Latin Elephant’s Patria Roman Velazquez on how Latin Americans in London are fighting gentrification.

Walking past the Elephant & Castle shopping centre, all that really stands out is the unusual statue of a bright red elephant with a castle on its back, erected along with the building itself in 1965. But take a look inside or under the railway arches in Elephant Road and the Eagle Yard, and you will find a thriving hub of nearly 100 shops, cafes, restaurants and bars from different parts of Latin America.

After the 1970s wave of immigration that saw Chileans, Colombians, Peruvians and Uruguayans flee civil unrest and settle in London, the first Latin American businesses started to appear around The Elephant, as it is affectionately known, in the 1990s. They were followed by migrant workers from Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador who took advantage of low rent in the run down and neglected shopping centre in order to start their new livelihoods. Around 20 years later the area experienced another surge of migrant workers moving to the area, this time from Spain where their hopes of a better life were shattered by the 2008 financial crash.

Today there are 110 Latin American-run businesses in Elephant & Castle and the surrounding borough of Southwark. Despite being small in size, they have built up a network of places for people to work, eat, drink and socialise, as well as providing vital information to help new arrivals find jobs, doctors surgeries and a friendly face. But in spite of its growing and vibrant client base, which has extended to other minority groups and the wider community as well, plans to demolish and regenerate the shopping centre started looming in the early 2000s.

After years of research, Puerto-Rican born academic Patria Roman-Velazquez set up the charity Latin Elephant in 2014 to help ensure business owners’ futures in Elephant & Castle’s urban regeneration process. ‘I know how overwhelming it can be to have to start a fresh in a new place, I’ve had to do that in New York, Philadelphia and London, so I suppose that’s why I have a particular connection with The Elephant,’ she says. ‘I wanted to give something back, because the Latin American community has really breathed life into an area that was pretty dead before they arrived.’

Although plans to knock down the shopping centre have been in place for over a decade, what the regeneration plans will actually mean for Latin American business owners is still unclear. ‘There will probably be a small payout for businesses who lose their premises, but compared to how much time, money and culture they have invested it won’t be nearly enough,’ says Patria. ‘Compensation won’t even cover their removal costs. There are absolutely no guarantees and it’s the most disadvantaged who stand to lose the most.’

Property developer Delancey’s plans for Elephant & Castle claim the redevelopment of the shopping centre will create ‘a new town centre that serves as the hub and focal point of the local community.’ But a recent report released by Latin Elephant explains how the shopping centre’s Latin American hub is already the focal point of life in Elephant & Castle and why it deserves to remain so.

Patria explains that without any big investment, The Elephant’s Latin Quarter has organically developed into a cluster of small but thriving businesses that have worked together to create a home from home for thousands of people. ‘The unique thing about Elephant & Castle is everything has developed naturally – it is what it is today because of the people who are there. The diversity of products and services available is incomparable and that means a huge amount to the people who use them.’

She continues: ‘If you want to send money back to your family in Colombia, and you want to get your hair or nails done just the way you like them, but want to be able to go for an empanada afterwards, it’s all there. The shop, café and bar owners won’t make as much money as the big businesses that are due to move in, but they have brought their culture and so much more. These people have embraced London as their home. They just want a stake in it like everyone else.’

The way The Elephant’s businesses work together has been to their advantage so far, but when the developers move in, the supply chain they have created means those at the bottom will be left most vulnerable.

A 2016 study by Queen Mary University, the Latin American Women’s Rights Service and Trust for London shows that a quarter of London’s Latin Americans are in unskilled jobs, with a further 20 per cent in other low-paid sectors like caring and sales. So although Latin Elephant mainly deals with the business owners themselves, the people they employ need just as much help, if not more.

‘People’s biggest fear is being displaced,’ Patria says. ‘There’s a real supply chain at work here. If the shops close, what will the people who make the empanadas do? What job will the cleaners who work in the shopping centre have? Absolutely everything depends on the planning application process. When the private developers come in, how many affordable spaces will there be? And what will be the criteria for businesses to secure those spaces?’

Restaurant, shop and music venue La Bodeguita is one of the few businesses that has managed to secure premises elsewhere. But Patria and her colleagues are working with the local authorities and other action groups to ensure the same outcome for as many outlets as possible.

Latin Elephant has made good progress influencing local planning policy, but it’s the private development agenda that really counts. ‘We are dealing with private developers who want to make money, no one is being shy about that,’ Patria says. ‘They want commercially viable businesses in Elephant & Castle, so it’s all about getting the shop and restaurant owners ready for what’s to come.’

Southwark was the first London borough to recognise it’s 27,000-strong Latin American population as an official minority group, and locally the Latin Quarter’s efforts to revive one of the most ‘undesirable’ parts of the city have not gone unnoticed.

‘Our keywords are retention, growth and sustainability,’ says Patria. ‘Our vision for the Latin Quarter is that as many of the businesses that are there already can remain, grow and stay together, because that’s what they want. It would be so easy for developers to say ‘you don’t fulfil our criteria’ and for them to lose everything. So we need to fight for as many businesses to remain as possible and make sure everyone understands the planning process, so everything these people have created over 20 years is not for nothing.’

This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue three (Winter 2016/17)