At first glance, Barcelona seems to be getting by just fine. People crowd into cafes during the day and spill out of bars at night, following friends and lovers. Some linger late outside apartment buildings, waking residents with their revelry. Hordes of tourists roam the city’s famous streets. Street traders hawk their wares, keeping an eye out for local police — the “Mossos” in Catalan.
But Catalonia’s capital – like much of the region – is being split by the worst crisis since Spain returned to democracy some 40 years ago. In a first since the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, the Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy dissolved Catalonia’s semi-autonomous status, imposed direct rule over the regional government (Generalitat) and called for early regional elections on December 21. (See full report here).
Rajoy says he is enforcing Spain’s constitution, which describes the country as “indivisible”, after the Catalan parliament (Parlament) declared independence following a controversial referendum.
The question of Catalan independence has become the most divisive political and social crisis in Spain’s post-Franco history. Sensationalist parallels with the lead-up to the country’s civil war are almost certainly overblown but over the past decade – and especially the last year – the acrimonious politics of independence have seeped into, sometimes poisoned, personal relationships.
Many Catalonians fear theirs is becoming a “fractured society”.
The October 1 referendum – deemed illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court – split Catalonia. Less than half of the electorate took part but of those who did, 90 percent voted in favour of independence (link to results in Catalan). That gave separatist leader Carles Puigdemont the trigger to declare independence, ushering in a constitutional crisis that is now playing out across the dinner tables of many Catalonian families.
‘Spain robs us’
Xavi Bosch Martí, 43, was born in Barcelona and is the fourth of five siblings. He no longer speaks to two of them, and asked WikiTribune not to interview his family because of their fallout over the issue of independence.
Bosch has a nuanced perspective on Catalan independence that he feels isn’t reflected in the binary choice presented by the Generalitat. Although not opposed in principle to the idea of a sovereign Catalonian nation, Bosch strongly disagrees with how the regional government is pursuing independence. He also says Puigdemont and his associates pretend to speak for the whole Catalan nation while ignoring the views of pro-Spain Catalans.
His estrangement from his older brother and youngest sister over the issue of independence took place gradually. But Bosch recalls the incident that severed their relationship, three years ago, at a family dinner at his sister’s house.
“My wife and I hadn’t seen them for a while. We arrived, we opened the door, we sat down, and the first thing we heard was my sister’s husband telling my brother: ‘hombre, us Catalans feed the rest of Spain and thanks to us they live really well. They don’t work, they spend the whole day in the bar.’”
Bosch says his brother agreed with his brother-in-law, adding his own invective.
“You’re insulting my wife, my family.”
The notion that Catalonia’s prosperity, which accounts for about 20 percent of Spain’s GDP, is being squandered on other Spanish regions – particularly in the country’s historically poorer agrarian south – is a central complaint among separatists. “Spain robs us” has become a rallying cry for many pro-independence Catalans.
But for the couple the slight was personal. Margarita González González de Quevedo, Bosch’s wife, is from Andalusia, in the south. “You know where my wife’s family comes from,” Bosch remembers telling his brother and his in-law. “You’re insulting my wife, my family.”
Both men said they didn’t mean to include his wife in their generalisation.
This wouldn’t be the first or last time that the couple heard this sort of disparaging comment from Catalans. But this incident was different. “It hurt me a lot, because it wasn’t some stranger who said it, it was my family,” Bosch says.
After Margarita became visibly agitated, the couple got up from the dinner table and left the house. Neither have received an apology since the incident. “No one even called to tell me: ‘Maybe we went too far’,” says Bosch.
Margarita is more candid. Although she remains civil toward her husband’s family, she says: “They’re screwing with my life.”
Bosch speaks of a polarised society where “two identities increasingly seem condemned… to never understand one another. It’s a feeling of utter failure at a time when Catalonia, and it has to be said, is more prosperous than ever.”
Flight from Barcelona
Joan Rabasseda Gascón remembers the exact moment when the same feeling of intense despondency hit him. It was November 9, 2015, and he was taking the high-speed train from Madrid back to Barcelona, his home town. “Something in me snapped and I thought: ‘Enough. This can’t keep going on. I am returning to a place where I don’t want to return. I am returning to a place where I am singled out.’”
Rabasseda and his husband – both staunchly anti-independence – resolved that day to sell their flat in Barcelona. On December 7, it went on the market, where it remains.
“I guess the glass goes filling up over time until it overflows,” says Rabasseda. “And when it overflows, you don’t know why – If it’s the first drop, the third, or the last.”
Rabasseda’s parents quit Barcelona in July. They had lived all their lives in the Catalan capital but decided to move to Alicante, a southern Spanish city. They had grown weary of the acrimonious atmosphere generated by the issue of Catalan independence. “They were clear that they wanted to spend their remaining years in peace,” he says.
“For me, Barcelona was the best city in the world,” says Rabasseda. “Now I’m anxious to leave. I don’t want to live in a fractured society. Because this [society] is going to remain fractured.” As we speak, he pulls his smartphone out of his trouser pocket and shows it to me. It’s protected by a plastic case with a Spanish flag design. “If they [pro-independence Catalans] see me with this phone, they call me facha,” he says. Facha is short for “fascist” in Spanish.
Separatists accuse Madrid of using “fascist” methods – including police repression, propaganda, and economic warfare – to derail Catalan independence.
But every pro-Spain Catalan WikiTribune interviewed complained of being physically or virtually harassed, or both, due to their political views.
Some separatists deny this. Frederic Serret, 67, a retired advertising executive, is among them. “I’ve never experienced anything of the sort directly. On the other hand, it’s possible that in conversation one person might express their thoughts, while another person expresses theirs, and there comes a point of marked estrangement,” he says.
