the long-standing promoter Andy Wood, who organises the annual La Linea Latin music festival and is working with Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta on a forthcoming show at the London Coliseum, to Callum Simpson, who runs the experimental Latin music and film club nights Movimientos.

Also present is Jose Luis Mendes, 33, from Caracas in Venezuela, who has made his spectacular La Bomba reggaeton nights into a regular fixture at London super-clubs such as Ministry of Sound and Pacha. He talks with excitement of the emerging British-born Latinos who attend his events and are making their own music. "We don't have a strong home-grown Latino genre yet but it will come from one of my kids, I'm sure of that 100 per cent," he says, mentioning the London-raised rappers Chico P, who raps in English, Spanish and Portuguese, Flow Latino, who is of Colombian ancestry, and Cachito from Ecuador. The Latin nationalities here are finding a bond that they rarely know at home, says Mendes. "Down there, the notion of Latin America doesn't really exist, but here everyone is in the same boat."

For newer arrivals, such as 25-year-old English language student Adriana Vargas, Latin American Britain is a fascinating spectacle. "I'm from Bogota but I lived in my bubble there," she reflects. "Here in Britain I know more about Peruvian and Ecuadorean music than I did when I was in Colombia."