When Ana Laura Gonzalez-Rios arrived in Canada in 2012, she and her family found it difficult to integrate into the job market.
As it often happens with high-skilled immigrants, they couldn’t find work in their areas of expertise. Instead, they could only obtain minimum-wage positions.
“Sometimes, it’s very frustrating,” Gonzalez-Rios says.
The Gonzalez-Rios family is part of the over 13,000 Mexicans living in B.C. according to the Census 2016. The huge majority — about 78% — are permanent residents or naturalized citizens.
They represent 25% of the over 52,000 Latin Americans in the province. Brazilians are the second largest group at 13%, followed by El Salvadorians (11%) and Colombians (9%).
However, Latin Americans represent only 1% of the 4.5 million immigrants in B.C.. Some argue that their particularities are often left behind in the debate surrounding the integration of newcomers.
To understand some of the challenges these newcomers face and how they overcome them, we interviewed Mexicans of different ages and fields who live and work in B.C..
Having Good International Credentials May Not Be Enough
The diploma revalidation requirement was one of the challenges Gonzalez-Rios faced when she first started looking for a job.
She was finishing her undergraduate degree in Electronic and Computer Engineering when she moved to Canada. The first position she obtained was as a part-time cleaner, and the second, a full-time sales associate.
According to the Mexican and Canadian citizen Javier Barajas, who has been an advocate for the Latin American community in B.C. for almost two decades, this is a common challenge.
“We come with credentials that are all valid in our countries, and we need to revalidate it here, but it takes too long, and the systems and the processes are costly, and also with a lot of restrictions. So, that doesn’t help us to reintegrate fully,” he said.
Barajas’ work includes connecting with public officials to find ways to overcome the barriers for newcomers. Currently, he is a member of the Cultural Communities Advisory Committee of the City of Vancouver, and of the organizations Mexicans Living Abroad Advisory Committee Association and Red Global MX.
He believes that, in general terms, Latin Americans that move to Canada have a lot to offer the country. “We have college degrees, we speak minimum two languages if not three or more, and we are very entrepreneurial.”
Volunteering as a Way to Navigate the Job Market
In Gonzalez-Rios’ case, the path she found to overcome the licence barrier was engaging in the local activities of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a professional association with chapters spread around the world.
It was this network that gave her a better understanding of the field in Vancouver, the qualifications required for each type of work, and what professional opportunities she could seek. She was also able to understand what skills she would need to develop or improve.
“A lot of knowledge came from there,” she says. For example, after talking to different people through IEEE, she understood that not all the positions corresponding to her background would require the Canadian professional licence. Finally in 2015, she secured a job in the engineering field.
Now, Gonzalez-Rios is giving back what she has received. Last year, she was the chair for the IEEE Vancouver Women in Engineering Affinity Group, and now she is leading the Young Professionals Affinity Group. She will start a master’s program this fall at Simon Fraser University to complete some of the requirements to obtain her license.
“IEEE has been great even to the sense (sic) that I met who is going to be my supervisor there,” she says.
Having this kind of experience is also the recommendation given by Esther Frid, a retired family counsellor and community developer who has worked with Latin Americans in Vancouver for 30 years.
“Connect, do volunteer work to navigate the system,” she says.
It was not only hearing the experiences of other immigrants that led her to this perception, but also her own experience as a newcomer arriving from Mexico.
As an experienced school psychologist in Mexico, she sought work in the same field here in Canada, but she was told she was overqualified. “The door was closed,” she said.
After receiving negative answers, she decided to look for volunteer experiences in projects directed towards the Latin American community. Being a Spanish speaker, she was able to work with refugees that were coming from El Salvador, and this later led her to other opportunities.
“Don’t be isolated, look for the resources that are in the community,” she says.
One of her greatest challenges as a newcomer to Canada was adapting to a different culture. Her children, for instance, experienced a cultural shock. Despite being in an open space, they felt Canadians were very self-centered and imposed socialization barriers that they were not used to.
“I think one of the characteristics we have as a Latin American is that we are group oriented,” she said.
Networks Need New Volunteers to Keep Growing
Another Mexican that bet on the power of networking was the architect and graphic designer Hortensia Moreno. She also found herself in a frustrating situation when she arrived here over 10 years ago with an undergraduate degree in architecture from Universidad del Valle de Mexico and some years of professional experience.
She first knocked on the door of settlement agencies, but they didn’t have specific information about her field. One thing she was told was that she would need to go back to college. It was only after undertaking much research on her own that Moreno realized how the credential process works.
“It wasn’t easy, it was really difficult,” she says.
Before finally being accredited by the Canadian Architectural Certification Board in 2009, she had to take a few short courses and collect many documents from Mexico. The certification gave her the possibility to work in some positions within the field, but she is still in the process of becoming a fully licensed architect.
Over four years ago, Moreno decided to help other newcomers going through the credential process by creating an informal group to give some tips and advice – the Foreign Trained Architects and Designers in Canada.
“When I have time, I meet with them in person and I go through all the paperwork. Because it’s very confusing,” she says. In her opinion, the toughest part is getting documents with the education history from the home countries.
The frustration she felt in the beginning has assumed another side nowadays; she wishes volunteers joined the cause and continued the work she has been doing.
“It’s really demanding, because you have to organize everything, and we need obviously (sic) volunteers. But, once they’re working, is very difficult for them to come back.”