Over the last few years, I have seen how nationalism has managed to creep its way into the lives of the Catalans I love (almost all my family and friends are Catalan).
Here’s a handful of cases. The names, occupations and other personal details of those concerned have, of course, been changed.
Normalisation of the Catalan language
In the 1990s, Jacinto was a vocational nurse who threw himself into his work both with a passion and an exceptional sense of civic service. Born to a long line of Catalans, he grew up speaking his parents’ language.
In general, he preferred to express himself in Spanish, but was particularly sensitive with the sick and elderly, with whom he spoke Catalan whenever he felt it necessary.
After almost twenty years of dedicated care work in hospitals, the Catalan Health System held public exams for tenured positions.
Jacinto signed up and passed all the technical tests, except the one on the Catalan language; the degree of written proficiency demanded was extraordinarily high (level C, the fourth highest of the five levels).
For him, a native Catalan and a man used to speaking the language at home, but lacking a formal education, such a level was unattainable.
And that is how the so-called law for the “normalisation” of the Catalan language was put into practice.
Without any kind of consideration whatsoever for generations of Catalans who had received no schooling in the written language.
If asked, I would say that Jacinto has never shown any interest in waving the Catalan flag, let alone in anything to do with independence.
Alicia has written for the Catalan public radio service for nearly thirty years.
Her parents, both from Catalan families, used to speak Spanish at home, but that did not stop Alicia from being bilingual and working her entire life in Catalan.
She also married a Catalan. The first surprise she received at work came back in the 1980s when she found that the texts she drafted were censored whenever she referred to a sports team as Spanish. From day one, they came back to her with the correction “Spanish state”.
Last week, her partner wrote to me: “Yesterday the village was teeming and today it’s almost empty, because all the crowds have gone to gather at the “assembly points”, “amidst flags, slogans and horn blasts, and casting sidelong stares at anyone failing to respond to all their protest paraphernalia…”. He went on: “you can’t imagine what things are like in the villages inland. In Cerdanya, they told us to speak in Catalan when we were chatting together in a bar” and ended “The atmosphere is strained all around the country and the “pyromaniacs” are in higher spirits than ever adding fuel to the fire …”
When she heard me quoting a well-known Catalan politician who said “They want me to choose between drumstick and breast, and I don’t like chicken”, Alicia smiled knowingly with a somewhat wistful look in her eye.
Self-loathing and spiritual supremacy
Jesús came to Barcelona from a village in Córdoba when he was barely 6 years old. His family was not very well-off (1). Hard working and reliable, he is ambitious and eager to make his way in the world. But he has never been interested so much in the money he can earn as in making a name for himself in professional circles and settling down in his personal life. He now enjoys well-deserved success.
He was a member of Convergència i Unió (the long-time dominant nationalist party) for several years and is an arch supporter of the right to vote, though not so much of Catalan independence.
During a friendly chat we recently had in a bar, he described a trip he had just made to the village of his birth. At one point, quite literally clenching his fists and closing his eyes, he told me: “those Andalusians are layabouts who don’t want to work and just live off my money”, followed by “it’s a land of subsidies”, adding a few more niceties in the same vein.
Then, after talking about other things, he went home thrilled with “Tributo a Pareja Obregón”, the CD of delightful Sevillian folk music that I had bought him as a gift.
Jesús, of course, doesn’t miss a demonstration and even asks many of his acquaintances if they intend to go or not, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
A bellyful of life
Paloma and Juan have lived in Barcelona all their lives and run a patisserie. All their family lives in Catalonia and they know no other home.
Now they send WhatsApp messages saying they are fed up with a country where they sense that everyone is uptight, where it’s always the others who are to blame and almost no-one seems to care how things turn out any more.
They’re looking for somewhere to live in Málaga, a place they have no ties with whatsoever. But a place where they at least hope to find peace and an end to a discourse which interprets absolutely everything in the same direction.
Such feelings are very similar to those previously experienced by thousands in the Basque Country (2).
It’s something I could never have imagined would happen in Catalonia and hits me very close to home.
Another common view
A few days ago I received a message from a member of my family: “… I am pro-independence… [but] I’m not in any hurry… I think things look much more heated from outside than they actually are here”.
I could only reply saying how implausible such an indifferent claim sounded.
The others are better off and don’t love us
Not long ago, I spent a few days with some relatives of mine, both of whom are from very traditional Catalan families, when, without much warning, they started talking, quite irascibly, about how the central government was taking advantage of them economically and how they were despised because they were Catalan.
I was taken aback, because this couple had never shown any great interest in political matters before.
To my surprise, even though they are both professional people and used to handling complex issues, they were unable to give me any details to support their claims.
I really wanted to find out how they knew that the local trains, which they never use, were in such a sorry state and why they supposed things were any different in Madrid, but my attempts to ask them came to no avail.
I even drew on several examples from my own experience to impress on them that the local transport in London is an absolute disgrace. I also added that, even so, you never heard anyone ranting on about how much better things were in Manchester or Glasgow.
The truth is I only managed to wind them up even more.
The next morning, they were both upset and their words were genuinely heartfelt, asking me not to misinterpret them and insisting that they were not pro-independence by any stretch. I couldn’t think of anything constructive to say.
That was when I realised that if people so disinclined towards politics and so unwilling to greet any kind of change could get so worked up and see things that way, as they truly saw them, then things had come to a very serious head indeed.
My partner, who is also Catalan, brought home to me just how remarkably effective all the nationalist propaganda had been; it has sown discord and a sense of grievance among our people to devastating effect.
A more recent account
On the 4th of October, I received this message:
“I feel tears well up in my eyes when I see the city where I was born and grew up. I was proud to belong to a cosmopolitan city, open to the world, where it didn’t matter what language you spoke or what ideology you had. And now I look on the same place with great sadness… social division, aggression from the forces of the State. Political manipulation and manipulation of the social media from both sides. “It doesn’t matter what flag you wave, there is no winning side.”
Society is divided and I look at my 4-year-old son, whose mother is Catalan and whose father is from Santander, and wonder what kind of city he will live in. Should I leave the place I love? Should I pack my bags? Is feeling Spanish not well looked upon anymore? Will they take me for a fascist if I speak my mother tongue?
I consider myself a citizen of the world… Catalan… Spanish. We will all be reduced to dust in the end… Is it worth letting a feeling create a rift between us? Is it really worth jeopardising social peace? Do you really want your children to grow up in a ruptured society in a world which is already broken enough? Do you really want the politicians on one side or the other to use you as they please?
I want a simple, quiet life… I want to see the blue sky… watch my son grow up… spend time with my Catalan friends… my Spanish friends and my friends from all around the world”.
Unilateral independence; not in my name
These are all situations I’ve lived first hand. I can’t think of any more right now.
Perhaps they don’t paint the whole picture because they are so small in number, but they are real.
They all disturbed and saddened me.
My thoughts are, as always, with them all.
- “Agricultural wages… in 1958 were almost identical to those in 1935.” Hugh Thomas. The Spanish Civil War. Quoted in In Hiding. The Life of Manuel Cortes. Ronald Fraser. Verso, 2010, p.174.
- Basque Diaspora. Section on democracy. Brief, documented, balanced account in: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diáspora_vasca#Democracia (In Spanish)