"I value Australian democracy because we lost it in Uruguay".
Country of Origin: Uruguay.
State of Residency: VIC. Favourite place in Australia: Port Phillip Bay, Bondi and Coogee. Upon arrival: Surprised by the generosity of the Australian Government. I was also shocked by how safe and peaceful (but disappointed by the quietness) the city was on the weekends.
Photo provided by Telmo’s Office
By Trini Abascal
Telmo Languiller has been the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of the Victorian Parliament since 2014. He has been a political activist in favour of human and civil rights since the age of 13. He has successfully taken cases of human rights abuses in Uruguay, Chile and El Salvador to international tribunals. As a Member of Parliament he has campaigned fiercely for human rights and equality.
Tell us Your Story
I had a modest but happy upbringing; I was always surrounded by the lively people from Barrio Sur and Cordon, where most of Carnival festivities took place. Dad was an experienced sailor and mum was a nurse at the local hospital. Times were extremely hard in Uruguay. To support my family I worked during the day, and at night I would attend school. When I was 13 years old I decided to become an activist for the FER68 organisation, the social base of the Uruguayan National Liberation movement, known as The Tupamaro movement. In December 1972 two friends and I, all aged 15, were shot and seriously wounded at a student demonstration which was in support of better education conditions. When we were receiving medical treatment, the military took us out of hospital for ‘interrogation’. They were after names of FER68 leaders and wanted us to say that the military was not responsible for the shooting and they would not release us unless we signed to it. In the end, we never gave them any names and accused them of shooting us. That same night the front door of our home was sprayed with bullets. This was a difficult time as friends and family progressively preferred not to be associated with me. In June 1973 there was a military coup, followed by a national strike that paralysed the country for 15 days. This event would later help us prove to international organisations that the dictatorship didn’t have popular support. Later in 1973 I was told by the comrade in charge of my group to go into exile to Buenos Aires as my political activism had made me a target. I lived in Argentina for a year while the dust settled. During this time my family decided to leave Uruguay too. We could either emigrate to Australia or Norway as both countries were receiving unskilled or semiskilled migrants. As Dad had sailed previously to Australia and knew the country, he said: ‘It has four seasons, they eat good red meat and the women are beautiful’. That was good enough for me and my brother.
Telmo with former PM Julia Gillard. Photo provided by Telmo
We arrived to Melbourne on 30 November 1974. When we arrived we were not able to either speak or understand English but we were excited about the possibilities in Australia. We initially lived at the Enterprise Hostel for a little while, and then moved to the Midway Migrant Hostel. My first job was for a Tobacco farm in Echuca. I then worked for MCKAY metallurgy, and then for ANGLISS Meat company in Footscray. Incentivised by my parents to continue my education, I resume my education at around 21 years of age. It was initially to learn English and then to continue my Tertiary education. I always understood education was fundamental and that I needed to speak English to denounce human rights abuses in Uruguay. In 1987, I received a Bachelor of Arts in Australian Cultural Studies from The Footscray Institute of Technology. I owe my education to the Gough Whitlam Government who introduced the Tertiary Education Allowance Scheme. I also thank Prime Minister Malcom Fraser for continuing the program. During my time at university I constantly participated in political activities in the pro-democracy movements for Uruguay and other Latin American countries, and for the freedom of political prisoners. A lot of work was done in arguing the case for the freedom of Nelson Mandela.
I served for 15 years with the Trade Union Movement. The unions and specifically the late John Halfpenny supported my education and provided me with a network which led to the opportunity to work for Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe under the Hawke and Keating administrations until 1996. When Labor lost the election in 1996 I was unemployed for a year and spent that time painting houses and doing a variety of other jobs. During this time I also met with Labor Members of Parliament (MP) and was asked to consider a role as a MP. Since 1999 I have been an Australian Labor Party member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly representing the electorates of Sunshine, Derrimut and Tarneit. My biggest achievement to date is undoubtedly being elected unanimously as the first Latin American Speaker of the Victorian Legislative Assembly; breaking a 600-year-old British tradition of never being a Speaker of Spanish or Latin American background. This is a triumph for the Latin community. I am impartial and act as intermediary to both sides (the government and the opposition). I really value Australian democracy and freedom because we lost it in Uruguay.
Language – It was very hard for me to immigrate to a country where I did not speak the language. Latinos are social butterflies. Not being able to communicate in my twenties was frustrating. I remember getting sick and feeling depressed; I felt isolated. I remember going out to a party and not even being able to ask a girl to dance.
Speaking with an accent - Not having an English speaking background can be difficult at times. The challenge is, having to be twice as good to be considered equal. Nowadays having an accent and a different background is celebrated; however, some institutions still hesitate to hire people that have an accent, missing out on the potential that bilingual people bring. I consider myself as bilingual but most importantly bicultural.
Racism- Being an immigrant to Australia in the 70s was hard as there was a lot of racism to anyone that looked like a foreigner. It was difficult to go to a pub without being asked by locals: what are you doing here? You felt intimidated. Modestly, something I am proud of is that I never whispered or stopped talking in Spanish out of embarrassment. I am proud of my heritage and have always retained my Latino identity wherever I go.
Greeting style – Latin Americans are warm people; they kiss and hug to express affection when they greet each other (even if it’s for the first time). In my public school in Uruguay you would kiss the teacher at the end of the year. I remember here in my graduation I went to kiss the teacher and she was startled, moved away and said: What are you doing?
Personal style - We, as Latin Americans, are very open. As soon as we get to know anyone we tell each other everything about our lives. In contrast, Australians are very reserved. I have worked with people for decades and I still don’t know anything about their private life.
Discrimination – In Latin America there is a lot of classism, here there is a little bit but it is easier to break into it. In Australia, we are better with regard to gender equality than in Latin America, but (in my experience) worse regarding ageism.
Piece of Advice
Education –Nelson Mandela said ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’. Education will transform your life and your community. In my case I have no doubt that if I hadn’t studied, I wouldn’t have achieved anything.
Sacrifice – Michelangelo said ‘The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it’. I didn’t aim for mediocrity (I am saying this with respect as I understand we all have different capacities). I know it is hard but good things come with sacrifice and determination.
Be open – Nowadays, Australia is a fantastic country to live as there are so many cultures existing in harmony. Be open to diversity and accept the human being without judgement of class, ideology, race, income, gender, age or any other stereotype.
In the next few years...
Telmo will continue to work in the Victorian Public service. He is working on fighting against prejudices, in particular ageism, and in favour of human rights. He is also interested in strengthening the relationship between Australia and Latin America. In his private life, he will continue enjoying music, long-distance open-water swimming, rowing, soccer, the Uruguayan Social Club and his family. One of his dreams is to inspire other Latin Americans to work for the government. If you wish to contact Telmo email us at firstname.lastname@example.org