“But, for someone to receive an insult as they are laying out their position at the start of a conversation is, I think, either because they have faulty hearing or they have such thin skin that maybe they’re hearing what they want to hear,” Serret says.
Other separatists, like University of Barcelona student Robert Michelena, admit that political intolerance is common among their pro-independence friends.
“My best friends from Girona (the second city of Catalonia) can’t discuss the [independence] topic with someone who doesn’t think like them,” says Michelena. “They don’t respect people who don’t share their position. For me this is a grave mistake because, in my opinion, in politics no one is ever right.”
Joan Rabasseda lived this intolerance first-hand while volunteering for Sociedad Civil Catalana (SCC), an organisation founded by pro-Spain Catalans to promote unity between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.
“Who do you think you are?”
Two years ago, Rabasseda and a retired female friend were manning an SCC tent on a busy street in central Barcelona while other volunteers broke for lunch. A man walked up to them. “He came straight up to me and said in Spanish: ‘Who do you think you are? What do you want?’” said Rabasseda.
In Catalan, Rabasseda said he was as Catalan as the man interrogating him, who then became aggressive.
“The gentleman started shaking the tent,” he says. “He got so close to me his nose and mine were almost touching, calling me a ‘Catalan son a of a bitch’.” Rabasseda is 58 years old and has a slight build. “I stood completely still, just putting up with it.”
The pro-Spain Catalans WikiTribune interviewed all cherish their culture and traditions. All of them are proud Catalan-speakers. Even adopted Catalans, like Javier Rodríguez, say they integrated well. Rodríguez, 63, is a native of Asturias, in northwest Spain, but moved to Barcelona 42 years ago to study. His wife was also born in Asturias but their daughter – Nadiesda – was born in Catalonia. The family all speak fluent Catalan. Rodríguez now spends most of his time in Madrid, where his daughter lives, but returns to Barcelona every month.
“When I got to Barcelona,” he says, “I participated in demonstrations in favour of Catalan culture.” These were the early days after Franco’s death, when the central government had begun to relax its stranglehold on the country’s regions and ease off some of the anti-Catalan curbs on language and cultural expression.
“Then I worked at a private institution that had 1,100 students. I was the school’s headmaster for six years,” says Rodríguez. “I promoted bilingual classes at a time when most classes in Catalonia were still taught in Spanish. I spent my life engaging with and spreading Catalan culture.”
Now he – like most unionists – resents how separatists have tried to make independence into a cornerstone of Catalan identity. Anyone who isn’t, he says, is made to feel less Catalan.
“It’s a tremendous disappointment,” Rodríguez says. “Disappointment because I helped people, helped a political idea based on reclaiming a culture, and it turns out that your curriculum means nothing if you’re not in favour of the movement for independence”.
Identity and the drive for independence
The concept of Catalonia as a distinct cultural space has existed for centuries. But the drive for its own nationhood is more recent, and became sharper after freedoms and powers that had been suppressed by Franco flourished once again under democracy.
The question is: Has independence always been a central characteristic of modern Catalan identity? Quite the opposite, according to Joan B. Culla i Clarà, professor of contemporary history at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), and former columnist for Spanish newspaper El País.
“Why, and this is a rhetorical question, why has Catalan nationalism, which has existed for 120 or 130 years, until seven years ago never been pro-independence?” Culla asks. “I insist: Catalan nationalism was practically the only form of European nationalism that didn’t espouse, not even in a significant way, the objective of having a state.”
Instead, Culla traces the roots of separatism to June 28, 2010. That day, Spain’s Constitutional Court overruled an already watered-down autonomy statute that would have given Catalonia greater control, mainly over justice and finance regulations, as this report from Politico Europe described.
Culla believes this decision knitted together a Catalan grassroots movement that unfurled its separatist flags for the first time at a massive demonstration in Barcelona on July 10, 2010.
“It was an extraordinary historic novelty. I have witnessed important demonstrations in Catalonia since 1977,” says Culla. “It was during the one on July 10, 2010, where I saw for the first time an enormous number of pro-independence flags, signs, and slogans. Until then, separatism was a marginal affair.”
“What drives this pro-independence mobilisation in Catalonia is outrage”
Culla believes that separatism was fuelled by the 2008 global economic crisis, which hit Spain particularly hard. He says separatist instincts were compounded by a “catalogue of insults and slights” levelled at pro-independence Catalans over the years by the Spanish media and central government.
“What drives this pro-independence mobilisation in Catalonia is outrage,” says Culla.
Some unionist, or pro-Spain, Catalans now feel that their voices are finally being heard. By forcing independence, separatist parties have spurred the Spanish government into action. Pro-Spain Catalans no longer feel isolated and alone.
“I think of what’s happening now like a pus-filled boil that has burst. It had to burst. Because how things were before, I couldn’t breathe,” says María Juher Layret. “It was truly unbearable”.
Juher, 52, says she had reluctantly made plans to leave Catalonia before the crisis hit. “But it’d be hard leaving Catalonia. It’s my homeland. I love it. It’s my roots. It’s everything I have here.” In the middle of the political crisis over independence she is now less afraid. “The Spanish state has realised what’s happening and what Catalans free of nationalism are going through and for the first time, they are backing us. We didn’t use to exist.”
In Barcelona, subtle signs of a unionist awakening hang off walls and windows. The Estelada – the gold-and-red striped flag with a white star set against a blue triangle – has long been a symbol of Catalan separatism. It drapes balconies and buildings all over Catalonia’s capital.
But now there are Spanish flags too. “You didn’t see these before,” says Xavi Bosch, pointing at two hanging off a balcony in Barcelona’s Raval neighbourhood. “They started appearing half a year ago. Especially in the last two months.”