How one man went from a migrant leaving Africa, to an elected official in Spain Serigne Mbaye's journey is parallel to the larger picture of how climate migration intersects with politics. Now, he is considered one of the most vocal politicians in Madrid for migrant rights.

How one man went from a migrant leaving Africa, to an elected official in Spain

How one man went from a migrant leaving Africa, to an elected official in Spain

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1134826177/1138728375" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Serigne Mbaye, who was born in Senegal and is now a deputy in the Spanish General Assembly in Madrid, in the LavapiƩs neighborhood in Madrid, Spain on October 19. Ricci Shryock for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Ricci Shryock for NPR

Serigne Mbaye, who was born in Senegal and is now a deputy in the Spanish General Assembly in Madrid, in the LavapiƩs neighborhood in Madrid, Spain on October 19.

Ricci Shryock for NPR

Serigne Mbaye made a life-changing decision in 2006.

The number of fish in his small town of Kayar, Senegal had dwindled, there was a lack of opportunity, and Mbaye wanted to provide for his family.

So he jumped on a boat one night, and joined others on a days-long journey across the ocean to Spain.

Today, he is a Spanish citizen and a deputy in the Madrid Assembly.

His journey is parallel to the larger picture of how climate migration intersects with politics.

Now, he is widely considered one of the most vocal politicians in Madrid for migrant rights.

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

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

On June 18 of last year, Serigne Mbaye was sworn in as a member of Madrid's general assembly. And from that moment, he became a powerful symbol of the fight against the far right in Spain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERIGNE MBAYE: (Through interpreter) Selective admission of migrants is a shame.

SHAPIRO: A man who grew up in a Senegalese fishing community, who worked in Spain for years without documentation, is now an elected political leader, one of very few Black people ever to have succeeded in modern Spanish politics and a target for the right-wing political party Vox.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MBAYE: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: In this speech, Serigne talks directly to the members of Vox in Parliament and says, "I don't know how to tell you anymore, so I'll say it in English."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MBAYE: Acts of discrimination are inacceptable. All peoples must be protected equally.

(APPLAUSE)

MBAYE: We do not say, welcome only refugees. We say, welcome all refugees.

SHAPIRO: Serigne Mbaye is not only a symbol of achievement. To anti-immigrant politicians, he represents a threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCIO MONASTERIO: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: On the day he was sworn in, Rocio Monasterio of the Vox party said, "the problem isn't Serigne's race, it's that he entered the country illegally."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONASTERIO: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: During Serigne's campaign, the party posted on Instagram, we will deport him. That was an empty threat, since he was already a Spanish citizen by then. But in some ways, that makes it even more insulting and also universal. Just a couple weeks ago, a French member of Parliament was suspended for telling a colleague, go back to Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CREAKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hola.

SHAPIRO: Serigne Mbaye represents the connection among three major stories. We've been reporting on how climate change fuels global migration and that migration motivates the political far right.

Hola.

It's a journey that has landed us here in Serigne's Madrid living room. It's full of potted plants and artwork from his children. He also has a vinyl collection that his daughter loves to play and dance to.

MBAYE: (Through interpreter) She listens to music all the time. She gets on the couch and jumps as she listens.

SHAPIRO: Sitting on that couch, he pulls up the speech on his laptop from the Spanish far-right politician.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONASTERIO: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: And as he listens to his colleague attack him personally, you can almost feel Serigne's pulse jump.

Who is this?

MBAYE: My first day in the assembly.

SHAPIRO: This was your first day in the assembly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MONASTERIO: (Speaking Spanish).

MBAYE: (Through interpreter) These are racist attacks, attacks that make no sense.

SHAPIRO: That was more than a year ago. Has it continued every day since then, or have things gotten worse?

MBAYE: (Through interpreter) It's every day. When I talk, they give a speech about how I am not from here. They don't want to admit that I am Spanish. And they will talk about Africa when I say something at the assembly. What does Africa have to do with Madrid?

SHAPIRO: This trend is happening around the world. Far-right politicians are gaining power by vilifying immigrants. When Donald Trump announced his latest presidential run, he said, our southern border has been erased, and, quote, "we will be paying a big price for this invasion into our country for years to come." Italy's new government recently blocked migrants from leaving their ships, forcing a standoff with rescue organizations. In Madrid, Serigne Mbaye feels this pressure every day. On the morning we meet him, he's helping to organize a festival with some Afro Spanish artists and activists. They come out of the palatial building that houses city hall, and we all walk together up a wide street towards a breakfast spot. The Spaniards passing us don't even try to hide their stares at a group of Black people.

MBAYE: (Through interpreter) Yes. There are many areas of the city where I noticed the stares when I'm walking down the street. And in certain neighborhoods, I would be the only Black person.

SHAPIRO: At the restaurant, our group orders coffee and toast. Serigne quietly sips orange juice while the other guys at the table sing his praises.

YAST: Now, for me, Serigne is the real expression of a type of African revolution.

