Latin America is made up of 21 countries, some of which have been at war with each other. While immigrants from other countries may have a host community to help them settle in a new country, Latin Americans in Canada have come in waves since the 1970s from various countries (e.g., Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina, Colombia), and each wave of immigrants often considers the natives of other Spanish-speaking countries as “foreigners.” Or, they may come from the same country but claim different political ideologies and, as such, may be suspicious of each other. Consequently, there is little cohesion among diverse Spanish-speaking communities.
Historically, the more established groups have not been interested in helping newcomers whom they may consider to be from different cultures (Rubio, 2004; Viswanathan et al., 2003). It takes many years in Canada to begin to see ourselves as Latin, as a more homogeneous group of immigrants with a common language, instead of as different and disconnected cultures. Non–Spanish Canadians do not tell us apart by country, but more by the “Spanish accent” or the Spanish language, and it is to our benefit politically to stick together as a larger and more visible Hispanic community.
Many of the immigrants have come during times of political crisis, have experienced trauma and persecution, and have arrived in Canada as refugee claimants. Because many Hispanics come as refugees, they are not fortified with the language skills that they need to help ease the transition into Canadian society. Thirty per cent of Latin American refugees live below the poverty level. The first generation of Hispanics is generally well educated and functioned as professionals in their home countries (Rubio, 2004; Viswanathan et al., 2003); however, lack of English- or French-language skills may lead to unemployment or underemployment in Canada. Other factors such as racism and discrimination may contribute to difficulties in finding employment. Hispanics may be further disadvantaged by the lack of time and/or resources to develop relevant language skills to prepare for the job market, even once they are in Canada. The lack of language skills results in lack of information about resources, rights, opportunities and employability. Women are most affected in these areas because of lack of child care in agencies and organizations providing health and settlement services.
Those who need to flee their countries quickly and cannot arrange immigration and other legal documents may have to wait for several years to be reunited with their families. Navigating the refugee process requires time and money, and those who are unsuccessful remain in emotional and security limbo during the lengthy appeal process. Furthermore, the process of bringing family members, who may also be in danger in the home country, is onerous and expensive. During these times, the family members’ lives may be at risk; some people have even been murdered before they were granted a visa to Canada.
Connection to family is one of the strongest values in the Latin community. Traditionally, extended families live close by and receive strong support from each other throughout their lives. The refugee process tears families apart, which often results in social isolation, and loss of identity and social status. These hardships may extend to the second generation.