Deconstructing false myths: Spain vs Catalonia

This Sunday's election confirmed the success of nationalist parties in Catalonia - paving the way for a probable referendum on independence. However, this outcome is alienating to many - Catalans and Spaniards. When two cultures have been interlaced for so long, how does one draw the line between "them" and "us"?

A pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona. Demotix/Luis Tato. All rights reserved.A pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona. Demotix/Luis Tato. All rights reserved.

Many articles have been written about the desire of a part of the Catalan population to secede from Spain. The Catalans that want independence argue economic reasons - they pay more to the state than they receive; cultural reasons - they want Catalan to be the main language of the administration and education; and historical and sentimental reasons - Catalonia has never had the chance to develop as a modern nation state, while some of them simply do not feel Spanish. I won’t analyse economic data or history, but as the son of a Catalan mother and Galician father raised in Madrid, I will try to shed some light on a political debate that more often than not, leaves many of us alienated.

I have never identified with broad general classifications that define groups of people, so when I read or hear someone talk about the desires of “the Catalan people” I cannot help but think about my mother, a Catalan, who has made her home in Madrid for the last 40 years. My mother’s family can trace their roots in Catalonia as far back as the eighteenth century. I've always heard my mother speak in Catalan with her sister, and seen them argue about their feelings regarding identity. My aunt is very nationalistic and Catalan is her first language, whereas my mother feels Catalan and Spanish, and considers both Catalan and Spanish to be her native languages.

So who is right and who is wrong? I suppose that after seeing members of the same family passionately defend their point of view, one has to accept that identity is a subjective experience. The same debate takes place in families all over Catalonia, as much in “old Catalan” families, as in first or second generation Catalans, since many Catalans and voters of nationalist parties are the sons or grandsons of workers that emigrated from other parts of Spain in the 1940s and 1950s.

Spain is a rich and diverse land. I grew up listening to my father speak with affection to my grandmother in his native Galician, and every time we left the plains of Castile behind to go to Galicia he would tell me “now we are getting to your father’s country my son”. The sound of Catalan was common in our house every time my mother engaged in one of her endless telephone conversations with her sister. My brother went to university in Barcelona, and has always been known in Madrid by his Catalan name. Madrid and Spanish was and is what bonded all of us together under a common identity. I never saw myself as the son of immigrants; Madrid was our city, home for any Spaniard regardless of their origin or language. These experiences are the ones that have shaped my identity, and that is why I proudly say that I am Spanish.

Although I understand Catalan, my mother always spoke to us in Spanish. She once told me that she never thought that in the future Catalan would become a factor that would determine one’s ability to work in Catalonia. For her, Spanish was her language as much as Catalan, and with my father speaking Galician, it was just natural for them to speak to us in Spanish.

But times have changed, and as Catalonia has developed its autonomy, Catalan has become a necessity for anyone who plans to live in that land and wants to fully integrate. Visitors to Barcelona will discover a rich cultural diversity where Spanish and Catalan are spoken indistinguishably in its streets. Catalans are bilingual, and in the same families some members will talk in Catalan and others in Spanish naturally. Ever since I've visited Catalonia as a child and watched Catalan television, the number of Catalan actors and TV presenters working in Spanish national channels never ceases to amaze me; one day they were in Madrid presenting the news, and a day later they would be hosting a game show on a Catalan TV station.

I do not believe that there is a conflict between Catalonia and Spain. There is a heated debate between some citizens of Catalonia that want to separate from Spain; with other Catalans who identify with feeling Spanish, and citizens from the rest of Spain that feel that Catalonia is an integral part of the country. No nation has to justify their desire for independence by digging into the ruins of a mythological past and creating external and internal enemies, nor be stopped from it by what happened hundreds of years ago. The only constant is change, and throughout history nations, empires, cultures and civilizations have appeared and disappeared. Nothing is set in stone, and it would not be the end of the world if one day Catalonia decided to embark on a solo journey.

