Homage to Catalonia

Catalunya is a peculiar place for a yankee visitor like me. Officially, it’s an autonomous region within the greater Spanish state. In the hearts of most of the people, it is a captive nation waiting to be set free.

Last year the vote was 86% in favor of independence from Spain. It was non-binding. Just a year before, 2 million out of a total population of 7.5 million rallied in Barcelona for the same cause. In 2013 the people formed a human chain, a million and half strong, across Catalunya to demonstrate their unity and desire to break away from Spain. Everywhere we see L’Estralada, the Catalunyan flag, fluttering in the breeze. It seems that everyone we meet is pro-independence, everyone who is Catalan that is. Everyone else seems to view their Catalan brothers and sisters as other Spaniards who happen to speak a different language and act a little strange.

Broadly speaking, Catalan Nationalism is the the notion that Catalans are a distinct people with their own language and culture, with no real relationship to Spain other than current territorial and legal agreements. The furthest reaching vision of the Països Catalans (Catalan Countries) includes not only the official autonomous region of Catalonia but also the Valencian Community, the Ballearic Islands, parts of Aragon and Murcia, Alghero in Sardinia, Roussillon in France, and the micro-state of Andora where Catalan is the official language. There’s a strong case to be made that the Catalan people in their scattered millions would make a unitary state if not for the pre-existing borders imposed from outside.

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In the United States we like to think that there are huge differences between the provinces (or what we call “states”) but here it’s actually a question of different ethnic groups with different languages. In the Basque country they speak a language which is completely unrelated to Spanish with no Latin roots whatsoever. Even the Basque word for “Basque” is Euskadi and their identity is just as resilient as that of Catalunya. Franco knew this well and he let Hitler’s air force bomb the cities into oblivion during the Civil War. This was made most famous by Picasso’s Guernica. There’s a very strong independence movement in the Basque Country, part of which is armed.

The various central governments of Spain, based in Castilian-speaking Madrid, have historically held on tight to the various regions. The Second Republic allowed for a great degree of autonomy of Catalunya, while Franco’s fascist Spanish State tacked hard the other way and promoted a vision of a single centralist Spain. The idea never took hold in Catalunya where most of the mainstream political parties are nationalist or tout at least a soft-Independentist line. According to Isaac, it’s something that has to be done if a party is going to have any currency with the population.

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The current right-wing government of Catalunya promotes a divorce from “lazy” Spain. This government also has passed a few austerity budgets and promotes tourism as the engine for Catalunya’s growth. According to the numerous En Luitta activists we met, nationalism for the pro-business right, is opportunistic and tries to tap into the legitimate sentiments of a historically oppressed people. For them and for the Catalan left in general, independence is about breaking from this whole profit-before-people mentality.

This all seems to make very little sense to Spaniards outside Catalunya.

Isaac’s flatmate Leon is from the Canary Islands. He’s been in Barcelona for 3 years and says that he’s made very few Catalan friends. He also says that he doesn’t understand the whole Independence thing. Isaac suggests that perhaps these two facts are related. One group of women we met from Andalucia all say that they feel like Catalan autonomy is putting up walls between Spaniards. Alex, a member of Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), says that this is because Catalunya is not Spain. This slogan is everywhere. I think they really mean it.

Isaac told us that in the countryside, everyone is for independence. This would certainly seem to be the case. I have observed countless stone country houses nestled just off the road in groves of almond trees, flying L’Estrala from a flagpole. This is the view out the window of the trains and buses we’ve taken back and forth from Barcelona to Igualada. It’s also the view on the short drive from Igualada to El Rebanya, where we engage in the Workaway project (Eco-Rebanya) of our hosts in Igualada, Manel and Marta.

El Rebanya is the homestead of Marta’s family. They all seem to be typical born-and-raised Catalans. Her grandfather Andreu, aged 93, saw his father blown to pieces during the Civil War. I don’t get the opportunity to ask him about this in any depth. He doesn’t like to speak Spanish, not that I’m particularly fluent anyhow. I can assume though, from what I know of the history of the war and from what people have been telling me, his father’s death was almost certainly the result of a fascist bomb. There were practically no pro-Franco Catalans just as there are practically no pro-Rajoy Catalans now, or so we’re told.

