Many Vancouverites know of Gastown’s rich history, where port met railway, and fisherman and loggers crowded into saloons. But the area has a bright future that better reflects the city’s multicultural makeup. Tucked away on the fourth floor of a Water Street building is the city’s only official Latin Plaza. Not a plaza in the traditional sense, the large room nonetheless buzzes with the energy of committed and passionate volunteers. It is painted bright yellow and filled with colourful artwork from Central and South America. The space belongs to Latincouver, a non-profit organization that brings together both Latin Americans and Latin enthusiasts living in BC.
Latincouver is the brainchild of Paola Murillo, a Colombian-born entrepreneur who adopted Canada as her home in 2005. Paola first conceived of Latincouver while working with recent immigrants. “I was working in HR, it was my first job in Vancouver, and I was trying to connect people and help them to find jobs. And I understand if you don’t have a network [it can be difficult],” she says.
The lack of community support was making it more difficult for newcomers to find work in their fields. Paola immediately noticed the problem. “I started seeing it a lot, that people were getting frustrated. People were just getting a job to get a job, but not using their talent, their passion… It’s okay if you are a taxi driver because you want to be a taxi driver, not because you have to. People have families. It was frustrating when I was trying to find companies to employ these people, the companies were like “well maybe he’s just a taxi driver [and I would say] ‘No he’s an architect. He’s just doing this job for now.’”
Paola saw a solution in the Latin American plaza. Latincouver’s website describes a plaza as “the social and economic hub of a city and as the heart of the community, playing an important role in bringing people together.” A virtual plaza could give immigrants the support and networking opportunities to succeed. “Latincouver, is not just business, but for me it’s a plaza, a place where people bring their talents.”
The organization runs business to business workshops, helping Canadian businesses connect to companies in Latin America and helping Latin Americans connect with local entrepreneurs. They also host the Inspirational Latin Awards, honouring those who have made a positive difference in BC’s economy.
Latincouver’s largest and most popular annual event is Carnaval del Sol. The festival celebrates Latin American culture and is now the biggest Latin American festival in the Pacific Northwest. Events include: a salsa cruise, Latin American film night, a soccer tournament, and a Canadian and Latin American Indigenous art exhibit.This year they have expanded to host a second festival location in Kelowna, B.C.
This year’s theme explores Afro-Latin American culture, with special events to showcase the region’s indigenous and Afro-Latin roots. “Every year we have a different theme,” Paola explains, “for us having that theme helps us understand more about where we are coming from. I do really admire and embrace what Canada does about learning more about indigenous communities. I think that we in Latin America should learn and embrace that concept as well.”
“Canada is a place that is new, young, and open.”
We asked Paola if she had any advice for newcomers to Canada; she said newcomers need to understand their passion. “The first thing you did as a newcomer was to leave your country, and that is really a brave action. You already took a huge risk of leaving everything behind to start all over. If there’s a will there’s a way. If you want to [begin a] project [in Canada], don’t give up easily. Canada is a place that is new, young, and open.”
Sometimes it can be overwhelming to learn the customs of a new culture on top of dealing with language barriers. To this Paola says, “The mind is the first place to scare us. Your skills are always still there. I think people forget about that, because there are a lot of changes in everyday things like buying your groceries, the language, and all of that. They took a first big step by leaving, and it’s not easy and it’s a lot of hard work. It’s up to them to make things work.”
Carnaval del Sol is happening in Vancouver from July 6-7, 2019 and in Kelowna from September 1-2, 2019.
Want to get involved? Latincouver and the Carnaval del Sol team are always looking for volunteers!