It’s a warm night and there are dozens of tin men (locally known as lateros) weaving through the crowd. In one hand, each of them is holding an empty can of beer, and in the other, a carrier bag holding a dozen full, cold cans.
What the lateros are doing is illegal and there are police everywhere. If they’re caught selling beer, their stock, which they purchased themselves, will be confiscated. But, for the tin men, it’s worth the risk. A markup of just 20 cents on each beer will go towards avoiding sleeping on the streets that they roam.
If you live in Madrid, you’ll most likely have come across a latero, and you may even have bought a can of beer from him. Wherever there’s a crowd, there’s botellón (drinking in the street), and here we will always find our tin men. They’re often young and Bangladeshi or Pakistani – that much, many of us know. But what many don’t realise is that they didn’t just hop on a flight to move abroad and get a better job; they were fleeing poverty, violence and the climate crisis.
Bangladesh and Pakistan are not, by definition, war-torn countries. As a result, those who flee are not given refugee status, nor are they entitled to any help. Entire families take out their life savings and pay human traffickers to help them escape to Spain, but not all family members make it. Many die in transit or disappear into different countries, later struggling to track each other down.
We have no idea what our tin men have seen or experienced. All we see are their expressionless faces and the can of beer in their hands, yet so many of us (including, especially, the media) make inaccurate judgements.
Headlines about Madrid’s tin men include “Mafias of lateros take over central Madrid” and “The lateros are the missing link to a millionaire mafia”. In these anti-latero articles, lateros are blamed for causing litter on the streets of Madrid. That’s right, not the people who drink the beer and leave their empty cans on the pavements: the blame lies with the lateros who sell them.
Lateros are also targeted in these articles for making “black” money (20 cents of profit per can, cash in hand) and not declaring their earnings to the tax office. How, when they’re denied legal status in Spain, can they file a tax return?
SHOW RACISM THE RED CARD
Lateros are victims of institutional racism, not to mention racist abuse and attacks. Earlier this month in Barcelona, a latero was filmed being violently thrown into a fountain by a British football hooligan. This weekend, thousands of British football fans will descend upon the streets and squares of Madrid and our tin men will be weaving through them in the hope of making a sale. They will put themselves in danger and work throughout the night, as they do every night, to make enough money to pay for a bed in a shared room alongside their colleagues, the manteros.
The organisation Sindicato de Manteros y Lateros de Madrid (© photo above) are fighting for the rights of the tin men (lateros), the blanket men (manteros) and around 50,000 “illegal” immigrants in Spain. Their awareness campaigns and discussions with local politicians are undoubtedly making a difference, but their protests are where some of the loudest noise is made.
The first anniversary of the death of Senegalese mantero Mame Mbaye brought together a crowd of protesters on Plaza Nelson Mandela. Here, on 8 March, manteros and lateros stood side by side along with hundreds of other protesters as we made all the noise we could in support of migrant rights.
But it doesn’t end here.
If you find yourself fortunate enough to have nothing to fight for, then turn to your neighbours and fight for them instead. The tin men are our neighbours, as are the blanket men, their wives and their children.
Join the fight against institutional racism: talk about it, share this article with your friends and keep yourself informed about local protests (I’ll do my best to share with you what I know). If you want to take personal action, talk to the lateros and manteros and listen to their stories, and vote for a political party who cares about them.
Shed light on the struggle of Madrid’s “illegal” migrants and change will begin to happen. You’ll see.