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February 14, 2005 | by  | in Features |
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Cuento De Una Comunidadei

Polynesian, Asian, Indian, Sri Lankan… Some of New Zealand’s immigrant groups receive an awful lot of press. Others quietly go about their business, barely registering in the consciousness of most of their neighbours. With the Cuba Street Carnival fast approaching, Salient Feature Writer Geoff Brischke hunted out Wellington’s Latin American community, and got a whole lot more than he bargained for.

I always go to the Cuba Street Carnival in late February–it’s the only time I enjoy watching people dance. The entire street is filled with costumed revelers shaking their hips to the vibrant throb of Latin music. After the Carnival is over however, the Latin American community always seemed to melt back into the ether; so I went looking for its pulse – and found the main vein.
Rolando Olmedo is a poet, painter, playwright, director and musician. He immigrated to New Zealand in 1975 as a refugee from the oppressive and bloody regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. He is the co-founder and current director of INCAL, the Institute of Communication, Arts and Culture, the biggest Latin American community organisation in New Zealand. He teaches courses in drama, guitar and the Spanish language. He is a man that four pages in a student magazine can’t contain – so hopefully he will forgive me for trying.

I met Mr. Olmedo at Café Jax in Petone. He arrived with a handful of photographs and a pamphlet about his organisation. From the very beginning he was eager to talk, although with his heavy Chilean accent and my obnoxious American one, we stumbled through the first fifteen minutes of conversation. Originally, I thought that as a representative of a community about which I knew very little, Rolando would be the first stop among many. He might be able to provide me with a base for further exploration, maybe some names, perhaps a few ideas. However, over the next two and a half hours he set before me the entire history of the Latin American community in Wellington, starting with his own, and I was left with no real choice. To dilute his story with four or five or ten others, all of them equally poignant, would do justice to none.

So this is the history of the Latin American community in Wellington in seven steps, as seen through the eyes of one man who has watched it grow and crawl and walk and, finally, dance.

“I was born in Chile, in the north, in Atacama, the driest desert in the world. I went to Santiago to study theatre at the University of Chile.” I can still hear his rhythmic South American accent in my mind—soft ‘r’s, long vowels–and see him punctuating his words with his hands. “I taught at schools and factories and created drama groups for people to express themselves. Around this time appeared the Pinochet regime, one of the strongest dictatorships in the world. They killed 20,000 people, imprisoned 100,000, and disappeared over 2500. I needed to escape and leave the country.” He keeps the story short, and I guess there’s no need for further elaboration. From Chile, Mr. Olmedo went to Argentina where he was reunited with his family. After a coup in that country, his family traveled as refugees to New Zealand, one of 120 families that were resettled across both islands.

Olmedo tells me all this while I sink into Jax’s couch, an empty coffee mug held in both hands, tape recorder on, notebook and pen forgotten. All it took was one question about Latin American culture and I spent the rest of the morning nodding, laughing and watching him chart the growth of Latin American culture in Wellington on a half piece of blank paper.

Prior to 1975 the number of Latin Americans in New Zealand numbered around 400, mostly farmers and gold-miners from Argentina and Brazil. By 1981, Chileans had become the largest group of Latin Americans in New Zealand and they remain so today, representing about 25% of the 3,200 now living permanently in this country. Olmedo tells me that from the beginning refugees have always outnumbered those migrating to New Zealand for other reasons. That is slowly beginning to change, however, as the political climate in South America has stabilised and New Zealand’s economic ties to the region have strengthened.

Most of the new arrivals made their home in Auckland – as immigrants coming to this country tend to do – and it was there that the Latin American community found its first voice in New Zealand. The Latin band Kantuta was established in 1983 by brothers Eduardo and Alvaro Diaz, both political refugees from Chile, and has been playing together for over twenty years. Even though they have gold- and platinum-selling albums under their belts and a strong following both in New Zealand and abroad, the group continues to perform in any venue they can find. They also produce the annual NZ Salsa LatinDance Competition and the NZ Argentine Tango Competition, now in its 13th year. It is Kantuta that tops Olmedo’s list as the first expression of the Latin American community in New Zealand.

While Latin American immigration to New Zealand increased throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, public expressions of the culture, aside from Kantuta, fell dormant until an artistic dawn in the mid-‘90s. In 1996 a Columbian woman named Silvia Salgado created a sculpture entitled “Nga Korerorero” (“Ongoing Dialogue”) for the Midland Park in the CBD. Called “the greatest artistic expression by a Latin American in New Zealand” by Mr. Olmedo, the sculpture resembles “seven snakes dropping water” and lives just outside Astoria on Lambton Quay. Though there is something distinctly alien about it, the soft organic curves and gentle sound of the fountain give it a comforting feel that blends well with its representation of family, intimacy and knowledge.
Olmedo slides a photo across the table to me, but not before asking if I am a responsible person. I can borrow the photo, a picture of the sculptor and her work, but it is his only copy and I must promise to protect it.

