The Rich History of Leftist Latin American Art and Culture in London

Carlos Cruz Mosquera

BY CARLOS CRUZ MOSQUERA

Many will be surprised at the fact that approximately 200,000 Latin Americans live in the United Kingdom, 145,000 of whom reside in London. This figure excludes many residents who are undocumented. Since 2011, an influx of Latin American immigrants coming from Spain and settling in London following the nation’s recent financial crisis has increased the population’s size. What these numbers indicate is that Latin Americans now make up a significant part of London’s population, not far behind the other major ethnic groups that have settled in the city.

In spite of this reality, the Latin American community in the United Kingdom continues to exist without institutional recognition. Despite this, Latin American immigrants continue to reproduce and develop art traditions such as the Nueva Canción (New Song) movement. Socialist artists, as well as those who deal with social and political issues without ascribing to the label, make up a small section of the cultural community. Nevertheless, they have deep roots which can be traced to the Nueva Canción tradition initiated in Chile, diffused across the Americas, and brought over to the United Kingdom when thousands of political exiles sought asylum in the 1970s and 1980s.

This revolutionary tradition in the diaspora is not lucrative or profit-driven, as most artists cannot live off of their art. What the tradition thrives from is the maxim popularized by the famous Chilean folk singer Victor Jara which states: “I do not sing for the love of singing, or to show off my voice, but for the statements made by my honest guitar.” The Nueva Canción tradition calls for art beyond its potential for fame and fortune, or art for art’s sake. For a small but growing section of the Latin American diaspora, art is a craft with rewards beyond the material. The value of their art is in its power to create counter-narratives, to influence revolutionary actions, and, perhaps above all else, in its power to inspire a sense of dignity in a community that was forced into exile by the capitalist-imperialist world system. Conversely, imperialist governments and Western nations have actively funded art and cultural movements for purposeful abstraction, making it devoid of social and political critique.

Historical Roots

The first significant wave of Latin American immigration to the United Kingdom took place between the 1970s-1980s. This was after the 1973 U.S.-backed coup and assassination of Chile’s first and only socialist president, Salvador Allende. The military dictator handpicked by the United States, Augusto Pinochet, was a direct descendant of the country’s historical white elite. Chilean communist artists, such as Jara, who had been deeply influenced by Violeta Parra’s Nueva Canción movement, supported the Allende government and became leading voices against Pinochet’s violent coup. Jara’s music was considered a significant problem to the new regime. So much so that he was arrested and killed just weeks after the military dictatorship had taken power. An autopsy of Jara’s body found his fingers and wrists crushed, as retaliation for playing his guitar to boost the morale of fellow political prisoners.

Violeta Parra. | Source: Cultura Colectiva

In the 1950s and 1960s, Parra, a communist folk-singer and songwriter, spearheaded the creation of a musical genre that would take Chile and Latin America by storm. Parra and her family singlehandedly led the preservation of thousands of traditional Chilean folk songs and poetry, expressing everything from traditional stories to the material concerns of the impoverished masses in the country. Her brother, Nicanor Parra, a renowned poet in his own right, played an important role in persuading her to visit vast corners of Chile to collect stories, songs, poems, and even visual art from peasant and Indigenous communities.

Despite her radical political affiliations, Parra’s verses were not as politically explicit as those of Jara, Quilapayún and the countless others she influenced. It must be acknowledged, however, that without her work, it is unlikely that the Nueva Canción movement would have developed as it did across the Americas, speaking truth to power, empowering communities and giving a platform to long-neglected Indigenous and peasant cultural traditions. This form of politicized art — integrating the cultural traditions of rural peoples of the Americas, counteracting colonially imposed traditions — was not new to the region. Decades prior, Frida Kahlo, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera began centering Indigenous cultural forms in a mural art movement spurn from the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. The celebration of Mexico’s Indigenous and rural communities, as with Parra and the Nueva Canción tradition, was a political tool utilized to directly challenge the power of white elites. Thus, we can observe, artists across Latin America have long used their work to denounce the established and imposed social, political, economic and cultural structures.

“The Revolution” by David Alfaro Siqueiros. | Source: WikiArt

In direct contrast to the realism and heavily-politicized art forms present in the Global South is the CIA-sponsored abstract expressionism that has shaped modern art across the world. The CIA’s “Long Leash” policy, for example, was a program that heavily funded the creation of art to contradict the Soviet Union’s communist art movement that inspired artists like Rivera. The artists, including the likes of Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, did not know that their work was being energetically financed by the CIA, hence the label “Long Leash.” Art became, and often continues to be, art for the sake of art, empty of all social or political narrative that could inspire revolutionary movements. It sought to make socialist realism “look even more stylized and more rigid and confined than it was … and that relationship was exploited in some of the exhibitions,” as historian Frances Stonor Saunders put it.

