Marsela, a waitress at El Manantial restaurant in the market. Photo: Valeria Costa-Kostritsky.
It’s easy to miss "Pueblito Paisa," London’s only indoor latin market, as it's almost hidden from the main road in the north-eastern Seven Sisters neighbourhood. Inside, children play and teenagers hang out amid the maze of restaurants, cafés, beauty salons, and stores selling Latin American food, clothes, African fabrics and telenovelas.
Most of the traders are Colombian, but some are from Peru, Ecuador or the Dominican Republic, and others have non-latin or hispanic heritage. With more than 60 traders, it is the UK’s second largest concentration of Latin American businesses. The majority of the owners are women.
This summer, a new chapter opened in a long-running battle that these traders and the wider community have been fighting against a developer and their local council, who wish to redevelop the market as part of 'regeneration' efforts being steamrolled through communities across London.
The traders are challenging a Compulsory Purchase Order issued by the council to vacate the property. In July, there were a series of hearings as part of a public inquiry process which has to judge whether forcibly taking the property would be in the public interest.
At the local civic centre, a large all-male team of solicitors, paid by the council, lined up against Monica Feria Tinta, a lawyer of Peruvian descent, representing the traders. For her, this case is also more than a job. "I felt I could be their voice, that I was in a good position to convey things that otherwise wouldn't be coming to light, because I am one of them," she told me.
The fight to #SaveLatinVillage
The council’s representatives have argued that redevelopment “would secure improvements to the living and working environment of existing and proposed occupiers and create a much improved quality and sense of place, bringing vibrancy to the area”.
But the plans have been criticised for what seems to be an emphasis on building non-affordable housing as well as a glass-fronted shopping centre.
At last month's hearing, the council’s lawyers said that market traders would be rehoused on the other side of the road – but planning documents show this move will come with a dramatic increase in their rent.
Tinta had traders speak for themslves. In hours of moving testimony they described how they depended on the market as more than a source of income, as a vitally important social and cultural hub.
Recalling how run-down it had been when they first opened shop, traders detailed their constant efforts to improve and decorate the building, despite alleged inaction on behalf of the owner Transport for London.
Behind them the wider community has rallied; more than two thousand people have signed a petition urging the London’s mayor Sadiq Khan and Tottenham MP David Lammy to step in to conserve “a unique business village in an increasingly atomised national landscape”.
Shock troops of gentrification #SaveLatinVillage @londonlatinxs @CarnavalPueblo #carnavaldelpueblo @PlazaLatina pic.twitter.com/BKN4Jx1G5J
— Save Latin Village (@LatinVillageUK) August 7, 2017
Displacement is at the centre of market trader Marta Hinestroza’s life. “I came to London as a refugee in November 2002 because I had been threatened by paramilitary groups," the Colombian lawyer told me.
"I was defending 250 farmers’ families from the region of Antiochia whose lands had been made unusable by a BP oleoduct," she explained. “I also got phone threats, and one day hitmen came to my office while I wasn’t in. I decided to leave. I chose the UK because BP’s headquarters were here.”
In 2006, after an English law firm took on the farmer's case, a multi-million pound settlement was reached and the families were compensated. Hinestroza decided to establish herself in the UK for good.
After hearing about a free spot in a covered market in London's Seven Sisters area, where Latin American shops had been opening, Hinestroza invested the money she had made in the BP case and bought herself a hairdressing salon. “This place helped me to come out of a state I had been in since being forced to flee Colombia without wanting to,” she said.
Hinestroza told me that she first learned in 2007 about rumoured plans to close the market, and demolish the Victorian building it is based in. With other traders, she started a campaign to challenge the plans and the developer, Grainger PLC, arguing they hadn’t consulted the community. Now 52, Hinestroza has been fighting the market’s closure for a decade.
A beauty salon at the market. Photo: Valeria Costa-Kostritsky.
I met Monica when she painted my nails at her small salon in the market. Applying pink nail varnish, she told me she came to the UK when she was 18. “Colombian women have had to be strong,” she said.
