Catalonia seeking independence
It was the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Spain vs. Chile.
They were playing in the round of sixteen while I was traveling in the Pyrenees. Although it was not my first time in the Pyrenees, I was still a tourist with poor Spanish and no local friends.
I entered a small bar that was full of people who must have come to watch the game. The Spanish team was at its peak, at the height of certainty that it would be a candidate for the World Championship. I thought that fans of such a team would be proud and excited, but, to my surprise, the atmosphere in the bar was calm. People spoke passively, and occasionally glanced at the screen. They were not fans wrapped in the national flag or with faces painted yellow and red. They watched the game with indifference that only stopped as soon as Chile scored a goal, at which point joyous glee erupted from everyone and spilled from the pub out onto the street.
I didn’t understand.
I also did not understand when I walked the streets of Barcelona a few months later, and found the city scattered with posters that showed photographs of the same street in Barcelona seventy or sixty years earlier, with a caption telling of the suffering experienced by local residents during Franco’s dictatorship. The posters also testified to that period’s silencing of Spanish culture and media, telling an almost forgotten story. Like everyone else, I’d read about the Spanish Civil War, and Hemingway’s masterpiece For Whom the Bell Tolls. But it was hard to connect the Spain I knew, an open and liberal place, to the posters of a brutal dictatorship that disappeared only in the mid-seventies. Why does this history seem so secret? Why is no one talking about this period? Who has an interest in hiding what happened eighty years ago?
The answer to my question was received only a few years later. I was on a hillside above the Pallars Valley. Miguel and I looked out over a village that was abandoned during the difficult years after the Civil War. “Myra Umbre (look friend),” he said, as he pointed to the valley and the villages below. He stopped for a second, the conversation between us seeming to have reached a sensitive place. “Myra (look),” he said. “All those who live here now in the valley are the families who survived the civil war. Who do you think survived the civil war? Those who fled the fighting. Those who betrayed their family members to stay alive. Those who fled to France and left the children and women alone in the village to cope with cruel hunger and the bullying of the civil guards. Those who fought are long dead, and their families perished.”
“You see,” he continued with a sad smile. “Who wants to hide the truth about the civil war and the years of dictatorship? Here they are. The people who live here in the valley. It’s my grandfather, who fled to France and left his family behind and still feels guilty. But my generation and I don’t feel guilty, we want to restore our language, our culture, and our independence.”
A few months later, we met again. Catalonia was raging. In Barcelona and the provincial cities, there were countless demonstrations and marches. The call for independence came from every corner, and a referendum for independence was set for October 1. But, the government in Madrid rejected any attempt to talk and declared the referendum illegal. This time, Miguel and I were sitting in the house of a friend in a small village not far from Barcelona. Miguel, along with all the Catalans, was ecstatic. For the first time since the Civil War, the independence of Catalonia was on the horizon, but I remained skeptical. They would surely pay a hefty price in the struggle for independence against an uncompromising right-wing government in Madrid, Miguel was convinced that the European Union would not support a government that smashed the democratic will for independence. I proposed a different perspective because of the fact that in every European country there are minorities that desire and demand independence. These voices sparked real fear of a total disintegration of many European countries.
A week later, I returned to Catalonia on the very day of September 11, when Catalans lost their independence more than three centuries ago, and Barcelona was filled with people with Catalonia flags and whole families sitting on the pavement listening to the speeches of politicians and members of the Catalan parliament. Awakening and hope.
On the eve of the referendum, I called Miguel, but I did not have time for encouraging talk. He was busy organizing the polling station at the school in Esterri d’Àneu in the heart of the Pallars. Almost all the residents of this sleepy village gathered in the school with sleeping bags to hold the vote for independence. When Spanish police blocked the entrances in the morning, it was too late, and most of the villagers had already voted. For the first time in eighty years, the people were no longer ashamed of their past, but instead looked forward to independence, and the Catalans were united again.
On the day of the vote, the energy was high, but precisely what I dreaded came to pass: the Spanish government crushed the democratic process by force, thousands of police from other districts were sent to Catalonia and forcibly arrested elderly voters who dreamed of independence for 80 years. It was a sad day. The EU paid lip service in the form of a weak condemnation of the violence. The central government stood with unreserved support for the end of a democratic process in the heart of Europe. The Catalans’ unwillingness to continue a violent struggle against the brutal violence of the regime ended the hope for independence. The protest died. Barcelona’s life continued as usual. Catalan leaders fled to Brussels for political asylum. And Miguel flew to India to clear his head.
And the dream of independence? It’s still simmering on a low flame, surviving against exhausting Spanish bureaucracy, waiting for another generation, perhaps the generation of preschoolers and elementary schoolers I met in Catalonia, growing the Catalan culture and language away from the painful memories of the Civil War.