‘In my dreams I spoke other languages’

Almost 30 years after arriving in Switzerland, Cristina Anliker Mansour has indeed arrived. Born in Brazil and raised in Peru, the lover of languages is now a Swiss politician who advocates for the rights of women, families and foreigners.

This content was published on June 23, 2013 - 11:00

The Bern city council meeting has been under way for half an hour when Cristina Mansour arrives. Wearing a red plastic raincoat, red high heels and an enormous black backpack, she crosses the room in the 600-year-old town hall and takes her assigned seat in front of a row of stained glass windows. She follows the presentation being made in Swiss-German as she unpacks her gear.

Like most members of the city council, Mansour is not a professional politician. She has come directly from her job in Biel, where she heads the local branch of an institute for vocational training, continuing education and language instruction serving foreigners.

Early influences

Mansour has been introduced to many different cultures in her life. The third of four children, she was born in Brazil in 1964 to a Peruvian mother and a Lebanese father. Her father was a businessman and her mother was a lawyer and politician who worked for a trade union.

Her parents separated when she was four years old, and her father returned to Brazil. Mansour and her siblings lived with her mother and grandparents in Lima, the Peruvian capital. Although her grandfather lived with them, she says, “I remember this house as a women’s house. Men weren’t really present or there for me.”

In the 1960s and 1970s it was common for Peruvian women to work outside the home. “My grandmother’s sisters were teachers. In the city, women were well educated – all the women around us had an education.”

Attracted to languages

Mansour finished secondary school in Peru in 1981. Afterwards she took classes in English.

“I was fascinated. I loved languages. It’s my passion,” she proclaims. “I remember at the age of six I had a girlfriend whose father was French, and she taught me some French words. And once, I was maybe seven years old, I tried to talk to a couple of American tourists, and I couldn’t, you know, because I couldn’t say a word in English. Every day I dreamed about other countries. And in my dreams I spoke other languages.”

In 1985 Mansour set off for Germany. She worked for one week for an Englishman who “sold furniture to the Americans”. But she didn’t like Germany. “I didn’t feel comfortable. I felt very alone, so I decided to come to Switzerland.”

A new life

She found life in Switzerland quite different from life in Peru.

“Switzerland is an organised country, and Peru is messy. We are a lot of people – almost 20 million – and Switzerland had 5.5 million at the time. I grew up in Lima; it’s a huge city. I was used to noise and traffic and pollution, and I came here and when they talked about cities, I always asked: ‘How many millions do you have?’ I couldn’t understand how a city can have less than a million people.”

In Bern she stayed with a Swiss acquaintance she had met in Peru. It was difficult at first, because she didn’t have a residence permit, but Mansour liked the idea of living with multiple languages.

“I was curious. I’m not narrow-minded. I’m open and I was interested. I wanted to stay.” But finding friends was different. “I’m very extroverted, and Swiss people need time. A lot of time.” 

Early on, she focused on fitting in. “I thought it’s better to learn German if I’m with Swiss people. At the beginning I didn’t have a lot of contact with Latin Americans.”

In 1987 she married a Swiss man she had met in Zweisimmen and automatically became a Swiss citizen. “It was not arranged, or just because of the permit, but I think if I could have had the opportunity to choose I wouldn’t have gotten married, because I’m not pro-marriage. But I couldn’t get a residence permit without getting married,” she says.

Mansour and her husband had two children in the 1990s. Although she had earned a hotel degree before they were born, working in hospitality wasn’t an option for a young mother, and so she turned to translating, which she could do from home.

Engaging in the community

In the 25 years after her arrival in Switzerland Mansour attended a variety of courses, from French and German to marketing and computers to coaching and adult education. And she became involved in a variety of local projects.

One of those was Flying Wisniñas, which provided role models for young foreign women looking for apprenticeships. The girls “actually have a lot of problems finding an apprenticeship, because they are foreigners, and are discriminated against”, she says. “We visited the schools and the classes and we talked to these girls. We gave them courage.”

From 2001 to 2007 Mansour was involved in promotion of integration in the city of Bern. The volunteer work was “a form of networking”, she says. “And it was also a contribution for me as a citizen. You have rights and responsibilities. I can’t expect to demand my rights if I’m not ready to give something.”

A political presence

Through her work in the community, Mansour caught the attention of a member of the House of Representatives at the time, Barbara Gurtner, who suggested that Mansour might like to run for office. In 2007, Mansour earned a seat in the 80-member Bern city parliament, representing one of four Green parties there.

She describes the Grünes Bündnis party as “rather left than middle. We aim to achieve equality for foreigners. Equal rights. No discrimination or racism.” A number of the party’s elected officials have a migration background.

Mansour is disappointed that local initiatives giving foreigners the right to vote still haven’t passed in Bern. “Always it’s a problem. We don’t get through,” she says. “Canton Bern is very conservative. The city is very liberal, progressive, but we have a huge canton. The countryside is our problem.”

Even though non-Swiss generally cannot vote in Switzerland, there are ways they can be involved in local politics, according to Mansour. “I would say, engage yourself in your district, no matter how, in an organisation, at the school. Participate whenever you can. Inform yourself about the political subjects. And don’t let others decide for you.”

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