For Americans, Spain is synonymous with Madrid, Barcelona, soccer, orange blossoms, paella, and Antoni Gaudí’s architecture.
We are slow to think of Catalonia, a little autonomous region with a long history that overflows with national pride and cultural power that has spilled into many of our associations, including Barcelona, paella, and Gaudí.
After the Oct. 1 Catalan referendum for independence from Spain, however, images of Catalan grandmothers with bleeding heads, pelted with rubber bullets by Spanish National Police for voting replaced these serene scenes. 1-O, as it’s come to be known, and its overwhelming “yes” turnout, is grabbing headlines and turning international heads toward the autonomous region of Spain.
In the following denouement, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and other regional leaders signed a largely symbolic declaration of independence while still leaving room for negotiations with the Spanish government, housed in Madrid.
Stateside, however, it’s hard to get the full picture because we lack knowledge of the region’s complicated historical background. Engagement with Castellano-Catalan history alongside the current events, coupled with a consideration of our American historical paradigm, would mitigate the American tendency to oversimplify and reflexively take the underdog’s side.
Non-Spanish media coverage of the recent events is frustratingly simplistic, according to professor of history David Stewart, who has studied Catalan history extensively. He said it portrays two sides — the Catalans clamoring for independence now and the Spanish government wholly against it — when he says there are at least four factions.
While most Catalans would consider themselves nationalist in the sense that they are proud of their region, their nationalism does not necessarily bear on when or whether they want independence, he says. There are the nationalists who want independence now, those who want independence later, and those who don’t want independence but still are nationalist.
This is a crucial distinction. Reducing a conflict to two sides makes it easier to understand on the surface level, but opens up room for bad arguments when it comes to thinking about which side to support. That we privilege English, German, and French history over Spanish history for its relevance to our own only compounds the problem.
An American paradigm, however, may actually help us begin to evaluate the circumstances, if we consider the striking similarities with two clinching moments in our history — the American Revolution and the Civil War.
This interpretation, however, needs two important clarifications: Catalans have a longer memory than Americans and a shorter concept of distance.
Ask any Catalan the most important date in the region’s fight, and she wouldn’t say 1-O, or even 2010, when Spain struck down a statute Catalonia proposed in 2006 for independence. She’d point to 1714, the year of The War of Spanish Succession. Prior to the war, Catalonia enjoyed the autonomy possible in a region divided into kingdoms. Then, the King of Spain stormed Barcelona, imposed unity with strict laws, and stripped Catalans of their administrative freedom. This state of affairs, Catalans argue, persists today, with Madrid depending financially on Barcelona to support the country with money Catalans hold should stay in Catalonia.
In this light, perhaps Americans can better understand the Catalan position. We too can point to economic and political oppression from England that built up into a breaking point in 1776, with our Declaration of Independence. At this point, though, 1776 is a historical fact, not a debate. But for Castellanos, 1714 is contentious and for Catalans, alive. This tension, arguably, elongates the collective Catalan memory.
The next important date is 1978. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who attempted to systematically destroy Catalan culture through harsh restrictions on language, had died four years ago, and Spain has just drafted a constitution declaring the state indissoluble. When Catalonia drafted its own regional constitution for Spain to review, it tried to declare itself autonomous. Spain struck down the document and forced revisions.
This is the heart of the back-and-forth: Catalan tries to declare autonomy, claim nationhood, and call for a vote, and Spain says, “No, these are all unconstitutional.”
If we consider the Civil War, the South’s attempts at emancipation and Abraham Lincoln’s refusal, we find another way of interpreting the conflict. Is it really the case Catalans are invoking their God-given rights because of a long train of abuses? Or is their request to leave unjust and reactionary?
These questions can help guide our considerations of the issue, but we can only begin to pose them once we’ve studied the events in Castellano-Catalan history that have led to this moment. To immediately compare this to America’s struggle for independence, call it sufficient, and let it limit our observations rejects the nuance of the situation and disservices the complex history in that corner of the Iberian Peninsula.
Jo Kroeker is a senior studying French.