Gucci bags and police chases: Barcelona’s street sellers

Article by Isa Radich
Photos by Larice Schuurbiers

It’s a cat-and-mouse game that has been going on for years: the Barcelona police chasing the hundreds of illegal street vendors: the Manteros. Since two years they are organised in a union and since last summer they even have their own fashion label: Top Manta. But their clients still seem to prefer the fake brands they sell. ‘Surviving is not a crime’. 

Bright, flashy magnets and colourful castanets are spread out on the white sheets in front of the Sagrada Família. Wherever you look, you can see young men pointing at their goods and yelling: “One euro! Madam, one euro for magnet!” Some of the tourists stop to buy a selfie stick or a key ring. What they don’t notice, however, is another man standing further down the street who starts waving his hands wildly, pointing at the park behind the church. In the blink of an eye, the loud and bazaar-like atmosphere switches to practised and precise movements. Within seconds, the men pack up their sheets, tie them into a bundle and slowly walk away from the scene. Only three metres behind them, two police officers appear. But the men are long gone.

Manteros in front of the Sagrada Familia

Unusual tourist attraction

When walking down the famous Ramblas in Barcelona, one encounters flower shops, tapas restaurants, souvenirs and Gaudi’s wonderful architecture. However, one of the tourist attractions that are usually not featured in a Barcelona travel guide, are the manteros. Their name originates from the Spanish term “manta” which translates to blanket, therefore already describing one major part of their everyday life: the manteros are Barcelona’s infamous street sellers, offering fake brand goods such as Gucci bags and Nike shoes as well as other gimmicks like castanets and magnets, all of which they lay out on their blankets and sheets for the passer-bys to see.

While this service might come handy to tourists, it is a big legal issue for the sellers themselves. Joban Dhillon, a young Indian who came to Spain about two years ago, explains why: “In Barcelona, you need to wait three years to get your papers. They won’t let you work before that. But we need money, so we sell on the streets.” According to him, this business is a quick and effortless way to get enough cash to survive. However, since none of the manteros are registered, they don’t pay taxes and have no permit – making any form of street selling illegal. “But we have no other choice”, Joban says.

Manteros selling fake brands in the metro station Catalunya

And he isn’t the only one. The manteros have backgrounds from all over the world, most of them coming from Senegal, Pakistan and India, searching for a better job and life. However, the lifestyle they end up with most of the time is far from easy. At least ten times a day, Joban and his friends need to quickly pack up their blankets and pretend to be normal pedestrians – because the police are coming. If any of them get caught, they will get fined with 65€ and the officers will confiscate all their goods. “If you can’t pay the money, they will take you in.”

Madam, here you go!

The sun is shining down on the people taking pictures in front of the Arc de Triomf. A middle-aged woman is stretching her arm to get a picture of her and her friends with the palm trees in the background. “Madam, here you go, selfie stick!”, one of the manteros offers, waving around the advertised object. On his blanket he has ten colourful sticks, some of them still sealed in t

their packaging. The woman takes a closer look. “Only five euros, it’s the best! See, my neighbour”, he says, pointing at another man selling the sticks, “he sells for ten euros. Mine is only five, it’s better.” Five metres to his right, his neighbour adjusts the sign that says ‘selfie sticks: five euros’.

Sunglasses and selfie sticks are two of the many goods the street sellers offer to the tourist

“Surviving is not a crime”

Since the government didn’t and still doesn’t act accordingly to the immigrant’s needs, the manteros decided to found their own representative organisation called the Union of Street sellers in 2015. They hoped that this Union would better the situation of the manteros and made it their task to turn the illegal trade into a legal one.

Aziz Fayé, the spokesperson for the Union, explains: “We have managed to evoke some change in the last two years but manteros are still being chased by the police. The government needs to understand that these people can’t stop selling. Stopping to sell means stopping to live. And surviving is not a crime.”

Fayé also explains that it is hard to keep track of the exact number of manteros. “I would say there are about 350 to 400 of us. A lot of them are unregistered immigrants, so it makes it hard to count every single one.”

Top Manta – the brand that is supposed to fix it all

In order to raise awareness and help out the manteros at the same time, the Union decided to create their own fashion label called ‘Top Manta’ in July 2017. “The logo and name was chosen very carefully”, Fayé explains. The name is once again a reference to the manteros and the small symbol is supposed to represent the iconic blanket.

Right now, the Union is only selling their products at their shop ‘Vesusambveus’, close to the Boqueria. However, they are hoping to expand to the streets of Barcelona soon. “Our goal would be for the manteros to sell our Top Manta goods rather than the fake brands they are selling right now.” Fayé admits that he is a little worried about the people buying the product. “I have heard many people say that no one would purchase our brand because the only reason why people buy from the manteros is because they want a Michael Kors bag.” However, he has a positive outlook on the future. “It’s our best chance. At the moment, our customers are people who already know about us. We want to change that, we want to reach everyone.”

In the shop Vesusambveu the Union of Street sellers offer their own brand ‘Top Manta’

Back at the Sagrada Família, one of the manteros has just returned from a walk around the block. The police have already disappeared again and he lays out his blanket. When asked if he would sell the Top Manta shirts and bags instead of his castanets, he grins and shrugs. “If the police will stop chasing me, I’ll do anything.” For now, he will have to keep selling his little instruments and avoid the officers until he hopefully gets his papers – and a proper job.