Latino Londres; in the First of a New Series, We Examine London's Thriving International Subcultures. Latin-American London Is Booming, and the Food, Drink, Music and Dance to Be Found on Our Streets Today Is as Authentic as That in Bogota, Rio or Caracas, Says Sue Steward

Article excerpt

Byline: SUE STEWARD

Millions of people around the world are in a state of movement, the lucky ones for reasons of pleasure, education, or just plain adventure. In London we have been on the receiving end of a large, creative wave of arrivals from South America - London's Latin-American population is conservatively estimated at a quarter of a million - and over the past two or three years they have seriously transformed our tastes and lifestyles. We have shown no resistance to the scorching rhythms of salsa, cumbia and newbossa, or the mojitos and caipirinha cocktails imported from Cuba, Brazil and Venezuela. The process is now so well-established that London is virtually an honorary Latino city.

The story of Latino London is undocumented, but it reaches as far back as the Fifties when the first Latin-Americans fled violence and poverty at home for a new beginning in Europe. It may be hard to imagine anyone choosing London's climate over that of a tropical Latin-American country, but for the Colombians, life is safer than at home or in Miami - and the Cubans have more money and freedom. A young DJ and music promoter from Caracas, Carlos Chirinos, adds another dimension: 'Venezuelans don't need a visa - Cubans and Colombians do.' London's Colombian community has been steadily growing and is now estimated at about 60,000. Gloria Carnevali at the Venezuelan Embassy is closely connected to both the Venezuelan and Colombian communities. 'The first immigrants were refugees from the civil war, La Violencia,' she explains. 'From them, two generations are already established. They are a hardworking, community-oriented people and very organised. That's why you see these marvellous big music festivals.' The Colombian community is now solidly established at opposite ends of town, around Seven Sisters in the North, and Vauxhall and Brixton in the South. Such self-sufficient communities usually develop along Tube lines, so it's no coincidence that these two 'Little Colombias' are linked by the Victoria line. Every small Colombian town has a 'San Andresito' market, where you can buy anything for the home and wardrobe, and stop for coffee or lunch. There are markets beside Seven Sisters Tube station and one under the arches in the Elephant & Castle mall. Maria Garcia, a Colombian student, goes to Seven Sisters 'to get my hair done, have lunch and buy CDs'. She drops in for a [pounds sterling]5 lunch. 'It's just like being at home,' she says. Venezuelan music promoter Carlos Chirinos goes to the Elephant for 'the white, juicy queso campesino' (country cheese) used in Colombian and Venezuelan cooking.

'You can buy anything there to make life as close to home as possible.'

These shops and markets are changing our tastes too - the explosion of Latino restaurants, cafes selling Brazilian and Colombian coffee to a soundtrack of salsa and samba is irresistible.

The Chileans arrived in the Sixties, fleeing Pinochet's brutal regime - native musicians launched a wave of panpipe playing buskers on the streets.

And in the Seventies, as Latin America was overcome by economic and political crises, more and more people arrived here. Flora Cardozo, a Brazilian translator for several City companies, arrived then. She explains: 'The Brazilians came here or to Paris to escape the revolution. Brazil's leading singers, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil [now Minister Of Culture in Brazil] came here in exile for two years. …

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