Serigne Mbaye: from ‘mantero’ to activist to future member of parliament

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I know Serigne Mbaye from the grassroots activism circuit in Lavapiés, where he regularly frontlines at protests with powerful anti-racism speeches. It’s no surprise to those who know him that he’s now running for election in the Madrid Regional Government with Unidas Podemos, where he’s set to become one of Spain’s first Black members of parliament, and achieve many more firsts too.

“I’m from Kayar, a poor fishing village near Dakar in Senegal. The country is highly dependent on fishing and agriculture, but large international, western and Asian fleets fish in the same waters forcing many people to leave their trade and seek another life abroad,” explains Serigne. “I came to Spain because I wanted a better future, but the first thing that happened when I arrived was that they put me in a migrant detention centre.”

Serigne was held in a CIE for five days before being released and making his way to Madrid, where he began working as a mantero within days of arriving. “It’s very simple to become a mantero. You arrive and, after a few days, you buy some items from a registered wholesaler and start selling them on the street for a slightly higher price. I did this when I arrived,” he said.

In 2015, Spain’s Sindicato de Manteros (union of street vendors) was founded with Serigne as spokesperson, leading a grassroots revolution of migrant-rights campaigning in Spain.

“The regularisation [of migrants] is a matter for the central government, but autonomous communities and municipalities must also react by promoting inclusive and social policies – not just police measures, which is what is being done now in Madrid. Manteros and undocumented migrants are already here, and criminalising them is not the answer.

“We do not come here to commit crimes, we come to work. That means contributing to the development of the country, which is something positive for Spain.”

The Ley de Extranjería (Immigration Law) requires you first to have been here, undocumented, for three years before the regularisation procedures can begin, but with a requirement of having a permanent contract makes this is almost impossible to fulfil. That means a minimum of three years with no guarantee of income, a minimum of three years without access to healthcare and a minimum of three years running from the police. This dangerous combination is what many condemn as having led to the loss of Serigne’s friend Mame Mbaye.

“I met Mame on the boat.”

Both Serigne and Mame set off from the city of Saint Louis in his native Senegal, bound for the coasts of the Canary Islands in a boat with 93 other people, some of them minors. After a week at sea, they arrived in Santa Cruz, Tenerife, on 29 May 2006.

During his 12 years in Madrid, Mame Mbaye worked as a mantero and as a cook at a friend’s restaurant. He was making enough money to afford a place in a flat on Calle del Oso and had plans to get his papers sorted. Aged just 35, Mame collapsed outside his home and the two friends would never see each other again.

The cause of Mame Mbaye’s heart attack is still disputed. Friends of Mame say that he was chased by the police, triggering an underlying heart condition, whereas the police say they stumbled across him unconscious on the ground outside his Lavapiés home.

The fact that the circumstances surrounding Mame Mbaye’s death are disputed at all demonstrates racism within the justice system.

“Three years later, we’re still waiting for the death of our colleague to be clarified. The society that turned its back on you while you lived hasn’t made any effort to investigate what was the cause of your death. On the contrary, they’ve continued to persecute, criminalise and try to silence us,” explained Serigne at a vigil held last month on the three-year anniversary of Mame’s death.

Racism within politics also exists. I ask Serigne how he felt when Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, said that if it were up to him, he would have Serigne deported. “This is racism. This is what we have to fight against in Madrid.” Scrolling through Serigne’s very new Twitter account, you can find angry commenters bombarding him with similar anti-immigrant sentiment.

“If you’re elected, what do you want to achieve?”

Non-racialised policing. “I can’t tell you the number of times I have been stopped in the street and asked if I’m carrying marijuana,” sighed Serigne.

Access to healthcare for migrants. Mame Mbaye’s tragic death is a perfect example of what can happen as a result of racist policies, with Serigne insisting, “We also need interpreters in hospitals for all our migrant communities.”

Regularización Ya. The right to contribute legally to the economy will mean an increase in Spain’s workforce, which is still suffering greatly due to emigration to other EU countries.

Better education opportunities from migrant children. Children from migrant backgrounds are significantly more disadvantaged than their Spanish classmates. More funding, bursaries and social programmes are key to achieving equality, especially from a young age.

Fair bureaucracy. “You will never see a Spaniard who must wait a year to renew his ID,” says Serigne, “but it can take years for a migrant to even renew their driving license.”

End modern-day colonisation of Africa. “Senegal is rich in natural resources, from fossil fuels and solar energy to vegetables and fish, which the US and EU profit from,” he said.

Black visibility. “I’m here to represent the voices of those who are not heard, and to ensure diversity within the state. I also want to set an example and be an inspiration for Black people, who are afraid to enter politics,” emphasised Serigne with contagious optimism.

All of these proposals hope to improve the lives of Spain’s immigrants, but Serigne has many more ambitions that aim to create a fairer justice system and stronger economy for all.

“We’ve been suffering from the dismantling of public services by the PP for many years and we’ve seen during the pandemic how Ayuso doesn’t care at all about the workers who take a metro full of people every morning, nor about the elderly who in care homes. The Right has not even cared about the children of Cañada Real who’ve been without electricity for seven months.”

Something that both Serigne and I share is a love for Madrid, but our approach often divides people.

We frequently talk about what is bad about Madrid (cuts to public services, institutional racism, the marginalisation of minority groups and the rise of fascism) which can be hard for someone to hear, especially from someone who is not from here. But if you love a place, you cannot simply celebrate what is good about it ­­– to do this is a luxury that many do not have. Instead, you must also fight to defend and preserve it, and that is what it means to truly love Madrid.

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