Walking the streets of Barcelona with my father used to involve a mild amount of embarrassment. In the city, where he was born and raised, and where most residents speak both Catalan and Spanish, there is a social convention: If you speak to someone you don’t know in Catalan, and they respond in Spanish, you should follow their cue and switch to Spanish because they do not speak Catalan. When someone responded to my father’s Catalan in Spanish, he persisted in Catalan. Sometimes they would call him out, explicitly telling him that they did not speak Catalan. Sometimes he would respond, “But we are in Catalunya.” I would stand by, hand blocking my face, hoping the interaction would end quickly. After seeing the national police bludgeon citizens throughout Catalonia with truncheons in a feeble attempt to block the October 1 independence referendum, I have a harder time seeing my father’s obstinacy as embarrassing.
My parents raised me and my sister bilingual: My mother spoke English while my father spoke Catalan. I am trilingual; somewhere along the way, I picked up Spanish. My father is happy to hear me say, however, that I speak Catalan marginally better than Spanish. I think he views it as a slight to the superiority and dominance that the central Spanish government represents for many Catalans. To be honest, when I tell people about my background, I say I’m half American and half Spanish—not half Catalan. It’s just too much to explain. Until recently, much of the educated world was ignorant of the difference between Spain and Catalonia. Despite being a language on Google Translate for nearly a decade, Catalan is still considered by many to be dialect of Spanish, instead of the independent language it is. Understandably, then, there has been confusion about what is going on in Spain, long considered one of Europe’s bastions, and what the hell has gotten into the Catalans.
Catalonia has historically been a region that is culturally and politically distinct from the rest of Spain. Even using the phrase “the rest of Spain” is misleading, because Spain is a set of regions originally bound together under a king in the 1700s. The Basque region to the North of Catalonia, for example, has experienced its own spurts of independent fervor because it too has a unique culture and politics. Catalonia had its own language, laws, and culture long before it was conquered. Successive Spanish leaders attempted to bring Catalonia further into the national fold without success. When Spain became a republic, in the early 1930s, Catalonia was given relative autonomy, with its own regional parliament and president, who were both responsible to the central government in Madrid. This freedom was short-lived.
Francisco Franco, who was in power as Spain’s fascist military dictator from the late 1930s until his death in 1975 and was supported by Hitler and Mussolini, tortured and murdered the Catalan president who declared the region fully independent in 1934. Franco’s rule was marked by such brutal acts of violence. He banned the use of Catalan, and it became an underground language, surviving only because it was spoken by Catalan families, like my grandfather’s, at home around the dinner table. My father’s reason for insisting on Catalan, and his pride in my speaking it better than Spanish, is rooted in the pain that Catalonians felt during this violent period of Spain’s history. This history is also why the appearance of the national police force, clad in black riot gear and ordered into Catalonia on October 1, the day of the independence vote, by the central government in Madrid, stoked fears in Catalans of the repression and violence of times supposedly past.
Following Franco’s death, Spain became a constitutional democracy in 1978, albeit one of those weird ones with a symbolic, powerless king. Catalonia signed onto the Spanish Constitution, and was again allowed an autonomous parliament and president who, granted, answered to Madrid. So why the renewed calls for independence? Besides the feelings of a culture distinct from that of the rest of Spain, and memories of a brief period of independence, which are unlikely to ever fade, Spain’s severe misfortune during the 2008 economic crisis, at the height of which over 50% of Spain’s young adults were unemployed, highlighted the vitality of Catalonia’s economic potential.
Catalonia, which contains about a sixth of Spain’s population, produces almost one fifth of its Gross Domestic Product, more than any other region. Its economic potential has drawn people from other parts of Spain to settle in the region. That’s why some storeowners and market keepers my dad meets on the street speak only Spanish. My grandmother, for example, is from the southern region of Andalucía, and speaks only Spanish but understands Catalan. Being able to converse in her native tongue is the main reason I consciously picked up Spanish. She came to Barcelona through her marriage to my grandfather, who ended up running a large Spanish coffee company, which was headquartered in Barcelona. In response to the move towards independence, however, hundreds of companies have recently relocated their headquarters from Catalonia to other parts of Spain, to continue benefitting from favorable European Union economic policies.
Another reason Catalans are now calling for independence is because of a decision by Spain’s constitutional court. In 2006, in response to the first whispers about a Catalan secessionist movement, the central Spanish government passed a bill granting Catalonia’s regional government more autonomy. This legislation was challenged in court, and in 2010 the constitutional court struck down part of it. One of the disposed of provisions would have made Catalan the preferred language over Spanish in the region. School is currently, however, held mostly in Catalan. In kindergarten I spent a year in Barcelona schools attending classes held exclusively in the language. The court’s decision, considered “light-handed” by outside commentators, turned the secessionist whispers into battle cries. In 2014, the Catalan government held a symbolic, nonbinding independence vote. The central Spanish government promptly unseated the Catalan president, and barred him from holding public office for several years.
All of this history brings us to October 1, 2017, the day the regional government, under the leadership of a president managing a frail independence coalition in parliament, held the binding vote on secession. The only question posed to voters was: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” Before it took place, the vote was ruled unconstitutional by the Spanish court. According to the Spanish constitution, a region of Spain cannot unilaterally determine its independence. So the Spanish government’s claim that the vote is anti-democratic is somewhat true. Since democracy also includes an aspect of self-determination, the central government’s claim is also somewhat untrue.
The Spanish government has not done itself any favors of late. In response to the anticipated vote, it blocked Catalan websites advertising the vote. It sent scads of riot police from other regions of Spain to close voting centers; some were successful. Despite Catalans peacefully camping out overnight in polling locations, many of them schools, the national police managed to shut down about 92 of the hundreds of polling locations, often resorting to the brutish violence exposed on newsreels the next day. Over 700 Catalans were injured attempting to vote. The Spanish government hailed the police response as “proportional.” My family in Barcelona, including my 88-year-old grandmother, were able to vote safely. The Catalan government and press, for its part, has been accused of silencing the voices of those opposed to independence. This is significant because straw polls preceding October 1 showed that, by slim margins, a majority of Catalans do not favor independence. The result of the vote on October 1 was, unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly in favor of secession. Only 43% of registered Catalan voters made it to the polls.
It’s hard to think about the Catalonia dilemma as a plight. The region is relatively wealthy; the independence movement has been largely marked by peace; and any unilateral declaration of independence would be in violation of the Spanish Constitution. But the region’s struggle has garnered significant Western attention and sympathy, despite a similar, more violent struggle for independence occurring in Kurdistan, and despite its occurrence at the same time as the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
There is also the question of whether the Catalan campaign is part of the broader nationalist movement that threatens to disrupt the world order and stability established following the second world war. With this in mind, I cannot say whether I would have voted for independence, had I taken the steps necessary to register my absentee ballot. Like Barcelona’s mayor, I may have voted blank, representing the right of a people to self-determine their political future, but within legal means because they are available.
The political future of Catalonia is very much up in the air. The concerns about the consequences of independence range from the vital—will Catalonia become a member of the European Union considering Spain holds veto power?—to the mundane—in what league will the Catalan football teams, including Barça, play? The Catalan government recently declared independence. The Spanish government, in turn, responded by invoking a provision of the Spanish Constitution that revoked autonomous authority from the Catalan government. Members of the separatist coalition in the Catalan government have been summonsed to Madrid to testify in front of the Constitutional Court. I asked my cousin, a Barcelona firefighter who responded to Las Ramblas following the terror attack there in August, what would happen next. “Ni idea,” he replied – no idea.