Marta’s parents, Carlos and Marci, grew up in Franco’s Spain which enforced a monolithic Spanish identity with a heavy hand. Marta, like so many Catalans, has autonomy and independence in her blood. When she speaks of separating from Spain, she first speaks from a visceral position. Hers is a cultural nationalism. When she introduces us to a friend of hers, someone who she desribes as a “very serious independentist,” we hear all about the economic advantages of separation. According to her, Catalunya is a rich and productive region and the relationship with the rest of Spain is one of robbery of her country by an ungrateful majority. The line she touts is essentially that which is promoted in the literature of the Catalan Assembly, minus any of the pleasantries.

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The most common cultural stereotype of Catalans is that they’re selfish people. I think I can see why at least one version of Independentism might help reinforce this. Some of what I have heard Catalans say about places like Andalucia, (namely that they’re “lazy”) is remarkably similar to what the European establishment says of Spain as a whole. It’s also what is said of Portugal, Italy, and Greece. On the other hand, there are Catalans who say that they are taken advantage of by a central government which is driving a hard austerity program in the whole of Spain, something they want nothing to do with. It’s a similar line, but the object of ire is at the top of the heap as opposed to the bottom.

Igualada is not “the countryside” by U.S. standards but it is a small town and Isaac’s words would appear to ring very true there. As in Barcelona, L’Estralada is everywhere, hanging from balconies, flying from flag poles, slapped on walls in poster form, and drawn with spraypaint alongside communist symbols and slogans about disobediance and resistance. It’s a curious thing for me. Nationalism is something that I have experienced almost exclusively in the form of my own country’s chauvinism toward other cultures, immigrants, and dissidents. The kind of nationalism on display in Catalunya is quite different.

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Over dinner one evening, Marta suggests perhaps it’s finally time for her to participate in the Independence movement. She’s never been to a national-day demonstration. According to her it’s not so much a “protest” as a gigantic, and family-friendly, celebration. It’s not “radical,” it’s mainstream.

Manel is cut from a different cloth. He’s an adopted-Catalan. He wasn’t born here — as Marta’s father often reminds him — though he’s lived here since he was very young. When prodded on the question of independence he shrugs and says: “Sure, independence, but under what kind of government? What’s the difference if we have the same corruption of our stupid government now?” Manel often likes to speak with us about the economic crisis and his concern for the economic future of Spain. His primary worry seems to be that his children have better opportunities than he had. His approach to the question of independence is one of pragmatism

If separation from Spain means separation from corruption, nepotism, the old two-party system, the crisis, and interference by the European establishment then he’s all for it. In short, Manel is quite skeptical that a replacement of one flag for another is all that it will take to sweep away the problems facing his country.

It’s a lot to take in and we’ve spent just a little over two weeks in Catalunya, which is barely enough time to learn anything about anything. My impressions are quite strong but I can only speak with the authority of an outsider who has been allowed a glimpse into a very different world than my own. I think it would take a very blind or indifferent person to not recognize that separatism is the popular discourse through which other social questions are filtered. I can honestly say that I have seen more pro-Palestine graffiti in Barcelona and Igualada than I have any official emblem of the Spanish state. L’Estralada is as common a site as was the Stars and Stripes in the U.S. on September 12, 2001.

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In a country accustomed to hordes of tourists who only know of Spain as a single entity, we have found that our simply saying “si us plau” instead of “por favor” brings a twinkle to the eyes of even the most indifferent of Catalans. The L’Estralada pin on the lapel of my jacket seems to make it easier to get by as I stumble through this unfamiliar country within a country. I can’t help but feel a strong sympathy for the Independentists. There are so many of them and they say that Catalunya is just not Spain. I cant see any reason to not take them at their word.

– Jason

PS: If the opportunity arises, I would very much like to come back to Barcelona in September to witness both the National Day festivities and the legislative elections.

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