I met Mario last June while researching an article about Latin American businesses in Elephant and Castle. He is operations manager at La Bodeguita, a famous Colombian restaurant in the landmark local shopping centre. At one point I asked Mario how he came to be living in London. Here is what he told me.
I’ve been in London for 34 years. My parents emigrated from Colombia in the 1970s. At first I stayed behind with my grandparents and my aunties, but in 1982, when my mum had settled here, she brought me over. She was an au pair at first but then she worked in the House of Commons. She was in the catering department there for 28 years, so back in the ’80s and ’90s she used to know a lot of the members of parliament, speakers of the House of Commons and cabinet ministers.
Many people came over from Colombia to seek new lives at that time. They came to better themselves. My mother came to learn English really, and ended up staying. She worked very hard – 17 or 18 hours a day was the norm, and that is still the norm for many. She lived in a bedsit for many years. In 1985 or ’86, a few years after she brought me over, she managed to get a council flat in Earl’s Court. At the time, Earl’s Court was very run down. There was a lot of noise and drunkenness. Not a lot of people wanted to move there.
I went to Cardinal Vaughan school in Holland Park. It was very disciplined, a Roman Catholic boys’ school with a strong sense of learning, duty and a belief that you have to do better. You had to have your tie properly done up, you had to have your shoes polished. Every day we had assembly, and if your tie wasn’t properly done up the head teacher would take you out of the line and he would make you do up your tie. And if your shoes were not properly polished he would send you to the secretary and you had to pay 50p to borrow the kit to polish your shoes. The school is still in the top league. I remember in those years, when people were leaving with maybe one, two or three A-levels, and the norm at the school was have 6, 7 O-levels, I was very fortunate in that I got around 10, and then I got A-levels as well and then went on to university.
One day in 1985 I woke up and my mum said: “You know what? I am not going to give you any more pocket money. You’ve got to go and earn your money, and by the way, you’re starting at the local health food shop.” This was actually in Baker Street. It was called Wholefoods [which was the Soil Association’s shop] and there I was very fortunate to work with two ladies, Lillian Schofield and Mary Langman, who were leading figures in the organic food industry. That’s where I started my working career.
After that I worked at another health food shop. I don’t know if you remember the Portobello Road, Notting Hill Gate area back in the 1980s. There was a shop called Wild Oats on Westbourne Grove. The street was full of antique shops then. Now all the gentrification has taken place and all the antique shops have disappeared. One of the people who actually started that change was my ex-boss. He had an antique shop and he was an antique dealer. One day he woke up and said to himself, “I’m going to open up a health food shop”.
So he changed his business plan. He went to his accountant and his accountant told him he was mad. Nonetheless, he opened what was at the time the largest health food shop in London. It was on three floors. All the stars, Elton John, Madonna used to go there. Everyone used to go there, just because it was the shop to go to. And it became very, very famous. He then sold it to Fresh and Wild. They closed it down and opened up the one on Kensington High Street. So that’s how things change. Portobello Road, Westbourne Park, Westbourne Grove – has all completely changed from how it was 20 years ago.
So everywhere I’ve known well in London has changed. The shops on the high street in Earl’s Court have become like any major high street in London and now even the exhibition centre has been demolished to make way for flats. It’s global. So you may go to another city across the world and you see exactly the same shops popping up. We can’t stop it. It’s an unfortunate thing. The same thing is happening now in Brixton, where under the arches Network Rail wants to take out all the traders, refurbish the arches and then offer those arches back but at exorbitant prices. It’s difficult. It’s really difficult. People have made their lives there. You’re looking at people who’ve been in those arches for 20, 30 years.
I see what’s happening here in Southwark as a very positive change for the area, because for many years it has been run down and the amenities, well, the shopping centre was once voted the ugliest building in London. A lot of people, friends, family and other business people say they wouldn’t come to the area, because it isn’t safe. Bearing that in mind, we feel that the changes that are happening are welcome, and will give a new lease of life to the area. But having said that, there are businesses that have been established here for many years and they may be feeling a bit left out. We are fortunate in that we have been offered a couple of new premises within the borough. But some of the smaller businesses are going to find it extremely difficult.
So I understand that we need change, but I also think that we need just a little bit of leeway for them to still keep the small businesses. Because it’s those businesses that made this area.
I am also beekeeper. I keep my own hive at home in Mitcham and I am a member of Wimbledon Beekeepers’ Association, where I help to keep two hives. That’s part of my interest in organic foods and helping people to eat better. And that’s the greatest thing about London. I don’t think I’d have been able to do all this anywhere else – a place where you can keep your bees and where you are able to meet people from all corners of the planet! You are able to eat food from anywhere in the world. I think that is the greatest thing about London. I think the politicians and developers have to realise that, yes, we need change. Change is good. But they mustn’t forget the little seeds that were planted by many people in the past that have made this city so powerful as it is today.
I’m very grateful to Mario for giving me his blessing to publish this fascinating piece of his life story. It is the first of what I hope will be a series of little histories of Londoners that show how the city has welcomed and benefited from becoming home to people from all over the world and the rest of the UK. My article from last year about Latin Southwark is here. Learn more about La Bodeguita restaurant here.