Urban Up Close: Geographies of Diversity & Senegalese Men in Madrid’s Lavapiés

In All, Europe, Ideas, Theories, & Stories, Social, Cultural, Political, The Story, UDIN (All) by Teju Adisa-Farrar and Nadia Nadesan

Made by Nadia Nadesan

Lavapiés is an area in the center of Madrid and considered an authentic Madrid neighborhood. The name “Lavapiés” describes a plaza that emerged in a Jewish and Arabic neighborhood along Calle Ave Maria. The name is a reference to the Christians who wanted to enter the Jewish zone having to wash their feet to do so. It is a neighborhood primarily made up of old people and immigrants that came to Madrid in the 1960s and 70s, and now also those who’ve come beginning in the 1990’s. It has become a melting pot of different ethnic communities. Lavapiés is a place of a multitude of geographies from Dhaka to the Dominican Republic. The last decade saw a jump in immigration especially from the Global South that’s reflected in this neighborhood once known traditionally as “Madrileño.” Today many of the business owners in the area only speak Spanish as a second language.

Many of those who own businesses said that they came to Lavapiés because they enjoyed the diversity. Work days in Lavapiés are structured around the leisure of others such as tourists or people from a higher income strata that visit the hood to pass the time. So Lavapiés functions for many as a space to work but also as a place to take a break when their work days seem flexible and constant.

In the spaces between working and consuming are multiple public squares with small playgrounds that are occupied by people of different ages and places. One square, La Plaza de Nelson Mandela, has a small playground but is also a meeting place to see people, drink, eat, play, and smoke when the pressures to spend in a bar or store can’t be entertained.

There seems to be a self awareness that shopkeepers are creating a place of positive externalities, where the neighborhood becomes a one stop shop for a variety of hair products, spicier spices, halal meats, and clothes with brighter, deeper colors. From the outside looking in one might consider many of these entrepreneurs as specialized in a transnational supply chain that for now seems mostly exclusive to people from the Global South. The duality at play here is that while shop owners might sell special products to specific and marginalized cultural communities, their business is also in eroticizing clothing, jewelry, and food to access greater consumer capital. For instance, in many South Asian grocery stores one might find bindi packets full of bedazzled and colorful options, but none for everyday use. Meaning they are only selling the most appealing, least functional aspects of the religious practice of wearing a bindi.

However, since Lavapiés functions as a place mostly for work, many people interviewed typically lived outside of the neighborhood, with one female entrepreneur stating that, ‘Lavapiés is for work, not for living.’ The position of these businesses turned both inward and outward complicates the question of livability for whom? Many neighborhoods in the process of gentrifying like Lavapiés often demonstrate that greater global flows of capital are ‘place breaking [rather] than place making’ (Friedmann, 2007) but it seems that the spirit of Lavapiés of diversity, enclaves, freedom, and possibly acceptance of each other lives on in the constant proximity and encounter of difference.


I’ve been in Madrid for almost two months and, in true Teju fashion, I’ve already located a good amount of Brown and Black people, many of them work or hang out in Lavapiés.

photo by: Safaa Charafi

During the Spanish migration boom in 1995, many more ethnic groups began coming to Madrid, including more Africans from Equatorial (Spanish) Guinea, and countries such as: Senegal and Nigeria. These three countries are currently among those with the largest African populations in Madrid. In the last decade, however, there has been a large–relatively speaking–influx of Senegalese to Madrid. They are also quite visible because they are often found selling all kinds of things from selfie sticks to shoes near Atocha and in popular tourist spots like Retiro park. They can also be found in groups hanging out in Lavapiés, especially on Sundays. 

Sunday Geographies of Senegalese Men in Lavapies

Sundays in Lavapiés are very lively, in addition to the El Rastro flea market, there are people, families, vendors out and about making the streets full and vibrant. You can find almost anything you need in Lavapiés on a Sunday. The bars and cafes are full, shop owners are often hobnobbing with their recurring clients, and you can see all the different communities of Madrid. There are several spots in Lavapiés on a Sunday where you can find groups of Senegalese men meeting, fellowshipping, drinking tea, and doing all kinds of things. In the map below, the stars indicate places in Lavapiés where you can find groups of Senegalese men, though they are spread out everywhere in this area. There are three spots in particular I visited where groups of Senegalese men come together every Sunday as a community.

map made by Nadia Nadesan

Spot 1: Plaza de Augustin Lara

“Negros son muy fuerte, no pensado que racismo, es malo” (Blacks are very strong, I don’t think about racism, it’s bad)

