Story by Cynthia Pleitez, Niki Papadogiannakis and Michelle Vargas
“When they come I run like the bulls. When they are undercover I can’t run,” says Malick S. who works daily as an illegal street vendor in Valencia but also works as a ship captain transporting people from Africa to Spain.
He keeps a toothy grin on his face while selling hand fans and knock-off sunglasses to tourists visiting the Plaza De La Reina in Valencia, Spain. He lays his sunglasses and fans in neat rows of 10 on a sheet. Attached to each corner is a rope that meets in the middle in a knot to form an “x” shape over the sheet. The rope allows Malick to grab the knot ends, form a makeshift bag and run without all of his items spilling onto the ground when he is chased by the police. It is a technique that serves him well when he sees them coming.
Unlike the shopkeepers and licensed street vendors around him, Malick belongs to a small community of street vendors who left the West African country of Senegal with aspirations to find an opportunity-filled life.
But for the Senegalese community of street vendors, the only opportunity they have is to earn 200 euros a month if business is good and the police don’t bother them. But having to stretch the meager monthly wage is not the worst of Malick’s struggles.
Malick hasn’t seen his family in eight years. Back in Senegal with his “pescadores,” (fishermen) family, Malick’s life in Senegal was a filled with rewarding work and fresh food. But when economic hardship struck his town, descriptions of a distant country named Espana with opportunity for economic prosperity compelled Malick to make the journey to Spain by himself. The journey was one that only a mentally, physically and emotionally stable person could survive.
The boat Malick arrived in was at its 60-person capacity. A 15-day voyage from Africa to Spain drove all those on the boat to experience deathly, unsanitary conditions.
“They were vomiting so much that they couldn’t eat. Then they died. If they died we had to throw them to the sea,” says Malick.
Some urinated, defecated and vomited on the boat.
“Due to the exhaustion some began to hallucinate family members way off in the sea. Another panicked from being at sea and jumped off the boat,” says Malick.
Though Malick made it safely to Spain he finds life in Valencia hard to grip socially. His only friends are those in the African street-vendor community, who he lives with in an apartment. He doesn’t date because he can’t afford to take a woman out. Instead he listens to music inside his house for entertainment.
In addition to working as a ship captain bringing people to Spain and as a vendor in front of Plaza De La Reina, Malick works on an orange field.
“The work is slave labor. You work hard and they pay you less than the hours you worked,” says Malick.
In the plaza, a young boy stands in front of him as he tries to sell fans to a British tourist. The boy wears a Brazil soccer jersey while bouncing a soccer ball in front of him. They both start playing soccer and Malick smiles uncontrollably. These are the joys that keep Malick smiling when he has a toothache and has to pay 140 euro to have a tooth removed, something that many locals with health insurance do not have to pay for. He says it’s more expensive for a poor person to survive than those who have money.
The local police fined Malick 800 euro for selling items on the street. They make their rounds periodically around the plaza, and depending on their mood, ignore or hand out fines to the street vendors. He has hired an attorney to help him resolve the case.
Malick says he’s not proud of his work.
“I never would’ve thought that I would come to Europe, put a cloth on the ground, run to sell to men and women and run from police. Sometimes I get embarrassed. Sometimes I have a bit more confidence. But at least it’s better than doing something bad. It’s better than stealing. It’s better than mugging someone.”
Work is a subject that the Spanish do not take lightly. As of April, 22.5 percent of the population in private households are unemployed, according to Eurostat. While migrants suffer worst of the disparities of Valencian employment local business owners in Valencia focus on the problems of illegal business competition.
For the last 36 years, Manuela Ramon Peris has worked at Nela, a shop, selling handmade fans and other personal goods. Her shop sits across from where Malick sets up his shop.
She has worked long enough to know that the illegal street vendors are adept at avoiding the local police.
“They know the exact time when the police change shifts and they take advantage of selling during those times,” Peris says.
She does not see the street vendors leaving anytime soon.
“All these people have free healthcare and they are taken care of. Why would they want to leave anytime soon?” Peris says.
The Valencian government recently issued an estimated 30,000 immigrants primary health care In addition to hiding from the police. Despite having a government-issued sanitation card he still struggles to pay for their health needs out of their own pocket
His recent toothache caused him to cry inside his house for two days until the pain drove him to a general hospital urgent care department where he was given a 140 euro invoice for the tooth removal. Some of the locals with health insurance that Malick knows do not have to pay for a tooth extraction.
“They tell me it is not normal for a poor person, someone who doesn’t work, doesn’t have a family, comes to fight for their life and help their family,” says Malick.
He works three jobs to support himself in Valencia and his family in Senegal who believes he has money simply because he is living in Europe.
”Sometimes they call and say ‘Malick, your sister is sick. Malick, your brother is sick, help them with money. We need you to make 200 euros this month.’ When I hear that I can’t eat until I collect enough money to send,” Malick says.
Malick is embarrassed by his work in Valencia as a street vendor. People hold their purses and bags closer to their bodies as they pass him. He wants the Spanish who have never left Valencia to understand his reasons for living here.
“There are times when I cry. I place a sheet over my head and I start to cry. I want to see my family. It’s something that hurts. It’s something that isn’t freedom.”
He is like the estimated 6.5 million migrants, many of who live in poverty after coming to Spain with the hope for a more prosperous economic future. They are ostracized from Spanish social circles and find it hard to cope with belonging to a disrespected class of people. Locals shout racist remarks to the Senegalese street vendors even when they are casually walking down the street. Some kick his items as they walk past him. It is a hard for the Senegalese men, many of who were educated in business entrepreneurship. Malick’s father was a fisherman who owned and rented his own property. His mother would sell the father’s catches to the local women. Malick also wants to have his own home, family and economic freedom but as he runs from the police and chases tourists for his next sale he struggles to cope with his making his dreams a reality.
“Sometimes I say why did I come here? Why did I accept to be a captain and bring people here? What I experience in Europe I didn’t experience in Senegal. I experience more suffering here. I am thinner,” says Malick.
On a recent Tuesday two local policemen parked across the street and watched the vendors. They waited patiently as they watched and pointed to the area they would walk to first. Malick unknowingly smiled at passersby and charmed a British tourist into buying two fans for 5 euro. The policemen exited their cars and made their way to the side street toward the street vendors. Malick looked around and spotted the cops as they walked in his direction. “La policia,” he warns to the others.
He grabbed the knotted rope and the corners of the cloth. Now all of the items were safely tucked inside into what had become a makeshift cloth bag. The policemen were getting closer as he looked around to see if more were coming from the opposite direction. He swung the bag of items over his shoulder and scurried away. All the other street vendors were doing the same. This time tomorrow they would all be back again and play the game over until someone was handed the fine. But this time, Malick had gotten away.