An Illegal Alien, And Putting It On a T-Shirt

Barcelona’s undocumented street vendors spent years running from the police. Then they launched a streetwear brand to fight for their rights. The message? “We belong.”

This story was first published in my newsletter, blue whale.

It all began with a panic attack.

Daouda Dieye was sleeping on his cousin’s sofa in Terrassa, a suburb of Barcelona. The immigrant from Senegal had recently lost his work permit. A former street vendor, he’d been working the harvest all over Spain and the owner of a farm in Jaén had agreed to employ him on contract to help him get his papers. But in 2011, a new government toughened immigration laws, rescinding Daouda’s permit. All attempts to get it back had failed. Now Daouda was again collecting scrap metal around Barcelona with a shopping cart. He was stressed out.

That night on the sofa, Daouda suddenly felt his soul leaving his body. Frightened, he called his cousin. “I told him, dude, I’m dying!”, he recalled. An ambulance took him to the hospital, where doctors told him there was nothing physically wrong with him. “They said I suffered from anxiety. I didn’t even know what anxiety meant,” Daouda said.

Soon, Daouda was giving speeches on racism and the hypocrisy and cruelty of European immigration laws.

The doctors sent him home and told him to see a therapist. A friend recommended free sessions at the Espacio del Inmigrante, a collective in the Raval neighbourhood that offers medical, legal and practical help to undocumented immigrants. While Daouda was waiting to see the therapist, he witnessed one of the group’s regular meetings. “I said, wow, can I speak too? They said yes. So I explained my experiences as an immigrant and with racism.” They told him to come back the week after. Soon, Daouda was giving speeches on racism and the hypocrisy and cruelty of European immigration laws.

“Sometimes, something happens that’s really frightening but it will change everything, and you didn’t even notice,” Daouda says. “They took away my papers, I had a panic attack, I went to see a therapist at the Espacio del Inmigrante — and that’s where our union was born. That’s where the idea was born to change the lives of street vendors.”

Daouda Dieye near his home in Barcelona

Daouda told me all this one afternoon last autumn, in a dingy bar close to his flat in Barcelona’s Gràcia neighbourhood. He would shortly have to leave to start his shift at a fast food restaurant in Besòs, on the outskirts of the city. It’s not a great job but it’s legal, because Daouda has his work permit back — also thanks to the “Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes de Barcelona”, or Popular Union of Barcelona Street Vendors, which he helped found. Because the union led to a fashion label. And the fashion label, curiously, has become famous.

If you’ve been to Barcelona at any point over the last ten years or so, you’ve most likely seen the street vendors. The vast majority are undocumented immigrants from Senegal, though a few come from other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Because they offer their goods on large blankets, they’re called manteros and their trade is known as top mantamanta meaning blanket in Spanish.

It’s not uncommon to see manteros, blankets turned into sacks over their shoulders, flee the authorities by rushing into traffic.

On any day between spring and autumn, dozens of blanket men line the Rambla or the streets along the beaches, offering fake Prada sunglasses, Yves Saint Laurent handbags, Nike sneakers and FC Barcelona merch to tourists. The operate as individual entrepreneurs, buying the goods from Chinese importers and selling them at their own risk. And the activity is risky: if caught by the police, they’ll lose their investments. So it’s not uncommon to see manteros, blankets turned into sacks over their shoulders, flee the authorities by rushing into traffic or hiding inside a Metro station.

Manteros selling their goods on La Rambla, Barcelona’s central tourist boulevard

Shortly after Daouda arrived in Barcelona via Tenerife, in 2007, he was a street vendor himself, though things were different back then. Instead of sneakers and bags, Daouda would sell pirated CDs and DVDs — Next, with Nicolas Cage, was a big hit. Also, he didn’t use a blanket. Instead, he went from bar to bar in Terrassa, surreptitiously displaying some of his goods on the counter as he sipped a Coca Cola. His customers were locals, not tourists. But most importantly, there was little trouble. “The bar owners wouldn’t say anything,” Daouda said. “Someone would ask for a particular film, then buy me a drink and we would chat for a bit. It’s not like today, with this whole crisis and everyone blaming each other. We weren’t so famous back then.”

Daouda believes the trade changed about a year after he got into it. Someone started selling Dolce & Gabbana belts. The manteros began moving into the city centre to target tourists. But by then Daouda, who’d had a few run-ins with the police in Terrassa, was already working as a harvest hand on farms all over Spain.

While he was away, the manteros suddenly found themselves at the centre of a public debate about street crime.

