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Isilda Lang: From Tomé to Pitsmoor

Isilda left behind her homeland when she fled Chile’s military dictatorship in the late 1970s. She found Sheffield to be a place of sanctuary and has since become a strong link both in Sheffield’s Chilean community and her local neighbourhood of Pitsmoor and Burngreave.

Isilda lang portrait photo on Pitsmoor hill

Isilda Lang

© Jeremy Abrahams

My mum arrived in Sheffield on a grey day in April 1977, a stark contrast to the colour and warmth of her native Chile which had been in the final throes of summer.

Home had been tainted with violence following the military coup of ‘73 which saw tens of thousands tortured or killed, and now she sought refuge. Sheffield welcomed her and her fellow Chileans with open arms as the steel industry, miners, trade unions and the Labour Party fought to raise awareness through the Chile Solidarity Campaign.

Forty-three years later, Isilda del Carmen Lang (née Cuevas-Aguilera) is an established local hero, her reputation earned through childminding, co-founding and running the St James’ Playgroup in Pitsmoor/Burngreave for decades, and her relentless community activism.

Isilda has become a proud Sheffielder and an even prouder Pitsmoorian. Refusing to be defined by the cancers she’s been diagnosed with, she continues to find strength in her community.


I arrived in Sheffield to stay with a Chilean family, and here it was spring. Sheffield was a very smoky city because of the coal and steel, and it was a shock to see so much smoke around because of the factories. I arrived with no English at all - which was very hard, to learn the language. I started working in a restaurant, then a kitchen in the Royal Infirmary, and later the Hallamshire [Hospital]. I learned the language while working and listening to the news.

A year later, I went to celebrate the Socialist Party anniversary in the West Indian Club in Attercliffe. All the Chileans went, and there I met my future husband, who knew a Chilean girl who was also studying at Sheffield Hallam. He offered himself to teach us English in return for teaching him Spanish. Eventually, he learned Spanish before we learned English. The language was a huge barrier for me.

We moved to Chester for his job and stayed for six years but he always liked Sheffield and I did too, because it’s a beautiful part of the country. It reminds me very much of the little seaside town where I lived when young, Tomé. It’s full of hills, but of course Chile’s are on a bigger scale.

In June 1985 we moved, with our youngest son at three and a half weeks old, back to Sheffield, then eventually settled down in our forever home. I do miss seeing the sea from the house and hearing the waves at nighttime.

Sheffield... it’s the people, really. The people who live around Pitsmoor I have made really great friends with through the years. I can call them my family, practically. At first it was difficult of course, but after that the children were growing up and went to school, I started making friends.

We started a group, a baby group. I thought of when I had my own child in Chester, not speaking English and not having anybody around me. I felt lonely sometimes, just with my child. I used to do a lot of walking with him, going to the park and feeding the swans, just to be out of the home. I wanted the group to be a friendly place for this reason. I think it started in September 1986, and I was running it until December 2019, until I got ill.

Over the years we did jumble sales, and ‘Bomber’ Graham, Jonny Nelson and Prince Naseem all came to help fundraise. The playgroup has been going strong since then, as generations have grown and we’ve always had a good mix of cultures come along. The community is brought together and arrange picnics, go for walks. We love our environment. Green City Action do activities with us in the allotments and we do pond dipping in Crabtree Pond with Sheffield Wildlife Trust.

I became a childminder, and at the same time I belonged to the Red Cross. I had joined in 1982. My husband had practically pushed me to do it because I was terrified to go to a room where everybody would speak English and no one would understand me. But I think it was probably the best thing he did for me really, because it was something I really, really enjoyed.

I stayed for 15 years. I joined the Red Cross because I couldn’t go and work in the hospital, but I could help my community. I went with a basic knowledge of first aid and finished up teaching it to adults and children as a centre officer. I used to work at football matches, and even met Ian Rush in Liverpool.

In 1989 I was involved in the Hillsborough disaster, when I was called in to go to the Northern General because I lived nearby and I was on 24-hour call. It was something very traumatic for everybody. I think it will live with me forever.

When I returned to Sheffield I got involved with the Chilean community here. We did sports on the weekend, football and later basketball, we did trips to the seaside, Wales, went camping, then worked with the wider Latin American community to celebrate our national day. We did a project making arpilleras [sewn tapestries which document trauma, survival, healing and memories], and these were displayed around Sheffield and even at the United Nations in Geneva.

Through my job at Sure Start I got involved in breastfeeding support and I worked with a lot of refugee families here, to try and help as much as I can because I know what you go through as a refugee. For example, help with keeping in touch with family back home, babies, housing, resources which they have in the community.

In the last ten years, with the change of the government, most Sure Start places have closed, and not as much help is available. For refugees at the moment, one of the worst things is to try and learn the language - that and the poverty.

Everyone’s welcome at the playgroup. It’s a place to make friendships which last for life, which has been my case. The friends in the local community I made there are my rocks, are supporting me through my illness, which I’m very grateful for. In this case you need your friends around.

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