A few hours after the EU-Latin America summit began a Cuban band was performing at a small venue in Vienna. Among those present were some young Latin American girls who were warming up the atmosphere. The Austrians love them because they know all the songs.
In Austria one has the impression we have never talked so much about Latin America. The current summit has gathered all the media around it. But it’s not just the summit: a festival of Iberoamerican cinema was held in April, and in May the art festival Onda Latina (Latin Wave) took place. May also saw the Cuban musicians the Buena Vista Master’s checking into Vienna. “When I arrived four years ago no one listened to music in Spanish. Now you turn on the radio and hear Juanes and Shakira,” says Elizabeth Caballero, a Cuban who has brought her group of girlfriends to the concert.
According to the 2001 population census, more than 6,600 Latin Americans live in Austria. While the number has increased in recent years, the proportion of immigrants from Latin America in Austria is quite low (only 1% of the total).
Latin Americans are attracted to Austria for many different reasons, but it has more to do with opportunity than premeditated choice. Elizabeth met the man who is now her husband in Cuba and she moved to Vienna with him. “Lots of women come because they have married Austrian men,” notes Ronja Vogl, a social worker with LEFÖ, an organization which helps female immigrants from Latin America “but they also come here to study, because they have family here or they come as au pairs,” she continues.
That is the case for Johanna Abanto, who arrived from Lima six months ago. A friend of hers was already in the city working as an au pair, and she encouraged her to come. Even though she is married and had to leave her husband in Lima she didn’t think twice: “These kinds of opportunities don’t come along every day, and here I earn a lot more than I would in Peru.”
“That said, there are some things that I miss. Who doesn’t want to be with their family?” she asks herself. She also misses the flavours of her country. Johanna admits that out of nostalgia here she eats typical food from her country, even though she never ate it when she was there. Except for the fact that she can’t eat ceviche (a fish stew with peppers, orange or lemon juice and typical Latin American spices), Johanna likes her life in Vienna: “I love the place, the culture and the people. I want to stay in Europe.”
Not all Latin Americans find adapting as easy as Johanna. “There are many problems they have to face” explains Ronja Vogl. The most obvious one is language, but there are also a lot of legal complications. “A Latin American person who wants to come to Austria legally always depends on someone: a husband or wife or an employer” she explains.
Cinthia Ferrufino, a Bolivian woman, however, didn’t have any legal difficulties in entering Austria. Her grandparents are German and she has a German passport. She arrived eleven years ago when she was only seventeen but now all she thinks about is going back. “Austrians want you to integrate but then doors don’t open for you” says Cinthia. She continues, “Here the problem isn’t finding a job, it’s finding a good job.” She works as a waitress in a Latin restaurant opposite the emblematic Staatsoper in Vienna. She wanted to study at the university but the Austrian state did not recognise her Bolivian secondary school qualifications. She laments: “Here they don’t give you the opportunity to better yourself.”
“Our countries have many problems and Europe sells itself as the land of opportunity” claims Cinthia; “What people don’t know is that there are also problems in Europe: poverty and unemployment effect Europeans too.” Ronja Vogl agrees, saying that in general Latin Americans have an idealised image of Europe which is destroyed once they arrive. Nonetheless, “generally they prefer to stay because they think that in spite of everything there’s a better future for them here.”
Europeans from the other side
During World War II and the Franco dictatorship many Europeans chose Latin America as their new homeland. Now the balance of the migratory scales has shifted. Even so, many Europeans don’t hesitate in crossing the Atlantic.
Such is the case of Jiri Binder, a teacher in Toluca, Mexico. This Czech man fell in love with a Mexican girl and he moved there three years ago. He says: “I like the Mexican way of life. It is livelier, happier and more fun-loving than life in Europe.” When it comes to finding a job Jiri acknowledges that it is not very difficult for Europeans. He explains: “English, French or German speakers often start working in Mexico as language teachers.” The situation for Spaniards is even better: “Their qualifications are recognised in Mexico and are often thought of as being more prestigious than the Mexican equivalent” Jiri says.
Reinhard Petz is also a teacher, but he works in Guatemala. He left Europe six years ago to work in the Austrian School in Guatemala motivated by “the desire to discover another culture.” As well as doing that he has also had some difficulties in adapting to a new culture that had “a different rhythm of life, with its own dangers.”
Is Latin America so different from Europe? It depends on where you are standing. From the point of view of Guatemala or Mexico the region is more influenced by the USA than by Europe. However, the perspective from the Southern Cone is different. Antonio Granziano is an Italian who has been working for fifteen months on a development project in Uruguay. He is of the opinion that “here much of what is good and bad about Europe remains; bureaucracy, the art of relaxing, the friendliness of the people and human warmth.”