The Manteros

When one runs, we all run.

The illegal street vendors in Spain are called Manteros. A personal name derived from their constant companion, a manta ray, the white blanket on which they spread their goods and which can be transformed into a portable bag in a matter of seconds. Known as Top Manta, the informal sale of fake luxury goods takes place in public places in many parts of Spain. In contrast to Barcelona, where the Manteros even founded a trade union and their own fashion label, the high police presence in the centre of Madrid makes it difficult to earn a living. Who are the "black" men with the white bags? The Manteros told us about their everyday life.

“Freedom and love are really beautiful. I found neither in Spain.“ – Amdadou F.

Amadou F.

Lena Stefflitsch: When did you start with Top Manta, selling counterfeit brand products on the street?

Amador F.: I have been working as a mantero for six months now. In Senegal I used to be a designer and tailor.

So fashion is important to you?

Clothing per se is not so important, but I’m really fond of fashion. My favorite piece is a rasta outfit, which I designed and crafted myself. I love reggae, more than any other music.

What do you find beautiful?

Freedom and love are really beautiful. I found neither in Spain. I simply want to meet somebody who I love so much that I want to start a family—I am not that young anymore, 32 now. My life only consists of stress. I wish one day my child has it better than me, that it goes to school and has a quiet life.

What does Top Manta mean to you?

People don’t know much about Top Manta and the manteros. Many despise seeing us sell things on the street. They think Top Manta is controlled by the mafia, who send the vendors to their spots. But that’s not the case. Each mantero gets his or her own goods with their own money and tries to resell them.

And what’s in your manta right now?

Handbags—before I used to sell soccer shirts, from Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Bayern München, Paris Saint Germain… But the shirts are so expensive. If the police seizes your goods, you lose a lot of money. One bag of them costs you about 900 Euro, and you try to sell a shirt for 25 or 20 Euro because ten is the purchase price. That’s just ten Euro more—nothing for dragging around 25 kilos and always running away from the police.

How much do you sell on a good day, how much on a bad one?

You never know when a good day will come. At the moment the Top Manta business is not running good at all. Perhaps you sell one or two handbags per day. You can just barely eat from that, but the rent has to be paid, too. I used to think that Europe was looking for a lot of workers. Now I see it differently. I think many don’t like the fact that there are so many black people living in Europe. We are often blamed for some of the problems in Spain, sometimes even for the finance crisis!

Why did you start with Top Manta?

It wasn’t my choice—the system made me a mantero. Many people from Senegal don’t know anything about Europe before they come here. They live in a small village and have no idea what it means to cross the Mediterranean in a small boat. 

What was your most dangerous experience as a mantero?

One day, when I was working on the Gran Vía shopping street, the local police arrived on their motor-bikes. I ran from there, for sure two kilometers, to Retiro park. They tried to grab me on my bag, but I pulled so hard that one of the policemen fell off his bike. I just made it into the metro and finally home. I didn’t leave my apartment for three days thereafter. I don’t like running away from someone. I never imagined my life in Europe would be like this. 

How and where do you live?

I share an apartment with an uncle on my mother’s side, who came here 25 years ago. I try to send 100 to 150 Euro to my family each month.

How is the procedure to get residence papers in Spain?

When you have lived in Spain for longer than three years—which can be proved with a rent contract—and have a work contract, you can apply for papers at the registration office. But I know people who still do not have their residence permit after ten years.

What is your plan to get a residence permit?

I have a friend in Spain, my best friend. I’ll pay her money, and then we will marry. A marriage on paper, you understand? Then I can stay in Spain for five years.

“They knocked me down with a taser. No one wants this work, I swear.“ – Yamal K.

Yamal K.

Lena Stefflitsch: How much does your bag weigh?

Yamal K.: Approximately 40 kilos because it’s shoes…

How often per day do you have to pack up your stuff and leave your selling spot?

It depends, when you are lucky you can stay for two hours, sometimes you already have to pack up after two minutes. Usually, we have to constantly set up and put away our mantas again, as the police are always close. 

