Chatarreros: The Trials of Migrant Workers in Barcelona

S&C Contributing Editor Mark Wright explores a side of Barcelona that sharply contrasts with the city’s glamorous image: the migrant workers struggling to make a living from the scrap metal trade.

December in Barcelona can feel like English summer. Today is warm and bright: 18 degrees. It’s T-shirt weather for a UK tourist.

The locals stare at me as if I’ve gone mad.

I ride the metro from Diagonal to Espanya and wander some ropey-looking streets to the foot of Montjuic Hill, determined to find the Joan Miro Foundation art gallery. I have visited the beach at Barceloneta, seen the mosaics of Park Guell, and watched Barcelona FC defeat Paris Saint-Germain in a Champions League group tie. I roared along with 80,000 home supporters as Messi, Suarez and Neymar all made the scoresheet; now I’m looking to balance the football with something more artistic.

As I climb the hill, I frequently stray from the road to explore the rich gardens and dusty, open parks. There is more to see with each stop as the city opens out behind me, clustered within a border of hills. The view is striking: the splendour of La Segrada Familia in a distant, hazy fug, and palm trees in front of me spanning up and out against clear blue day.

Two Boston terriers hare by and disappear up the hill. Overhead, cable cars glide between stations. At the top, outside Montjuic Castle, a few people mill about, leaning on walls or sitting on the floor. A replica cannon is festooned with bored children.

It doesn’t seem like anybody is for the castle.

And no Joan Miro foundation. I hunt around for ten or twenty minutes but don’t find anything. The girl from the hostel, who I had met at dinner the previous night, had shouted over the mariachi band and the pounding stomp of a flamenco dancer: ‘Just get to Espanya and climb the hill. It’s easy.’

I potter around, grumble to myself, take some pictures. Feeling hungry, and with too few euros for the cable car, I ramble back down the hill through the less travelled streets of Espanya: overgrown, prowled by tangerine cats, and dotted by the odd pair of lace-bound boots hanging high in the branches of trees. Men in dirty, tattered clothes push shopping trolleys filled with scraps of metal that they pull from skips on the road. The metal doesn’t seem to meet any real standards – the carts contain all sorts, all shapes. Dirty; jagged; broken.

I have seen similar men before around the streets of Barcelona: they are known locally as chatarreros, or ‘scrap dealers’. As one of the men passes, I ask for directions to the gallery. He isn’t able to help but we get talking. He has been in Barcelona for several years; he came from Senegal to earn money for his family, for his two girls back home. He trawls the city, gathering metal which he sells on. Different pieces bring different values. I wonder what he can possibly make from a cart, how much he can get by on from whatever he sends home. But I don’t ask, and he doesn’t tell.

I do ask what the work is like. He holds up his dirty hands, points to the blacks and greys, the grime on his clothes, the nicks and cuts on his fingers. He smiles, raises his eyebrows: look. The story is the same for a lot of the men I’ve seen: Senegalese nationals with families back home, arriving with no papers, no options for employment.

No options other than this.

The man insists he is grateful, that he’s lucky to be in the city. ‘You have to be lucky.’ He points to the skips down the road, one by one, and rattles his cart. ‘Lucky, or first. Otherwise, it’s him who is lucky.’ He waves nonchalantly down the street, indicating some imagined rival.

We talk some more – he looks me up and down, clutches his arms and mimes a shiver. ‘Aren’t you cold?’

Eventually we say our goodbyes; the man takes his trolley and continues on.

I stop to eat at a cafe a little way down – white walls, white tiles, pine tables. At four in the afternoon, I’m the only diner present. I have chicken paella with crusty bread and a glass of red wine. Behind the counter, the woman who took my order watches a small television with the sound turned down.

Before long, another Senegalese man with a trolley wanders by the cafe. He stops at a skip along the street and picks carefully over the debris.

Neither lucky nor first, he moves on.

Image by (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.