“For me the third big expression that came with the continuing arrival of the Latin American people, [representing] their passion and the exotic and the sexy was the creation of the Cuba Carnival, the second biggest festival in New Zealand. It was created by the Latino community, specifically a Panamanian, Rogelio Carlos Rosas,” Olmedo tells me. The Cuba Street Carnival, which boasts attendance of up to 80,000 per day, is the biggest annual event in Wellington. Begun in 1999, the Carnival has had a choppy existence. Attendance peaked in 2002, was canceled due to traffic in 2003 and fell victim to drizzly weather in 2004. This year the organisers are hoping for a return to past glory, although they have cut the festival back from two days to one, no doubt because of the adverse effect the Carnival will have on inner-city traffic. The highlight of the festival, the Night Parade, will not disappear however, and the Latin American community is once again geared up for an evening of sequins, salsa dancers and rumba beats.

While Olmedo talks and writes on the half sheet of paper, I realise that the Carnival in itself seems a metaphor for the Latin American influence in Wellington. The participants and performers that give it such a strong Latin flavour are mostly of European descent. Most of them are students of the dance or music schools, or Kiwis who have traveled back and forth between South America and New Zealand, falling in love with the culture along the way. As of the 2001 census, there were just over 300 people in Wellington who identified themselves as Hispanic, yet the wider community supports a good number of Latin dance companies, restaurants, radio programs, musical groups and events, far more than the number of Latinos would suggest possible. Olmedo goes on to tell me a story that shows just how strongly Wellingtonians support the Latin American community.

“In 2002, through Te Papa, we were able to hold a recital of work from Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. INCAL organised the event and [Director of the Int’l Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria] Bill Manhire and myself read Pablo’s poems in both Spanish and English. We had performances by Los Andes (a Latin American folk music group created by Olmedo) who provided musical accompaniment for the reading. This was the fourth expression of the Latin American culture in New Zealand and it was so significant because Pablo Neruda was such an important poet. Before it started I was sitting in the marae and Bill Manhire came to me and said, ‘Rolando, the Te Papa is full! We were expecting about 50 to 80 people, but we had 300 seats,
all of them full, and maybe 500 people total.”

If further evidence of this outside support is needed all it takes is a look at the growth of the Latin dance companies or the increase in students studying the Spanish language. Alex White, the director of the Viva Latina dance company, told me that he has seen steady growth in student numbers, particularly on the heels of any social event or film that features Latin dancing. Here at Victoria the Spanish programme is the fastest growing of all the language schools. It originally consisted of just 100-level courses, but was expanded into the 200-level in ’99, a full Honours programme in 2004 and Masters-level study this year. The number of students enrolled in the 100-level courses at present is hovering around 190, roughly the same as the French and Japanese programmes. The school is also engaged in talks with two Chilean universities regarding the establishment of an exchange programme.

Neither is surprising. I hadn’t thought much about it but Olmedo pauses in his charting to discuss the Chilean and New Zealand economies. He tells me of the strong agricultural ties between the two, the technology that New Zealand has sold to Chile, the assistance given them in establishing a kiwifruit crop that ripens two weeks earlier in Chile and covers the North American market. The South American economic market itself is twice as large as that of the United States and almost all of the countries within have recently seen large-scale economic growth. New Zealand’s ties with Chile in particular are on the move; the Chilean President and Trade Minister each made a visit to Wellington last year and Chile recently hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Santiago. Much as the popularity of Asian languages grew with increased economic opportunity, so will the popularity of the Spanish language. Simple business.

And as far as Latin dance is concerned, there isn’t a man alive who doesn’t secretly wish he could tango. At no time was this made clearer to me than two weekends ago when Olmedo gave me the scoop on the opening of a new Latin bar. Cordoba Nights is taking over the evenings at the Purple Onion Café on Cuba St. The drinks list: Corona, Sol, Braza, many tequilas and wine from Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, in addition to sangria, a South American concoction usually made from fruit juice, fruit pieces and wine. The music was an eclectic mix of Latin styles that I will never be able to identify, but I enjoyed it thoroughly anyway.

