The risks are high and the rewards low for the desperate manteros of Madrid Some Senegalese manteros spend years selling goods on the streets of Madrid and trying to avoid harassment from police as they wait for visas and work documents.

The risks are high and the rewards low for the desperate manteros of Madrid

The risks are high and the rewards low for the desperate manteros of Madrid

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Four young men from Senegal sell bracelets in Madrid on October 20. Ricci Shryock for NPR hide caption

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Ricci Shryock for NPR

Four young men from Senegal sell bracelets in Madrid on October 20.

Ricci Shryock for NPR

In parts of Madrid, a blanket could lead to jail time for Senegalese street vendors known as the manteros.

They sell counterfeit goods that sit on mantas, Spanish for blankets. They often don't have work visas and the police harass them, but they can make a little more money selling knockoffs.

The nature of their work is highly visible, and on any given day you can see manteros on the streets of Madrid trying to convince tourists to buy one of their bags.

The risks are high and the rewards are low. And some manteros spend years doing the work as they wait for visas and work documents.

Listen to our full report by clicking or tapping the play button above.

Mallika Seshadri contributed to this report.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Migration is as old as humanity, and climate change compounds the pressure on people to relocate. All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro has been reporting on the connections between climate change, migration and the political far right along a path many have traveled from Senegal to Morocco to Spain. Today, Ari reports on the first job many people from sub-Saharan Africa take when they arrive in Europe.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: When you talk to people in Senegal about Spain, you sometimes see a dreamy look across their face.

MAMADOU NIANG: (Through interpreter) When you go to Europe, if you get sick, you can go to a doctor.

SHAPIRO: In a Senegalese village called Gandiol, a man named Mamadou Niang told us he's tried to reach Europe three times. Two times he was deported. The third time his boat capsized, and some of the passengers drowned. But even that has not deterred him. He still wants to leave.

NIANG: (Through interpreter) Yeah, I would like to go, so I can earn a good living and have a nice house.

SHAPIRO: He envisions Europe as a place of stability and security - somewhere you can earn enough money to support your relatives back home. More than 2,000 miles to the north in Madrid's Plaza Mayor, you can see the chasm between the fantasy of life in Spain and the reality.

We're wandering around the city center looking for manteros, the people who sell goods off of blankets. And it is really hard to find them because they are always running from police. So to have a conversation with these guys on tape is difficult, but not nearly as difficult as living that life where you are constantly afraid that you're going to get pulled in and arrested.

Manteros are named for mantas, the blankets where they spread out things to sell. Their typical inventory includes knockoff designer handbags, tennis shoes, sunglasses. Everything gets spread out on a blanket. Long strings tied to all four corners help ensure a quick getaway. So if police show up, the manteros can turn their manta into a sack over their shoulder like Santa Claus and make a run for it.

KIFFI: Hello.

SHAPIRO: Hi, how are you?

Kiffi is a 27-year-old from Senegal. We're only using his first name because he doesn't have a work visa. He says the manteros who sell counterfeit goods off blankets can make more money, but they take much bigger risks. So Kiffi sells African trinkets out of a little fanny pack.

KIFFI: (Through interpreter) These bracelets aren't fake.

SHAPIRO: So the police can't arrest you for selling bracelets. But if you were selling fake Dior bags, then they could arrest you.

KIFFI: (Through interpreter) Yeah, I'm selling African things. There's no brand, so it's fine.

SHAPIRO: Kiffi left home in Senegal when he was 19 years old and traveled by land through half a dozen countries before reaching Spain.

You have not seen your family for eight years. You must miss them terribly.

KIFFI: (Through interpreter) Yeah. Even today, I want to go back. I want to see my mother. Eight years is so long to not see my family.

SHAPIRO: I'm sorry. That's very, very difficult, and I'm sorry.

KIFFI: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SHAPIRO: He won't go home until he has papers to reenter Spain legally. That's supposed to happen after three years - a more open policy than the U.S. But every time a mantero gets arrested, it can set back the clock.

One guy just walked past carrying - he was a mantero. He had this big sheet full of goods on his back. And as he walked by, I said, (speaking French) you're Senegalese? Over his shoulder, he shouted, oui, yes, and ran away. And I tried to pursue him. He was not having any of it.

SERIGNE MBAYE: (Through interpreter) I had the bad luck of being arrested the very first day I went out to sell things.

SHAPIRO: This is someone who eventually got his papers, who no longer has to run from police. Serigne Mbaye arrived in Spain from Senegal in 2006. In the years that he worked as a mantero, he was arrested four times. Eventually, he helped organize the first manteros collective in 2016.

Do you remember the first time you heard the word mantero?

MBAYE: (Through interpreter) I got to the main train station and saw them, and I actually asked, what is this? And they explained. And I knew it would be something I would have to do, because these are the only jobs you can do without papers.

SHAPIRO: Do you remember the feeling when you saw that and had that realization?

MBAYE: (Through interpreter) Yeah, I was so disappointed. I thought, is this what I came to this country for? This can't be my destiny. But there's nothing else you can do.

And we're all in the same situation. So we look out for each other and help each other.

SHAPIRO: Being a mantero was not Serigne Mbaye's ultimate destiny. Today, he's a political leader, an elected official, and that has mobilized anti-immigrant politicians. The day Serigne Mbaye was sworn in, Rocio Monasterio of the far-right political party Vox spoke in the general assembly denouncing manteros.

ROCIO MONASTERIO: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Manteros are slaves of the mafia who push small business to bankruptcy, she said. Right-wing politicians continue to attack him for his past. But today, Serigne Mbaye is a deputy in the Madrid Assembly. A friend of his told us he's like the Malcolm X of immigration in Spain. On All Things Considered later this week, we'll have the story of Serigne Mbaye's journey.

RASCOE: That was NPR's Ari Shapiro. You can hear more of his reporting on climate migration from Senegal to Spain on All Things Considered. Tune in on your local NPR member station or follow his team's journey on npr.org.

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