“Often, they’ve had to take their children and flee, as their partner had been killed because of the guerillas, or narcotrafficking wars. Some left to escape domestic violence,” Monica explained, telling me about her aunt who fled to the city in Colombia after her sons were killed in a “false positive” assassination.
“Colombian women have had to be strong. Often, they’ve had to take their children and flee”
Monica used to work as a cleaner in a central London law office, with a 3am start, but now runs her own business and chooses her hours. As we talked, an older man, who appeared to be a stroke survivor, came and asked Monica for help reading a letter in English that he had received. “Come back in a bit”, she replied, “I’ll help you”.
Elsewhere in the market, I meet Mirca Morera, at the shop where her stepfather sells Latin American telenovelas. She was born in the UK and grew up in nearby Tottenham, where riots erupted in 2011. Her mother had migrated from Peru, raised her on her own, working as a cleaner.
As an adult, Morera lived in Miami, Peru and Brasil, she told me, looking for a sense of belonging before coming back to the UK and discovering the market. For her, this place is home. Amid the fight to save the market, Morera reached out to the United Nations looking for support, and in response rights experts at the global body issued a statement.
“The destruction of the market and scattering of the small businesses to other premises would not only seriously affect the economic situation of the people working there, but it would also make this cultural life simply disappear”, they said.
Vicky Alvarez, 47, also runs a successful business at the market, helping people send money and parcels abroad. She came to the UK from Colombia when she was 18, and switches from Spanish to English easily, sometimes in the middle of a sentence.
At the end of the 1980’s, Alvarez’s father came to the UK and applied for asylum, which was denied. When he went back to Colombia, his mother was kidnapped and he was killed. “Then the UK gave us refugee status, a bit too late,” Alvarez said ruefully.
As a single mother in London, Alvarez told me she found it impossible to make ends meet. “At the end of each month, after paying rent, I was left with nothing. So, 15 years ago, I decided to open a business. When my daughter was at school I’d work as a nanny. The rest of the time I’d run the shop so she was doing her homework here”.
"I hear a strange word, one I haven’t heard for a long time, and I think how sad it would be for all of this to disappear"
Alvarez employs her two brothers and her husband in her shop, but recently she has also taken on child-minding work for a Russian family, to pay some of the traders’ legal fees.
“Sometimes,” Alvarez said, “I get here in the evening, I see how people dance, the silly things that they say and I hear a strange word, one I haven’t heard for a long time, and I think how sad it would be for all of this to disappear”.
Her daughter, who is studying to become a lawyer, also testified during last month’s public inquiry. In English she explained how she was “a living example of what the market has produced”.
Next door to Alvarez’s office, there’s a lingerie shop. Owner Maria Osorio blushed at the inquiry when asked for details of the Colombian underwear trade. Her shop sells “bodyshapers”, Spanx-like undergarments to mould women’s bodies, narrow their waists, and push up their breasts and their bottoms.
Maria Osorio in her shop at the market. Photo: Valeria Costa-Kostritsky.
Osorio said women come to her store with insecurities but once they feel prettier and cared for, they often open up about their life, sometimes about abuse endured at the hands of men.
Osorio arrived in the UK as a refugee with her husband, from whom she is now separated. At the hearing, she broke down. “I’d never thought I’d end up alone with five children. I was told I was no-one, but this place shows I am someone," she said. "This market, that people refer to as a dump, has been my life".
I asked Hinestroza if she felt her life was on repeat. “Yes,” she responded. “What’s happening now [at the market] reminds me of what happened when I had to flee [Colombia] because it’s a displacement”.
But, she insisted: “I’m not going to live all my life as someone who suffers displacement. And this is [again] a big company trying to push people out... But look at us, look at the women here. We used to be cleaners. Now we’re community leaders”.
A decision on the traders’ challenge, to the Compulsory Purchase Order that could force them to leave this market, and this unique cultural hub, is not expected before late 2017.