Is Top Manta a hard business?

It is hard, I would rather have a normal, legal job. The police are constantly after you, and they don’t show any respect. They are also quite violent – two weeks ago they knocked me down with a taser. No one wants this work, I swear, no one wants this. And then the back pain. I am always in pain. 

You sell sneakers. How much is a pair?

One for 20 to 25 Euro.

Do your wear the things you are selling yourself, too?

No (laughs)… [He shows me the black original (!) Nike Air Force 1 he is wearing.] I buy my clothes during the sales in the big stores.

On which days of the week do you work as a mantero?

I work on all days, until I’m tired or unable to when the police stop us. On the weekends it is more dif-ficult because there are more police around, mostly in plain clothes.

What is beauty in your eyes?

Humans and peace, not being on guard all the time on the street and while selling, that would be really beautiful. I also find nature, trees, and flowers beautiful.

The flowers in Spain or Senegal?

In Senegal… (laughs)

You sell mostly in groups, why?

The police can’t do so much harm when there are more of us. When you are alone or only the two of you it is easier for them to chase and arrest you. We all watch out for the policemen together. Especially for those in plain clothes—I can already detect them from far away in the meanwhile.

Where do you purchase your fake goods?

In Fuenlabrada, a town south of Madrid, from Chinese suppliers. I have seen manteros crying after the police had seized their mantas, and they did not have enough money to buy new goods.

Your biggest wish?

To obtain papers for Spain and travel back to Senegal to visit my mother there, that’s what I think about a lot.

“What is beauty for us? Trying to find the positive in each day.“ – Cheikh N. & Oumar S.

Cheikh N. & Oumar S.

Lena Stefflitsch: How much is a manta full of full of handbags worth?

Cheikh N.: Around 300 to 350 Euro.

How did you get from Senegal to Spain?

Oumar S: In a boat from Morocco to Spain. There were eight of us in a dinghy, seven men and one woman, who fell into the water and did not survive. We were drifting for four hours until a rescue boat took us on board. 

C: We were saved from our dinghy, too. Once we were on the ship we burst out cheering for joy because we had survived. 

What happens when the police catch you doing Top Manta?

O: One day I was selling alone next to a metro station. A plain clothes police officer caught me, took my sack and arrested me. I had to stay in prison for three days, in a cell with 30 other people, without a blanket—it was horrible. That was right at the beginning, when I didn’t know the situation and about the plain clothes policemen yet.

C: The police caught me three times in total. First, I was in prison for three days; the other times they released me soon and only took my stuff. 

What is beauty for you?

C: Having a good heart. Trying to find the positive in each day in order to be positive in the heart.

“In Africa no one tells you what’s actually going on in Europe.“ – Maca D.

Maca D.

Lena Stefflitsch: Can you tell me an anecdote about your work as a mantero?

Mama D.: One day, it was during Ramadan, we were selling our things on the beach in Cadiz. Suddenly, the police appeared and chased us. So we all ran into the sea, along with our stuff. The policemen stopped, watched us and waited. But we did not get out of the water. An elderly man passing by shouted at the policemen that they should leave us alone. Eventually, they left, and we could get out of the water.

Did you imagine this kind of life before leaving Senegal?

I just dreamt about getting to Europe. In Africa no one tells you what’s actually going on in Europe. The only thing you hear in Africa, on TV, is that there are millions of jobs available because there are not enough young people. Only once you arrive do you see how the situation in Europe really is.

And how was the situation when you arrived?

There was nothing for me—first I had to search for a source of income. At the start as a mantero, then on the construction site, or by selling marijuana. In the beginning you don’t know anything, you don’t speak the language, so what do you do? Top Manta is simply there and keeps you alive. In Cadiz there were twelve of us living in one apartment, all working as manteros.

Do you live in peace here?

Yes, I live in peace because I have many helpful contacts. But for many life in Spain is like a prison. They live on the street, cannot shower, have no place to sleep—they are like captives.