A new brand of trainers has hit the market in Spain – designed by migrants who have long been stigmatised for selling fakes on the streets of Barcelona.
In the popular tourist areas of Barcelona, it's not hard to find a cheap copy of just about any luxury brand for sale. The traders selling fake goods on the streets, many of them African migrants, are an integral part of the northern Spanish city.
When he left Senegal and risked his life to make the crossing to Spain's Canary Islands, Lamine Sarr never thought he'd end up as a "mantero", as these street sellers are called after the blankets on which they lay their wares. So, he decided to do something different: he helped set up the Barcelona Street Vendors Union, which led to a fashion brand Top Manta.
The brand, whose original motto was "Legal clothing made by illegal people", according to the Catalan News website, has just launched its own brand of trainers in the hope of "changing the rules of the game."
"As we were always selling counterfeit products, it gave us the desire to create a brand with our own designs and our own clothes," the 38-year-old told the newsagency AFP in Barcelona's Raval neighborhood. They have named the trainers "Ande Dem," which means "walking together" in Wolof, the most widely-spoken language in Senegal.
Colors reflecting Africa
Top Manta, set up in 2017, is mostly made up of sub-Saharan Africans. "When we first created the brand, we thought about trainers. We thought it would be easy but we didn't have the means," Sarr told AFP.
The project has been two years in the making, with the manteros working with two local artists to create trainers made from sustainable, vegan-friendly materials that that are produced in small local workshops rather than mass-produced.
With a thick sole, they come in black or tan with a strip of colours "reflecting Africa" and the Top Manta logo: a blanket, that also represents "waves" of the dangerous sea crossing many people make to reach Spain.
In the advert, a woman’s voice over footage of police chasing after a migrant and wrestling them to the ground says: "Life is not like a trainer advert. We know the race is full of traps. It's not about just doing it, it's about doing it right," she says in a dig at Nike's "Just Do It" campaign.
Problems with police
Sarr says it is impossible to work as a street seller and not have problems with the law. The main aim of the Street Vendors’ Union is to get the manteros off the street where many end up because of Spain’s immigration laws, AFP reports.
In order to get residency papers, the law requires non-EU citizens to prove they have been in Spain for three years, to show a one-year work contract, and have a clean criminal record. "How can you be in a place for three years without doing anything? I couldn't believe it," said Sarr, who didn't tell his family in rural Senegal that he was leaving for Europe.
Following a week-long sea crossing, he arrived on the island of Fuerteventura in 2006, eventually making his way to Barcelona. But it was only two years ago that he managed to leave his life as a mantero after the union helped him to obtain his papers, as it has done for around 120 others.
Today there are about 100 street sellers working in Barcelona, according to City Hall figures. As a result of the pandemic, the tourists practically disappeared from the city, putting an end to many people’s livelihoods earned on the streets.
One of them was Oumy Manga who had spent five years working as a hawker. The 32-year-old from Senegal spoke to AFP at the Top Manta workshop where she was sewing a T-Shirt. She is currently finishing a course in dressmaking as well as learning Spanish and Catalan.
"I don't like selling, that's why we're here: learning things so we don't go back on the streets," said Manga, who sewed masks and other protective gear at the start of the pandemic.
Making the best of it
Some 25 people work in this basement workshop which they acquired with help from City Hall which has backed several of the union's initiatives. "The underlying problem comes from migrant influxes and a law on foreigners that is unrealistic," Alvaro Porro from the Barcelona City Council told AFP. "In the end, it's the cities who have to cope with the situation no thanks to a law that we cannot change."
If she had known what was awaiting her, Manga says she wouldn't have left her homeland. "It's very complicated, being here five years without papers or work." Still without papers, she is hoping that things might change. "I'd like to carry on sewing, that's my profession," she says, dreaming of one day designing her own collection.
For now, Top Manta has sold all of its first batch of 400 pairs of trainers, which do not come cheap at €115 a pair, and is preparing to order another.