Spain’s marginalised heroes fight against coronavirus – and racism

The coronavirus crisis is yielding hero after hero, from frontline health care workers and carers to street cleaners and supermarket staff. They receive a nightly applause from the windows and balconies of the quarantined for doing their job in grim, underpaid, stressful conditions.

It’s lovely that people are clapping for us and giving us free food, but what we really need is more staff and safety equipment.

… said my mother, an Infection Control nurse caring for Covid-19+ patients in the UK.

But, while ordinary people with ordinary jobs occupy the headlines, there are people whose hero status has become their only means of survival.

Pre-lockdown, rows of West African street hawkers would occupy bustling avenues and iconic squares, trying to sell the counterfeit goods they’d neatly laid out on a white blanket, meanwhile keeping a look out for the police. West African women would meander through busy streets, trying to sell jewellery to people having a drink on a terrace. Sometimes they’d squeeze into crowded bars, being careful not to hit someone with the baby strapped to their lower back.

The police would confront them and even chase them down, but sometimes they’d respond with indifference – an unpredictable inconsistency apparently due to underfunding.

It wouldn’t be naive to assume that these men and women don’t have a trader’s licence (the first offence), nor that they are undocumented migrants (their second offence). If they had their papers, they most likely wouldn’t be risking their lives to sell pirated goods to well-heeled tourists on the streets; they’d be ordinary people with ordinary jobs.

But there’s a contradiction in Spanish law. While refugees are supposedly welcome to disembark from their rubber dinghies onto Spanish shores after fleeing war, climate change and persecution, they enter into an impossible legal loophole, condemning them to life at the margins of society.

The coronavirus crisis has only exacerbated their situation because, now, they’re no longer even able to earn an illegal income, as being on the streets is strictly forbidden. Many can’t eat, never mind pay their rent. They’re also not entitled to any help from the state – they’re undocumented migrants. They’re invisible.

But where there’s a crisis, there’s an opportunity, and these migrants are young, healthy and skilled – and increasingly organised.

The Sindicato Popular De Vendedores Ambulantes de Barcelona (the people’s union of Barcelona street vendors) have taken their tiny clothing factory of Top Manta – a novel and informative clothing range designed by the union for manteros to sell instead of knock-off goods – and converted it into a medical clothing workshop.

While maintaining 1.5 metres’ distance from one another, and wearing face masks themselves, West African tailors are using eight sewing machines to produce thousands of face masks for the public as well as medical caps and gowns for hospital staff.

Although the face masks being made in the Top Manta tailor shop don’t meet the regulations of the Spanish Agency of Medicine and Sanitary Products (AEMPS), they can help reduce the spread of large respiratory droplets when used correctly by someone with Covid-19. For vulnerable people and even hospital staff, these masks and gowns could save lives, but not just the lives of the sick – black lives too.

Within their community, the union have identified 154 vulnerable families no longer earning an income due to the draconian restrictions imposed under Spain’s state of alarm. They need food and hygiene products and money to survive, and by making masks, the trade union are also raising awareness of their cause.

In the same way that we are fighting against this virus, we are also fighting racism, sexism and xenophobia.

… explains Aziz, the spokesperson for the union and Top Manta.

If you’d like to donate money to the manteros‘ food bank, which will directly go towards buying food and hygiene products for the 154 vulnerable families in their community, click here for straightforward details on how to send money or get involved.

Tonight, and every night, my applause will be for them too.


  • Follow the Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes de Barcelona on Facebook.
  • Follow the Sindicato de Manteros de Madrid on Facebook.
  • Visit the union’s website and discover more of their projects and initiatives.
  • Explore their clothing range, Top Manta.
  • Find their bank details here to donate.

All photos © Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes.

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1 Comment

  • I’ve been thinking about West African migrants since the shutdown, been hoping they’ve been okay – surviving at least. This at least gives me some hope, I will try and help in any way possible, love to these communities. You are not invisible, I see you.

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