SHAPIRO: Justo Aliounedine, who goes by Yast, is a community activist, painter and emcee. He's known Serigne Mbaye by since long before the man entered politics. They met more than 15 years ago, when Serigne was an undocumented Senegalese immigrant working as a montero, selling handbags and other goods off a blanket in the street.

Can you describe for me the Serigne you met when he was still a montero, what he was like in those days?

YAST: The man I met, I don't even remember his face really? Why? Because there is a system in which it's very difficult to remember the people. You understand? And so the Serigne I met, I couldn't see apart from non-paper man. But what makes Serigne special, the fact that he's joining the political line in making him a lot more special.

SHAPIRO: Serigne, this is a lot of pressure. I mean, you've got everybody in Senegal talking about you as like the Malcolm X of African immigrants. You have everybody here in Spain talking about you as the leader of a revolution. It seems like a lot of pressure.

MBAYE: (Through interpreter) Me, I'm nothing. It's all about them. It's about the brotherhood we have found here. They're the ones showing me the path.

SHAPIRO: I know you're very humble, but seriously, it must at times feel like a lot of weight that you are carrying on your shoulders.

MBAYE: (Through interpreter) Honestly, it is a lot of pressure. That's why I have to think carefully about every single word, every step I take because it's not just me. It's the whole community.

SHAPIRO: After breakfast, we walked to a Madrid neighborhood where lots of immigrants live called Lavapies. One of the guys tells us, if you try to go anywhere with Serigne, you'll never reach your destination because he'll stop to talk to everyone he meets along the way. And it's true. He's all handshakes and high-fives. He seems to know everyone, or at least they all know him.

KANE SHEKU: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: Like Kane Sheku, who grew up with Serigne in the same Senegalese fishing village.

SHEKU: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: He's a role model, he says. This guy taught me how to fish when we were kids. We'd go fishing together. Serigne tells us he tries to visit this neighborhood whenever he has free time.

MBAYE: (Through interpreter) Because if I'm in politics and I don't do the things I used to do before, people will see that I have changed.

SHAPIRO: In the main square, a city crew is installing surveillance cameras on the lampposts.

BABU JALLOW: (Through interpreter) I have not done anything. I was just sitting in the plaza.

SHAPIRO: A man named Babu Jallow complains that this neighborhood is already overpoliced.

JALLOW: (Through interpreter) And the police come here with their cameras. I tell them they don't have the right to record me. This has to stop. They only record the faces of Black people.

SHAPIRO: He tells Serigne, you have to do something about this. And so this lanky 47-year-old politician feels pressure from many directions - the far right, his community in Madrid, and also the people he left behind back in Senegal. We saw that for ourselves 2,500 miles south of Madrid in a town of Kayar. Here in his hometown, Serigne is a hero.

KHADIM NGOM: (Through interpreter) And everyone knows him Even the smallest baby here, if you ask him, he knows Serigne.

SHAPIRO: A spear fisherman named Khadim Ngom walks us through the sandy, unpaved streets where rising rising sea levels have demolished buildings that face the water. A few blocks inland, we reach the six-bedroom house where Serigne's family now lives.

(Speaking Spanish).

DIOR DIOUF: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: His mother, Dior Diouf, flashes a gold tooth when she smiles.

DIOUF: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: She gets her son on the phone, and their entire conversation is about people in town who need money.

DIOUF: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: This person has an unpaid electric bill. That one needs school tuition.

DIOUF: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: The requests pile up.

DIOUF: (Speaking Spanish).

SHAPIRO: When they get off the phone, she takes out baby photos and shows us a black-and-white picture of a chubby infant in fancy dress clothes.

Oh, my gosh. He's a baby here. Did you ever think that this little baby would grow up to be a deputy in the Madrid Assembly?

DIOUF: (Through interpreter) Never. I never thought about that.

SHAPIRO: How do you think about it now?

DIOUF: (Through interpreter) That's God's will.

SHAPIRO: To the people in his hometown, Serigne is a singularity. Nobody else has accomplished what he's done. More than 2,000 miles north of that beach where he grew up, at his living room in Madrid, I ask Serigne if he feels like he's reached the pinnacle.

When we were in your hometown of Kayar, Senegal, we talked to lots of people who admire you. And I remember one said, thousands of people tried to go to Spain for many years. Many don't make it. Many of those who do make it struggle. There's only one Serigne. And he made it sound like you are living the dream come true. Do you feel like you are living a dream come true, or would you describe it in a different way?

MBAYE: (Through interpreter) Honestly, this was not my dream. But in life, this is what people call destiny. The world I dream of, it's a world where people don't suffer. Because every time I think of the southern border, in the Mediterranean, every time I think of hate speech, I say there is a lot of work left to do in this world. You

SHAPIRO: His term as a deputy ends next year. It's not clear what will happen. But even after the thousands of miles he's traveled, everyone who knows Serigne Mbaye can say for certain, his journey is not over.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.