But there is a myriad of mediocre politicians and resentful individuals on both sides of the spectrum that use this debate to vent their prejudices and ignorance; and unfortunately people tend to read or listen to what confirms their biases. While the majority of the people - nationalist or not - do not hold animosity against those who do not think like them, and are open to a constructive debate, it seems as if we've given the most radical the roles of spokespersons.

I used to work at a conservative national radio station in Madrid where I heard many things said about the Catalans and Catalonia that I found to be false and simplistic. I've heard people in Madrid say that Catalan is not really a language but “something they made up and use to go against Spain”, and heard football hooligans sing about the “fucking Catalans”. But at the same time there has always been an admiration for Catalan work ethic, cultural sophistication and humour. I've also experienced close-mindedness in Catalonia, with people who refused to speak to me in Spanish and think all Madrileños are right wing fascists. There are Catalans who think that outside Catalonia, Spain is a backward country full of stereotypes, and Catalan nationalists consider any non-nationalist a “self-hating” Catalan. But while these examples do not represent the opinions of the majority, they are the ones making the headlines.

Catalonia and the rest of the territories that compose Spain share centuries of common history, so to describe the Catalans and the “Spanish” as two separate ethnic groups as if they were Croats and Serbs is simply not true. No one can deny that Catalonia has its own language, history, and culture, but to try to rewrite history to fit a political agenda is dishonest and dangerous. For example the Spanish Civil War was not fought between Catalonia and Spain; Catalans fought and died in both sides of the conflict.

Like many Spaniards, I believe that there should be an open debate regarding the model of state that we want, and that a referendum in Catalonia is an undeniable democratic right. Many people elsewhere in Spain feel that this is a tiring debate that hijacks the national agenda and prevents the entire country from focusing on more important social and economic issues – unfortunately for that reason alone, many would vote in favour of the separation of Catalonia if given the chance. After more than 30 years of democracy, this is an unresolved issue that, like herpes, keeps coming back.

However, I strongly disagree with the scapegoating, typecasting, and divisive language of "us" against "them". People on both sides should not be using language that can inflame tempers in an already volatile situation. Today, the fact is that mediocre politicians can wrap themselves in a flag in order to shield themselves from any type of criticism.

It is hard to understand how after countless wars Germany and France have managed to build a united Europe together – a united Europe that we in Spain have always striven to form a part of – and yet whenever there is a crisis, we always seem to resurrect ghosts from a bygone era.

The lines that separate Catalonia from the rest of Spain can be as deep and wide as we allow them to be, and the more we dig, lines can become trenches. As many citizens of Spain – Catalans included – I feel Spanish, and I wish that we could find a common ground with those that don’t feel the same.

But at the same time, if a majority of the people living in Catalonia want independence, they should be listened to. Let's deconstruct the simplistic arguments that talk about “Spanish” and “Catalans” as if they were two separate peoples forced to coexist. It is families like mine that constitute Spain and Catalonia. When I hear the language of division, I always think about the great Salvador Dalí, a Catalan genius who also felt Spanish, and studied in Madrid where he befriended Luis Buñuel, another Spanish genius. This is one of many examples that show what we can achieve together.

In this new stage of European history, we are all in this together, whether as one or as two separate nations. Every day the planes and high speed trains that connect Madrid and Barcelona are packed with tourists, businessmen, and families visiting their relatives. If you walk around Madrid's business district, there are plenty of smartly-dressed Catalan businessmen speaking in Catalan while they hail a cab.

These are realities that some would like to deny, their intellects fortified like a medieval castle against any influence that threatens their simplistic worldview. We live in an increasingly globalised world where borders have become more intellectual constructs than real lines on a map, so it is time to start a constructive debate and stop arguing from our trenches. 

About the author

Sergio Casesmeiro is a freelance journalist from Madrid, where he worked as a reporter at a major radio station. He has also been a Spanish correspondent for an international TV news channel.