Literally meaning 'top blanket', 'top manta' is an urban nickname for merchants who unfurl makeshift blankets in the street loaded with articulos falsificados - imitation goods.
Ah, you mean manteros...the ones who run away with all their goods when the Guardia Urbana appear? Call them what you will; now almost an embedded part of Barcelona's landscape along with the human statues, street artists and florists, these vendedores ambulantes, most commonly of Sub-Saharan African or Pakistani descent,sell anything from selfie sticks to umbrellas, fake sunglasses and sporting goods, in areas of maximum tourist ambulation - such as at the bottom end of Las Ramblas, or the walkway to Maremagnum, outside the Museu d'Historia de Catalunya, beside Port Vell, at El Mirador de Montjuic....
And in Metro stations. I got a wicked pair of 'Nike' trainers from a nice Senegalese man on the green line. That's nice. But the council isn't so happy about it. For a long timetime now the Ajuntament de Barcelona has been embarassed by the presence of the manteros on Barcelona's most iconic walkways. 'Big Business' and high street stores are also, for obvious reasons, less than enamoured of the top manta trade, and have putting pressure on the council to do something about it. In the summer of 2015, this led to Mayor Ada Colau adopting critical measures; a combined operation by the Mossos d'Esquadra, Guardia Urbana and Policia Portuaria to saturate Port Vell and other zones with agents.
Did it work? By the end of autumn, the increased patrols had led to a 60% decrease in activity in zones near the waterfront. But the police bodies, in particular the Policia Portuaria, couldn't maintain this level of presence on the streets, and since Christmas the manteros' presence began to grow again, particularly on the waterfront. This has led to new stand-offs between police and merchants, and even angry confontations. Since Colau - a social activist herself in the past - has been in power, she maintains that she's looking for a social solution to the problem, in conjunction with the two representative bodies of the manteros, Per La Manta and the Sindicat Popular de Venedors Ambulants. It was these groups that organized daily protests on Las Ramblas in February. For three days in a row, between 5 and 7 in the afternoon, over 150 manteros converged on Las Ramblas to send out an important message to the world.
'Get your top quality imitation Gucci sunglasses here?' No, tonto. 'Look everyone! We can organize a civilized, successful mercadillo.' And maybe...just maybe...that's the future solution.
What is? An official mercadillo... I've thought it all through you see!
Go on then: Okay, so you have this vicious circle. You have immigrants who are denied residency and need to sell these products in order to survive. Then you have tourists who want to buy their products, because they're cheap. Then you have the council and police who want them off the streets because they're unseemly, and Barcelona, as we all know, is all about image. Finally you have big business which doesn't want the market flooded with fake products. Especially on the street outside its shops.
So? So first the top mantas go to Big Business (your Nikes, Adidas, Gucci etc.) and say, we can sell your out-of-date stuff, your trainers, your Barça shirts, whatever, from two, three, five, however many years ago. The stuff that's no longer on the shelves and is stored up somewhere. Give it to us cut-price and we'll sell it.' Big Business sees € signs, says 'Sounds good! But how?'
Top Mantas go to the council and say 'we have lots of quality, cut-price, official merchandise to sell, but we need a place to sell it legally. Give us an area to sell it in, and permits to sell it, and we'll get off your streets. How about...(insert in brackets industrial wasteland in the city outskirts )?' Council says, 'hostia, es bonissim, aquesta idea!' and finds a disused site in the Zona Franca. And thus street sellers get a place to sell all their (totally legal) stuff.
Not only does this mean Barcelona's council gets its shiny, happy, manta-free boulevards, but the police can concentrate on theft, assault, rape and incivic behaviour without having to chase around men with dodgy-looking blankets; big business gets to unload all that stuff it couldn't sell in season for an unexpected profit, the Zona Franca becomes a cult destination, a kind of a sporting Encants, thanks to its thriving open-air market. The public can gratify itself on out-of-date cheap, quality stuff. And most importantly of all, top mantas get to continue being top mantas, with dignity intact.