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The Toronto Star

Adiós City Of Anglos: Welcome To Londombia; London, Ontario Draws Latin Vibe 'The New Wave Is Colombian'; Latinos Transform London, Ont.

BY Oakland Ross

December 14, 2003
Copyright ©2003
The Toronto Star . All rights reserved.

London, Ont. -- When Maria Fiallos first set eyes upon southern Ontario, she thought her life was over.

"I am going to hate this country," she moaned in the backseat of the car that carried her family away from the Lester B. Pearson International Airport and toward a mysterious future.

What was worse - or at least what seemed worse at the time - was that Fiallos and her family soon found themselves not in lively, multicultural Toronto, but in a sedate, WASPy redoubt known as London, Ont.

The year was 1988, the month, April, and Maria, her parents and her three sisters were fleeing the war in the Central American republic of Nicaragua.

"When we first came to London, we didn't know a soul who spoke Spanish," recalls Fiallos, a teenager at the time. "There wasn't even a Latin restaurant. Taco Bell was the closest. Even the bar scene - you would hear a Gypsy Kings song, and you would think, 'Oh, my God.' London was a pretty Anglo city."

London was a very Anglo city.

But that was then, and this is now - about 11 o'clock in the morning on a bright autumn day in the year 2003.

Two young Grade 12 students from the Catholic Central High School on London's Dundas St. are taking a break for a late-morning snack.

Paola León munches on a Mexican quesadilla and a Colombian arepa while she and her pal, Johana Dominguez, chat together en español in the sunny confines of the Latino Market, near the heart of downtown London.

"I think it's a peaceful city," says León of her adopted home. "It's safe." She ponders the subject and then smiles. "I really like the clubs."

She's not talking about London's old-money country clubs, either. She's talking about places where she and her friends can go to dance salsa.

Welcome, damas y señores, to "Londombia."

That's the name that some Canadians of Latin American origin have taken to using when they refer to the once staid and straight-laced community that straddles the Thames River, three hours west of Toronto.

It's still more commonly known as London, of course, but this town is becoming more Latin - and, especially, more Colombian - almost by the hour.

"The WASPs are still here," says Mary Williamson, executive director of the London Cross-Cultural Learner Centre, an immigrant resettlement agency. "But we're seeing a lot more visible minorities."

Nowadays, about 19 per cent of London's 335,000 people were born somewhere other than Canada, which might not seem particularly impressive when compared to famously multicultural Toronto, where 44 per cent of the population is foreign-born.

Still, London has a larger proportion of immigrants than either Montreal or Edmonton, and occupies eighth place in the multicultural pecking order of Canadian cities.

In any language, this is a far cry from the sort of town London used to be, a city where even the street names conjured up images of Albion - Oxford, Picadilly, Wharncliffe, Blackfriar, Wellington, Pall Mall.

The current influx of Latin Americans began in 1997. That year, a scant 16 Colombians settled in London.

In 1998, there were 43; the following year, 126. In 2000, there were 395, and the numbers have continued to swell since.

"I'm amazed at how many Latin people there are here now," says Fiallos, who likes the area just fine these days. "When we came here, there was nothing. Now there are stores. You can buy mangos, tortillas."

In fact, if you are a Latin in London, you can buy just about anything that your little corazón desires.

The Latino Market on Dundas St., for example, is bursting with foodstuffs that you are unlikely to find at your local Loblaws.

There are 10 varieties of dried chili peppers and seven kinds of beans, not to mention dried corn husks, Mexican cornmeal, green pickled jalapeño peppers, whole poblano chilis, Guatemalan refried black beans in 6.5 pound tins, plus the frozen pulp of a luscious rainbow of tropical fruits: soursop, tamarind, passion fruit, papaya, guava and mamey.

"We've been in business for three months and it's going well," says owner Javier Luna, who immigrated to Canada from Guadalajara, Mexico, less than a year ago. He has no shortage of customers.

"The new wave is Colombian."

Well, this is a very different town from the conservative, even somewhat hidebound city that Maria Fiallos knew when she was growing into adulthood.

"Buying Latin music at record stores, you couldn't do it," she recalls. "You'd go to the World Music section and there'd be, like, two Julio Iglesias CDs."

Cue the present.

Sunrise Records in downtown London boasts an impressive stock of Latin music. Julio Iglesias and the Gypsy Kings are still in evidence, but so are Olga Tañon from Puerto Rico, Carlos Vives from Colombia, Mercedes Sosa from Argentina, and Alejandro Fernandez from Mexico, among dozens of other Latin musicians.

