Austerity Diasporas: Portuguese-British Identity

Lisa Rodan continues our “Austerity Diasporas” series, with a third post related to her ongoing PhD research into the experiences of Portuguese migrants affected by the 2008 crash and ensuing austerity. The first post focused on social changes leading up to the 2011 Austerity measures. In the second post, Lisa described the influence of migration on Portuguese culture and history, sharing some of the main messages emerging from her fieldwork with migrants in the UK. This post focuses on some of the challenges of living in London, and its impact upon migrant’s identities.

Sitting in the parents’ room of the paediatric intensive care ward at Kings College Hospital in south London, I was only dimly aware of the irony that my first week of fieldwork on Portuguese migrants in London had been indefinitely postponed whilst a Portuguese surgeon operated on my son’s spine. I had left my baby with a Jamaican nurse, Irish anaesthetist, Indian plastic surgeon and Portuguese and Lebanese neurosurgeons and gone upstairs to wait whilst Nigerian cleaners tidied up around me and a small family of anxious looking Ecuadorians murmured amongst themselves. One of the cleaners brought cups of water over for both me and the trembling woman opposite and squeezed our hands. Any differences in our backgrounds, languages and histories seemed suspended far above the more relevant shared experience of why we were all in that small room on that muggy summer’s day.

The normality of this multicultural existence became an overarching theme throughout my subsequent year of fieldwork (which went ahead as planned thanks to Dr José and his colleagues). The Portuguese graduates of the EU generation, arriving with degrees and career aspirations, inhabited multinational, multi-ethnic and multilingual workplaces, house-shares and friendship groups. Their lives were different in many ways from earlier generations of Portuguese migrants to London who had created what one new arrival described to me as “my grandmother’s village trapped in time”.

That is not to say there is a lack of common experiences and references between the university- educated, cosmopolitan millennials and the long-established Portuguese communities of Stockwell, who socialise in Portuguese cafes and shop in Portuguese supermarkets. Many of the former group also have family within the latter community. Yet by virtue of their educational attainments and a certain value-set formed out of the relative prosperity of Portugal in the 1990s have made a conscious decision to pursue the career opportunities which are the most seductive element of London living. The desire to use their educations to achieve recognition of their professional skills as well as a certain quality of life they once hoped for back home is still a possibility in London.

The price is high: loneliness and struggle are constant demons. Everyone knows somebody who ‘couldn’t hack it’ and went home. But for those who are still here, whether they are part of the initial wave of post-austerity refugees who have managed to carve out a niche in their chosen sector, or newer arrivals for whom London remains a land of opportunities, there is a certain pride in having learned how to handle the pace of life- they have become Londoners.

Becoming a ‘Londoner’ in this sense doesn’t mean becoming less Portuguese- the importance of seeking out spaces of ‘Portugueseness’ is an essential part of their lives. Many frame it as a need to escape the ‘coldness’ of the English character. This perception is worthy of a blog post in itself. For now, perhaps things can be more easily understood by looking at it as a longing for familiar cultural references. Regular meetups with Portuguese friends (the majority made since arriving in London or via old acquaintances and friends of friends pulled together by Facebook) are regularly set up and the Little Portugal enclave in Stockwell plays a major role. Even those who describe it as a ‘different world’ from their own occasionally pop in, whether for enormous group feasting in the restaurants or to watch the Portuguese national team play a big match. Nevertheless, a frequent refrain is the realisation of a feeling that one is increasingly more at home within the Portuguese expat community than in Stockwell or with the Portuguese back home who make them realise how English they have become.

It would be an injustice to suggest that life for educated Portuguese migrants does not have the difficulties of London life in general. Struggles with finding affordable housing, housemate conflicts and unscrupulous and exploitative agencies and employers are part of parcel of life here, especially for those who arrived with nothing more than their degree certificate and were attempting to work up to the job of their dreams via the counters of the chain coffee shops of central London. Those who were determined to stay in their area of study often ended up disillusioned by the challenge in finding a job which in Portugal would be have been beneath their skill-set.

As any parent knows, life completely changes with a new addition to the family. For new Portuguese parents, as for any new parent across London, comes the realisation that, whatever your story and hopes for the future, the arrival of a baby restricts access to many of the extra-curricular parts of the city that make the frantic lifestyle worth it and seem to throw conceptions of what exactly a ‘good life’ consists of into a new light. The lack of grandparents and family nearby suddenly is thrown into sharp focus and longings to go back increase. Taking the international experience gained in the hectic London career bubble and channelling it into a life of digital nomadism is a dream expressed by many people I met, especially those with young children.

Throughout my fieldwork the initial impact of Brexit lingered like an uninvited guest. It didn’t change anyone’s short-term plans but, like most Londoners, the overwhelming feeling was that of wait and see and have a plan B. After all, who was more aware of the importance EU citizens to the capital than those who have propped up the city’s economy? Be that as it may, the risk of whatever the fall-out might be can only add to the burnout already felt by many existing in the relentless consumerist cycle of working and living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Nevertheless, many of my Portuguese colleagues have made a life here no less than any other Londoner of diverse and varied background, especially those who have partnered up with people from other nationalities. Some may return but many are planning to stay and weather the storm.

Lisa Rodan is a third year PhD student in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent where she is working with three colleagues on an ESRC funded project entitled Household Survival in Crisis: Austerity and Relatedness in Greece and Portugal.

For the past 12 months Lisa has been carrying out ethnographic interviews with university educated, Portuguese people in their 20s, 30s and early 40s in London, supplemented by time spent in Portugal where she has been lucky to meet some of their families. In a series of posts Lisa will share her initial analysis of some key themes arising from her fieldwork data, which she began to collect in June 2016 just after the Brexit vote. These encounters have ranged from one-off interviews to valued friendships and time spent with each other’s families. The content of the series will be a very close reading of fieldwork notes in their raw form. Lisa welcomes any input and suggestions from interested parties.

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