‘In Ireland I feel accepted as a woman of colour’

New to the Parish: Patricia Guerra arrived from Peru via Italy in 2009

Patricia Guerra from Peru who moved to Ireland 8 years ago, photographed on the rooftop of her apartment. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Patricia Guerra's hometown is known as the city of endless spring. Located between the towering peaks of the Peruvians Andes and the vast Amazon jungle, Huánuco is today popular for its balmy climate and archeological ruins. However, less than two decades ago, the Huánuco region was one of the hotspots caught in the firing line of the Shining Path terrorist group.

Growing up in Huánuco in the 1980s, violence was a normal part of Guerra’s daily life, particularly following the death of a close family member. “Unfortunately you just got used to the violence. From a really early age you have to understand these dangers and live with it.”

Despite the threat of terrorist attacks, Guerra still nurtures very fond memories of the city where she spent her childhood. She remembers feeling aware of the opportunities her Peruvian mother and Italian father worked hard to provide for their children. “We grew up being thankful for what we had. You could see many people that didn’t have anything, there were kids starving on the streets. But at school and at home they always highlighted that you were fortunate. This gave us a sense of social responsibility and you grow up with a bigger picture of the world.”

When Guerra was 15 her family moved to Italy to be closer to Italian relatives. "I'd always known we'd have to go to Italy at some point but I didn't expect it to be so soon. I was a teenager and happy with my friends. It was the worst thing ever going to a totally different culture. You want to feel integrated and be accepted."


She struggled to get used to her Italian teachers and found the classes boring. "They have a really good education system in Peru and I felt the Italian level was very low. I found a part-time job because I was getting frustrated and calculated exactly how many days I needed to be in school to pass the year. I spent most of my time working."

While the initial weeks and months in Europe were challenging, Guerra quickly settled into her new Italian life. "I grew up in Italy. My first experiences were there like my first love. We spoke Italian at home, not Spanish unfortunately. I lost my roots in a way."

As she grew older, Guerra became increasingly interested in travel and discovering new countries. She convinced her Italian fiance that it made sense to go abroad for a Masters degree and they moved to Sweden.

"I had always wanted to travel. When you grow up in Peru you want to go abroad. Everyone wants to know what Europe, America and Asia are like. In Italy they don't really have that interest in travelling the world.

“Sweden was like a dream place. I come from Peru where there was so much killing and people lost family members. Life was not worth much there. But in Sweden they have a respect for life.”

She spent the initial weeks moving between apartments, trying to find a home in a safe part of the city

After Sweden, Guerra spent a year studying in France before moving back to Italy. A week after she arrived home she received a call from an Irish marketing company with a job offer in Dublin. "My fiance was not happy with me travelling around so much. I had promised to come back to Italy after my Masters to work with his company. But that was not the plan."

Guerra ended the relationship and in July 2009 she moved to Ireland. She remembers feeling startled by the empty Dublin streets on the morning she arrived. "The city was like a ghost town. It was summertime but not here, it was so dark. I just asked myself, what am I doing here?"

She spent the initial weeks moving between apartments, trying to find a home in a safe part of the city. In her first apartment she woke up in the middle of the night to discover a car burning on the street and young men throwing bottles at windows. In her next home, her male flatmates from Mauritius expressed their disapproval of a single woman socialising with workmates. "I started having friends after work but they didn't want me going out by myself because I was a woman. They said you need a boyfriend to go out with you. It was a real contrast of cultures."

Guerra eventually found a suitable apartment in central Dublin with a group of Brazilian flatmates who introduced her to an Italian man called Bernardo. “The most important thing about Dublin has been meeting my companion. He is not Irish but Ireland gave him to me.”

Living in a multicultural environment surrounded by friends from around the world, Guerra developed a new appreciation for her Peruvian heritage. She tried locating Peruvians living in Ireland but struggled to find any.

“When I first moved to Italy I really missed Peru but then I got used to it. I guess I forgot. Maybe it’s a way of surviving psychologically.

“But when I came here I realised sometimes the people closest to you have the same nationality because you have more in common. Even though my family is Italian and I went to school in Italy I’ve realised here that I’m Peruvian, not Italian.”

Guerra now works as an accountant with a trading firm and recently bought an apartment with her partner in Dublin. She has no plans to move back to Italy.

“In Dublin I have always felt accepted. I never felt like that in Italy. I have Italian citizenship but if you are a different colour in Italy you will always be different. Here I feel free to be myself and achieve whatever I want. I’ve never felt as woman here that I have fewer chances than a man.”

This summer Guerra invited her teenage nephew to spend a few weeks in Ireland learning English. "I wanted to share with him the meaning of living in a multicultural environment. His classmates are from Spain, France, Austria, the Czech Republic. he can share different lifestyles and confront himself with different cultures.

“I believe that if you come to know diversity, a curiosity in the world and a respect for other cultures will arise. We might speak different languages and come from different parts of the globe but all of us have dreams and fears. We are all the same.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past five years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast