In June 2015, opposition councillor Alberto Fernández Díaz criticised the security policies of Ada Colau’s local government, which had only just taken office, accusing Barcelona’s new mayor of attracting “criminals, vandals and anti-systemic types”. The then-leader of Barcelona’s Partido Popular claimed that the city had become “a sort of Jauja for those who do not abide by the law” (1). To support his argument, he referred to the (mostly African) street vendors working near the city’s main tourism hotspots.
In the Spanish-speaking world, it is not uncommon to compare a place to Xauxa as a result of the imaginary imposed by a brutal colonial past. However, few people realise that Xauxa is a real place, a city in Peru and a hamlet in Andalusia. Xauxa became a legend during Spain’s so-called Golden Age, when Lope de Rueda used it to import the ancient European myth of the Land of Cockaigne, where bacon grows on trees, rivers flow with milk and honey, and “men are paid to sleep” while “those determined to work are flogged”. In Xauxa, abundance renders the market economy impossible, giving way to a life centred on the pursuit of pleasure. In this sense, the negative connotation of the slogan “Barcelona is Xauxa” ultimately reveals a profound fear of freedom.
In Lope de Rueda’s tale, Xauxa is a ruse concocted by a pair of thieves. Today, in Barcelona, it is a pretext used to impose a right-wing agenda on a supposedly left-wing local government. Recent public statements by the city’s new Security Councillor Albert Batlle indicate that the message is sinking in. Last summer, the City pressured Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez by offering its ports to receive the Aquarius, a boat carrying refugees ignored, forgotten and persecuted by Fortress Europe. This year, in contrast, the council seems determined to remove them from the same place. The massive police operations led by councillor Batlle have been accompanied by a criminalising discourse that depicts street vendors as a security threat.
The criminalisation and securitisation of immigration are well-known processes in the social sciences, with dire consequences for freedom and solidarity among the general public, and for migrant and racialised people in particular. If the city insists on these policies, a city that seeks to be a refuge could quickly become Salvini’s Italy. We mustn’t forget that, shortly before applauding the xenophobic policies of their Interior Minister, the Italian people —shaken by the deaths on their shores— had launched the largest search and rescue operation in the history of the EU: operation Mare Nostrum.
Street vending is not a security issue. It is a matter of labour and commerce, where an outrageous double standard is applied. Corporations such as Airbnb, Uber and Glovo extract their wealth from local informal labour markets and blackmail governments, forcing them to adapt existing legislation to technological change. Yet, when the local street vendors’ union asks for the law to adapt to the reality of human life, they are not even recognised. Even without recognition, the vendors are asked to put forward proposals. They have always been forthcoming.
The Top Manta brand is one particularly clever example (2). The vendors’ union has also pointed at the roots of their oppression: Spain’s Alien laws, the criminal code and the extractivism carried out in their countries of origin, among others. There are further options, but they all require the recognition and full political participation of the traders themselves. A clear example of this is the Indian government’s national policy on street vendors which —following a participatory process led by the National Association of Street Vendors (NASVI)— set the following objectives: granting the workers legal status, establishing trading zones, regulating business in a transparent manner, promoting worker organisation in trade unions and cooperatives, facilitating self-regulation and guaranteeing access to social rights, loans and ongoing training.
A similar approach in Barcelona would not turn the city into Xauxa (alas!). But it would be one more step towards a City of Refuge worthy of the name.