Olmedo tells me about the music, the fifth expression of Latin American community. His hand flies over the half sheet of paper as he lists the Latin bands that have been founded throughout the country. “We have this blood,” he tells me, and I can see it in his cheeks, “this craving for expression, this expression is in the music, in the song. In the big cities of New Zealand the Latino people create this music; in Christchurch, Pachamama; maybe five or six in Auckland, like Kantuta; there is also Ritmo Latino and many others.” I asked Olmedo about his own band. “Los Andes I created about ten years ago – all those other groups, all the music is very tropical, salsa lambada, mambo, but not many are folk. We sing original folk music from Peru, Bolivia, Chile. Indigenous music, the expression of the country people from generation to generation.”

I thought that the Latin American community in Wellington was all but invisible. I was proven dead wrong. I was also proven far less of a man than I thought I was that night at Cordoba nights. No mustache, no salsa-style, no dance skills. I generally try to avoid the dance-club scene at all costs – the bump and grind, feet-planted, no-room-to-move sweatshops of Courtenay Place have never really appealed to me. But sitting on the sidelines in that bar while every other guy, young and old, fat and thin, cut a rug with style had me ready to sign up for some tango instruction.
Olmedo explains: “This is not ballroom.” He pauses to laugh, then gives me his impression of a stiff European with all the grace of Jabba the Hut. “The Latin music is so rhythmic that the people have to move their bones. This is the sixth expression of the Latin American people in New Zealand. One of the first people to start a dancing school in New Zealand was Alex White about five or seven years ago. He went to Argentina, and like many young people, with the interchange of students, students who go to Peru or Bolivia or Brasil, they learn the culture and bring it back, now there are four or five dancing schools just in Wellington.”

“The seventh expression of the Latin American people in New Zealand,” and now Olmedo’s half sheet of paper is covered on both sides,” is the Latin American Film Festival.” The inaugural of this annual event was held in 2002 and, just like everything else Latin in Wellington, is undergoing tremendous growth. “The Film Society in New Zealand brought in a few films two years ago, and last year they had twelve films and they were very popular. I went to get a ticket to [Maria Full of Grace] and [The Diary of Che Guavara]–no bloody ticket, they were sold out, I missed both films.”

Olmedo has taken me through the history of the Latin American community, the most significant events, the process of a people finding their voice, all neatly outlined on the paper in front of him, but I notice there is one thing he has forgotten to mention. I ask him about Radio Luna, the Latin-based program that plays Sunday nights on Access Radio.
He laughs, “Ah, Access Radio. I created Access Radio – you don’t believe me? – I created it with Cindy Bevis. It happened one day, oh, twenty-five, twenty-eight years ago. Cindy said to me, because they hear me on National Radio, is it possible to create some radio program for the ethnic communities. So we worked together and made Access Radio, and it was very popular, and today there are still so many ethnic programmes.”

That seems like the kind of story one wouldn’t leave out, or sum up in so casual a manner, and then it occurs to me that Olmeda has spent the morning describing the development of this community, but has modestly left out most of his own contributions. Aside from his involvement in Los Andes and the Pablo Neruda recital, he has not told me so much about his own plays or paintings.

“My painting,” he chuckles, “I presented four painting exhibitions in the last ten years but, you know, I am no painter, I just want to express myself.” In addition to the exhibitions, Olmedo has also published volumes of poetry and written and directed numerous plays about his own life experiences and friends that were killed or disappeared during the Pinochet regime.
“I have written around ten plays in the last 27 years that I am living in New Zealand, I also wrote many in Chile, but we are living in this society so I am only counting the plays that I have written in English. One of the plays that I wrote was called Victor. It was about Victor Jara who was one of my friends in Chile, he was a theatre director and a great music composer and guitarist. During the Pinochet regime he was imprisoned in the National Stadium and the soldiers broke his hands and they give him back his guitar and tell him to play before they killed him. So I wrote this play in honour of him and in Auckland we had 11 performances, all sold out. I wrote another play, Violeta, who was my student in one of the drama schools where I taught. She worked with me for several years and we traveled with the drama group to different places to play for the people, to show their expression. She was arrested by the Pinochet regime and disappeared. Every time I go back to Chile I ask the different humanitarian organisations, ‘Where is Violeta?’ I asked if they found the bones of her, but at the moment – nothing. So I wrote this play for her.”

Both of these plays sound fascinating and I ask Olmeda if I can find a copy of either of these or any of his other works in a library or in a bookstore. He tells me no, they were not published; only performed. He has copies and a few friends have copies, but that’s all. It’s disappointing, but it fits. Throughout the interview Olmedo keeps returning to the ideas of expression and passion, both his own and that of the Latin American community. His art is purely his own, meant to be shared with others, but mainly a manifestation of his emotion or experience. Write a play, create a painting, perform a concert – then move on to the next, driven by that need for expression.

I’ve asked him about his passion for art—his poetry, painting, plays and music—does he have a passion for anything else?
“A woman,” he smiles.

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