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Sant Michel de Cuxa in Cat­alonia. Dave Stewart | Courtesy

When a Catalan TV reporter inter­viewed history pro­fessor Dave Stewart in front of the Fossar de les Moreres memorial in Barcelona, she didn’t expect the American to give a full account of the events leading up to the War of Spanish Suc­cession in 1714 — in Catalan.

The first time was an accident, Stewart said, but the reporter included Stewart’s dive into his­torical context in her story on memo­rials. The second time, she came back to him to be a neutral, and English-speaking, voice in a series of inter­views with Catalan nation­alists.   

When he’s not in Barcelona (and he’s been there more than 40 times), Stewart keeps pieces of Cat­alonia in his office — like the flag, ver­tical red stripes on a yellow drapery, hanging on the back wall.

Stewart and Pro­fessor of Spanish Todd Mack both have con­nec­tions to the region that extend back to their graduate studies. These con­nec­tions became rel­evant this month, when the autonomous region of Spain made American head­lines for its decision to hold an official vote for inde­pen­dence.

“People outside Spain had never paid much attention to Spain,” Stewart said. “History in the 1800s largely centers on the winners, even here. I offer History of Spain and History of England, and History of Spain is not going to attract any­thing like History of England. It’s more obvi­ously rel­evant. People don’t see Spain as rel­evant. Great, they dis­covered the New World and have done nothing since, who cares. People are going to be attracted to things they see as important or rel­evant.”

Stewart com­pleted his dis­ser­tation in Catalan history right as the Spanish archives were opening up after 50 years of forced aca­demic silence under the Franco regime. Later, he wrote a book called “Assim­i­lation and Accul­tur­ation” about the events leading up to the War of Spanish Suc­cession. In the book, Stewart examines Catalan nation­alism and bal­ances it against French and Spanish national iden­tities. He has also pub­lished a few scholarly articles.

“I live in the 18th century,” Stewart said. “I’m acci­den­tally rel­evant this week.”  

Mack’s fluency in Catalan, visits to the region, and knowledge of its pol­itics also became rel­evant points of dis­cussion in his Spanish classes.

From the Spanish point of view, what the Catalans are doing is absolutely illegal, there’s no legal way for them to break away because the gov­ernment has made it very clear that Spain can’t be divided,” Mack said.

Mack said. “So, on the one hand, they’re a bunch of law­breakers who are breaking their own con­sti­tution; on the other hand, these are people who feel that for the last 300 years, their gov­ernment has shown itself inca­pable time after time after time of taking into account their safety and their ability to pursue their own hap­piness, and now they’re taking matters into their own hands and declaring inde­pen­dence, like we did,” he said, ref­er­encing the American Rev­o­lution and motioning to the Thomas Jef­ferson statue across from Delp Hall.

Mack took his first trip to Spain as a 19-year-old Mormon mis­sionary, living in Madrid. That’s when he first encoun­tered the European men­tality that he con­siders fun­da­mental to under­standing the con­tinent: Time is longer and dis­tance is shorter. A century-old building in his home state of Utah was built yes­terday in the Spanish timeline, and cousins, who live eight hours across the state, would have crossed Spanish borders and arrived in Paris in that amount of time. And nobody just drives to Paris.

After his mission trip, he studied Spanish at Brigham Young Uni­versity, stayed there for his master’s, and went to Stanford for his doc­torate.

His doc­torate wasn’t just in Spanish but also in Iberian and Latin American Cul­tures. During his studies, he learned Catalan from a vis­iting pro­fessor and con­tinued to do so while living in Barcelona. When he returned to Stanford, he taught Catalan.

“You really can’t under­stand Spain if you don’t under­stand the nations and regions that make it up,” Mack said.

His dis­ser­tation brought him back to the peninsula in 2010 and 2011 to dis­cover what it was like to be a farmer during the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) through con­tem­porary Galician, Basque, Catalan, Por­tuguese, and Spanish novels.

“It’s about lit­er­ature, memory, and space,” he said. “It’s about how where you’re from affects how you read and how what you read affects how you remember the past, and how these things are all tied together.”

When he traveled to the rural areas of Galicia, the Basque region, and Cat­alonia, he went to the town center, and rather than asking for someone who lived through the Spanish Civil War, he looked for people who had read a par­ticular novel. He inter­viewed them about living in the area and reading the book to record how it affected their memory of the civil war. He con­ducted between 80 and 100 inter­views.

“I was able to see a view of the peninsula that you don’t get when you’re in Madrid,” Mack said.

If being in a program so focused on the dif­ferent regions in the Iberian Peninsula broadened his view of Spain, it also com­pli­cated it.

“I know people all over Spain, that have wildly dif­ferent views on lots of dif­ferent things,” Mack said. “They’re people that I love and I care about deeply, and it’s part of the reason why the sit­u­ation in Cat­alonia has been so hard for me is because it’s hard for me to see how everybody wins.”

Just as Mack con­sidered the American Rev­o­lution and the Civil War in his expla­nation of the con­flict, Stewart looked back to explain the Catalan spirit to seniors Maddy Doma­lakes and Sarah Strubbing, who both sought his­torical context to the modern con­flict and lis­tened in rapt attention as they sunk into his gold­enrod office couch.

Doma­lakes said she appre­ciated Stewart’s per­spective on the Catalan inde­pen­dence movement.

“Even if he has one per­spective, he does a good job of pre­senting the infor­mation in a very unbiased way in that he presents all of the infor­mation before he gives you his judgement,” she said, noting that she’s wary of media bias toward the inde­pen­dence movement.

“It’s more nuanced than a lot of people think … I don’t think I realized how frag­mented Cat­alonia is within its own borders,” she said. “It’s invaluable that I have that oppor­tunity [to talk to Stewart]. He already has all the back­ground knowledge … When me and Sarah go to him, we can have a really fruitful dis­cussion.”

Legend has it the count of Barcelona Guifré el Pélos (Wilfred the Hairy), was mor­tally wounded in a Moor-Christian battle in 897. In his dying breaths, he told his son to “fight and die as you lived, a Christian man” — a pointed jab at his ally the Frankish king Charles the Bald, who was ready to throw in the towel. Inspired, but mostly humil­iated, Charles dipped Guifré’s hand into his own blood and dragged his fingers across his golden shield. Charles pre­sented the shield to Guifré’s son and pledged alle­giance to him.

One by one, everybody in the camp made the oath to fight and die a Christian man. The next day, the Spanish crushed the Moors in one of the most defin­itive battles for the region and lib­erated the land that is modern Cat­alonia.