Photo by Hannah Alcoseba
Top manta home
They are often seen at the centre of Barcelona, especially in areas thick with tourists and passers-by. They try to be inconspicuous, but it is impossible—tall, sub-Saharan men selling their perfectly laid out Gucci or Prada faux wares in front of El Corte Inglés, around Plaça Catalunya or along Passeig de Gràcia. On weekend afternoons, they can often be sighted at the harbour in Barceloneta, hawking their best handbags, sunglasses and CD knock-offs.
Already a part of the human scenery around the city centre, locals sometimes refer to them as ‘top manta’, coined from the popular London clothing label Top Shop, as they move around with their big blankets or manta made into bag containers for their wares. They draw the most attention while running through metro stations or along the city streets, with police officers chasing them, usually in vain.
Often, these street sellers have reached Barcelona in the same way as the people we see featured regularly on the news here—economic refugees from Senegal, Cameroon, Congo, Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria, among other sub-Saharan countries, who brave the high seas and starvation just to get to the Canary Islands, fighting for that one chance to enter what they refer to as ‘Fortress Europe’.
Members of S.O.S. Racismo, an association for the defense of human rights and anti-racism, think the authorities are not doing enough to solve the problem. “Fines for these people are just a response to this illegal activity. They [the authorities] can do better by offering a programme of work so that these people no longer have to sell illegal products on the street,” said Isabel Martínez, an S.O.S. Racismo spokeswoman.
Martínez recognised that the situation is further complicated by the fact that most of the top manta vendors arrive in the country illegally and do not have permits to work.
Despite this, she said, it is not so easy to conclude that it would have been better for them to stay in their respective countries, avoiding the risks of the boat ride, and a destiny in a foreign city selling products illegally.
“It is complicated to say exactly whether it is better for them to be here or not. For these people to really have a future, there must be a change in Spanish laws, with regards to giving them work contracts, and a change in the laws of their countries as well, with regards to the means of how they get here. There must be a change in both.”
Name: Obed Age: 30
Lived in Spain: 5 years
Obed, who asked that his real name not be used, came to Barcelona from Ghana a little over five years ago. He did not have the kind of network that the Senegalese do. He came here alone, surviving for the first few months with help from the Spanish Red Cross. He lived on the streets, with no food or money. At his lowest point, he was sleeping in bank foyers under cash machines and eating at soup kitchens. He began selling top manta out of desperation, he said.
Not only did he dislike spending the day looking out for police, Obed said he was also the victim of racism. He recounted an episode on the metro when an African man grabbed the bag of a woman in front of him. The woman immediately panicked and shouted for the police. When the police came, they arrested Obed instead of the real criminal, who had already fled. “Just because I was black, they thought I was the one who did it. The policeman even let his dog bite me. There was nothing for me to do because I was a foreigner,” he said.
His top manta days did not last long. Now, five years later, he has settled into a job fixing tyres in a shop in Martorell. Despite the difficulties he has faced in Barcelona, he said he does not feel like going back to live in Ghana. “Because I have left my country, every time I go there I no longer feel like I live there. I have decided to establish myself in Barcelona, because here I am free to do anything.”
When the Guàrdia Urbana do manage to outrun someone selling top manta, they are not arrested, but “detained and fined”, according to spokesman Felix Romero. “Selling on the streets is a violation of a by-law that prohibits the sale of food, drink and other products on the street without a permit. It is not about Africans or Asians or Spanish people selling them, it is about violating a regulation.”
Name: Ali Age: 25
Lived in Spain: 2 years
Ali, who asked that his real name not be used, made the journey from Senegal to the Canary Islands in late 2006. He paid approximately the equivalent of six years’ salary in Senegal for the dubious privilege of risking his life on the open waters. It rained for five days and they quickly ran out of food. “Each day was more difficult than the last. We didn’t know where we were going, without food or a toilet so we had to go on the floor of the boat. To keep alive, we just had to think that we were going to arrive, whatever happened. We just wanted to get there.”
And about a week later, they did reach land, somewhere in the Canary Islands. But Ali said he had no idea exactly where they arrived. The first thing he did was eat the macaroni given to him by the Spanish Red Cross. Later, he escaped from the Spanish authorities, although he declined to reveal how he did so, or how he made his way to Barcelona. All he would say was that Senegalese people are always united. Once a Senegalese person arrives in Spain, the entire network moves, and somehow “gives him something to do.”
For over a year now, Ali has been selling fake bags in the city centre. He stays in a flat in Terrassa along with five other men. He said they go to Barcelona’s centre about midday. But if they see the police roaming around the place, they stay away at first and hang around somewhere in the Raval until the coast is clear. “All we do is eat, sleep and sell,” he said.
He is able to sell just enough each day to survive, just enough to eat, he said, citing the worst part of the job as being tracked by police all day with the fear of being caught, having his wares confiscated and ending the day poorer than when he began it. Despite these hardships, he said he has not run out of hope that he will find a decent job in Barcelona.