by Nathalie Graham
Rows upon rows of sunglasses spread out on blankets catch the sun and catch tourists’ eyes. Coach purses, countless jerseys, and glossy Adidas are a baited hook. The men next to each blanket reel in the lure as they prompt passerby with low prices.
But, in reality, no matter how low they go, the prices are inflated. The goods are counterfeit and every transaction is illegal.
The groups of African men that gather en masse in the tourist hubs of Madrid, like on the sidewalks of Grand Via, are not legally allowed to practice their trade. Their wares are spread out on blankets with strings knotted around each corner. They stand above with the strings firmly in hand, their eyes dart back and forth, constantly on the lookout. Once they spot a policeman, someone sounds the alarm, like a prairie dog that’s spotted a hawk. In a fluid motion, they snatch up the strings, toss the blankets over their shoulder, and coalesce into a pack as they rush away from danger. There’s safety in numbers.
For many, this is enough to live off of. It’s dangerous and the hours are long but it’s better than the money they make back in Senegal. At least that’s what Rahim, the young man selling jerseys I talked to, told me. Rahim said he came from Senegal to Madrid four years ago and has since been selling these “copies” as he called them. I have to take everything he said with a grain of salt, even his name. Especially his name, really. As we talked, him laughing at my pointed questions instead of answering them — “Where do you get your merchandise?” “It’s not important”—, an undercover cop surfaced out of the crowd. The black earpiece in his ear was the only thing that gave him away, like a shark fin cutting through the waves. Instantly, chaos ensued. All the men around me, Rahim included, gathered up their goods and made a break for it.
He pointed the man out as he hurried away. “Secreto! Secreto!” He said and turned his back to join ranks with the others.
The risk of getting caught varies. Sometimes it’s a fine, other times, these illegal street vendors can face imprisonment from six months to two years.
With the extreme difficulty of getting a work visa and a steady job, this is often times the only means of survival for these immigrants.