Despite living in London for around five years now, I knew almost nothing about the capital’s Latinx population until I began researching their experiences in education.
They refer to themselves as ‘los invisibles’ – the invisibles – yet the community is sizeable, with the most recent study estimating around 250,000 people across the UK. Of those, 145,000 are living in London with the majority based in Lambeth and my home borough of Southwark. This figure is now six years old and numbers are likely to have swelled since then.
Latinx is a gender-neutral term for people of Latin American descent. Latinx includes Spanish or Portuguese first language speakers from the Central and South American geographical regions. While some people use the term, others prefer to identify as Latin American, Latino/a, South/Central American or by their country of origin (perhaps Brazilian or Colombian).
Finding “los invisibles”
The name “los invisibles” has caught on, appearing both in academic research and the media. It is driven in part by the fact that Latin Americans in the UK regularly find themselves resigned to poorly paid, low-skilled jobs, in spite of the majority being educated beyond secondary level. Many work early in the morning or late at night, travelling the city when most of us are safe at home. These roles affect how young Latin Americans view their options for the future. I was told of pupils feeling disillusioned about the idea of further study, asking: “What would I do in a university? They would think I’m one of the cleaners.”
The group identity is also influenced by the fact we still have no formal ethnic minority status for Latin Americans in the UK. When filling in forms some define themselves as “White”, some as “Mixed”, some simply as “other”, and because of this we have little information about their experiences in this country.
This problem is in part how the Centre for Education and Youth’s new report, “Representation, engagement and participation: Latinx students in higher education”, came about. King’s College London, which caters to almost 28,000 students and is based in south London, commissioned the research as part of its work to engage more with the Latin American community on its doorstep.
I am not other
King’s has recently been working with LatinXcluded, an inspiring group of Latinx A-level students who are campaigning for representation of Latin Americans on application forms and better visibility of the Latinx community in the UK in general, using the hashtag #nosoyother – I am not ‘other’. As well as calling for recognition in the 2021 census, LatinXcluded also want to see changes to the UCAS forms that young people must use to submit their applications for UK university places. King’s has already changed the way their applications data is gathered to acknowledge Latinx students and is calling on other universities to do the same.
CfEY’s new research shows that the UK Latinx community’s lack of visibility isn’t the only challenge its young people face in navigating the education system. One factor that exacerbates this ‘otherness’ is the language barrier. It presents a challenge not only for young people hoping to attend university, but for their families’ and communities’ sense of belonging, too. As I struggled to cobble together enough of my A-level Spanish to introduce myself to a Latin American mothers’ group in Camberwell, it struck me that learning a language alongside moving to a new country, finding work, and raising children is a Herculean task. The mums who volunteered to take part in the research had as many questions for me about education and employment as I did for them, and it was clear how worried some of them were about whether they would be able to support their children properly.
As well as making it tough for parents to learn about how the UK education system works, the language barrier also places additional pressure on Latinx young people. The onus often falls on children to act as “linguistic brokers” to facilitate interaction between their parents and their school. This takes time and energy, but also provides opportunities for children to bend the rules which can make things even harder for their parents. One 13-year-old Latinx pupil explained: “I speak Spanish to my parents and then sometimes when I want to say something I don’t want my parents to know I speak English to my brothers.”
Knowing where you are coming from
Schools, colleges, universities and local government need to pull together to provide greater recognition of and support for the Latinx community, especially in London. The Latinx young people contributing to this research are hardworking and many want to progress to higher education in this country, but some are worried about fitting in. A teacher summed up his pupils’ fears about moving away from the large Latinx population in London: “The white British kid from Peterborough is going to know that if they go to a university anywhere in the country, there are going to be other white British kids who’ve had a similar background. It would be a worry that you might not find anybody that completely understand where you’re coming from.”
In response to the barriers we identified, our report recommends a range of ways that universities and other groups can support Latinx students through the system and on to accessing higher education in the UK. For example, language barriers could be addressed by holding information and advice events in community venues, with Latinx students, or students on Spanish or Portuguese university courses, acting as interpreters. Universities could also build connections with local church groups and community groups, or through a community organising group or a Council for Voluntary Services. This would help develop a culturally sensitive approach, based on grassroots connections and knowledge of the Latinx community.
Finally, CfEY and KCL both want to see more bodies calling on the ONS and UCAS to officially recognise Latinx students. As well as acknowledging students who wish to identify as Latinx, gathering this data would help universities and other bodies to monitor and evaluate their work with this group. We hope the findings and recommendations in this report will act as a catalyst for change that helps Latinx communities in the UK to get the visibility they deserve.