Patricia Alvarez runs La Ruca, a family business comprising a specialist food shop and Fairtrade cafe, on Bristol’s Gloucester Road. Patricia grew up amongst the Mapuche people of Chile and like them, has a deep respect for the earth and its bounty.
The food she creates is a combination of her own cultural traditions and the best of healthy and modern world cuisine. She and her husband arrived in Bristol 31 years ago as political refugees from Chile. They have lived here ever since and raised their three daughters in Bristol.
A: I’m originally from Chile and when I first came to England about 31 years ago, I was placed in London. I was only 18 and I was terribly scared. My husband was a political refugee from Chile, where he’d been in prison for four years – so it was a very difficult time. I remember, we arrived in April and it was a very gloomy, dark day and what I noticed was all the traffic – it was so busy and the city was so immense.
So when I moved to Bristol shortly afterwards, I was absolutely delighted that I was able to walk everywhere. In London it had been impossible to walk far – you had to get the underground, buses etc. – but here I would spend the whole day walking.I thought Bristol had such a community feeling and I was always drawn to Gloucester Road in particular.
My brother was a political prisoner in Chile at that time and I became a political activist and I used to campaign in Gloucester Road – it became my road, you know? I was actually living in Hartcliffe but I would travel down here every day because I felt at home amongst all the different cultures that mix in this area.
I can’t think of anything – I think you get a lot here and I feel really happy. Bristol is my perfect city really. I’ve never had a bad experience of Bristolian people or of the community.
Having brought up my three daughters – I have three grown-up daughters and they are all independent and have all studied, and I feel like I have given them a good life in England.
I don’t think I’m a good business person! I do the best I can but I don’t have the greed necessary to get more money. I don’t know whether that’s a mistake or not but I know it’s something I’m not focused on. At the end of the day the last thing I check is how much money I’ve made, or how much money I’ve got in the bank. I guess it is a mistake because as my husband says to me “This is the business world – without the money there is no shop”.
I always wanted to provide somewhere that people could relax and could eat wholesome food with little money. We really love to see how people enjoy the food they eat here, and we encourage people not to be afraid of tasting new things. It’s really nice to see little children and babies tasting olives and trying spinach tortilla.
Also, having fairly-traded products here is very important to me, because I lived through that in Chile as I was growing up – I was one of the children being exploited by big companies. Everything is kind of agricultural in Chile, so in my town it was a matter of during the school holidays you had to go to work. Someone would take you to work in the fields at six o’ clock in the morning and bring you back at twelve o’clock at night. At the time I didn’t feel it so much because that’s life there and you’re part of it but when you come over to England and see how much the products are being sold for, like grapes or bananas for example, you can’t justify the slavery behind it.
When big companies want to interfere in your life. When you are a small shop like us and then the big supermarkets undercut us by selling in bulk for just pennies, it’s unfair.
Talking too much! I just love talking with lots of people. The people who come to the shop, they are part of the family. Now my house is empty, my children have left, but here at the shop everything is still happening. We have customers who have been coming for years and years which is really nice – they have become part of this shop. La Ruca means “a house” or “home” – it’s a Mapuche word. I wanted to create a space for people to meet, at no cost and they do come – they meet up, talk in Spanish, English, they make friends, they even get married. It’s so amazing to see the dynamic of the shop. That’s what I like best of all.
Anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The experiences we had in Chile are often similar to the things he writes about and I just love the intricacy of his novels, there are so many layers to them, you’ve really got to concentrate on what you’re reading.
The football tournament we had in May at Ashton Park School, which was for BLINC, which is a voluntary association that has formed links with Nicaragua. We managed to gather a team of people from the shop and had a really enjoyable afternoon – and we raised a lot of money, which is going to be used to provide clean drinking water for kids.
Last December I went back to Chile and it was the first time we managed to get all us six brothers and sisters back together at our old house. Half of us live elsewhere – one of my brothers was in prison in Chile for 15 years and now lives in Sweden and it was his first time back. For all of us to return to where we had lived, was just amazing. We didn’t do much; we just stayed in our house, painted and decorated it and just spent time with my mum. It was a fantastic experience.
I love doing my jigsaws, I love gardening and I like walking my dogs. Every weekend we meet with my sister, who lives in Gloucester, and we all go for a long walk in the Forest of Dean. We try to make it every Sunday – we’ve always done it, with our children, with pushchairs etc. even on Christmas day. I just love the space, the smells, the colours – it’s so beautiful.
To believe in people. A lot of difficult and bad things have happened to me but that hasn’t stopped me believing in people. Don’t hold grudges and don’t carry bitterness around – try to look beyond.
La Ruca, 89 Gloucester Road, Bishopston, Bristol, 0117 944 6810
La Ruca is now offering an outside catering service for corporate events, private functions, parties, celebrations and business lunches. The cafe has recently expanded into a new kitchen and now offers an exciting range of freshly prepared, hot and cold buffet menus for 10 to 500 people.
Interview by Fiona McCVlymont
First published issue 50 (Autumn 2007)
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