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A Reaction From the Streets of Catalonia

Standing on the streets of Barcelona – capital of Spain’s Catalonia region – last Saturday, one would have had no idea that the country was preparing to watch its national team compete in the World Cup the very next day. That afternoon, over a million people flooded the downtown to protest a decision issued Friday by the country’s constitutional court striking down some provisions of the territory’s 2006 autonomy statute. That legislation devolved a number of important powers to the region, but was challenged by the country’s conservative political party, the Partido Popular. In their ruling, the judges found that “Our constitution recognizes no nation but Spain,” in effect dealing a blow to Catalan nationalists.

Spain has historically been a “nation of nations,” a country defined not so much by a single, national culture but by the sometimes tempestuous diversity of its regions. Catalonia’s independence movement, which goes back to the late 19th century, has not gained as much notoriety outside Spain as the Basque struggle, largely due to the latter’s use of terrorism to achieve its goals. Some say that much of the support among Catalans for pro-independence political parties (which, when combined, dominate the regional parliament) does not represent genuine sympathy for a separatist agenda, and should rather be seen as a way to coax Spain’s national government into granting the region more autonomy.

Before I departed Madrid for Barcelona, I was warned about the Catalonian mentality. Compared to the rest of Spain – especially now that it is in the throes of economic crisis – Catalonia has a booming economy. The belief that Catalonia gives far more to Madrid in taxes then it gets back in benefits is a prime motivator of Catalonian nationalism. There are cultural differences as well. During the Spanish Civil War and the near four-decade reign of Generalissimo Franco, Barcelona was a progressive stronghold against fascism, and many Catalonians continue to view Madrid as the seat of soft Francoism and traditional Catholicism.

A Barcelonian friend insisted to me that Saturday’s event was not separatist, a view echoed by international news reports, characteristic of which was the BBC’s description of the protestors as demanding “greater autonomy.” Yet that claim was belied by the signs I saw insisting that “Catalonia is not Spain,” “Catalonia is the next nation in Europe,” and the many posters, in the shape of hands, held by protestors of all ages emblazoned with “Adeu Espanya” or, “Goodbye Spain” in Catalan. Whatever the message of Saturday’s protest, it is certainly a testament to Catalan pride that a million people from all over the region could be called into Barcelona’s streets on such short notice. But even then, anti-independence Catalans found ways to poo-poo Saturday’s demonstration. When I mentioned the disputed figures to a federalist member of the Catalonian regional parliament, he dryly replied, “1 million Catalonians turned out; 6 million didn’t.”

Yet the very next day, Barcelona was a completely different city. The red and yellow horizontally-striped flags of Catalonia, ubiquitous on Saturday, had been replaced by Spanish ones. Attending a soccer-viewing party perched high up on a balcony overlooking the Avienda Diagonal, (one of Barcelona’s main thoroughfares), I viewed a city that was almost completely empty, with only buses and a few scattered cars occupying the road. An estimated 75% of televisions in Catalonia tuned into last week’s Spain-Germany semi-final, a number that might have had something to do with the fact that Barcelona was one of a handful of cities not to install an outdoor screen to broadcast the match. Last Sunday, however, city authorities relented, and thousands gathered to watch the game in one of the city’s major square.

And when Spain won…well, it would be hard to tell that just hours before, the city was being overrun by protestors literally waving goodbye to Spain. Traffic was holed up throughout downtown, certainly not to the extent that it was in Madrid, but Barcelona nonetheless had the jubilant and chaotic feel of any American city whose team has just won a national championship. To be sure, the evident enthusiasm for La Roja, as the national team is called, may have more to do with the squad’s strong Catalan composition rather than some newfound Spanish pride. Five of the national team’s players were born in Catalonia and seven of those on the field last Sunday play for Barcelona’s club team. Indeed, Carles Puyol, the defender who looks like a 70’s hair rocker and who scored the decisive goal, was born in the tiny, north Catalan village of La Pobla de Segur. But the crowds in the streets were chanting “Viva Espanya!” all the same.

Aghast at the site of so many Spanish flags, a young fan told me that “This has never happened before in Barcelona.” When I asked him if he was from Catalonia, he replied firmly, “No, I am from Spain.”