Juliana Forero still remembers the exact place, time and date when she learned about Paola Murillo’s dream of connecting Vancouver’s Latin community with the rest of the city. It was at a Tim Hortons coffee shop, an hour before midnight, on December 13, 2008.
That night, Murillo told Forero that she wanted to create a Latin plaza in Vancouver – a place where Latinos could showcase their culture, do business with other Vancouverites and network.
“We talked about it all night,” says Forero. “And we started working on it the following day.”
In Latin America, plazas are places where people spend their free time. Kids play with each other, and adults relax, get some fresh air and engage in conversations. Due to their nature, plazas also attract countless artists and vendors. It is not uncommon to see music players, painters and itinerant sellers. Murillo’s aim was to recreate that atmosphere in Vancouver.
“Carnaval del Sol is a space that allows us to help artists, vendors and entrepreneurs get themselves known. It also allows us Latinos to be seen, to show that we exist.” – Paola Murillo
Latincouver, a non-profit dedicated to bring together Latin Americans living in Vancouver with other groups, was the result of Forero’s and Murillo’s late-night conversation. By hosting social and cultural events, as well as business networking activities, Latincouver has become a bridge that unites Latinos and non-Latinos.
One of Latincouver’s main events is the Carnaval del Sol, where the dream of the Latin plaza comes to life. The Carnaval is a massive, two-day annual event that allows visitors to experience Latin culture, arts, food and music. Last year’s event attracted 100,000 Vancouverites.
“Carnaval del Sol is a space that allows us to help artists, vendors and entrepreneurs get themselves known,” Murillo explains. “It also allows us Latinos to be seen, to show that we exist.”
This year, the carnival will be held on July 11 and 12 at Concord Pacific Place in downtown Vancouver. It will feature artistic performances, sports tournaments, children’s activities and more than 70 food vendors.
Building the dream
Murillo left Colombia when she was 16 years old. Fascinated with culture since early childhood, she wanted to find a multicultural city she could call home.
After spending four years in Paris, 10 in Kentucky and five months in Montreal, Murillo arrived in Vancouver and realized it was the place she had been looking for all those years.
“I always used to say that I wanted to live in a city where people spoke tons of different languages,” she says. “But not even in my wildest dreams I could envision a place as multicultural as Vancouver.”
After settling in the city, she started working in human resources. That led her to learn how hard it could be for Latin immigrants to re-attain their professional status after arriving in Vancouver.
“Often, when I recommended a Latin candidate, people would tell me: ‘This person doesn’t speak English,’ or: ‘This person is working as a waiter, he’s not a professional,’” Murillo recalls. “It was really hard to validate their credentials.”
According to Murillo, something else working against Latinos living in Vancouver was the absence of a strong, integrated Latin community.
“I would go to consulates and wait hours to get an appointment. Sometimes when people saw me they would say: ‘there goes another crazy person trying to rally people together.’” – Paola Murillo
Dwelling on these issues, she came up with the idea of the Latin plaza – a place where Latinos could get together, showcase their culture and professional capabilities, and present themselves to the city.
Murillo acknowledges that not everyone agrees with her approach of bringing all Latin Vancouverites together in one big group, but she believes that the bigger the community, the more powerful it can be.
After creating Latincouver, Murillo started knocking on doors looking for people willing to help her accomplish her dream.
“I would go to consulates and wait hours to get an appointment,” she remembers. “Sometimes when people saw me they would say: ‘there goes another crazy person trying to rally people together.’”
The first Carnaval del Sol was held at the Hellenic Community Centre in 2009. It attracted about 500 people. The attendance pales in comparison with the 100,000 visitors the carnival attracts nowadays, but Murillo saw it as the confirmation that the countless hours she and a group of volunteers invested organizing the event had paid off.
“I believe that attracting those 500 visitors was probably harder than bringing the 100,000 that now come to Carnaval del Sol,” she says.
More than just a carnival
Last year, the British Columbia provincial government proclaimed June 28 to July 6 as Latin American Week to, “acknowledge and celebrate the many contributions Latin Americans have made to British Columbia and Canada.”
“I believe that by doing these events we are creating spaces where we can integrate not only Latinos, but everyone living in Vancouver.” – Juliana Forero
This year, Latincouver’s celebration of Latin American Week kicked off with a parade on Canada Day, and continued with a Latin arts exhibition, a Latin film night and an outdoor sports event. Celebrations continued this week with the second edition of Tastes of Latin America and the Inspirational Latin Awards, a gala event that recognized distinguished members of the Latin American community for their contributions to B.C.’s economy and cultural development.
Forero is the producer of Latincouver’s events during Latin American Week. It is a demanding job, requiring her to commit up to 20 hours a day. It is exhausting, she admits, but the idea of preserving her culture in a foreign country keeps her motivated.
“I do this because I feel committed with the community,” she says. “I believe that by doing these events we are creating spaces where we can integrate not only Latinos, but everyone living in Vancouver.”
Through her work, Forero sees firsthand how these events bring people together. The volunteers she leads, many of whom had to leave their families behind when they emigrated, generate strong bonds with each other while working to produce the Latin American Week celebrations.
“Leaving home is hard,” says Forero, who is originally from Colombia. “The volunteers, they find a family here.”