I am in Barcelona, Catalunya, within the Spanish state. Having just arrived, the Prime Minister Sanchez congratulated the Spanish and Moroccan security forces for stopping the ‘incursions’ of migrants from Morocco to the Spanish North African Melilla enclave, leaving at least 23 human beings (all migrants) dead. Some of them, if they had survived and entered Spain, would have gained the possibility of applying for asylum and perhaps many would have become manteros (street and beach vendors). In this blogpost I focus on the tensions between being an (un-)authorized migrant and doing (ir)regular work, based on a particular form of experiences from Barcelona beaches.
One of the great privileges of being a researcher is that part of your work time is spent on learning new things. There at least three sources for this ongoing learning. Firstly, there are all the materials provided by informants and research participants, both the one I have had the honor to interact with as well as the infinite numbers that have interacted with other researchers, and that I come in contact with through the texts by and discussions with other researchers. The second source is all previous researchers and their theoretical, methodological, and analytical contributions. This includes those that I am inspired by and build upon, those gave me some smaller new insights and those that I disagree with for varying reasons but whose work nonetheless helps to challenge and refine my arguments. My diligence in approaching these sources varies because I am not the best at focusing and setting limits. I often read way beyond issues at hand. Some would call it sloppiness, others, more generous, would call it curiosity.
The third, I call the Eureka-source (“I have found [it]”) and relates to all other input from potential informants and scholars, but that come through practices in which research is not at the core. In that sense, this source is less explicit and more takes the form of inspiration, raising new ideas and questions. While summertime is a great time for doing research, especially reading and writing, as many of the other scheduled practices linked to academic work are on hold, it is also a period of more or less consciously interacting with Eureka-sources.
I am writing this blogpost from Barcelona, where I have the privilege of staying during the summers. I am combining vacation and work. A 25-minute walk from where I stay is one of the wonderful Barcelona beaches. Spending some afternoons there is wonderful, a lot of sun and crystal-clear warm water. However, the beach is also a microcosmos of society that bring to the fore issues of mobility and labour. Different bodies can be seen, and different languages heard, both among those enjoying a nice day at the beach and those working in the hot sun (which makes it 30 degrees in the shade). There are certainly interesting issues to explore concerning us: who we are, how we travel and why we are enjoying a day at the beach. But my gaze turns towards those working the beach. On the loudspeaker we hear – together with instructions not to jump from the rocks, safety information and the importance to drink water in the sun – that it is prohibited to sell on the beach and advice not to buy from the beach vendors.
For a scholar of labour, migration and racism these interactions at the beach are definitely an Eureka-source. The beach vendors are selling mojitos and sangria, others are selling cold water, soft drinks and beer. There are vendors selling massage or henna tattoos, others selling knick-knack jewelry, or beach sheets (we use ours as a bed spread). There is a racialized segmentation of beach vendors that is demonstrated through the various accents we can hear as commodities are announced and sold but also in the phenotypes of the bodies selling. To these distinctions, the more hidden but partially deducible mobility status should be added (citizenship, residence permit, tourist visa or unauthorized). In an earlier blogpost I noted that having migrant parents and brownish skin, one is rarely considered Swedish, despite being born and predominantly living there for 60 years. Thus, when I talk about the racialized segmentation of the beach vendors, it is with two caveats: it is, my interpretation of phenotypes and language accenting (and should therefore be treated with certain degree of skepticism).
The vendors of mojitos and sangria speak from white bodies often in Spanish and/or English and seem either to be Spanish citizens or from the Global North and I assume they have residence permits. The vendors of massage or henna tattoos that I have not had the opportunity to communicate with and thus guess based on phenotype and language come from southeast Asia. I don’t know their mobility status, but I think it is fair to assume that they are in the same situation as the next group selling cold water, soft-drinks and beer. However, a major difference of these vendors to all others is that they are women, while the others are men. The few times I’ve seen them working on the beach it has generally been servicing women (massage) and older children and women (henna tattoos).
The beach vendors selling cold water, soft drinks and beer are from Pakistan. Some years ago, one of them asked me, when we were at the beach, if it was ok for him to place his backpack with commodities close to our beach sheets. To what extent it was a way of avoiding police or just to store a heavy backpack in a fairly safe place, while selling from a plastic bag with bottles and melting ice, I didn’t and haven’t asked. Since then, we meet every summer, and repeat the same procedure as the prior years. While I really enjoy this beach, we sometimes take the Rodalies commuter trains to small villages along the Costa Brava coast north of Barcelona for variation. In doing so, once I met the beach vendor at a station along the coast. Ripe for misunderstanding, given our combination of Spanish, English and body language, he explained that he and his colleagues (other vendors) were renting a room with many beds during the summer. It seems that they travel every summer from Pakistan to sell at the beach in Barcelona. While I am uncertain of their mobility status, I think it is in the form of a tourist visa.
The loudspeaker message proclaims that beach vending is not allowed, regardless of who does the work, because it is irregular work. So far, I have described vendors, some that I know and some that I deduce, have an authorized mobility status (as Spanish or other EU citizens, or on tourist visa). I now turn to another group, generally characterized by an unauthorized mobility status. West Africans, especially from Senegal have become the symbol of manteros. The name comes from the Spanish word manta, meaning blanket, and is linked to the technique of selling commodities (especially for tourists) by placing them on a blanket with cords on the corners, allowing them to be quickly converted into a package that is easily carried away. However, on the beach that I am using, the manteros are mainly carrying their commodities, knick-knack jewelry, or beach sheets. In an interesting post of the Global Informality Project the anthropologist Horacio Espinosa accounts for research linking the practice of mantero back to the 1930s, at that time practiced by Spanish people and in the 1990s the manteros were mainly North Africans, mostly Moroccans. However, on the beaches, the manteros mainly carrying their commodities, knick-knack jewelry, or beach sheets.
