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From ‘Top Manta’ to ‘Top Model’: Madrid’s Sene-Gambian Street Vendors Who Dream of Becoming Models

The Sene-Gambian manteros from sidewalk to catwalk ©Julián Zuazo

Abdou Touray is a 29-year-old Gambian living in Madrid, Spain. He is a mantero, name given in Spain to illegal street vendors who sell counterfeit goods and products spread on cloth sheets. Most of them are African migrants who traveled to Europe through the Mediterranean, in what is widely known in The Gambia as back-way journey.

He dreams of becoming a fashion model since childhood. His destiny is about to change, possibly. He and six other manteros from Senegal are part of the Spanish non-profit initiative topmantatopmodel which gives them the opportunity to showcase their talents for modeling and interpreting.

“What started as a shooting exercise soon became an ambitious project,” Susanne Pfingsten, the coordinator of the project tells The Chronicle. “We wanted to help them to leave the streets by doing something different, something that no Spaniards can do: be a black model in Spain.”

The idea arose from a professional need. “As a director, I always have been thrilled when shooting with African/black casting. This type of casting gives much more expression and strength to any production,” says Julián Zuazo, the project’s creative director and alma mater. “The problem was I had to travel abroad every time I looked for black models. One day, walking around Madrid´s city center I realized that many of our black immigrants had just the qualities I was looking for,” he recalls.

Abdou Touray ©Julián Zuazo

In 2013, Abdou’s father and uncle were jailed in The Gambia for political reasons during the time of former dictator, Yahya Jammeh. For fear of persecution, Abdou fled the country through the back-way to Libya, where he went through hell before making it to Italy. He continued to Switzerland where he lived for some years and studied and worked as a computer scientist. But his permit (to legally stay and work) was not renewed by the Swiss authorities and so he decided to head to Spain. Although he speaks English, French and 6 African languages and is learning Spanish, he hasn’t been able to find a job because he has no papers to work legally in Spain. But then he got contacted for what might change his life.

“I was so happy when Susanne spoke with me about the initiative (topmantatopmodel) and said we could do it and she was ready to help”, Abdou tells me during our conversation in Madrid.

He was asked to take part in the fashion video topmantatopmodel that gave the starting signal to the project. A group of prestigious professionals in film production, advertising and fashion in Spain have worked on it in an altruistic way. It´s the first Spanish fashion film with a social purpose. The goal is to give the manteros, who have suffered so much, a minute of glory and open a window to their future.

“We had only one day of rehearsal. These guys really have a feeling for modeling. They are very talented. The camera loves them. We assume not everybody can do that, so we feel very lucky to have found our perfect models. These guys are really gifted not only with a great physical condition but also with the way they move, the way they look at camera etc,” Julián Zuazo explains.

“For me, it was not so difficult because I like being photographed and being a model,” says Abdou. “I felt good and comfortable doing something I like.”

Idrissa Touré, a 31-year-old Senegalese arrived in Spain eight months ago. With no papers to enable him to work, he joined his African compatriots in the streets of Madrid as a mantero. And like Abdou, he’s being scouted for topmantatopmodel project.

Idrissa Touré ©Julián Zuazo

“I tried to be a model in Senegal but there were quite a lot there. This is my dream. I am very happy with having done the video. This is something easy for me”.

Idrissa left Senegal because he couldn’t find work there. His story is very similar to those of his fellow countrymen in the video: Mama Gore, Bamba, Dieumba, Abdou Sakhor and Cheikh. They all came to Europe on boat via Libya or Morocco, in search of greener pastures. But once in Europe, the reality kicks in; unable to get ‘good jobs’ they dreamt of, the only way for them to subsist is to become manteros, usually selling fake designer bags, sunglasses etc.

“It is so bad, so hard and so difficult, but there is no choice. I need to do it to survive. It’s risky. I don’t feel well doing it. I feel ashamed”, laments Abdou. “The police can come, detain us and take our stuff. This is a hard work. I don’t like it. I want to leave the street but I can’t for now. No paper, no work”, adds Idrissa, who studied computer science and economics back in Senegal where he dreamt of becoming a model and it looks like he was born for the catwalk.

“Their reaction was very positive. Some of them though couldn´t quite understand why anybody would do this project for social reasons. They all have been through so many calamities on their way to Spain that they were afraid of being cheated again. But that was only at the very beginning”, explains Susanne Pfingsten.

“For sure it isn’t the big solution for our immigrants but at least it’s a small contribution to find ways to integrate them and give a worthy life at least some of them. Our last objective is that our African cast becomes independent, having their own online casting agency”, she adds.

The Topmantatopmodel project has so far attracted a lot of interest in the Spanish media, at a time when the debate over the fate of irregular migrants, especially those from Africa, has been taking political center stage across Europe.

“We never imagined the huge response in the Spanish media. It has been overwhelming. And all so positive! Our next step is to have our models in a big fashion festival. That is our dream”, says Julián Zuazo.

Though Topmantatopmodel is a work in progress, it has already achieved something; people in Spain are now looking at manteros from a new prism. It shows dignified and elegant images of manteros with talent and style, and eliminates prejudices and changes perceptions.

“If people see us in that way, things will change. But if people see us like we are stupid, or we don’t have knowledge or we are criminals who destroy their country, then things are complicated to change”, affirms Abdou.

This initiative has given the manteros at least visibility and hope of getting them “from the sidewalk to the catwalk”, from a marginal situation to an opportunity for decent job opportunities.

Abdou doesn’t hide how hard his life is and how sometimes he regrets taking the back-way to Europe. But coming back home to The Gambia empty-handed is not an option.

“I will wait to get papers and then go back and see if I can do a business there and stay. And if I go and see things are not good, I can come back with my residence permit,” he says, recommending to the youth in his country to try it there. “I am saying to the people in Africa that the way they see Europe is not the one you find after you get to Europe. If you have an opportunity to stay in Africa, be in Africa.”

Abdou Touray ©Julián Zuazo

While Abdou’s hopeful that his dream of becoming a model is achievable, he’ll have to continue his life as a mantero until there’s a breakthrough in his quest for modeling success. As he walks away after our conversation, his bigger dream comes to my mind:

“Hopefully I can also do my dream in my country. I would be lucky to be a model and get money and come back and do something for my country and help my people. I really miss home, my family, my mom and my dad”.

He pauses for a while, visibly sad and then continues: “And my son. You know, I have a 7-year-old son. I don’t see him since 2013.”

Pilar Requena is a Spanish TV journalist and university teacher. She’s also an international trainer at the Media Academy for Journalism and Communication (MAJaC) in Fajara, The Gambia. She did this piece exclusively for The Chronicle.

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