Johnny embodies true strength; he is a fighter, a teacher and a man of the people. It’s not often you get the chance to meet someone who is so willing to share their story and boy does Johnny have a good one to share. From humble beginings to big dreams, he’s lived life across 3 different continents and at the young age of 27 has lived a life some people 60+ haven’t experienced.
A – Where were you born?
I was born in Gothenburg, Sweden. I grew up in Sweden because my grandparents migrated there after the military coup. They’ve been there since the 70’s.
C – Were there many Chileans that migrated to Sweden?
Sweden has the biggest Chilean population [outside of Chile] in the world. My grandfather was in the Communist party so they had to flee quickly. Sweden was the first country to open its doors but they wanted to come here [Australia] first. There’s actually an area in Sweden called Norrköping, it’s near Stokhold, they call it Tocoköping because everyone there is from Tocopilla in Chile.
A – Where in Chile where they originally from?
We’re from the country. In Valparaiso. A little town called Olmue.
A – Are both your parents Chilean? Were they also born in Sweden?
No, my mother was born in Chile but she was maybe 2 years old when she got to Sweden. My father was born in Chile too, he went to Sweden when he was 14 and then he migrated here [Sydney, Australia] when I was around 6 years old. So that’s how I got the opportunity to come here.
C – What was it like growing up in Sweden?
I didn’t grow up with my parents, my grandmother raised me. My grandmother is sick, she had her pension in Sweden but she didn’t like Sweden so she would go for 6 months to Sweden, get her medication, then we would leave to Chile. I would go to school there [in Chile], stay there for 6 months a year, come back to Sweden and then go back to Chile again. When I was 6 years old, I went to Peru with my mother.
C – If you can remember, what was the contrast between living in Peru and living in Chile?
I don’t really know because there was a civil war going on in Peru in the 1990’s. I was there in 1996 I think. I wasn’t really allowed to go out.
C – You couldn’t go out? Because it was too dangerous?
It was too dangerous. People were getting kidnapped. We would go on the bus; the bus was half a bus because it had been bombed. It was dangerous back then. So, I wasn’t allowed to do anything. It was like I was under house arrest. After 6 months my grandfather picked me up from Peru and we went to Chile again.
C- Did you feel safer in Chile?
Yeah. I lived in Chile from the ages of 6 to 10. I lived there with my grandma and grandpa. I loved being with my grandparents, they were my parents, they brought me up. My grandmother had to go back to Sweden and my grandfather had to go work to bring money so he left the state. So I stayed with my aunty in Chile. I was floating around with the people who could take care of me.Then my dad brought me to Australia, I lived here for 2 years. After that I went back to Sweden and that’s when I stayed there until I was 21.
C – How did you feel when you lived here for the first time?
I was here for almost 2 years and hated it. I remember I cried for like a year. Every day I asked my dad to take me back to Chile.
C – Why did you hate it here so much?
I’m from the country. Even now, I like it here because of the opportunities but I hate this stressful society and the system we live in. I’m from the country in Chile and I grew up there half my life. It’s chill there. Everyone knows each other, there’s no noise, its peaceful and everyone is humble.
A – Were you relieved to leave Australia?
I went back to Sweden and I hated it as well. I was living with my mum for the firs time and it didn’t work out. We were too different. All I wanted to do was go back to Chile. I left home when I was 15. I lived everywhere, with friends, girlfriends, wherever I could find a home, I lived.
C – You were almost like a gypsy?…
Yeah. All I was doing was training and competing.
A – So you were already interested in Kickboxing?
Yes, ever since I moved back to Sweden. I started at 14.
A – It seems you’ve always been very independent…
I’m used to making it on my own. No one has helped me anyway. I know what to do to survive. I don’t need advice from anyone, I feel like I can do it.
C – What made you come back to Australia if you hated it so much?
I was in a bit of trouble in Sweden. I was 21 and getting into bad stuff. I just needed to get out of there. The environment was too heavy, I couldn’t get away from it. Everyone I knew was involved in something.
A – So, you decided, that’s it I’m going back to Australia?
I gave my dad a call and was like hey can you help me out? And he bought me at ticket. I lived with him in Gladesville for 2 months and then I moved out again.
To start off with, I was working as a kitchen hand here, cleaning dishes. My dream was always to teach though. I’ve been teaching since I was 17. My grandfather was a teacher and it’s always been my gift to teach. I can engage really well with people. I always wanted to do it but I didn’t know how to.
I went back to Chile to visit and was like alright let’s do some boxing. My cousins were like why are you cleaning dishes man? Fuck you’re good at what you do, go back and do it!. So I came back and boom I did it. It worked.
C – How did you make it happen?
I’d email people and message people on Facebook. I’d say I’ll give you the first session free, come meet me at the park, bring a friend. It started with 2 people, 4 people, 6 people, it went up to 10 people and then from 10 people I had 25 people. I was always posting on Facebook, always posting so people could see what I was doing. Then I got an opportunity to work at a gym. From the gym I grew their boxing classes. I then went to another fight gym, I grew that fight gym. Then I thought fuck it, I’m going to do it by myself and then I met a guy and he’s now letting me do my own thing.
It’s all people skills, that’s all it is. It’s about how you connect with people. About how you make them feel. If you go to a restaurant and someone greets you and treats you well, you leave the restaurant feeling good and thinking I’m going to go back again. So that’s how I treat people. These are skills learnt in Chile. I go to Chile, my neighbours come and see me with presents. They invited me to their house to eat, I go eat and I can see they don’t have enough food for themselves but they’re feeding me. You’ve got to travel to learn about this stuff.
C – How do you find the people there different to the people here?
You just have to go there and experience it. They’re strong people. Every time I go there and come back it’s like everything is better. My business runs better and mental state gets better. These people have nothing and they still kick it. They still make shit happen out of nothing. They eat out of nothing, they get work out of nothing. They’re hustlers. When people get put into positions where there’s nothing to do but use their survival instinct, it happens. Here we’re too comfortable on relying on people. We’re always relying on something. People there make shit happen. You see little businesses like a guy riding a bike, making ice cream with the bike and think how the fuck did you come up with this?
C – Would you say Chile is home to you?
For sure, 100%. If I had money, if I could live financially well over there, I would be there. My goal is to retire, go back there and live in the house where my grandparents lived.
C – Do you speak to your grandparents often?
My grandfather passed but my grandmother is still kicking. She’s in Sweden now. I speak to her all the time. She found out about messenger, it’s so good. I use to go 6 months without knowing anything. Then you’d get a phone call out of nowhere and it was my grandma.
C – Overall how have you found being Latino in Australia? Has anything stood out to you at all?
I think it’s just been a plus. To be honest, I’m so proud of my ethnicity. Look at how we’re built as humans, we’re strong people. If you read about at our history, you learn about all the shit we’ve been through. If there is injustice, the people stand up. Look at Venezuela, a lot of other countries would fold but no these people stand up and fight. That’s how I feel being Latino.
A – Can you tell us more about your community work?
I run boxing classes for kids at Glebe Community Centre. I’ve always wanted to help the community and a police officer approached my friend saying they needed somone to teach the kids boxing. She reached out to me and I started by teaching them down at the park, until I got this place.
I just let them have some fun. I don’t take it too seriously, I let them come and have a bit of a laugh. These kids go through a lot. They’re so switched on for their age, they’ve seen so much. So I make them happy, let them have fun and forget about it.
Johnny’s Instagram; @johnny.barra