Marta Cecilia Hinestroza knows almost all the 70 store owners in “Pueblito Paisa,” a Latin market in the London neighborhood of Tottenham, eight kilometers north of the River Thames. The Colombian lawyer arrived in London 16 years ago after she was targeted by paramilitaries for fighting against a BP oil pipeline – a project that threatened to destroy the livelihoods of many farmers in Colombia’s Antioquia region. There are people who need a lost cause to move forward, and Marta is one of them.
Saving Pueblito Paisa has become a litmus test of the power of collective action championed by the left in Britain
The British property company Grainger bought the building that holds “Pueblito Paisa” 12 years ago. Nowhere is safe from London’s frenzied construction boom, or from the skyrocketing prices of housing and retail spaces.
In this case, the project was a huge building for fashion boutiques, food franchises and almost 200 apartments. But in exchange, London’s beloved Latin American corner would have to go. “There are store owners here from Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Portugal, Venezuela, and of course, Colombia,” says Marta, who manages the Pueblito Paisa Shopkeepers Association. “But there are also people from Iran, Turkey, Jamaica and Africa. It is a magnet for the Latino community.
“We sell things here, but it’s also part of our lives. Children run up and down the aisles, they grow up in this market. On Saturdays, the stores and bars take down their tables and the party continues with music and dancing,” she explains.
From the early hours of the morning, the market is filled with the scent of arepas, meat empanadas, yucca and freshly-brewed coffee. Continuous chatter in Spanish, spoken in a mix of Caribbean accents, brings life to the market.
We sell things here but it’s also part of our lives. Children run up and down the aisles, they grow up in this market Marta Cecilia Hinestroza, Pueblito Paisa Shopkeepers Association
Nelson Martínez doesn’t want to move. He has lived in London for 25 years, and like Marta, comes from the Antioquia region of Colombia. When he arrived in the British capital, he opened a nightclub but “the police closed it down for failure to obey a police order,” he explains, smiling. “How can you tell a Colombian that nightclubs have closing times?”
Now Martínez runs his own butcher’s shop with his two children. It sells everything from cow’s tongue to juicy entrecôte. He and his customers know each other by name. “Nelson,” one says. “That chicharrón [fried pork belly] is nowhere near enough for me. My husband could eat that all by himself.” The meat in question weighs around one and a half kilos.
“My husband left me soon after arriving in London,” says Lita from Peru. Her father was Japanese. “I soon realized that he had put the few properties he owned in my name,” she explains. With this, the petite and agile Peruvian was able to open Pueblito Paisa, a cafe at the entrance of the market that has come to represent the entire Latin and Caribbean microcosm.
She used food or whatever she had on hand to pay the plumbers, electricians and carpenters who expanded her cafe. It’s best not to ask about licenses or other such unpleasant official business. Lita’s place is now known for having the best ceviche in north London. She also sells a wide range of fried meat and corn dishes that are typically Colombian. But Lita is keen for a change. “I’m tired of this battle,” she says. “As soon as I can, I’m moving to Spain. Life is good there.”
Once the new building is completed, the shop owners can return to their old spots
Haringey Council, which oversees the market, is now run by a team from the Labour Party, one that is more aligned with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Saving Pueblito Paisa has become a litmus test of the power of collective action championed by the left in Britain today. Corbyn himself has visited the market three times and offered his support. Even former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party backed the Latin American community when he was mayor of London.
And now the courts have ruled in favor of Pueblito Paisa. Within two years, the market traders will be moved to the ground floor of another nearby building. Rent there will be free for three months and remain affordable after that time period. Once the new building is completed, store owners have been promised they may return to their old spots. And for the next five years, they will pay exactly the same rent they pay today – €140 a week.
This sum gives them a space that is a little more than nine square meters, but enough for a hairdresser, manicurist, Latin clothes “for the curves of Latin women,” money transfers, cafes, small restaurants, hardware stores and a roof-high array of Colombian products. “You can buy chontaduras [palm fruit] in jars which are famous for increasing your sex drive,” laughs Marta.
This summer, a human chain made up of 500 locals wound around the outside of the Edwardian building, which is falling to pieces on the outside but brimming with life, diversity and happiness within. A sign of a London that has resisted falling prey to the xenophobia brought on by Brexit fever.
English version by Melissa Kitson.