By: Nick Santangelo

In October 2017, Catalonia attempted to vote on a referendum for its independence from Spain, where most of the region is located (a portion is in France). Things quickly turned ugly when the Spanish government ruled the referendum illegal. Police were dispatched and imagery of officers beating voters and arresting pro-separatist politicians made international news. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy then called for new elections in December 2017, but pro-independence candidates won a majority of regional parliament seats. Not the result Rajoy was hoping for.

The Case for Independence

But why does Catalonia—or, at least, a significant portion of Catalonians—want to be free of Spain? On Friday, College of Liberal Arts Associate Professor of Spanish, and native Catalonian, Montserrat Piera provided some answers to that question. For starters, she wants to be able to get through a day in her home country speaking only Catalan with no need for Spanish. Right now, that’s simply not possible.

“I want to live in a country where I have the right to speak my language all day, every day,” Dr. Piera said while speaking last Friday at The Catalan Independence Movement event, part of the History Department’s weekly Teach-In series. Technically, the Spanish Constitution does ensure Catalonians will only need to speak their native tongue. In practice, however, things are much different. Piera teaches her children Catalan instead of Spanish, but when she’s out around Catalonia, she frequently has to switch to speaking Spanish. Spaniards living in the region, meanwhile, never have to switch from Spanish to Catalan.

“No matter what happens, we will not convert or assimilate,” claimed Piera. “We like being Catalonians. We have no interest in becoming Spanish.”

The Temple University professor admitted that she “is entirely biased” in her views of the independence movement because she is Catalonian. Still, she doesn’t hate Spain. She just hates its treatment of Catalonians and wants to see a change. “If Spain accepted me for what I am instead of trying to change me into something I’m not, I would be OK with having a Spanish passport. I would be proud to be part of a country that accepted me for what I am.”

Dr. Piera repeatedly stressed that simply being allowed to be who she is doesn’t mean being better than Spaniards. There have been accusations of the movement being a xenophobic one, and a Temple student asked the professor to address the charge that xenophobic elements have been empowered by the cause. She fully rejected this notion.

“It is not an attack on Spaniards or Spanish culture,” insisted Dr. Piera. “It is not a movement that has sprouted independently and out of the blue. And it is not a superiority movement that says Catalonians are superior and Spaniards are inferior. It is none of those things.”

The professor added that Catalonians are “very accepting” of immigrants and that her people have “one of the most open cultures you can imagine.” She blamed the Spanish government and media for casting the movement in a xenophobic light, saying it’s an allegation cast at every nationalistic movement around the world, accurate or not.

She found a supporter here in the day’s other presenter. University of Pennsylvania Undergraduate Chair of Hispanic Studies Toni Espósito was at Gladfelter Hall’s Teach-In to add historical context to the movement. But he agreed that “Catalan nationalism is not ethnic-based.” Instead, Dr. Espósito echoed Dr. Piera’s statements that it’s all about language.

“Catalan identity is very much tied up in a linguistic identity,” he said. “And I think the great spark in this was—I think it was the reaction of the tribunal, of the constitutional court against the second statutes in 2006, where they began to chip away at the linguistic rights that Catalonia had earned under the previous statutes.”

Dr. Espósito was referring to a 2006 statute that handed greater powers to Catalonia and even went so far as to call it a “nation.” But the Spanish Constitutional Court overturned most of that statute in 2010.

 A Complicated History

Catalonia’s back-and-forth status as a semi-autonomous nation and a completely subservient region of Spain actually goes back much further than last decade. To put the independence movement in context, Dr. Espósito reached all the way back to the eighth century.

“There was a time when Spain was not Spain,” he explained. “There was a time when Catalonia was not Catalonia. There were times when Catalonia was not Spain.”

All of Spain was first united as one under a Visigothic monarch in 710, but it was unstable and chaotic. This was followed by Muslim control of most of the country—but not the north, where modern-day Catalonia is located. This resulted in the region that would become Catalonia maintaining a very traditional Euro-centric identity of feudalism, with various counts grabbing control of the various counties. No one had central control of all the counties.

“How can Catalonia become independent when it was never a kingdom in its own right?” Dr. Espósito rhetorically asked the students. “There was never a kingdom or a king of Catalonia. In fact, there was never even a single count in Catalonia. Most of the counts, they had sworn fealty to the king of France.”

Later came the Catholic monarchs, but they only further complicated matters. In 1469, Isabella, the Queen of Castile, and Ferdinand II, the King of Aragon, wed. Through marriage, Ferdinand then became the King of Castile. A series of events from 50 years earlier set the stage for this eventuality, and anti-independence parties often cite them as evidence Catalonia has no right to freedom. When the King of Aragon died without an heir in 1412, Aragon’s three regions sent electors to choose a new monarch. They chose the king’s brother on a five-to-three vote with two abstentions.

Dr. Espósito explained that many Spaniards think this moment “represents the latent desire of the Catalan people to join Spain. That this is a symbolic union between the Kingdom of Aragon and Spain because it puts two brothers from the same family, from the same dynasty on the thrones. This is a hard argument to defeat.”

Of course, this conveniently leaves out that the king’s brother had amassed an army and was ready to deploy it to take the crown by force if the electors didn’t hand it to him. No minor detail, to be sure.

The next several hundred years saw a series of wars that settled a number of nations’ and regions’ statuses. Time and again, however, Catalonia was left disputed. Take the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which brought Portugal its independence and settled things between France and Spain but left Catalonia alone for Spain to fight over internally.  The War for Spanish Succession followed from 1701 to 1714, and Catalonia sided with Charles II, the last Hapsburg King of Spain, out of fears a Bourbon king would imperil Catalonian institutions. “In fact, they were in peril,” said Dr. Espósito. “They were eliminated when he took the throne.”

Great Britain eventually took control of France and seized the North American colonies from Spain. But once again, Catalonia was left unsettled. This despite its people having supported Britain during the war. Catalonia was then annexed during the Siege of Barcelona on September 11, 1714. Today, Catalonians celebrate September 11 as La Diada del Sí (National Day for Yes).

“You probably will never find a country that celebrates its national independence on its day of defeat,” said Dr. Piera with a laugh, “but that’s the Catalans for you.”

Spain’s (Wrongfully?) Adopted Child

Today, Dr. Piera explained, much of the world has taken a more concrete stance. It’s not the one she and many Catalonians would prefer.

“Right now, all the democratic powers of the world are siding with Spain, not with Catalonia,” she continued. “To them, we are rebellious sons and daughters to Spain. No one pays attention to the fact that Spain is not our mother. And even if it was, they don’t treat us like a loving mother.”

Why the change of heart? Foreign countries want to protect their own interests. Dr. Espósito said those with their own minorities worry Catalonian independence would spark similar movements elsewhere. Most pertinently, France fears what might happen in its southwest region where many people speak Catalan.

Dr. Piera also referenced Great Britain’s Scottish and Irish minorities. To her, other countries “don’t want to get involved precisely because they have their own issues like this.”

A despondent Dr. Espósito concluded, “Catalonia has always thought that Europe would come to its rescue, and it never has. And it never, ever has.”

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