The mood in Barcelona today can be summed up in the scene just ahead of me; a group of boys and girls are standing above a Plaza de Catalunya metro station air vent, they are throwing their hats into the air tunnel created by the vent, they hold Catalan flags above their heads while posing for photos; the red, yellow and blue colours of Catalan independence waving in the sunlight. This is Barcelona today; young, hopeful and free, because today, the Catalan de-independence day (officially called the National Day of Catalonia), Barcelona went to the streets by the millions to celebrate Catalan identity and to push for a sí vote in the upcoming referendum on the 9th of November.
Talking to some people in the throngs, I’m told of the long history of repression against the Catalan nation. It was exactly three hundred years ago, in 1714, when Catalan troops surrendered to Bourbon troops in the War of Spanish Succession, allowing King Philip V to abolish its independent political institutions in favour of a unified and centralised model of governance. From then on, the push for Catalan independence has ebbed and flowed, suffering great setbacks and great advances through the following centuries.
One of its greatest advances came following the fall of the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera in 1930, when Catalonia achieved something of a ‘home rule’ status under the democratic Second Republic, a model in which the Catalan Generalitat was revived, the Generalitat being composed of the Parliament, the Presidency and the Government of Catalonia. The Generalitat was then again briefly suspended from 1934-1936 following the victory of a right-wing coalition in the national elections and the subsequent rebellion of the Catalan left, but in 1936 the Generalitat was revived once again following the victory of the left-wing Popular Front in the national elections. Within just a few turbulent months the Popular Front coalition faced a military coup which soon descended into civil war, lasting from 1936-1939, during which Catalonia became a stronghold for Republican resistance against the military-led rebellion.
Following the fall of Barcelona to Francoist forces in early 1939, thousands of Catalan activists fled across the Pyrenees into France, where some found refuge for but a few short months before the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg brought yet another round of oppression to the Catalan refugees. Many of those refugees joined the French Resistance, many found themselves in concentration camps, death camps, and of those who survived those years many never returned to Catalonia. For those who remained in their homeland following Franco’s crushing of the Republic, another epoch of repression was waiting for them. In Franco’s Spain, Catalan identity was institutionally suppressed; the Catalan Generalitat was abolished, the National Day of Catalonia banned, and even to speak the Catalan language was made a crime, to talk of anything but a unified Spain treason. But for the younger generations – raised in a post-Franco Spain, educated in Catalan-speaking schools – their Catalan identity is a natural given and something to be celebrated.
Cosmopolitan and Mediterranean, the Catalans are a distinct people and want to be recognised as such by Spain, the EU and the wider world. They are proud of their nation’s long history of intellectualism, their progressive culture, their economic strength, their history of anarchism and rebellion. And now, no longer content with ‘autonomy’ within a larger union, and pushed to this position by the economic crisis afflicting all of Spain, they want independence in the whole sense of the word: cultural, political and economic independence. Some want independence for one of those reasons more than another, some are of the left and some of the right, there are the elderly and the young, the rich and the robbed, the cautious and the passionate, but they all seem to agree on this one point: that Catalonia ought to at least be able to vote on its own future (even if that vote turns out to be a no vote), that it ought to be given the chance to forge its own path. The word of the day here is freedom, freedom for a culture, a people, a nation, but I couldn’t help thinking, on seeing the homeless still begging for a spare coin amidst the throngs, on seeing the migrants selling Catalan flags for a euro or two, that their lived freedom has been forgot for the time being. But no doubt that too is what parts of the movement are looking to rectify; the freedom to forge their own economic model in which Madrid’s austerity doesn’t punish the poor. But of course, the movement is diverse; it is not, by necessity, a homogeneous body with a unified agenda for social or economic reform, so the form of the Catalonia they seek to build will follow the essence.
To anyone looking on at today’s celebrations, speeches, songs and demonstrations, it would seem impossible that Catalonia will remain in the Spanish union for much longer. The moment has come, the movement is strong, the people are organised – organised like no other movement I’ve seen before – and united across lines of class and creed. To me they seem unstoppable.