Barcelona has long been a hotbed of pickpockets, at least since 2001, when I first moved to the city. I’ve lost count of the times my handbag was stolen there over the next 10 years. In the early 2000s, the Raval was still considered too dangerous for a guiri, a fair-haired foreigner, to walk through. As long as I can remember, Barcelona has been battling street crime, prostitution and the drug trade, which are as much part of Barcelona’s tourism industry as the hip hotels and acclaimed restaurants — and the manteros.

In the collective imagination, street crime and street vending merged into one big problem, one mess to be cleaned up.

But you don’t easily spot the pickpockets. They don’t hang out in large groups, instantly distinguishable by their skin colour, which is so different from that of the people around them. The drug dealers don’t peddle their goods on large blankets. The prostitutes have been largely driven into brothels. And so the group that’s been blamed for Barcelona’s perceived lawlessness, the recurring “crises of insecurity” decried in local media every summer, have been the manteros.

Local shops protest against what they see as a practice damaging their (tax-paying) business. Politicians complain about the tarnish to the city’s image. Rumours spread that the blanket men are actually controlled by organised crime gangs. The media delights in reporting graphic stories of violence, usually perpetrated by manteros against the police, sometimes against tourists, because they click like crazy. In the collective imagination, street crime and street vending merged into one big problem, one mess to be cleaned up.

The result was intense police pressure. Between 2011 and 2015, the Catalan police force Mossos d’Escuadra spent 28,000 hours persecuting the manteros. (This doesn’t include the time invested by Barcelona’s municipal police.) Nobody knows how many street vendors there are in Barcelona, but estimates usually put them at around 400. In a city of 1,6 million people and over 9 million tourists a year, that’s a lot of attention.

Street vendors hiding from the police in the Plaça Catalunya Metro station

One day, one of Daouda’s friends at the Espacio del Inmigrante asked him whether the street sellers were controlled by the mafia. He’d read something like that, he said. Soon after, a street vendor he knew had his leg broken during an altercation with the police. Daouda felt it was time the manteros fought back.

“The idea was a union,” he explained. “Not a labour union but one that gives voice to street vendors, that allows the street vendors to speak. So that every time the media publishes something untrue about the manteros, we can step forward and defend our rights. Instead of hiding, we show our faces and debate and explain.”

The members of the Espacio del Inmigrante began talking to manteros about the need to organise. Initially, there was little enthusiasm, Daouda said. As undocumented immigrants, many were worried about the exposure.

“The idea was a union that gives a voice to street vendors. Instead of hiding, we show our faces and debate and explain.”

Things changed in 2015. In May that year, the mantero Sidil Moctar was placed in pre-trial custody for attacking a police officer. (An act of self-defense, the manteros say.) In August, the mantero Mor Sylla died in the beach town Salou, 100 km south of Barcelona, when police entered his flat and he fell off the balcony, under circumstances that remain unresolved. Defending the police’s actions during a press conference, the then Catalan interior minister Jordi Jané said that the top manta trade was “extremely harmful” and that the practice “puts in danger the Catalan welfare state.”

This was more than the street vendors were willing to take. In October 2015, nearly 80 manteros came together in the Santa Mònica Arts Center in Barcelona to announce the formation of the Popular Street Vendors’ Union of Barcelona. Daouda, however, wasn’t present for the act. He was off working the harvest again.

One of the Union’s first actions was to launch a video called “5 Lies about Manteros”, in which they addressed what they saw as the most common misconceptions. From there, they quickly gained both confidence and recognition. In May 2016, they called a protest in support of Sidil Moctar. Hundreds attended — not just street sellers, but also sympathetic locals and other immigrants — blocking central thoroughfares for hours. The following November, the Union was invited by the Vatican to attend the World Meeting of Popular Movements, where Pope Francis took the hand of the mantero Moustapha Ndao and told him to “keep fighting.”

The manteros’ political savvy kept growing. Groups similar to Barcelona’s Union sprang up in Zaragoza, Madrid and Valencia. In December 2016, their representatives spoke before Spain’s parliament in support of a proposition by the leftwing Unidos Podemos party to decriminalise street selling, making it subject to fines rather than criminal proceedings. A majority of MPs voted in favour.

