To give a bit of context: My name is José García Oliva and I was born in Caracas, Venezuela. When I came to the Royal College of Art, I re­alised that the first con­tact I had with peo­ple from South America in London were the clean­ers work­ing at the College: Julian, Jorge and Diego from Colombia, and Javier from Bolivia.

The first thing I thought was, why are they all South American? Isn’t this just an­other por­trait of post-colo­nial­ism? South Americans clean­ing, Africans guard­ing, Europeans teach­ing. I started talk­ing to one of them for hours about types of South American food dishes (mainly ar­gu­ing whether arepas are Colombian or Venezuelan), gos­sip­ing about peo­ple pass­ing by in the halls, mi­gra­tion poli­cies, EU set­tle­ment, Brexit, and so on. Between those con­ver­sa­tions, I asked him: Why do you think you are all from South America? He said: “Latinos are very ser­vice­able, and peo­ple here like that.” Since I heard that an­swer, I have tasted the bit­ter­ness of colo­nial­is­m’s ashes, still warm, in my mouth. “Latinos are proud to be work­ing, even in a hole.” The prob­lem is that a hole will al­low them to bury you, and af­ter the hole is cov­ered up, every­one can step on you.

In an­other con­ver­sa­tion with Jorge he said, “Latinos bow their heads a lot, and when peo­ple look at us like that, they be­gin to abuse us.” It’s a side ef­fect of long-term feel­ings of in­fe­ri­or­ity, im­posed on us by the ones who are and have been served. “The past is never dead; it’s not even past,” as William Faulkner once said. Unconsciously, Latinos are still re­liv­ing their first in­ter­ac­tion with the colonis­ers over and over again: On our part – one of as­ton­ish­ment, a cul­ture shock that seems to mir­ror our first glimpse of the con­quis­ta­dors, and for the colonis­ers – an er­rant mis­trust in our ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The re-en­act­ment of these ab­surd the­atri­cal­i­ties, and the per­ni­cious vi­o­lence they en­gen­der, still per­sist and have even come to seem “natural” —thereby ob­scur­ing the real im­posed hi­er­ar­chy of colonised and coloniser.

“The lack of in­di­vid­u­al­ity. [This is] the first and most se­ri­ous mu­ti­la­tion suf­fered by man when they be­come a wage earner” 1 Octavio Paz said. “Latinos are very ser­vice­able”: even if it is an ho­n­ourable fact, the so­cio-eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal con­text builds a cam­ou­flaged la­bel that in­ten­si­fies their in­vis­i­bil­ity, mak­ing them more vul­ner­a­ble to ma­nip­u­la­tion. As one of the clean­ers said to me, “we are will­ing to do every­thing.” This readi­ness sadly opens up a wound for the vul­tures to gorge them­selves upon. One of the many con­se­quences is stop­ping them from achiev­ing their life goals by con­sum­ing their hours with an over­load of work. Many of them would like to learn English, but how are you sup­posed to study af­ter more than 10 hours of clean­ing? And then, how can you find an­other job if you can­not speak the English re­quired? Suddenly, it be­comes a vi­cious cy­cle. During a five minute break, Diego told me, “I feel trapped in time, noth­ing hap­pens, I’m al­ways clean­ing the same.” Like Sisyphus’s pun­ish­ment — an end­less dis­so­lu­tion of their lib­erty, time, en­ergy and mo­ti­va­tion.

Some peo­ple may say, “why did they come here in the first place if they do not speak the lan­guage?” This as­ser­tion is com­pletely il­log­i­cal. It is like ask­ing some­one, “why are you go­ing to the doc­tor if we are all even­tu­ally go­ing to die?” Others may say that the root of the prob­lem is that they are not try­ing to learn English and be­come in­volved in the com­mu­nity. But is­n’t this like ty­ing them up, throw­ing them into a river, and then blam­ing them for not swim­ming prop­erly? They may barely sur­vive, but we, as in­di­vid­u­als, are we help­ing them to swim? In other words, who cares who is clean­ing? Do you know the name of the per­son who cleans your stu­dio every morn­ing? The clean­ers have never been in­tro­duced to us, and we have never been in­tro­duced to them, even though they are more phys­i­cally pre­sent in col­lege than many of our tu­tors. Ironically, we crit­i­cise “invisible” labour within our class­rooms, but make vis­i­ble peo­ple in­vis­i­ble in the in­sti­tu­tion more broadly.

José García Oliva, 'People Here Like That', 2020, documentation of the performance.

Invisibility, what a rel­e­vant word for Americans — sorry, South Americans. Even though we are Americans, Latinos seem to live on rented land. These are de­tails that cre­ate a cer­tain in­sta­bil­ity and doubt­ful iden­tity, but also for a whole cul­ture. When de­vel­oped coun­tries are na­tion­al­ist they seem to have pa­tri­o­tism; yet when de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are na­tion­al­ist, they seem to have ter­ror­ism. We have be­come used to ask­ing to have a voice. It was right when Eduardo Galeano said, “we have main­tained a si­lence closely re­sem­bling stu­pid­ity” 2 .

People Here Like That is a par­tic­i­pa­tive per­for­mance for the WIP at the Royal College of Art in 2020 3 . The lo­ca­tion of the ex­hi­bi­tion is rel­e­vant since it took place out­side the RCA, in the co-work­ing site of White City Place, London. 15 out of 17 clean­ers at the RCA are South American. It was cru­cial for the con­tent of the pro­ject to high­light this is­sue in a con­text that mir­rors the pat­terns of their own labour; but more im­por­tantly, to bring an aware­ness to the priv­i­leged frame­work of the staff and stu­dent body about our in­di­vid­ual in­ter-re­la­tion­ships with these peo­ple:

Who washes your win­dow to al­low you to see out­side?
Who pol­ishes your desk so that you can work?
Who var­nishes the floor for your cat­walk?
Who ti­dies the class­room for you to at­tend, where you then speak about “invisible” labour?
Who mops the floor to clean up your hastily spilt flat white?
Who dusts for you so you can get lost in the li­brary?
Who wipes the iMac screens for you to nav­i­gate the in­ter­net?
Who emp­ties the bins for you to not drown in the sea of your own un­think­ingly printed pa­per?
Who cleans the kitchen for you to eat your take­away?
Who vac­u­ums the floor to im­prove your air qual­ity?
Who dis­in­fects the han­dles for you amid COVID-19?
Who washes the toi­lets for you to defe­cate?
Who re­fills the toi­let pa­per for you to wipe your ass?
Who is un­known?
Who do you not see, ever, never look at?
Whose names do you not know?

Knowing these peo­ples’­names and grate­fully ac­knowl­edg­ing the im­por­tance of their work for the well-be­ing of our com­mu­nity are the first step­ping stones to­wards in­clu­sive­ness. “Don’t for­get in do­ing some­thing for oth­ers that you have what you have be­cause of oth­ers. Don’t for­get that,” Martin Luther King said one day.

To end, I would like to clar­ify that my in­ten­tion is not to gen­er­al­ise a whole con­ti­nent. Whenever I ref­er­ence South America as a whole, it is only to unify the his­tor­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties of colo­nial­ism. I would also es­pe­cially like to thank Jorge (known as “the lawyer of the poor­est” in the London Latin American com­mu­nity) for his his­tory lessons about Colombian mi­gra­tion; Javier for his les­son about pos­i­tivism, en­cour­age­ment, and more im­por­tantly his spec­tac­u­lar sweet-corn arepas recipe; Diego for his hu­mour; and Julian for be­ing a friend.

José García Oliva, 'People Here Like That', 2020, exhibition view (public participation).