The effects of aggressive Western policies on socialist and revolutionary art is easily observed in Chile’s 1973 violent coup. Their military training, political assistance and financial backing enabled the Pinochet dictatorship to carry out the suppression of revolutionary leaders and voices like those of Jara.

The Nueva Canción Tradition and Revolutionary Art in the U.K. Diaspora

The powerful cultural-political thread Parra began to weave in Chile and Latin America has undoubtedly played a role in the development of art in the diaspora. Although immigrants from other parts of the region have gone on to surpass the Chilean community-based in the United Kingdom numerically in the last few decades, they nevertheless remain at the forefront of leftist culture and art.

With a growing, Latin American population, the demand for social and political organizations that speak to their struggles has increased. In 2010, a number of young Latin American immigrants began a study group called Movimiento 22 (22 Movement) that later evolved into a political organization and a rap group called M.22, renamed Zona Protesta (Protest Zone). One of Zona Protesta’s most popular songs, “Inmigrante” (2010), expresses the layered oppression Latin American immigrants face in their daily lives around London.

“It’s not easy to comprehend what it’s like to be Latin American,
especially when you were brought to a strange country
when you were just a child.
Who would have thought that we would be here so many years?
This city damages our minds.
Here, immigrants are forced to clean toilets and eat shit;
it makes me angry!”

The verses become more confrontational as the song progresses, simulating an argument with an overbearing and swindling cleaning supervisor, known in the community to underpay and abuse their staff.

“I’ve heard you say you’ve been robbing my wages,
I’d beat you but I’m a pacifist.
Let me ask you, why are you so racist?
I have to remind you that I know trade unionists.
I won’t let you get away with it, I’m no fool!”

The explicit political narratives Zona Protesta dealt within their music was directly influenced by the political organization they were linked to. Several members, including rapper Z.P Kamilo, are the children of veteran Latin American political activists who exposed them to the Nueva Canción tradition. Their art style, while perhaps only superficially distinct in its subject matter, still abides by the theme of making music that has a responsibility to the community, rather than just “singing for the love of singing,” as Jara would have put it.

The perseverance in their art and struggle has led to the creation of a biennial art festival in Machynlleth, Wales. Started in 2005, the festival’s name, El Sueño Existe (The Dream Exists), references a huge concert that took place in Chile in 2003 to commemorate Jara’s death 30 years prior. Initially organized by a group of British artists and supporters of Jara to raise funds for his foundation in Chile, El Sueño Existe is one of the most important events for Latin American leftist artists in the United Kingdom. Activities involve everything from live music, poetry readings, tree planting, political workshops and discussions. Although artists who perform at the festival are compensated, it is not sufficient to sustain them. In Jara’s song “Manifiesto,” recorded months before he was killed, he says his interest in playing the guitar and writing lyrics was not to achieve fame, financial gain or please the ears of the rich. Rather, his music and his art is his duty in the process of building a new and just society. This feeling so poignantly expressed in “Manifiesto” lives on in the music, poetry and visual art produced by a growing section of the Latin American diaspora in the United Kingdom.

It remains to be seen whether the artists inspired by the Nueva Canción tradition in the Latin American diaspora who have settled in the United Kingdom will ever achieve institutional recognition and popularity beyond the community itself. In all likelihood, particularly due to the racist, pro-imperialist and capitalist status quo in the United Kingdom, these artists will remain under the radar quietly influencing the cultural development of coming generations. Hip-Hop and rap, which have their own origins in the revolutionary Black and Latin American diaspora, has already been injected with the revolutionary spirit of Parra thanks to a new generation of radical and socialist-minded Latin Americans in London. Whether it is through the reproduction or creation of the old style of the tradition, or through new forms and styles currently being developed, the mission of creating a more just society will be intertwined with the artistic creations of a community that have refused to be silenced.


Note: An earlier version of this article was submitted and presented at the panel titled “Poetry and Praxis” organized by the Race, Poetics, Poetry in the U.K. conference held at the University of Cambridge on October 26, 2018. An extended version was also published by the Journal of Labor and Society.

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