Roll over Simon Bolivar
WAVING THE FLAGS | Latinos don’t rally under just one Spanish-speaking Canadians now make up the third-largest ethnic minority But for many, it’s a fragmented and frenetic existence, writes Oakland Ross
Simon Bolivar finally despaired of ever uniting South America under just one flag — a task he likened to “ ploughing the sea.”
That was in 1830, a month or so before the great Latin American liberator died, but some things never seem to change.
Just ask Mauricio Ospina. A year ago, the former dental student from the Colombian town of Armenia — who now works at Queen’s Park, promoting Ontario exports — was president of something called the ColombianProfessionals Association. Ospina thought he saw a chance to make the group more inclusive and influential.
First, he changed its name, dropping the reference to his homeland. Next, he threw open the doors, not just to ColombianCanadians, but to Venezuelans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Argentines, Cubans, you name it — the whole Hispanic- Canadian enchilada. By working together in the same organization, Latino professionals stood to gain some much-needed Canadian clout — or so Ospina thought.
There was just one problem.
It didn’t work. Now under new leadership, the group recently reverted to its old name and to its original Colombiacentric identity.
“ The new boss decided to focus on one country,” says Ospina, who has since moved on to other projects aimed at promoting Canada’s 700,000-strong Hispanic community. “ I think it’s sad, but it’s a reality.”
Roll over Simon Bolivar — and welcome to the frenetic but fragmented world of Latinos living abroad. By some estimates, Spanishspeaking Canadians now make up the third- largest ethnic minority in the land, after Chinese and South Asians. Most live in southern Ontario, mainly in Toronto, where something worth talking about is happening in Spanish every day of the week. But you wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking around, because the political influence and physical visibility of Toronto’s Latinos continue to lag behind their fast- growing numbers and for one main reason. Unlike other immigrant groups — each with just one mother country to toast with teary nostalgia each time another national day rolls around — Latinos in Canada have a grand total of 20 homelands.
Twenty- one if you include Portuguesespeaking Brazil, which not everybody does. The result is a lot of narrowly defined groups pulling in a lot of different directions.
“ Within the Latin community, there is too much going on in bits and pieces,” says Roberto Hausman, a Uruguayan- Canadian who hosts Latin Life, a weekly TV program on the AChannel showcasing the local Hispanic community for an Englishspeaking audience. “ There are too many little groups doing too many little things.” As Bolivar discovered two centuries ago, Latinos don’t tend to rally behind a common flag.
“ We do tend to keep a dual mentality,” says Eduardo Garay, executive director of Toronto’s Centre for Spanish-speaking Peoples, a community agency. “ In some aspects, we identify as Latinos. In others, we keep our national backgrounds.”
Mexicans mingle with Mexi-
cans. Cubans consort with Cubans. Chileans chill a la chilena.
This thicket of national divisions means there’s really no part of Toronto that anyone readily identifies with Latin America.
“ One of the things that we do need is a Latin town,” says Ospina. “ It’s a challenge.” The closest thing to a Hispanic business district runs along St. Clair Ave. W., between Bathurst St. and Dufferin St. Here, you can find about two- dozen Latin businesses or restaurants. Anchoring the barrio is Super Latin Music at 1088 St. Clair Ave. W., a rollicking, 13-year-old establishment owned by Joe Nuñez, formerly of Ecuador. Although nominally a music store, the operation also does a brisk sideline in Latin groceries.
If anyone in Toronto knows all about the atomizing tendencies of Latin Americans, it’s Nuñez.
“ We’ve got to cater to different countries,” he says.
Argentines are crazy for tango, of course, but also have their own versions of rock and pop. Colombians take to salsa, as well as vallenato and cumbia. Cubans have their own brand of salsa, particularly a hard- driving form called timba. Dominicans adore merengue and bachata. Mexico means ranchera music, as well as tejana and Mexican pop. When it comes to groceries, things get even more minutely multicultural, and the grocery section of Nuñez’s music store just keeps growing — jars of cactus chunks from Mexico, tinned tuna from Ecuador, yerba de mate from Argentina, cornmeal from Venezuela, several varieties of chili peppers, plus 21 different kinds of cooking sauce. Nuñez is fast running out of counter space.
“ It’s a growing community,” he says. “ Who knows? Tomorrow, someone from another country will say, ‘ Hey, how come you don’t have this product?’ ”
Tastes in music and food can be divisive — but so, too, can wars.
Latin America has had plenty of those, leaving psychological wounds that have yet to heal. And what to make of Spain?
Canadians of Castilian origin are generally counted among the Latino community hereabouts. But not everyone is entirely happy rubbing elbows at social functions with the descendants of their former colonial masters.
Latinos in this city are also divided into several more or less discrete waves of immigration. Most recently, new arrivals from Latin America have been heavily weighted toward professionals from Colombia, Argentina and Venezuela.
Meanwhile, community leaders believe the differences dividing Hispanic-Canadians are gradually starting to blur, as Latinos adapt to life in Canada.
“ I’m a Colombian, and yet I love to eat tamales from Guatemala or pupusas from El Salvador,” says Garay. “The Latin American community in Canada is blending, unifying itself.” One evening last month, about 400 Latino sophisticates took over a theatre on Eglinton Ave. W. for the second- annual Hispanoforum — a chance to hobnob on a bitterly cold night in a rather sedate northern town. The audience included plenty of Latin success stories, and the speakers’ list was luminous.
Later, the attendees gathered to schmooze, exchange business cards, and plot strategies for the future. It didn’t seem to matter who was from Colombia, who from Peru, or who from the Dominican Republic. “There are two things that unite us as Hispanics — language and culture,” says Ospina, one of the evening’s organizers. “ We share common traits, and we share a common language.” A quartet of musicians from Mexico provided a strolling serenade. At least, they were dressed as Mexicans, in traditional mariachi
garb and matching sombreros. But the violinist turned out to be Cuban, the bass player was from El Salvador, one of the guitarists was Ecuadorean, and only Jorge Lopez, the band leader, was of Mexican origin. Yet there they all were, belting out Cielito Lindo as if they were all members of the same Latin family. Maybe Bolivar was wrong, after all. Maybe it is possible to plough the sea. You just have to come to Canada in winter, when even water is apt to be solid.
Joe Nuñez looks out over a counter filled with South American flags at Super Latin Music on St. Clair Ave. W. The store also does a brisk business in Latin groceries, selling everything from cactus chunks to chili peppers. You can find about two-dozen...