It's not unusual for new arrivals to the cosmopolitan, multi-everything metropolis that is London to suffer something of an identity crisis. In my case, coming from a small town in Bolivia, the new identity I was given was 'Latin'. All of a sudden I found myself lumped together in an unfamiliar grouping that somehow included people from Spain and Portugal – even those from Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa. As it turns out, though, we have a lot more in common than I originally thought.
In 2001 there were around 31,000 so-called ‘Latin Americans’ in London. 10 years later, the number of South and Central Americans calling the city home is nearly four times that, the majority of whom speak Spanish, rather than Portuguese. If you add in the Spaniards themselves, it amounts to a Spanish-speaking community of some 163,000 people – around the same population as Uruguay’s third largest city. It’s no surprise, then, that London’s cultural calendar is steadily filling up with Latin-themed events, festivals, restaurants and shops. Below is a selection of some of the most interesting examples.
Latin American restaurants in London
With thousands of Hispano-Americans living in London, you don’t have to look hard to find authentic, high-quality cuisine from every region. Many of these restaurants have a more contemporary and sophisticated approach than the rustic grill-house you may be picturing – as in the case of Peruvian establishments Tierra Peru (164 Essex Road, 020 7354 5586) and Ceviche (17 Frith Street, 020 7292 2040). Both restaurants offer the famous Peruvian ceviche (typically comprising raw fish marinated in citrus juices) with well-balanced textures and flavours, along with fiery cocktails and colourful surrounds.
In Argentina, meanwhile, it's all about beef, and the more of it the better. For a good Argentine steak in London, Casa Malevo (23 Connaught Street, 020 7402 1988) near Marble Arch and Santa María del Sur (129 Queenstown Road, 020 7622 2088) in Clapham are two of the best places in the city to get involved, both serving up cuts of cow substantial enough to make a grown man weep into his napkin.
The Mexican culinary experience in London, meanwhile, is cheerful and colourful, with burrito bars and nacho shacks popping up in the most unlikely of spots. Lively Notting Hill cafe Taquería (139-143 Westbourne Grove, 020 7229 4734) operates an unpretentious menu that features a selection of 15 tacos – the chorizo-stuffed variation is not to be missed. There is also Mestizo (103 Hampstead Road, 020 7387 4064), a good option in Euston for Sunday brunch – it’s great for families (kids can eat for free) and popular with Mexican Londoners.
For a whirlwind tour of South American flavours, Islington’s Sabor (108 Essex Road, 020 7226 5551) is an interesting option, offering everything from traditional Cuban ‘ropa vieja’ – shredded beef stew – to Ecuadorian humitas; a dish of steamed, blended corn, similar to tamales.
For Spanish grub, Barrafina (54 Frith Street) serves up the best tapas in Soho, with an incredible amount of care invested in each of its miniature platefuls. Flavours also sing at Barrica (62 Goodge Street, 020 7436 9448) in Fitzrovia, which offers an impressive selection of 24 different wines (all of them Spanish, naturally), alongside excellent tapas.
Latin American and Spanish festivals in London
A great number of Spanish-language festivals have taken root in the capital in the last few years. Since 1990, the London Latin American Film Festival has brought international recognition to the likes of ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ and ‘Men with Guns’. The 2012 edition of the festival will be held November 16-25 and will include: ‘Not So Modern Times’ by Argentine director Simon Franco, telling the story of a gaucho facing globalisation; ‘With Fidel Whatever Happens’, a documentary film by Goran Radocanovic; and ‘Siesta’ by Michael Mathis, which explores the dynamic of a crumbling relationship.
The Spanish equivalent is the London Spanish Film Festival, which has been focusing the spotlight on Spanish productions since 2005. This year the festival took place in September and October and among many other special guests were Manuela Vellés and Emma Suárez, from the cast of ‘Buscando a Eimish’ (‘Looking for Eimish’).
Another festival celebrating Spanish arts and culture is Spain NOW!, which has been running since 2009 and brings together talents from creative disciplines as diverse as music and gastronomy. This year the festival continues until November 27 in different venues around London, with events including art exhibitions, dance, films and culinary classes with top chefs. Among the highlights is a project called ‘Quiero tener un millón de amigos’ (‘I want to have a million friends’), which explores the disparity between our online and real-world personalities. Get involved via the Spain NOW! website and The Gallery Soho (121 Charing Cross Road, 07841 374735) until the end of November.
In the world of dramatic arts, the CASA Latin American Theatre Festival takes place at Kennington’s Ovalhouse Theatre (52-54 Kennington Oval, 020 7582 0080) in the autumn, bringing theatre companies from Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Argentina to the capital for ten days of boundary-pushing plays and talks.
Latin American shops and markets in London
Although the name suggests otherwise, Cool Chile (087 0902 1145) in Borough Market is dedicated to Mexican products, selling dried chillies (chile ancho, chile guajillo, chipotle and habanero) directly imported from Mexico, as well as tortillas and fresh homemade salsas. Nearby Brindisa (020 7534 1690), meanwhile, stocks artisan Spanish products, from extra virgin olive oils to sheep’s cheese and traditional ham.
The Elephant and Castle area is another treasure trove of Latin consumables, with shops stocking produce from Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Argentina, among other places. Sol Andino (187 Old Kent Road, 020 7701 9780) is one of the best, where you’ll find a variety of dried and frozen foods and other products. For those not willing to make the trip, La Bodeguita (Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, 020 7701 9166) and La Chatica (2 Elephant Road, 020 7231 2282) offer online ordering and home delivery.
Latin American cultural centres in London
Latin American House (10 Kingsgate Place, 020 7372 8653) is one of the oldest Latin American organisations in London. Located in Kilburn and also known as Casa Latina, services range from legal advice to a bilingual nursery. They also offer free courses in IT and English, as well as free computer and internet access from 10am-5pm, Monday to Friday. Since 2011, Casa Latina has also opened the Saturday Spanish School to promote Spanish language among children aged 5-10. Another similar School is Esforal (Treaty Street, 020 8292 6912), where children aged 3-16 can take dance, paint, theatre and music courses.
For the promotion of Spanish language in the United Kingdom, the Instituto Cervantes (102 Eaton Square, 020 7235 0353) is indispensable for both Spaniards and Latin Americans. As well as offering Spanish lessons, the institution also promotes festivals, art exhibitions, music and other artistic events with a Spanish and Latin American focus. Finally, Canning House (2 Belgrave Square, 020 7235 2303) is a cultural centre offering language classes (Spanish and Portuguese) and literature courses as well as a series of events, concerts, seminars and talks throughout the year.