Latin Americans celebrate their golden years in London

5 May

Amada Silva, 69, is the founder and co-ordinator of the Latin American Golden Years Day Centre in Lambeth, south London. Having fled Pinochet’s Chile in 1976 before coming to the UK and eventually setting up the centre, Amada’s life story is fascinating.

Amada at the day centre

In Chile, she worked as an MP for the Communist Party, and her husband, Fernando Vergara, was a bodyguard for Salvador Allende’s opposition to Pinochet before Allende was assassinated in 1973; both were dangerous careers under Pinochet’s military dictatorship. But just how dangerous was proved to Amada one morning in 1976, when her family received a tip that the military was coming for them that afternoon. “We had been worried for some months that the military would come but I didn’t believe it at first. I kept saying ‘no, I will stay where my people are’ but then someone more senior approached me saying it was true, and we had no choice. We didn’t have time to get many of our belongings. We had to just jump in the car and go. It was a close get away; I saw the military arrive at the house. It was a horrible moment but we got out of it.

Amada and Fernando escaped to his mother’s home in Argentina with their four children aged between two and ten at the time. They soon found themselves classed as refugees and under UN protection. They were constantly on the move in Argentina, staying in UN protected camps. After two years they were given the choice to move abroad, and the family chose the UK. After living in Birmingham and in Scotland for a time, the family came to settle in London, but it took some time for them to adapt to their new home. “It was a very lonely time. I spoke very basic English as I began learning it in Argentina when we knew we were moving. My husband spoke a little bit. The culture, the language, everything was so different.”

A Latin American dance class at the centre

Amada had been working as a carer for some years when she decided to set up the Latin American Golden Years Day Centre in London. She was led by the family values she had grown up with, and the need for London’s Latin American elderly, many of whom came to the UK as political refugees, to receive care in their own language. “I was amazed by the number of people who were lonely somehow, even though they have their family nearby. For me that was impossible, I couldn’t believe it. I always look after my children and my mother just as my mother looked after me.”

Amada at the day centre's demonstration in Lambeth

After years spent searching for funding and negotiating with Lambeth Council, the Latin American Golden Years Day Centre, or LAGYDC for short, was opened in 1989, and has proved popular and grown in members ever since. The day centre is open every week day from 9am til 5pm and Amada, who turns 70 next month, is always there overseeing business. It costs just £2 per month for membership, and the centre has over 200 members over 55-years-old, who originate from all over Latin America, but all share their common language, and love of music. “The atmosphere is always one of happiness. There’s always music playing and lots of Spanish TV on. People are always singing and playing instruments and dancing. They really have a good time when they come here. I think it’s very important to celebrate your culture, especially with music. And it reminds them of when they were young; people tell stories of their first boyfriend, their first kiss. The music is part of their daily diet just like food.”

The LAGYDC's demonstration outside Lambeth Council

But the day centre, like many old folks’ homes up and down the country, is at risk of closure due to government cuts. Last month the residents staged a protest outside Lambeth Council demanding funding. They have applied for further funding and have found a new site for the centre, even better than the current location. It might mark a new chapter for the Latin American Golden Years Day Centre. Amada vows, “We’re not going to die, we’re not going to close. I think the centre will grow in numbers and, by all means, when I’m a bit older I’d be happy to go there myself.” But that day hasn’t come just yet.

But what about her Chilean roots? Does Amada miss the country where she grew up? “We weren’t allowed back to our country. Our passports were marked with the letter L for ‘limitado’ which meant we couldn’t return. I haven’t been back since. Everyday I wish I had gone back but my friends and family are here. I wish I could go back for a week or so but we don’t have the money.” Many of the LAGYDC members were exiled from their countries of origin, just like Amada. It’s a testament to London’s multiculturalism, and to Amada’s success in creating the centre, that such stories can be shared on the other side of the world.

Images: Courtesy of The Prisma

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