A solidarity event for manteros at an anti-capitalist community garden in the Raval in September 2019

In Barcelona, meanwhile, the Union called on the leftist government of Ada Colau, who was herself a social activist before she became a politician, to ease police pressure on the manteros. Colau was not afraid to oppose powerful business interests — she’d put a moratorium on all new hotel construction upon taking office — but when it came to the manteros, she found herself in a bind. Ideologically, her government was in favour of protecting the weakest members of society. However, she was equally opposed to the takeover of public space for private gain. And anyway, a laissez faire approach risked angering not just businesses, but the wider public.

Eventually, Colau’s strategy was twofold: the government would continue to police street vending while offering a legal alternative to the vendors. In March 2017, the city launched Diomcoop, a social cooperative that provides jobs in logistics, cleaning, sewing, cooking and security to former manteros and other undocumented immigrants.

The compromise looked good in theory, but it failed to appease the public and business owners when the top manta sale inevitably surged again during the summer months. Nor did it please the manteros, who say Diomcoop didn’t recruit among their ranks and who continued to suffer — and protest against — police repression and racism.

In 2017, the manteros took stock. Nearly two years of sustained activism had done little to change the public conversation about top manta. The criticism levelled against them always stayed the same: that they were illegally selling pirated goods. “They tell us we’re the mafia, that we’re copying,” Daouda said. “If a journalist wants to shut me up, they tell me, ‘You’re selling fakes.’”

They took a pejorative word, top manta, and turned it into a point of pride. They took a cause and turned it into a clothing line.

So the manteros decided to counter this argument with more than words. In July 2017, the Union announced the launch of its own streetwear label, named Top Manta. They rented a small shop in one of the seedier streets of the Raval and started printing catchy slogans and designs on t-shirts and hoodies. “Fake System, True Clothes,” reads one. “Legal Clothing, Illegal People,” another. One design shows a crying black face, another a roaring panther encircled by the words “Black Manters Barcelona”, in the style of a U.S. university sweater. The Top Manta logo is a stylised blanket that’s also reminiscent of a boat — an allusion to the perilous sea-crossing most of the manteros undertook to come to Europe.

The brand, developed with the support of the hip Spanish magazine Playground, was an instant hit among the left-leaning, anti-capitalist parts of Barcelona — even though the manteros deftly used classic (capitalist) marketing techniques. They’d taken a pejorative word, top manta, and turned it into a point of pride. They’d taken a cause and turned it into a clothing line. They would refuse to be victims, but they’d allow people to wear their support for the victims of our world order on their chests. They made activism look badass. People loved it.

Mansour, a Union member, working at the Top Manta shop in the Raval

In March 2018, Top Manta launched a crowdfunding campaign to grow their business, under the slogan “Clothes made by illegal people.” The aim was to buy screen-printing materials, pay utility bills and raise a starter salary. Within three days, they had reached their 20,000€ minimum goal. When the campaign closed, in June 2018, 67,000€ had been donated.

Since then, Top Manta has become known all over Spain and even beyond its borders. Last year, the label was one of five projects to win the Bridgebuilder Challenge by OpenIDEO, the do-good arm of the global design firm IDEO. Campaigns like this year’s “Lotería Mantera”, which offered a spin on Spain’s traditional Three King’s lottery and sorted 20 denim jackets designed by Barcelona-based artists, are hugely successful at raising both money and publicity. The Union’s spokesmen, Aziz Faye and Lamine Saar, are gifted speakers and a regular presence in Spanish newspapers and TV. The Union’s skillful use of photography, video and social media is fuelling the reach of the brand. Today, Top Manta has 37,000 Instagram followers, growing fast.

Right from the start, the manteros have politically aligned themselves with Barcelona’s leftist groups. The Espacio del Inmigrante, where the Union was conceived, was set up in 2012 through an alliance of undocumented immigrants with Barcelona’s squatter movement, neighbourhood assemblies and the “Yayoflautas”, a loosely organised group of senior citizens that emerged from the massive protests, in 2011, against banks and home evictions after the 2008 mortgage crisis. (The immediate goal of the Espacio del Inmigrante was to provide medical services after a conservative government blocked undocumented immigrants from accessing the country’s public health care system in 2012.)

In 2015, a local group called Tras la Manta began protesting for the manteros by forming human chains in front of vendors to block police officers’ paths. And beginning in March 2016, the Sindicato organised several “rebel street markets”, in which manteros occupied the central La Rambla boulevard en masse to protest police violence and the politics of repression. Again, they received vocal support from groups like Tras la Manta, the Espacio del Inmigrante and even politicians from the leftist-separatist CUP party.

At the heart of the manteros’ messaging is the insistence that they belong, even though there are parts of society that work hard to exclude them.

