Growing up in Canada, children of Latin American immigrants weren’t directly exposed to the violence and political chaos that marked their parents’ lives, but they heard the tales of sorrow, struggle and survival.
“For all of us growing up in our neighbourhood, we all had a strong sense of history and exile,” said Pamela Arancibia, whose family was part of Canada’s first big wave of Latin American immigrants fleeing dictators and guerrillas from the 1970s to the 1990s.
“Every household was politicized.”
That consciousness is still collectively held by this now-grown generation — especially in light of an escalating refugee crisis in Central America where violence by organized criminal gangs, particularly in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, have turned the region into one of the most dangerous places on Earth, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee at the very same time that the Trump administration has restricted access to asylum.
The coalition, formed following a University of Toronto panel discussion about the crisis earlier this year, has just launched an online petition to ask the federal government to increase its intake of resettled refugees from the so-called Northern Triangle. They also plan to start community outreach to raise public awareness about the crisis, said Arancibia, one of the group’s founding members.
“You see women and children walking the distance to find safety. It’s not a decision these people take lightly,” said the 37-year-old University of Toronto PhD student who was born in Calgary to Chilean refugee parents.
“Given Canada’s history with refugees and the resettlement of our own families, we, as second-generation, are in a better position than our parents to advocate for these refugees.”
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the number of refugees displaced from Central America is expected to reach 539,500 by the end of this year.
A World Bank report in 2016, the latest available, found El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world, 83 homicides per 100,000 people, followed by Honduras, with 57 per 100,000, while Guatemala ranked 10th, with 27. (As a comparison, in Canada, it was 1.69.)
Yet, most recent figures show that in 2017, Canada allocated only 380 of 25,000 refugee resettlement spots to those from the Americas, down from 590 in 2013.
Arancibia’s father was a political activist in Chile in 1975 when he was scooped up off the street, blindfolded and threatened in an attempt to get him to reveal the identities of members of the banned Revolutionary Left Movement. Upon his release by secret police, he fled to Argentina where he and his family were referred to resettlement in Canada by the UN.
“We were approved in two-and-a-half-months. Canada saved many lives from Latin America then,” recalled Roberto Arancibia, now 69. “It makes no difference whether you’re fleeing violence from the military, drug cartels or criminal gangs. You fear someone is tearing down your door in the middle of the night and threatening to take your life.”
Monika Oviedo, who was born in Canada to Salvadorian refugee parents, said she has close family ties in the U.S. and in El Salvador, and that migration rhetoric and policies from the Trump administration have concerned them all. The diaspora, she said, is disappointed that Canada has been silent over the mounting refugee crisis.
“My family history is tied to the opportunity to resettling in Canada,” said Oviedo, 26, whose family was resettled in Kitchener from El Salvador in 1991 amid a prolonged civil war. She believes Canada should not be afraid to stand up against the U.S. over Central American affairs.
In the 1970s, Canada opposed political intervention in Latin America by the U.S., which supported anti-Communist regimes in the region during the Cold War. In the 1980s, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney continued to voice opposition to U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s policies and took in refugees.
“Canada, under Mulroney, took a strong stand against U.S. foreign policy led by president Reagan as the U.S. was directly funding repressive regimes in Central America, including the Salvadoran military. So we have seen Canada deviate from the U.S. before,” said Oviedo.
Oviedo’s mother, a former teacher and now a bookkeeper, said her family wouldn’t have left El Salvador if they had other options. “We consider ourselves very blessed, but our heart is still with the people back home. We feel very grateful for the opportunity to be here and we hope others can have that opportunity as well,” said Helen Oviedo, who is in her 50s.
Pati Flores, who as a teenager came to Canada from Honduras with her mother in 1995, returned to her homeland last year and witnessed the poverty, political oppression and fear of gang violence there. She feels the diaspora and other Canadians have an obligation to speak up.
“A lot of immigrants and refugees from my community feel as if we carry the trajectories, stories and borders marked in our bodies,” said Flores, 42, a multimedia artist, who sends money to help relatives in Honduras.
Flores’ mother, Norma Zubickova, said that with the surge of displaced people from Latin America, Canada must step in to offer a safe pathway for legal migration through resettlement.
“It’s dangerous what’s going on in the U.S. People can’t even go and find safety there,” said Zubickova, 64, who came to Canada under a sponsorship by her second husband, a Canadian.
“I was so pleased when my daughter told me about this new coalition they were creating. I’m retiring soon and I’m going to get involved and do all I can to help. It is important that we stay connected to our roots.”