Sunfest, London's annual celebration of international music and dance, was founded 14 years ago by a Guatemalan immigrant named Alfredo Caxaj and has now spawned a separate late-summer event called Fiesta del Sol, devoted exclusively to Latin American culture.

Meanwhile, Paola León, who fled Colombia a year ago with her mother, three sisters and a cousin, raves about the nightclub scene, in a community where weekend visitors only a decade ago were encouraged to paint the town "pink," red being unavailable along the sombre banks of the River Thames.

Nowadays, London's Latinos and admirers of their culture can celebrate in scarlet every night of the week.

There's Old Chicago on Carling St., for example, where Wednesday night is Latin night and where Orlando Valencia and his band, Pachanga, enliven the London darkness with a frenetic succession of cumbias and merengues.

The Wet Spot has its salsa night on Thursdays. The Barking Frog croons in Spanish every Sunday. Meanwhile, the newly opened Rancho Londres is Latin all of the time.

"It's a really good club," says León.

The South American country is trapped in a web of violence, involving two leftist guerrilla armies, a network of right-wing paramilitary outfits, several drug-trafficking cabals and the government's own military forces. Last year, Colombians were the second largest group of refugees in Canada, exceeded only by Pakistanis.

Increasingly, they are converging upon London, which now boasts what is probably the fastest growing Hispanic community in the land.

"I can't keep up with all the new (Latin) businesses, cafes and restaurants," says Williamson.

This inevitably raises the question, why London? In part, the answer is simple - why not London?

Like other immigrants to Canada, newcomers from Colombia tend to settle in southern Ontario, and London is in southern Ontario.

Besides, there has long been at least a modest Latin American community here, dating back to the early 1970s, when Chileans were fleeing the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Later, refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala began to join them.

Now Colombians are arriving, too, and the flow has increased if only because that is the way immigration works. "Once a community is started, it grows," says Williamson. "People are here - families, friends."

The vast majority of the Colombian arrivals in London are political refugees rather than regular immigrants. Colombian refugee claimants are rarely turned away by Canadian officials.

Not everyone sees this as a good thing.

"In London, there's not a lot of hate crime," says Richard Hitchens, a director of a local group called the Association for the Elimination of Hate and Bias. "Most people are not going to publicly express those things."

But there is no doubt that some Londoners are hostile to newcomers who don't happen to look like them. In fact, the city is headquarters for an especially poisonous hate group called the Northern Alliance.

Many recent immigrants in London are just as concerned about more passive kinds of discrimination, especially that insidious strain of bureaucratic prejudice that prevents newly arrived professionals from finding employment to match their qualifications.

The Colombians are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon because they tend to be from the middle or upper-middle class in their country, many boasting impressive work credentials.

A year ago, a group of Colombians in London set up an association aimed at countering what they and others see as the tendency of Canadian professional organizations to resist new blood.

"I speak English well, with little accent, and I'm white," says lawyer Claudia Falquez, who settled in London 13 years ago after marrying a Canadian. "But when my distinct culture is evident, I have encountered impatience."

Daniel Saloman, a medical doctor, does volunteer work. Carlos Calderón, an industrial engineer, takes courses to augment his professional credentials. Cristina Hernandez, a lawyer, works for a community services agency.

All say they are more than happy to be here, but they feel an edge of frustration as well, a sentiment they share with thousands of other highly qualified but under-employed immigrants across the country.

Still, while they struggle to improve their lot, Latins in London do enjoy certain consolations.

They can go dancing at Rancho Londres, or they can dine at quaint little Latin eateries such as El Amanecer or El Ranchito, or they can read about community events in the city's own monthly Spanish-language newspaper, Prensa Latina - all pursuits that Maria Fiallos could only have dreamed about 15 years ago when she arrived here.

"We love London," says Hernandez, who has left the violence and fear of Colombia far behind her.

"After living with the stress we had before, this is the ideal. This is heaven."

: Jason kryk for the toronto star Martha Luna, left, helps customer Clodomiro Zeledon pick out the perfect empanada pastry at the Latino Market in London, Ont.Jason kryk for the toronto star Rafael Moreno, originally from El Salvador, heats up the dance floor with Cuba native Maria Sanabria at the Ranchos Londres club in London, Ont. Jason kryk for the toronto star Rafael Moreno, originally from El Salvador, heats up the dance floor with Cuba native Maria Sanabria at the Ranchos Londres club in London, Ont.

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