'Part of the community': Latin Americans thriving in Mill Woods
Arrivals from Chile, Mexico, Colombia and other nations add to the suburb's rich diversity
CBC Edmonton is setting up a pop-up newsroom at the Mill Woods Public Library for the week of Sept. 10-14. We'll be exploring stories and perspectives from one of Edmonton's oldest communities, and will be broadcasting live from the library on Sept. 14. Have a story to pitch? Come say hi!
Fifty years ago, Mill Woods wasn't much more than sprawling farmland on the southeast edge of Edmonton. But in the early 1970s, as Alberta's capital began to bloom, the City of Edmonton purchased the agricultural area and started to sell plots of land.
Affordable building lots made Mill Woods an attractive place for a new start in a new country for recent arrivals to Canada. This was the case for José and Alicia Sanchez, who arrived in Canada 40 years ago from Chile.
"We've always lived in Mill Woods," Alicia Sanchez said.
The couple and their two young daughters came to Canada in 1978, leaving behind their native country that was ruled at the time by dictator Augusto Pinochet. At the time, human rights abuses were rampant in the South American nation.
"It was a really rough time," José Sanchez said. "Everybody was a little [bit] scared."
Sept. 11 marked the 45th anniversary of the 1973 military coup that brought Pinochet to power. During his 17-year dictatorship, more than 8,000 Chileans sought refuge in Canada.
"[There was] no safety over there for my family, and I was so happy because I changed our lives totally," José said. "That's why when we got on the airplane and it flew, I thought: 'Oh, finally we are free.'"
Many Chilean refugees arrived in Ontario before heading west, settling in Edmonton and other places.
With only about $1,000 to their name, José and Alicia Sanchez were ready for a new start for their young family. Alicia found work in the ladies' wear department at Zellers and José worked as a machinist in the oil industry.
But after years of working for others, José wanted to run his own business, and a bakery that specialized in Latin American pastries and treats seemed like a good idea.
"José was the one who wanted to have the bakery," Alicia said. "For me, I knew all the work I would have!
"I was devastated at the beginning. To have to quit working over there [Zellers] to come here and make buns and cakes."
But the couple had never baked. Ever. And diving into their new business venture required some serious entrepreneurial panache.
La Panaderia Latina — the Latin Bakery — opened its doors in October 1993.
"It was a little rough in the beginning," José said. "But now we are actually turning a profit."
Located just off 57th Street and 19th Avenue in Mill Woods, the modest business is the only Chilean bakery in Edmonton.
José and Alicia have perfected their empanadas, a savoury Latin American pastry traditionally stuffed with meat and cheese. Now, they make upwards of 250 per week, along with Chilean-style buns and other sweets.
The bakery acts as a mini hub for the Latino community in Mill Woods. It's a destination to get more information on what's happening in the community.
A role model for the community
Just across the way, in the same strip mall, is the office of MLA Rod Loyola.
Loyola, also Chilean, was part of the first wave of Latin American arrivals to Edmonton during Pinochet's military rule. His family arrived on Canada Day in 1976. Loyola was two years old.
"Coming to a country from a military dictatorship, people who are fleeing violence … they are coming with the clothes on their backs," Loyola said, describing the time when his family first arrived in Edmonton.
His family had originally hoped to one day return to Chile, but instead established themselves within the Mill Woods community.
Loyola was elected in 2015 as the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Ellerslie. He's proud to represent the Latin American people who make up two per cent of the population in the diverse riding.
"Mill Woods is the United Nations of Alberta because here in Mill Woods we probably have everyone from all over the world," Loyola said. "You name it and we have it here."
A new generation
Chile is now among the most stable, and prosperous nations in Latin America. It's less common nowadays to find recent arrivals from the country in Edmonton. More recent arrivals from Latin America to the city tend to be Colombians and Mexicans in search of economic opportunity.
Many of these more recent arrivals live in Mill Woods housing co-ops.
Established by the Chilean community in the late 1970s, the Salvador Allende co-op near 85th Street and 24th Avenue is named after the Marxist president overthrown by Pinochet in 1973.
More commonly known as just the Salvador, the co-op was the first of its type for the Latin American community in Edmonton, offering lower rents to help new arrivals find their footing.
Other co-ops then sprung up, like the Las Americas co-op that sits just adjacent to the Latin Bakery.