The Weight of the Blanket

By Alise Brillault

Alise Brillault and Dagny Pawlak had the honor of speaking to Lamine Bathily, one of the leaders of the Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes (Union of Street Vendors). These street vendors, colloquially known as “manteros” (coming from the Spanish word manta, meaning “blanket”) are mostly undocumented Senegalese men who sell merchandise atop blankets in various tourist spots in Barcelona. Three years ago, they created a union to fight for their rights and to raise awareness about their situation. We want to thank Lamine for opening up to us about how he and other “manteros” arrived in Spain, the creation of the union, and their future prospects. 

Lamine Bathily left Senegal for Spain when he was 18, without telling his parents. He said he was going to stay at his grandparents’ place, but instead took a boat that went from Senegal to Barcelona via the Atlantic Ocean- what a friend of his had done a year prior. At first, his parents assumed that everything was fine. However, when they eventually called his grandparents to ask how Lamine was doing, they responded, “Lamine? He is not here!”

That was ten years ago- and the last time that Lamine saw his family.

Lamine Bathily. Photo by Dagny Pawlak.

In Barcelona, Lamine found work doing what other undocumented Senegalese men were doing: la venta ambulante, or the selling of merchandise (such as sneakers and handbags) atop blankets in various tourist spots. As these street vendors increased in ubiquity, they were bequeathed the catchy name manteros (manta meaning “blanket” in English). Lamine explains to my colleague Dagny and me that being a street vendor in Senegal is a respected job, and for that reason the Senegalese immigrants in Barcelona saw no shame in taking it up as a way to make a living. This is not the case in Spain however as la venta ambulante is an illegal activity here which engenders much controversy.

The illegal nature of this activity set against a backdrop of rising European vilification of illegal migration brought with it many challenges that Lamine and his friends had not braced themselves for. Police harassment of the manteros being one of them. The police accused them of being a mafia, labeled them as criminals, and through their approach and their actions, they began to spread this message to the inhabitants of Barcelona. During this time, there were numerous cases of the police beating manteros, arresting them, and even of manteros being imprisoned and deported. Lamine tells us that many of his friends have been imprisoned.

“The police hound us not because of the merchandise we sell but because we are black, because we are immigrants. When you don’t have papers, you are worth nothing.”

Dagny asks Lamine if the merchandise they sell on the blankets is obtained illegally (as is often assumed). He says that is not, and the way they obtain it is by going down to the ports in Badalona and buying it directly from the shippers coming from China. He explains that these transactions are, in fact, legal- but that the subsequent selling of it on the blankets is not. That part is not legal, he says, because of the people who are selling it. Lamine goes on to describe the unique spirit of solidarity in the mantero community, and how they collaborate with each other every day in order to streamline their efforts and facilitate the procuring of goods from the ports of Badalona for each other.

photo by Nadine Gabron

Contrary to common belief, these men do not want to work and live in Spain illegally. They want papers, they want work permits. However, apart from exceptional cases, there is no way for Senegalese people to do so immediately upon arrival in Spain. Rather, the law dictates that they must reside in Spain for 3 years before being able to apply for work permits- and within those three years, they cannot be convicted of any crime.

The obvious problem is that people cannot live somewhere for 3 years without earning money. As a result, these men turn to the one way that they can make a living- regardless of its legality. As one of their slogans goes, “Sobrevivir no es delito” (surviving is not a crime). In Lamine’s case, he has a criminal record as a result of his mantero activity. Each time he was arrested, his 3 years waiting time essentially started over. He therefore is still without papers, 10 years after arriving in Spain.

While Senegal is a stable and democratic country, it suffers from poverty and a heavy reliance on fishing and cash crops to sustain its economy (World Food Programme). Currently, one-third of people in the capital – Dakar- are poor, whereas two-thirds of people in rural areas are.

Lamine explains to us how many of the manteros were actually fishermen back in Senegal. However, he says that due to contracts signed between the European Union and Senegal allowing for European companies to fish in Senegalese waters, many local fishermen have lost their jobs.

“People don’t realize that we are coming to Europe because of a problem that was actually created by Europe,” he says.

photo by Nadine Gabron

Ultimately fed up with harassment by the police, the racism and prejudice they encountered daily, the misinformation about who they were, and not being able to work legally, the manteros did something incredible three years ago: they founded a union. Realizing that no one was fighting for them, they decided that they needed to fight for themselves, to stand up for their rights, and to try to change the short-sited laws which condemn them to a cycle of perpetual failure. Lamine was thus one of the founding members of the Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes.