The presence of manteros has often provoked shop-keepers, rightwing parties and newspaper into arguing for harder punishment and greater police presence. Discourses about manteros range between treating them as ‘infringers’ of private property and ‘terrorists of public space’ (Espinosa). As the vending is prohibited, they often experience interventions and harassment by police. This persecution that has led to the death of manteros while being chased. It has also resulted in attempts at collective organization. Following one of these deaths in 2015, manteros organized the Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes de Barcelona (Popular Union of Street Vendors of Barcelona). This was later developed into activities to produce clothing for work and for political campaigning with support from others part of civil society. Their trade union also became an association and later on also a cooperative. They work to defend the rights of their members and to support members to apply for authorization to stay in Spain. One important way they do this is through Top Manta, a cooperative for organizing the design, production and sale of clothing and recently also sneakers by manteros.
“LEGAL CLOTHING, ILLEGAL PEOPLE” is the text on the t-shirt I bought at the Top Manta cooperative in Barcelona, reminding me of the distinction between people and their labour, but also that we cannot (even if we wanted) escape being part of the society we are doing research on/about/with/for.
The words on the t-shirt emphasize what Reyneri (2001) has distinguished as two central dimensions that are conflated in the often-used term ‘irregular labor migrants’. On the one hand, there is the dimension of authorized and unauthorized status relating to the right for a migrant to reside. On the other hand, there is the dimension of regular and irregular labor, that is to what extent the labor carried out follows regulations. While most irregular work is carried out by citizens and authorized migrants, many unauthorized migrants do irregular work. However, unauthorized migrants do also (partially) regular work.
I am far from capable of evaluating design beyond what I like, although some indications of the design quality and recognition is that they are sold museum shops and by the La Central bookstore. Thus, it seems that they are trying to develop attractive clothing and shoes that combine what they present as physical, cultural and activist linkages in their migration from Senegal to Spain. What started out as selling pirated commodities – the term Top Manta refers to selling copied CDs from the top music charts on blankets – is slowly and partially evolving into political, economic and social practices. The Top Manta brand carries Senegal and African art design and rhetorical interventions such as “LEGAL CLOTHING, ILLEGAL PEOPLE”, “FAKE SYSTEM, TRUE CLOTHES”, “MIGRATION IS NOT A CRIME” or “ONE BLOOD ONLY”. While these interventions mainly focus on migration and racism, the sneakers they are selling are named “ANDE DEM. It’s not about just doing it, it’s about doing it right.” Ande dem means walking together in the Senegalese language Wolof. Here there is a shift to further expand the meaning of legal clothing and true clothes by including production and working conditions. In the campaign for “walking together” they write: THE KEYS TO THIS JOINT WALK: COLLECTIVITY; NON-EXPLOITATION; DIVERSITY; ANTI-RACISM; SOCIAL JUSTICE.
The microcosmos of the Barcelona beach is a Eureka moment for me, and in this post I link what I see and perceive without the more systematic procedures of social science. However, in making sense of it, I return to my role as scholar. Could the beaches of Barcelona, visible in the bodies of the beach vendors, be seen as an expression of a global racial (and gendered) capitalism (for overviews see Kundnani 2020 and Lentin 2021)? As I write above, the irregular workers on the beach come from different continents, some being Spanish or EU citizens, other on tourist visas and yet others unauthorized. Mobility status follows the racialized hierarchy of phenotype. The work is also gendered with the selling of commodity carried out by men and the service work by women. The gendered and racialized character is linked to global capitalism that drives migration in which people flee from persecution and poverty, risking their lives, towards the richness of the global north.
If people succeed in entering Europe, and many fail due to barbed wire, repression and death like those recently in Melilla, they quickly become an integrated part of the racial regimes of Europe, including its states and cities. The deservingness and solidarities we are exploring in relation to micropublics in our research is partially pre-structured by the borders that through a combination of privileges – economic, racial, gendered – and exclusionary border techniques (in which luck on an individual level also play a part), acts as the needle eye for letting in just a few. Among these few migrants, some are doing the irregular work (that takes place, among other places, on the beaches of Barcelona), and some with the specific purpose of combining economic survival with demonstrating deservingness to stay. The mantero organizations in Barcelona have, together with solidarity from migrant advocates, succeeded in regularizing more than 120 manteros to gain authorized mobility status. In an era characterized by competition to develop hostile environments across Europe for migrants (the exception being Ukrainians), migrant self-organization and migrant solidarity advocacy do make a difference. They are still walking together, guided by the aim: “It’s not about just doing it, it’s about doing it right”. As scholars we (I) often emphasize the social inequalities and injustices, but a scholarship of hope is also to search for the cracks in the system, for the possibilities.
Espinosa. Horacio. 2022. “Manteros (Spain)”, Global Informality Project.
Kundnani, Arun. 2020. “What Is Racial Capitalism?” Arun Kundnani.
Lentin, Alana. 2021. “Introduction to Racial Capitalism”. Alana Lentin.Net.
Reyneri, Emilio. 2001. Migrants in Irregular Employment in the Mediterranean Countries of the European Union. Working paper, ILO: Geneva.