Trailblazers 2021: Latincouver founder Paola Murillo forges immigrants' connections

For her, it's all about helping newcomers from south of the Rio Grande feel a sense of belonging

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      When Paola Murillo graduated with a master’s of business administration from France, she thought that she would resume living in the United States for years to come.

      After all, Kentucky had been her home after she left her native Colombia to get away from the violence of the drug trade in the 1990s and a decades-long conflict between guerrillas and the government.

      But trouble came to the U.S. homeland in the 9/11 attacks. It seemed to Murillo that America was angry with the world, so she looked to Canada for salvation.

      She moved to Montreal in 2005, planning to sell underwear in one of its markets. At that time, she had no idea destiny would lead her to Vancouver, where she would become a pivotal figure in the local Latin American community.

      “It was way too cold for me in Montreal,” Murillo told the Straight by phone. “I didn’t have enough coats.”

      Her brother invited her to visit for Christmas in Vancouver. She loved hearing all the different languages in the city streets, so she decided to make it her home.

      While working at a recruitment agency, Murillo came face to face with the frustration of many immigrants from Latin America.

      “I was realizing all these people were not reaching their potential,” she said. “It’s not bad to drive a taxi; it’s not bad to clean houses. But when you live with a dream—thinking you’re going to be that—you want to be that.”

      She was deeply bothered when people would feel like giving up and going back to their country of origin because they felt something was wrong with them.

      When she was hired by the Ministry of Canadian Heritage in advance of the 2010 Olympics, she volunteered to find Latin Americans in Metro Vancouver who would be willing to sing the Canadian national anthem in Spanish and Portuguese.

      “They said there are no Latinos here,” Murillo recalled.

      That was the spark that led her to create a Latin American hub called Latincouver in 2008. Her goal was nothing less than helping people from the Rio Grande in Mexico to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego in Chile to Argentine to come together to network, socialize, and build a cohesive community.

      The organization’s signature event became the annual Carnaval del Sol festival, which began in Strathcona Park, moved to Granville Street, and later moved to Concord Pacific Place until the pandemic put it in a virtual space in 2020.

      It’s billed as the largest Latin festival in the Pacific Northwest, attracting many thousands of people in pre-pandemic days with music, food, arts, and culture, and even some fútbol. In regular years, there are 200 to 300 volunteers.

      This year, it will take place from July 1 to 24.

      “We’re not cancelling,” Murillo said. “We’re expanding.”

      It’s one of a multitude of events that take place every year in Latin American Week, which includes an annual awards event for distinguished members of the community. For Murillo, it’s all about helping immigrants feel a sense of belonging.

      “We still need to create a connection,” she said. “We need to let people know they’re not alone when they start in a new place. And they can understand more of Latin America. I think we have been able to do that.”