Eagle Bar’s Kurt MacIntosh asks South American bar staff (past and present) why they decided to bring their Latin warmth to ‘cold’ New Zealand. 

Growing up in Invercargill in the 90s, the only language options available to us at high school were French and Japanese, and if I remember rightly, some of the fancier schools also offered German. With no direct flights or access to the culture, countries like Columbia, Brazil and Chile seemed imaginary, mysterious places of which we heard little and knew even less. To my young Kiwi imagination, these countries were exotic, tropical and sexy, but also dangerous, staunchly religious and repressive.

The first working holiday scheme between NZ and a Latin American country began with Chile in 1998 and has since proliferated to include most other countries in the region. Arriving in Auckland after 10 years abroad in 2010, I was immediately struck by the amount of Spanish and Portuguese being spoken around me on the streets. In the years since, I’ve watched Latin American culture grow and flourish here. New food trends arrive in waves and pepper our menus with offerings like ceviche, coxinha and empanadas. Music nights featuring reggaetón or Brazilian funk pop up regularly all over the city. New Zealand, it seems, has an unquenchable thirst for La Vida Latina.


I have often thought that Latinos make excellent bartenders. That gregarious, fun-loving energy is infectious and will liven up any party. In the 13 or so years I have worked at Eagle Bar, I’ve been very lucky to meet and become close with many people from all parts of Latin America, so I called on a few of my favourite bartenders past and present, Rodrigo (Columbia), Daniel (Chile), and Rafael (Brazil), to pick their brains about their experience coming to New Zealand and making it their home.

What was it about New Zealand that attracted you to come?

Rafael: I had met someone from NZ in Brazil and also wanted to study English. Between the English-speaking countries, NZ was a better and cheaper option.

Rodrigo: I think Lord of the Rings put NZ on the map when I was a child, but what really made it attractive was when Lorde became famous worldwide. She became a phenomenon in music at such a young age, and she made the effort to always talk about NZ – how this was a great place to live and how beautiful it was. I think she was a great piece of advertising for this country.

Daniel: I had never migrated to another country before. Some friends were planning a trip to NZ, and they asked me if I wanted to come with them, and without thinking too much, I said yes. I honestly came without expectations, without knowing where I was going to go, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Was it a major culture shock for you when you first arrived?

Daniel: It turned out to be a big shock, which didn’t mean I had a hard time adjusting. I have felt comfortable since I arrived. It has been difficult at times with my level of English – when I arrived, it was not the best and is still not the best. Every day is a new challenge and a new experience.

Rafael: I didn’t have a problem settling in, but a few odd things caught my attention, such as under-10s going to school and back home by themselves, houses with no fences, people walking in bare feet and driving on the other side of the road.

Rodrigo: My major cultural shock was NZ architecture. It was a particular combination of Asian-style modern buildings mixed with old English European-looking constructions. I have never seen that type of architecture anywhere in the world. I was also impressed and shocked when I found out about rent and property prices. Having to pay rent weekly was something that took me a while to assimilate.

What are some of the differences (good and bad) between gay communities here and in your home country/city?

Rafael: The good difference I would say – the gay community here is way less dangerous than in Brazil. There, some people try to take advantage by drugging you. On the other hand, the gay community in NZ is way smaller and doesn’t have many options to go out for a drink or dance according to your tribe or preferences.

Rodrigo: I think the main difference is that gay communities in my country are still very limited to gay men, and they are not as diverse as in New Zealand. In Latin America, if you belong to any other part of the rainbow different from just gay men, you still struggle to be accepted and to find a safe social circle to belong to and thrive in. It’s very sad and disappointing to know that the life expectancy of a trans person in Latin America is 35-40 years. This tells you how backwards they are in terms of sexual diversity. I feel like NZ gay communities are 20 years ahead of Latino communities. The fact that religion is not involved in government decisions and is not a big driver in how New Zealand society behaves gives the opportunity to rainbow individuals to thrive, make their own choices and find a place in the community where they can make their dreams come true.

Daniel: In my country, Chile, there have been great advances in terms of laws in favour of the LGBTQ+ community. Unfortunately, education about it is still taboo, which means that one does not feel safe or protected. I don’t feel as free in the streets, as there is still a lot of hatred towards the community.

What misconceptions do you find prevalent among Kiwis about your home country or Latinos in general? 

Rafael: Not all, but some Kiwis have a bad concept that we South Americans want to take advantage of them somehow because of the corruption in our countries. The truth is, we are a big population, and bad things tend to happen more often with big populations.

Rodrigo: The main one was finding out that the water in the sea was cold. The beaches looked pretty and like paradise in pictures, but once I jumped in for the first time, I found out why the beaches looked so empty in pictures. The other thing that struck me was that I always thought that Auckland was going to be as busy as other big cities that I had been to before, but it was the opposite. I like that, though.

What is your favourite thing about living in New Zealand?

Daniel: I like the feeling of being free.

Rafael: My favourite thing about NZ is the quality of life. If you want to work hard, even with a minimum-wage job, you can have a decent life with way less danger or violence than in South America.

Rodrigo: My favourite thing about living in NZ is how easy it is to be in touch with nature. It’s great to be able to drive for a bit and find a nice walk to do or a nice beach to sit on and relax. My second favourite thing is how safe I feel. It’s great to be out in the streets and know that I can use my cell phone or wear and carry nice things without the fear of being robbed or attacked.

What is the thing you miss most about home?

Rafael: My family and the warmth from people. It feels like sometimes Kiwis can be very cold to accept different ethnicities.

Rodrigo: The food in Latin America is the biggest thing I miss. Drinking natural fresh juices every day with all my meals, a big portion of vegetables that you can get from the corner shop at a very accessible price and the diversity of the cuisine in general.

Daniel: I am happy to be here in NZ, creating my new future, but being so far from my family makes me miss them.

It is often put to us that New Zealanders are pragmatic people who pride themselves on our culture of understatement. It is, as my friends have illustrated, a beautiful, open and safe place, but also with its limits and perhaps sometimes a little chilly (both literally and metaphorically). I have always found the forthright and expressive nature of my Latino friends and colleagues the perfect foil to the friendly but sometimes guarded nature of my Kiwi brethren. Lying on Uretiti beach on New Year’s Day, being entertained by a crowd of Brazilians enjoying ball games, music and dancing, I was reminded of dreamy days spent on the sand in Ipanema. Brazilians, it has to be said, do beaches better than anyone – bringing to a typically laidback NZ summer day some of the vibrancy of arguably the most famous beach in the world seemed to me a perfect mix. By bringing the best of their culture here and making our beautiful, multicultural home even more faceted and vibrant, our Latino friends are giving us gifts that perhaps we didn’t even know we needed. To that, I say nga mihi kia koutou, and keep it coming. Arriba!