By Jane Antoniak
Victoria Lozada and Emilia Gonzalez
London is called “The Forest City” but in recent years it has earned a second nickname, “Londombia” because of the rapid increase of Colombians living here. It is a name that Londoners and newly arrived Colombians embrace as it speaks volumes as to how the city has welcomed its newest citizens, that is, with open arms.
Schools and workplaces across the city have experienced the Colombian influx and the city has become more culturally rich with new restaurants, media and services popping up to serve the growing Spanish community and interested Canadians. It is estimated that there are about 15,000 Colombians in London and area now.
Victoria Lozada and Emillia Gonzalez are two women who immigrated directly to London from Colombia. Since meeting here, they have started an interior decorating, staging and organizing business together, Casa Victoria. Both received training in English and business here – from St. Patrick Campus of the Centre for Lifelong Learning (operated by the London District Catholic School Board, Fanshawe College and the London Small Business Centre). With their newly improved language and business skills they are able to continue their career training in Canada while raising their children in a city that they love.
“My training here was really helpful,” says Victoria. “I learned the Canadian culture and how business here works. It is important to be aware of how the culture works, adapting to life here is more than just learning a language.”
The two women met through their children, who were both students at King's University College. “We discovered that we have many things in common and we started the idea to work as a team – using Victoria’s skills and my experience. So, we now want to do a good job for the Canadian market here in London,” says Emillia.
The city has been good to their families, too. Emillia’s eldest son now works for TD Canada Trust, which has its roots in London. Her son was at first reluctant to leave Bogotá for a new life in London but now his mother says he is “so happy” here. “And that makes me happy,” says Emillia. “I am now a Canadian citizen and I find that Canada is my home. I see a real, positive difference living here. I love the order, the discipline, the respect for everything and everyone,” she adds.
The women are part of the London Chamber of Commerce Global Business Opportunities group which includes the Hispanic Business Opportunities which helps Spanish people adapt to the Canadian business marketplace. As well, they both belong to churches here which offer services in English and Spanish.
Jose Rey also came to London from Colombia. He and his wife and three children chose the city because they were looking for a “middle-sized city where the children could receive a good education,” explains Rey. “London is a perfect city for my family. Everything is close. Downtown is 15 minutes. There are four malls. We have beautiful trees and forests, children’s areas and it is all very clean. And, the people are friendly,” says Jose.
Since arriving here in 2004 he and his family have become Canadian citizens and Jose has contributed to the cultural landscape of his new home by creating and distributing Spanish language media Latino!, a bi-monthly newspaper, Latino!TV, a weekly television program on Rogers Cable 13, and LuLu magazine, a monthly publication for women. “I urge Colombians not to loose their heritage or language once they move here,” he says. Jose also helps newcomers with translation and he has established an annual Recognition Evening to salute Spanish speaking people in 10 categories including business, sports, community work, arts and culture. As well, he helps organize an annual beauty contest for Latin women who now live in this area.
“I’ve had a good experience in this city and so I say to others, it is good, come. It’s all friends and families here now who recommend London to others.”
Because of newcomers from Colombia, and other parts of Latin America, the city has Spanish grocery stores including Hernandez Variety on Thompson Road and Latino Market on Dundas Street. There are several Latin restaurants including Selayas, True Taco, El Ranchito, Los Comales, Rincon Latino, Lo Nuestro, Mexicatus and Casa Cuban. As well the city enjoys at least three new festivals now including Sunfest and Caliente Festival in July at Victoria Park and Belleza Latina in June at the London Convention Centre which feature very popular musical and culinary attractions.
For those wanting their children to maintain some Spanish culture, there are Spanish language classes for children offered in the city and also dance groups including Ritmo y café, Colombia Viva, Swing Latino and Flamenco Class.
Newly formed in the city is a cultural association for all Spanish people, not just those from Colombia. CALA the Latin America Canadian Association began last year. And there is also a telephone directory now in Spanish for Spanish speaking community members call Guia Telefonica Latina de London.
Jane Antoniak is a writer and owner of Antoniak Communications Inc in London. Her column, How Did You Get Here?, ran in the London Free Press for 5 years, winning recognition from the City of London for promoting diversity and race relations.