(Work in progress)
In Barcelona’s expanding tourist economy, street vendors are the targets of racist demagoguery. This project depicts the dignity and struggles of a street vendors’ union.
Las Ramblas, the tree-lined mall George Orwell described as Barcelona’s “central artery”, is usually clogged with tourists. Once the site of flower shops, Sunday strollers and elaborately costumed street performers, today it trades in vulgar T-shirts and gaudy souvenirs. Pushy waiters steer visitors towards kitschy restaurants serving oversized beer, sangria and tapas. The small flower shops have been taken over by a franchise. The street performers and artists who’d brightened up the spaces between kiosks have been regulated and relegated to a strategic spot at the far end. A few Sunday strollers remain, but they’ve been drowned out by the people pouring in from the luxury liners.
It’s like this throughout the city centre, but it’s especially intense by the harbour. Over recent years, tourism investment has spilled over into its surrounding areas, displacing residents and businesses. In the process, it has become a major source of political conflict and mobilisation. But the people most vulnerable to these conflicts are also its most demonised subjects. Their mobilisations are criminalised by a dominant culture built on racist tropes, rumours and a pernicious media mythology.
Intermittently throughout the day, Barcelona’s tourist areas are temporarily occupied by street vendors. West-African men stand behind knockoff football jerseys and D&G handbags, Bangladeshis next to umbrellas covered in shiny earrings. A handful of Senegalese women sell colourful jewellery to tourists, homemade food and cold, sugary hibiscus tea to the vendors. Accompanying each worker is an activist with a sign or banner. The most common slogan reads Sobrevivir no es delito. It is not a crime to survive.
This action is organised periodically by a recently formed street vendors’ union in response to the criminalisation of their livelihood and their demonisation in the press. Since 2015, the city and regional governments have increased police pressure on their work, often through police violence and racial profiling. Mobilisations intensified after the August 2015 death of Mor Sylla, a Senegalese street vendor in the resort town of Salou.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the radical citizens’ platform Barcelona En Comú won the 2015 municipal elections, they did so riding a wave of popular mobilisation, promising a more inclusive and egalitarian society and emphasising human rights and the plight of the city’s poorest, most excluded residents. But as residents have grown increasingly resentful of tourism’s impact on the city, opposition parties and mainstream media outlets have focused outrage on street workers of various types, pressuring the fledgling party’s minority government to increase repression. This has left the vendors, who are mostly undocumented migrants, to fend for themselves with very few institutional allies.
The Blanket Project documents their struggle. By working with the Popular Union of Street Vendors and the community organisations Tras la Manta (Beyond the Blanket) and Espacio del Inmigrante (The Immigrants’ Space), the project counters a near-constant stream of misinformation and unconfirmed reports that are uncritically reproduced in both political discourses and mainstream media accounts of the street vendors’ lives and work.
Understanding that their work is either ignored or opaque to a majority of the city’s residents, union members have granted the project unprecedented access to not only their work but also their daily lives, in order to combat the prevailing rumours, myths and falsehoods that sustain the dominant narrative surrounding them. For over a year, The Blanket Project has accompanied the vendors during their workday, during mobilisations, when they’ve gone to the hospital after being injured by police and on their very few days off.
So far, The Blanket Project has successfully contributed to disproving media and police accounts of numerous police interventions through collaboration with independent media outlets La Directa, Diagonal and Roar Magazine. Going forward, the project will continue to document the street vendors’ struggle and explore aspects of their vendors’ work that remain unknown to the institutions, media and general public, including how bootlegged products reach the vendors through the Port of Barcelona and wholesalers in neighbouring Badalona. In addition to the photographic material it provides for the independent press, the main outcomes of The Blanket Project will be a photography book documenting the lives, work and struggle of the street vendors and a documentary film exploring their social, political and economic dimensions.
text: Carlos Delclos