The birth of the union coincided with a documentary that Otoxo Productions was filming about them. That documentary came to be known as El Peso de la Manta (The Weight of the Blanket). The union puts on screenings of the documentary followed by Q&A sessions to spread awareness about their backgrounds and their situations.

“We wanted to show people that, no we were not part of a mafia, that we were not criminals, that we just want to be able to live and work legally in this country,” Lamine states.    

This is just one of the many activities that the union organizes. They also hold protests, give talks, and speak in schools. Lamine tells us about a funny experience he had talking to children in a school in Barcelona.

“They asked us if there is an airport in Senegal. To mess with them, I said that there wasn’t. When they asked how we are able to get to Senegal, I told them that the airplanes simply descend closer to the ground without actually landing, and we jump out. Then someone who is still in the airplane tosses our luggage down to us. The plane then ascends again and flies away.”

Perhaps most importantly, the union has found a friend in Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona. They have spoken with the city government about changing the work permit laws and have asked for assistance with job placements. The city government actually obliged, and has acted as a mediator between companies and the manteros to secure 65 spots in job trainings and internships for them. Unfortunately for Lamine, he is ineligible for a spot due to his criminal record.

Since the creation of the union, police brutality against the manteros has significantly died down. Before, Lamine says, if a police officer hit one of his colleagues, he would be too afraid to stand up for him due to fears of deportation or other reprimands. Now however, they present a strong and united front when standing up for their colleagues who are victimized by the police. Due to their increased fame as well, the media is more likely to report on cases of police brutality; wanting to avoid negative publicity, the police are thus more reluctant to use violence against the manteros.

“Are you ever afraid of getting deported, since they obviously know who you are and that you are here illegally?” Dagny asks Lamine.

“The police know who I am, they know where I live, and they could deport me at any time. However, I am also one of the spokespeople for the union. If they were to deport me, the media would report on it, and it would be a big scandal. They thus leave me alone now.”

The union is also associated with the Espacio de Inmigrantes, an organization that provides free resources to immigrants without papers- including legal support and medical services. Through this organization, the manteros have access to a lawyer who helps to protect their rights.

“Top Manta” clothing production. photo by Dagny Pawlak.

Nowadays, the manteros are branching out from street vending: they have recently launched a clothing line, Top Manta, and they sell their products in a brick-and-mortar store in El Raval in Barcelona. Dagny and I got the chance to visit their store and check out the back room where they design and manufacture their merchandise.

On many of their T-shirts and sweatshirts, next to the words “Top Manta” is a design that Lamine explains to us. “At first glance, it looks like a blanket. But it is also meant to represent a boat, to show how we got here.” On the back of one of their sweatshirts, there is a black panther with the words “Manter Power” below it. Lamine tells us the story behind the design: Bob Brown, one of the founding members of the Black Panthers in the U.S., had come to Barcelona to visit the manteros and to show solidarity with their cause. To reciprocate, they designed this sweatshirt.

I ask Lamine if their brand and this store are legal. He shows me a T-shirt design that they are about to launch, which is embedded with the phrase, “legal clothing, illegal people.”

photo by Dagny Pawlak

There is still much work to be done. While Ada Colau’s government is sympathetic to their cause, the ultimate authority is still the Spanish central government- who has yet to change the law regarding the three-year waiting period. Then there are also the microagressions that they experience daily.

“In the metro, people don’t want to sit next to you, they clutch their bag tighter when they see you. They think you are going to rob them. It used to really bother me, but nowadays I am used to it and I don’t let it get to me.”

Yet, Lamine and his colleagues have made friends with toubabs (Wolof word meaning “white people”). He tells us about a time where he invited some of his new friends to his apartment that he shares with 5 other manteros. They served the toubabs a giant platter of traditional Senegalese food and told them to eat it with their hands. Their friends were shocked.

“When I go to your house, I will eat on a plate with a fork. But in my house, you will eat with your hands,” he chuckles.

Lamine’s three-year period is coming to an end soon. He hopes that, by next year, he will be granted papers- and will be able to see his family again.


“Top Manta” store:

Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes facebook page:

El Peso de la Manta documentary information:

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