Like other tourists searching for a place to eat across the street from Seville’s university. we were—not accosted, let’s say our patronage was aggressively sought. A tug on a sleeve, the magic word paella shouted. Finally unable to say no, we chose a table on the wide sidewalk. Spanish dictionaries in hand, we ordered tapas: salmon on a bed of lettuce, a surtido. I repositioned my chair to better fit under the shadow of the slanted umbrella and protect my fair skin.
Around us waiters rushed like a weaver’s shuttle among the tables. There were brief periods when they all went inside to the kitchen. Seemingly from nowhere African migrants appeared. Their ebony skin contrasting with the complexions of tourists, they pushed trays of sunglasses, leather purses, and pirated CDs in customers’ faces. Yet it was as if they were invisible. With the back of our hands we all brushed them away and continued to eat.
As a writer who’s experienced plenty of rejection, I couldn’t help but consider the persistence of these men. And they were all men. Which also led me to wonder where their families were. Back in Africa, waiting for their husbands/sons/brothers to make enough money to send for them? Trapped in refugee camps?
Seville wasn’t the only place we encountered African migrants. They were selling their wares in Madrid too. In the Puerta del Sol—the center of Spain it’s said to be—they had spread their wares on white sheets. Metal rods for taking selfies were quite the rage, and judging from all the tourists snapping their pictures in front of the bronze bear and madrona tree, vendors selling the rods were experiencing some success.
My husband noticed before I did, the way the African migrants had nylon cords wrapped around their wrists. We quickly witnessed the purpose.
A whistle, a shout? An offstage cue? Before our eyes, the vendors jerked on the nylon cords. Instantly the corners of the sheets came together. Like Santa tossing his pack over his shoulders, the African migrants threw their wares over their shoulders. In haste they scattered, each going a different direction. Seconds later two Policia Local, in friendly conversation, strolled by what a moment earlier had been a stage of commerce.
How do they hide among white throngs, these men whose skin color reveals origins across the Strait?
Last year 12,549 African migrants were caught trying to enter Spain illegally. Are the vendors in Spain’s cities ones who were not caught? Most come from sub-Saharan Africa, but also from the war-torn countries of Syria and Somalia. They are desperate to leave lands where Christians kill Muslims and Muslims kill Christians. Where boys are conscripted into military service. Where families go hungry and lack basic necessities.
Back in our apartment we read the news on our iPhones: In Mediterranean waters 700 illegal African migrants had drowned. I reminded myself that the bodies were not debris like plastic bottles and styrofoam cups floating on the water’s surface but human beings who had been doing all they could to survive. As were the vendors at the sidewalk cafe and in the Puerta del Sol.
While I vacationed.