Why is it that chauvinistic ideas about how the cities of the global north should perform would have us believe that informal street vending by immigrants from the so-called ‘developing’ world are malicious and detrimental to the regulated image of the welfare city?
Paperless immigrants are capitalizing on an era of mass consumerism in urban streets buttressed by brands popularized by social media and celebrity endorsements. We watch these confronting images of the social milieu between the frenzied informal traders selling counterfeit goods in the streets of Barcelona, clearly differentiated from the well-behaved citizens and herd-like tourists, creating a rhythm for the flow of commodities in the spatial realm. Their occupation of public space traverses the invisible boundaries of legality bringing internal order to their informal occupations out of chaos. Recently, their presence in public spaces has generated concerns for the formal institutions who associate the rise in a number of illegal immigrants with the loss of significant urban characteristics. There is political and social pressure to remedy these images of ‘flawed’ trade connections and wipe out what appears to be a problem when alternatively, these sites of transgression bring-forth nuanced understanding of how global mass migration is quickly shaping the culture and appearances of public spaces in advanced cities.
The manteros are one of the many informal immigrant networks selling goods and services alongside other hawkers, like the ‘paki’ cerveza sellers, the coffee-shop hustlers, and the elusive prostitutes in public spaces of Barcelona. Their activities sit within a grey area of legality and non-conformity as they hover over the failures of the post-colonial global system, arbitrary border-control, and the inherent psycho-social conditioning of the so-called ‘developed’ country mentality. Street vending in Barcelona is the combined result of an immigration policy that denies entry to low-skilled workers and an illicit opportunity structure, allowing them to enter, stay and earn without legal papers for a period of time until they meet the ‘criteria’ to seek residency. One would think that there is ‘hope’ for economic immigrants to secure a future in Barcelona, but the journey in-between to full recognition as rightful ‘locals’ is far from being realized.
The thrilling yet somewhat pesky nature of these informal traders in their opportunistic marketplaces remain unacknowledged for being the creation of an unjust socio-economic stratification of society both, in their home and host countries. Instead, we consider their fringe trade—borne out of human deprivation and desperation—as somehow essential to the inner workings of the whole economic system. For the outwardly leftist thinkers and the young guerrilla Urbanists, it is one thing to have a perception of such conditions and label them as proactive ‘acts of transgression’, and another to actually theorize their lived experiences.
Urban planners and researchers ought to understand the cultural and social characteristics of paperless immigrants in order to reconsider ‘planning’ for their place in public spaces. Street vendors are nomadic and self-organizing communities with transnational ties and links strengthened by a sense of solidarity between its members that cannot be planned for. The concepts of ‘regularization’, ‘naturalization’, and ‘assimilation’ do not quite exist in the frames of their minds when their need for survival and belonging to a group triumphs all matters of formality.
Ultimately, the image of the street vendors is that of an ‘illegal city’ revealing complex human movement and migration on a global scale defined by fluid boundaries and unregulated entrepreneurship. The ‘newcomers’ within the already imagined identities of the welfare state and its tax paying citizens are perceived as outsiders who simply don’t pay tax, don’t fit in, and therefore cannot informally trade in public spaces and become rightful ‘locals’. For these trespassers, discrimination in the form of racism and xenophobic policing that follows leads to social exclusion and segregation, which then can become their defining factor.
The resultant desire for a sense of belonging leads to acts of collective transgressions by the formation of immigrant groups, communities, and then unions that inherently begin to contest the very global institutions that first displaced them from their land and criminalized them in another. This contestation becomes passive activism reflected in the public sphere where markets with their ample tourist activity consolidate the gap between the injustices in the border and their inherent right to the city, any city.
By a public display of their ‘fleeting’ fabrics ready to elope at the sight of the police, the manteros are not just ‘hustling’ but also partaking in a form of trade relations with the city that links the source of illegal merchandise to the tax-paying buyers seeking affordability. Together, they are organised enough to have formed a union called the Popular Union for Street Vendors (Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes) to actively protest against the banning and criminalization of counterfeit goods sale which they believe is a justified source of income.
Simply put, through divergent means of socio-economic opportunities presented by the urban street as an optimal place for marketing and selling goods based on short-term demand, the marginalized immigrants seek a better livelihood. The Sub-Saharan manteros of Barcelona selling counterfeit goods laid out on make-shift transportable bed sheets have created enough controversy, debate and momentum in recent years to have put forward an idea for their own brand called ‘top manta‘ to replace the commercialized ‘controversial’ ones. They are ‘running’ with an entrepreneurial agenda to consolidate their urban struggle with an identity of their own, not just so they can trade in public spaces but also to become a part of the Barcelonian society.
Las Ramblas, where many manteros sometimes trade is Barcelona’s famous linear public walkway, went through centuries of transformation from a little riverbed in the 15th century into the archetypal marketplace of the bohemian era full of snake charmers and fortunate tellers, and gradually into the tree-lined boulevard we see today. The street that grew organically through arbitrary trade became frequented by travellers in the late past; eventually going through a structured top-down urban beautification process that channelled the poor out and favouring the bourgeoisie. Ironically today, the street has once again been seized by an unlikely cohort of new ‘informal’ hosts who are slowly claiming and changing the identity of the Ramblas, and many other public spaces.
Ultimately, history repeats itself as the tug of war between the informal newcomers and the regulating state creating a constant tide of change, pushing and pulling the occupation of public spaces between the controllable and the out of control. Ideologically, the perception of a public space is that of a marketplace and a thoroughfare with exchanges of goods, services, and experiences characterizing a well-functioning meeting place. The manteros epitomize this opportunity and the failure of an immigration policy making their form of trade — illegal or not— inherently a rightful exchange between the desperate-unsettled vendor and the privileged-settled consumer. The accountability for the existence of such an activity should not be burdened by just one party, particularly, by the marginalized and the racially different kind. Finally, can these immigrant traders be given acknowledgement, physically and formally as potential drivers of cultural and social change in the local urban economy and the image of the new global city?