Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s famous linear public walkway went through centuries of transformation. A little riverbed in the 15th century turned into an archetypal bohemian marketplace for foreign travelers and locals to exchange exotic goods. Filled with snake charmers, performers, and fortunate tellers, it became an emblematic space for all stratified levels of citizenry to visit. It gradually transformed into a tree-lined boulevard in the late 20th century, when urban planners and governmental officials saw it as an important gateway into the expanding city.
While informal markets evolved into regulated shopfronts, the functionality of the street as a hot spot for public and political activity still remains. Ironically today, the walkway has once again been seized by an unlikely cohort of new informal traders who are breaking all boundaries to become a part of the city.
Economic immigrants or the manteros in Barcelona are capitalizing on an era of mass consumerism in urban streets like Las Ramblas, selling counterfeit desirable brands popularized by social media and celebrity endorsements. The city watches the confronting milieu between the frenzied informal traders and the herd-like tourists that together create a rhythm and flow of commodities in the spatial realm. To the authorities, this imagery lulls legality; but for the manteros, it remedies the effect of a blurry immigration policy.
Their activities receive much local distaste and controversy, as their presence merely hovers over fundamental issues that take place at a global scale. The failures of the post-colonial economy, conflict in non-western countries, arbitrary border control, and the inherent psycho-social conditioning against developing countries are all equal culprits that receive no attention.
Recently, their presence has generated concerns from formal institutions, associating informal vending and loss of urban characteristics with the rise in number of illegal immigrants. Political and social pressures from brands attempted to remedy what can only be describe as the ‘symptom’ of the disease without realizing its root cause.
The symptom being: the immigrant street traders don’t pay taxes; they are stealing precious customers who prefer to pay less for similar goods; piracy breaks intellectual property laws; and illegal stuff is plaguing the streets and therefore the livelihood of all the citizens are in the perils.
The substantial reality being: post-colonial economy and globalization have left messy social and political residues behind in developing countries; some sub-saharan people are fleeing persecution, violence and conflict; some are looking for better income opportunities; many are crossing waters and borders to enter countries that have arbitrary immigration laws in place such as the EU; once they enter they are told they can become regularized; then they are told they cannot do anything legal to become legal such as rent a house, look for jobs, learn the local language, receive healthcare and take further training for at least three years.
This throws them into invisibility forcing them to take on precarious jobs as the only money-making opportunity in order to survive. Informal street vending just happens to be one of the publicly obvious choice.
By living in a blurry zone, dozens of manteros were imprisoned for vending on the streets in Barcelona up until 2010. After public protests seeking to bring justice, it was deemed an administrate offence rather than a criminal charge. However, this was later revoked in 2015 when the government reintroduced it as a crime but with additional penalties. Now, the manteros are asked to pay a €500 fine, sometimes do a prison term or worse, get deported. With this penal code in place, individuals with criminal records cannot even stand a chance in their journey towards becoming legal residents.
The regularization process is a catch-22, a law that takes away the right to the city and then criminalizes people for trying to survive. Similarly, attention also needs to be brought to the substantial reality of the global black market industry.
The materos are only at the end of the assemblage chain of a fraudulent business that is global in nature. An OECD study highlights that counterfeit products take up 2.5 per cent of world trade, with China being a major manufacturer with transit zones located all over Europe. White goods or replicas manufactured are sold in the black markets arriving at industrial units in Barcelona where the brand ‘logos’ are embossed onto unpatented good. Without the logos, the selling of replica goods would not infringe copyright law. While majority of these fake items are sold online everywhere around the world, the manteros have become relatively more susceptible to the law.
The image of street vending then appears as the root cause of the problem. The manteros are blamed for the loss of sales; not the organisation that manufactures it and certainly not the general public that purchases it. The problem is not vending itself, but what is being sold: counterfeit goods.
By a public display of their ‘fleeting’ fabrics ready to elope at the sight of the police, the undocumented immigrants seem as though they are partaking in a form of trade relationship with the city linking the source of illegal franchise to the tax-paying buyers; when inherently they are hustling a living.
Their presence epitomizes an opportunistic gap that arises at the foothills of failed immigration and integration policies. Discrimination in the form of racism and xenophobic policing plagues these opportunistic ventures, leading to social exclusion and segregation. As a collective response, political activism against injustices faced by them have erupted in the wake of recent deaths in their communities.
In 2015, a Senegalese mantero who had lived in Barcelona for fifteen years allegedly fell off a balcony in a state of confusion when the police raided his apartment in search of procession of counterfeit items. Recently in 2018, another Senegalese mantero from Lavapiés died due to a heart attack whilst being chased by the police. His death provoked a citywide protest with his name ‘Mame Mbaye’ bearing calls for justice against police brutality. The city rose to chant ‘No human being is illegal!’ standing against the drowning sounds of police sirens.
Politically charged movement are also influencing alternative strategies and entrepreneurial ideas to engage a debate on their right to the city. Together, they formed a union called the Popular Union for Street Vendors (Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes) in 2016 to actively fight against racism and institutional violence, promoting immigrant rights. With the motto ‘Survival is Not a Crime’, they are banding together along with other citizens to decriminalize their existence, seek dignified income to end the harshness of their reality, and give them a sense of collective hope.
Following this, the manteros have recently launched their own brand called ‘top manta‘ seeking to consolidate their urban struggle with an identity of their own. Similarly, a cooperative called Diomcoop emerged with the help of Barcelona City Council to help economic migrants seek an alternative path to regularization. They are promoting African handicraft items and cloths through the fashion brand diambaar. The success of these ventures maybe a positive new beginning but nearly not enough to financially support all manteros. There are about 3000 of them currently operating in Barcelona.
History repeats itself. A mass global migration is taking place and countries of the global north are closing their doors the fastest. A flexible immigration policy must be considered to allow economic migrants to enter, to help them benefit from economic opportunities, to legally become part of a diverse city that has all the necessary infrastructure to sustain them, and to add to the cultural capital that is slowly becoming global.