The manteros, in return, have not been afraid to join the political fray. In a statement about Catalonia’s contested independence referendum on 1 October 2017 (which was held even after Spain’s Constitutional Court had declared it illegal), the Union stressed its support for the Catalan independence movement, connecting its struggle to that of African migrants. “We believe this situation won’t be resolved through legal means, nor in the courts … We know that rights are won in the streets.” The Union even offered to reprint the (often confiscated) ballot papers.

The statement also alluded to something that’s at the heart of all the manteros’ messaging: their insistence that they belong, even though there are parts of society that work hard to exclude them.

“We’re aware of what’s happening and even though nobody has asked or invited us to be part of this historic moment, we migrants have invited ourselves,” they wrote. “We’re used to people thinking we don’t know anything, that we’re not aware, that we’re not citizens, that we don’t vote, that we don’t know anything about politics, that we’re wrong, but we’ve been fighting and resisting this colonialist and racist Spanish government for years.”

Like many immigrant groups, the manteros have to constantly grapple with being underestimated. Most of them are multilingual, speaking their native Senegalese language, the country’s official French, Barcelona’s Catalan and Spanish and English to communicate with their customers. (Few European or American residents of Barcelona speak Catalan.)

Moreover, through the Union and the Top Manta brand, the manteros have touted top-notch communication, organising and entrepreneurial skills, as well as a dedication to values like human rights, democracy and social justice — implying that to exclude them would be not just hypocritical, it would be stupid.

“If they tell me to respect the norms, I want to be included in those norms. If I’m outside the norms, how can I respect them?”

Daouda, too, kept returning to this theme. The Top Manta label would do everything by the letter of the law, he said. Apparel isn’t being sold in the streets and the business pays all taxes. However, this was mostly a way of highlighting Europe’s double standards, injustice and racism. Because in truth, why should they even do things legally?

“Someone who isn’t recognised by the law can’t follow the law,” he said. “They call us illegal immigrants. A person who is illegal can’t do anything legal in their life. If they tell me to respect the norms, I want to be included in those norms. If I’m outside the norms, how can I respect them?”

As he launched into this topic, Daouda became increasingly agitated. “If the system excludes me, I can’t contribute anything. How am I going to integrate myself? By hating others because they’re black or because they’re street vendors? If I’m supposed to integrate, then others have to change their way of doing things and living together, so I can adapt myself to this system that they want.”

You may not want us, the manteros are saying. But we’re here, we contribute, and in truth, it’s not us who need to change — it’s you.

In March, as Spain went into one of the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns, the manteros again displayed their skill at both organising and campaigning. On 17 March, they launched the Mantero Food Bank, calling for donations to street vendors who are unable to work and earn a living. Within two days they announced they’d collected over 2,000€. By late April, 300 families had received grocery donations.

Ten days later, the manteros announced — in social media posts in Catalan, Spanish and English — that they’d turned the shuttered Top Manta shop into a sewing room to make face masks and surgical gowns for Catalan hospitals. 30 men and women were working 18 sewing machines to produce thousands of items, and soon they published slick videos showing manteros delivering medical equipment to hospitals, where staff applauded them. “Solidarity is a 360º circle,” they wrote. “Of giving and receiving, of looking after each other, of understanding that we are in the same boat, that one person cannot make it alone.”

The Street Vendor Union produces slick videos to accompany its corona shutdown campaigns

In early April, the Union declared that it was joining forces with other immigrant collectives for a Spain-wide campaign called #RegulationNow, calling on the Spanish government to issue residence permits to undocumented immigrants under a law that calls for this measure “in cases of public interest or national security”. Roughly 1,000 groups have joined the campaign.

“Many of our fellow manteros you see [sewing masks and gowns] have spent years in the Spanish state and still haven’t got their papers,” they wrote on Facebook. “Immigration laws prohibit us from being citizens with all rights: they prohibit us from having a work contract and condemn us to survive with the blanket in order to bring home a plate of food. Some think that we’ve come here with nothing to offer, but the truth is that we’re committed to the society we live in and want to be part of it, in equal conditions. We want to work, earn money and have the same rights as all people who, just like us, are building the villages and cities we live in.”

So far, Spanish government ministers have made only non-commital remarks, mostly about issuing papers to agricultural workers — inadvertently highlighting the cynicism that immigrant groups have decried all along. But even if the campaign doesn’t achieve its goals, Barcelona’s manteros will have succeeded in reminding people that papers or no papers, they aren’t going anywhere. And if they did, it’d be Spain’s loss.

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