A couple of years back, I got chatting to a nice looking Colombian girl called Paola in London, and arranged to go for a coffee. She didn’t speak much English, which might have put some people off, but made her seem more exotic and beautiful to me. She had soft brown eyes, a smile to die for, and curves like only a Latin American girl can have – who cared about the language barrier?
We went on a few more dates, got to know each other, and were soon officially an item. For the most part, it was a happy, easygoing relationship: we hung out in the park, went on dinner dates, and did all the regular things new couples do. There was one slight complication, though; she wasn’t legal in the country. She had got a Visa to work as a cleaner, and then overstayed it. She was renting a room from a network of Colombians who illegally sub-let rooms out, and working for cash-in-hand as a cleaner. This must have been degrading, as she was a qualified nurse in Colombia. She still seemed glad to be here, though.
Being an illegal made life difficult. During the year that we were together, she had to move house three times to avoid being raided by immigration. She paid over the odds for her accommodation, and was underpaid for her work. She couldn’t have a bank account, because it could be used to trace her location, and didn’t see a doctor when she was ill, because she was afraid he might realise she wasn’t legal. Her life was dominated by fear of discovery.
Up until this point, I had assumed that illegals all snuck in on the back of lorries, or came over on boats, like they do on news reports about them. I hadn’t realised it was possible to legally obtain a Visa, and then disappear off the grid. I hadn’t been aware of how hard it was for them to remain in the country once they’d got here either, though. Paola couldn’t engage with mainstream society at all, as doing so would cause people to ask questions about how someone who spoke virtually no English was able to stay in Britain for so long. Life was a struggle for her, and the same went for the rest of the large community of illegal Latin American immigrants in London that I had previously been oblivious to. Most immigrants here are from Africa, the Indian subcontinent, or Eastern Europe, and I had been unaware that there was a significant number of Latin Americans, legal or illegal, here before meeting Paola. There are actually 186,500 of them in London alone, and that’s only the legal ones.
Because she only hung out with other Colombians, Paola’s English was very slow to improve. Her lack of British friends also meant that although she lived in the UK, she didn’t fully understand the culture. She would frequently berate me for breaking Colombian taboos that don’t exist in the UK, and thought I was making excuses when I told her that things worked differently here. She was over the moon to be here though, and lined her shelves with hundreds of tacky gifts emblazoned with Union Jacks that she bought from souvenir shops. She was more into being British than your average British person – she just didn’t quite get what it actually entailed.
Whenever I was at Paola’s house, which was packed full of Colombians so that the landlord could maximise his profit, I felt as if I was in Colombia. They spoke Spanish, watched Colombian TV online, and ate Colombian cuisine; it was as if a tiny piece of Bogota had been transplanted to South London. I enjoyed being immersed in another culture, but couldn’t help but feel like an outsider. They would spout catchphrases from Colombian comedy shows and laugh hysterically, or reference something from back home, and I would just sit there, not knowing what the fuck was going on. This wasn’t their fault; they it’s what I almost certainly would have done if I moved abroad and there were other English people there. Nevertheless, it became a little irritating at times.
Paola eventually decided that she wanted a boyfriend who was a Christian, like her, and gave me the boot. Religion is a much bigger thing in Colombia than it is here, and she couldn’t get her head around the fact that I wanted to spend my Sunday mornings lying in rather than going to church. It was an amicable split, though, and I felt I’d learned a lot from dating her. No longer were illegal immigrants a faceless statistic; they were the people I’d been surrounded by for the last year.
Dating Paola left me with conflicting thoughts about illegal immigrants. On one hand, it helped me to appreciate their plight – they had one foot in a better world, but never got the chance to fully benefit from it. On the other, it also gave me a better understanding of why some people harp on about border control so much. Having people living here unofficially leaves them with no choice but to be outsiders, keeping within their own community.
Whilst one side of me acknowledges the fact that we definitely need some kind of immigration control in place, the other recognises the fact that it would be terrible if Paolo and her friends were deported, as the only thing they’re guilty of is searching for a more comfortable existence. I saw how happy she was when she talked about the new life she’d started for herself, and felt the excited buzz within the Colombian community about their new beginnings. Logically, we need to place limits on the number of people who can come here. Emotionally speaking, I wish our Latin American friends here every success, and hope they manage to make themselves truly at home here.
*Words by @nickchesterv.
*Art Direction by Ainsley Jade.