Immigration in Scotland: There is a simple answer to the question 'why are you here?' – Dr Karla Perez Portilla

“Why are you here?” asked one of the other students in my Masters degree course in 2004 as he made a gesture about the weather. It was a wet, cold and windy day.

(Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
(Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

He then said, “you are from an ethnic minority, and not even from the Empire”. I understood what he meant. He was from a Pakistani background, he spoke to me with empathy, alluding to something we had in common, but not quite.

I guess, for him, the ethnic minorities in the country were from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, those from the Commonwealth and the British Empire. A Mexican in Scotland was for him a whole new variety of a well-known exotic fruit.

There was no ill-will, the conversation was a sincere exchange of thoughts, feelings, even fears, and shared experience. The encounter left me thinking for years about some of the issues I am exploring here: experiences of migration, belonging, history, recognition, and why and how much these things matter.

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I had another similar encounter back in the noughties. This time, at a bus stop for the number 59. A kind young man offered me his daily bus ticket. He noticed I was going to travel and said: “Don’t buy it, they last the whole day. You can have mine”.

We had the same skin colour but he was not speaking Spanish, hence I knew he wasn’t Latin-American and so, I asked him: “Where are you from?” “Scotland,” he replied. I was puzzled. For me, back then, a Scottish man had to have white skin, potentially be red-haired and bearded, similar to this century’s ‘hipster’ type.

The common denominator in my ‘migrant moments’ is that we seem to know little about the consequences of both history and contemporary international relations. However, what we do know has passed through the sieve of colonial rule, Hollywood portrayals, cultural misrepresentations and under-representation in the major institutions.

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Immigration: how Scotland sees itself and how migrants actually experience it – ...

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There are many historical and contemporary relations between Scotland and Latin America. Mostly related to the pursuit of economic prosperity. In the 19th century, just to give an example, Scottish settlers migrated not only to the USA and Canada but also to the territories that today go from Mexico to Argentina.

I began to think about historical connections after a speech by the leading academic and anti-racist campaigner Sir Geoff Palmer. It was during an event on reverse mentorship. We gathered in a beautiful bank in Glasgow and he, addressing an audience of mostly young people from African and Caribbean backgrounds, said something like: “If you ever wonder why you are here, look at this beautiful building. It was made by your ancestors; it belongs to you. You and this country have a common history.”

Palmer’s speech got me questioning my right to be here. I could not trace it back quite as precisely as people from the Commonwealth and the Empire. So, I kept digging and wondering – why am I here, really?

I had my eureka moment when I realised that international students have, for many years, been making significant contributions to the British economy and higher education in particular.

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We are consistently and persuasively invited to come to study here, to bring our money and intellectual drive. Another form of colonialism? Latin America is an easy target. There is still quite a prevalent view, colonial again, about European universities’ superiority, and this fuels a desire to come – bringing resources and talent – which in turn helps the making of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The grandeur of European academia is, to a large extent, based on its international human and financial assets.

My newly discovered connection gave me a sense of belonging and entitlement. There was a reason for me being here and I felt I had a right!

Although these thoughts live in the back of my mind, I had no reason to recall them lately, except that 2022 is census time in Scotland and this is a reminder of non-recognition, invisibility and the selective sieve of colonialism.

Although fast-growing in the UK and Scotland, Latin-Americans are not recognised as an ethnic group. Therefore, our contributions and needs are invisible in official statistics.

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When I say “our”, I don’t mean Latin-Americans as a monolithic block, for there are as many differences amongst Latin-Americans as there are amongst the members of any other social, linguistic or ethnic group.

However, the more specific the census is, the better it can capture the diverse contributions and specific needs of the people in the country. Including Latin-Americans as an ethnic group could be a start. Until then, I remain “other”.

Adding to that lack of recognition, cultural representations of Latin-Americans in Europe, mainly originated in the USA, tend to be rather scarce, often demeaning, clichéd and stereotypical.

Latin-Americans are more than tasty food, music and bright colours. Beautiful as these things are, they are only part of a bigger and quite diverse picture. Rare and stereotypical representations can result in perceptions that are inaccurate and limiting. These concerns were the theme of my PhD and 2017 book, Redressing everyday discrimination.

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Going back to the question, why am I here? I realise that, whilst finding historical links, justifications, past or contemporary, about the presence of any individual or group in a country is elucidating and can bring accuracy and detail, many people simply have no choice but to seek refuge from war, hunger and fear.

Migration, then, should be more a matter of human rights and compassion than one of entitlement. It is not only about human rights but about the very right to be human: an inalienable right to live, love, share, thrive and connect with others regardless of histories or frontiers.

That common humanity should be the proper justification and the only important tie with a territory. It should be the only adequate answer to the question, why are you here?

Dr Karla Perez Portilla is lecturer in law at Glasgow Caledonian University

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