The big challenges facing Little Portugal
By Joana Ramiro
Stockwell is believed to be the area with the largest concentration of Portuguese migrants in Britain. Stockwell Road has been nicknamed Little Portugal because of its many Portuguese restaurants, cafes and delis. This is Cllr Guilherme Rosa’s patch. A former banker who first came to London in 2002, he is the only native Portuguese-speaking councillor in the capital, and only one of three across the country.
“I believe the most important thing is this question of participation. I think that has failed until now,” a rather tired Rosa tells me over a coffee in the Sintra Deli, right at the heart of Little Portugal. After four challenging years on the council, Rosa isn’t standing again in May. But he is adamant on doing all he can for his community until
the very end.
“I explain this concept of the Portuguese community being the forgotten community in the area. Many communities thrived, engaged in the locality, started having intervention and an impact in the local authority’s work. My community, I still see acting in a very detached way, very turned to themselves, very hooked in their cultural and linguistic values and not coping with the exigencies of living in such a complex society as is London.”
We discuss why that could be. Old Portuguese conservatism? A strong sense of family and national bonds superseding all others? Rosa sees above all a hardworking people with no-one to turn to but their own. And with little contact with the world outside of the diaspora, more serious issues arise.
“Many people live with housing support, that is the majority, so people live in the estates. There’s problems of overcrowding, there’s problems about social stability in the household, children not having space and support to their educational duties.” To deal with cases of domestic violence Cllr Rosa helped set up Respeito, a not-for-profit organisation focusing on the Portuguese speaking communities in Britain. Founded in November 2016, the group distributes information and education in the Portuguese language about positive relationships. It also enables access to services by liaising with Portuguese-speaking victims of domestic abuse.
On these social and structural problems, Cllr Rosa adds that many in the community, especially the older migrant generations, still depend heavily on the state, unable to “improve on their professional skills, learn English to start doing more outstanding kinds of professional path.”
So his last great job is to mobilise the community in Lambeth to go and vote. To have their say. To question more what is going on around them, both in Lambeth as in Brexit Britain.
Indeed, since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, things have become even busier for Cllr Rosa, who is a proud supporter of a united Europe. His motivation to become Lambeth’s Deputy Mayor came from a concern over the consequences of Brexit for the Portuguese community, as well as for other European citizens.
“I was willing to do this work as a European Deputy Mayor, raising awareness on the positive contribution of European citizens towards this society. I think the ultimate commitment that I could do as a European really was to represent my council and Portuguese people in that area, and I’m quite proud of that.”
Last November, he was invited to speak at the Committee of Regions in as a EU politician in Britain, something Rosa described as “a great honour.”
“I tried to do my whole speech from my heart, not to hold myself from saying things I thought would be important.” But he admits to having been “uncomfortable” with the number of diplomatic heavyweights listening to him speak. “It was the most attended event they ever organised. Usually they have 10 questions; they had something like 30 questions!” he adds with a cry.
But the reverence he reserved for his Brussels audience is clearly held by the Stockwell community for him. In part a characteristic of Portuguese habits, it is also a testament to the constituents’ appreciation for all he’s done. When we cross a road, after our interview, a young man coming from the opposite direction puts his hand on his chest, slightly bows his head. A picturesque greeting, reminiscent of the sort of respect people had for politicians in old times. Or maybe a fit farewell for a local politician whose work and charisma will certainly be missed after May.