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Pres­ident of Cat­alonia Carles Puigdemont. Wiki­media Commons

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.

  • BradinAZ

    I’m sorry, but are you claiming that the Con­fed­eracy tried to leave the Union because of “a long chain of abuses”? Which abuses, the fact that they wanted to con­tinue to own people as slaves? Do the Cat­alo­nians have slaves? When you get a chance please walk out in front of Central Hall and read the his­toric sign that tells you about the college’s proud history of sending stu­dents to defend the Union before you once again use the phrase “eman­ci­pation” to defend the South’s treason. Namaste.