-Bab

In this plaza on any given Sunday you can find upwards of 10 Senegalese men appropriating public space and propagating (Senegalese) culture through drumming. According to Bab, quoted above, every Sunday they come together in this plaza to play drums, meet, talk and hang out. Afterwards they all go to someone’s house and eat. You can find Senegalese men of all ages in the plaza chilling, playing drums, smoking weed, talking. White Spanish and others will also come watch and listen to the men playing drums and celebrating their Senegalese culture. There is a barrage of languages echoing through the plaza including: Spanish, French, and Wolof, which is one of the indigenous Senegalese languages. Most of the Senegalese men who come to this plaza every Sunday have been in Madrid for an average of 5-6 years and have come from other European countries like France or Germany. Many of these men live in Lavapiés or close to the neighborhood and enjoy having other Senegalese men close by. They say they like Spain better than other EU countries because of the weather (the sun), it’s cheaper, and Bab mentioned how much he enjoy’s Madrid’s reggae scene. 

Spot 2: In front of Ria (shop)

You can also find a group of six or seven Senegalese men in front of the Ria shop near the Lavapiés metro station on Sundays. They are between the ages of 20-50 and some of the younger ones will be playing fútbol (soccer) in the street, others are standing on the sidewalk drinking tea (since many of them are Muslim and don’t drink alcohol), a few are talking to each other. The Ria shop is near Touba Caidor, a little Senegalese shop in which you can usually find two Senegalese women and one Senegalese man working. The men who congregate here often get their tea from Ria or Touba Caidor; I think the Senegalese shop owners have tea available just for these men who hang out there on Sundays. It must be strong African tea because the way the men drink it is like a ritual.  

Spot 3: La Plaza de Nelson Mandela

“…todos los Domingos porque el lunes trabajamos.”

-Aliou

When you go to Plaza Nelson Mandela at any time you will most likely find African men there. But on a Sunday you can find Senegalese men sitting in dispersed groups talking. There is always be one or two men on the phone with their families or friends in Senegal. On the steps near the squat situated in this plaza, there will be a group of young African men smoking ganja and listening to reggae. It is mostly men, but there might be one or two White Spanish young women smoking and listening to reggae with them. In one corner of the plaza a group of young Senegalese men can be found sitting on the city bikes, which are not frequently used, watching videos or a fútbol match on someone’s phone. In this plaza on a Sunday there are sometimes also a couple of Guinean men meeting and talking on some of the benches. But mostly you will hear French and Wolof being spoken in these groups of African men, and occasionally Spanish among the ones sitting on the steps listening to reggae.

Where are the women?

“En la casa… estudiar y dormir”

-Alija

You will not see the women in these Sunday Geographies of Africans. If you see them it will be rare, far and few in-between. One Saturday night Nadia and I encountered two Senegalese young men named Alija and Mamadou. We walked and talked with them for about twenty minutes. They were heading to a club, Shoko (discotheque that opens at 12am), just outside of Lavapiés where they would meet some friends–other Senegalese young men. Alija was 26 and Mamadou was 24, they had both been in Madrid for about 6 years and said they like it more or less. We talked to them in Spanish and French. We would often see lots of African men in Lavapiés, Senegalese in particular, but no women. So we asked Alija and Mamadou where are the women. Alija casually responded with the above quote which translates to to “[they are] at home studying and sleeping.”

I was slightly outraged by the fact that while African men are out galavanting at all times of the night, or in the square playing drums and drinking tea on a Sunday afternoon, the women are at home studying, taking care of children, cooking, and sleeping. In many cases, I’m told African women do not (feel like they) have the freedom to do what they want whenever they want. They have domestic responsibilities, they want to focus on studying, and some believe it’s not always appropriate for them to be out at night. This behavior, from my experience, is more common with women who emigrate from the continent of Africa to Europe. First generation, AfroEuropean, women who are born in European countries tend to adopt the attitudes and values of their country of birth, in which women have a different sort of mobility and presence in the city.

From a small study of Lavapiés I do not claim to know the realities and experiences of all African men or African people in Madrid. However, it is possible to get a glimpse from talking with them and observing them during their Sunday rituals in Lavapiés. And of course not every African or Black person’s experience in any city is the same. While the Senegalese are the most visible Black/African people in Lavapiés, this area is home to many diverse ethnic communities and Equatorial Guineans still remain the largest African population in Spain; probably because of colonial legacies since they were a Spanish colony. Either way, following these Geographies of Blackness show the many ways in which Black/Africans express their hybridity and negotiation of homeland/host-land through creating spaces in the city where they can be, gather, and fellowship as a community; at the same time welcoming those who care to join regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality. 

Understanding and supporting the importance of place-making is cultural sustainability in the city. All forms of urban sustainability must first be culturally sensitive to be effective. If we do not try to understand the experiences of the minority communities in cities than we cannot truly attempt to create more inclusive and sustainable cities.