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Thoughts on Spain and Catalonia

I arrived in Barcelona Sept. 12 to begin a study abroad program through Arcadia University. The program brings together 25 American students, and we take classes at our program’s center and the local public university, Pompeu Fabra University (UPF).

One of the first topics mentioned during our orientation was the Oct. 1, Catalan Independence Referendum. If you were a tourist visiting Barcelona for a few days, it would be easy to miss signs of the controversial vote. In most of the city, life goes on as normal. However, once you know what to look for, you started to notice the pro-independence flags and banners on many balconies, and understand why people are walking around draped with the Catalan flag.

Our program director ensured us that non-violence was a priority of the pro-independence movement, and that he would monitor the news and make sure we were aware of any protests or potentially dangerous situations. Members of the Catalan police force, Mossos d’Esquadra, also visited our class and ensured us that the city was still very safe, but advised us to stay away from any protests, as it is very easy to get caught up in the chaos and, should the situation become violent, the police will not take the time to differentiate between protesters and observers.

As the date of the vote approached, we got frequent updates on areas where protesters were gathered and were advised to avoid those areas. The U.S. Embassy in Madrid and the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona also sent updates advising U.S. citizens in Spain to avoid demonstrations and to check on social media of local authorities for more information. Classes at our program’s center and at UPF were cancelled on two separate occasions, as a result of a citywide general strike and planned demonstrations.

I have seen some large groups of demonstrators, numbering more in the hundreds than thousands. However, I have been avoiding the major gathering places and I know it would be easy to find even bigger groups. Before the vote, I would often see demonstrators, young to old, walking around carrying flags and posters, on their way to or from a demonstration, always in favor of independence. This continued after the vote, until the day before the Catalan leader was scheduled to announce a unilateral declaration of independence, when I noticed a huge shift.

That day, everyone I saw with a flag was carrying the Spanish flag, a symbol of unification and rejection of Catalan independence. As the possibility of independence has become more real, those who may have protested the vote are becoming more vocal about their opinions.

In my apartment building and gym the Spanish news is always on. I pick up a fair amount of information from these sources, but also rely on BBC and other international news outlets for updates, in addition to those I receive from my program. These sources are accurate, but they focus on the demonstrations and paint the city as being in chaos, which I have not been experiencing.

As a visitor, it is hard to say whether I am in favor of independence. It is inspiring to see the passion of pro-Catalan people, and those who simply protest for the right to vote. The fight for Catalan independence is not new, and has been a part of the Catalan identity since the cultural renaissance in the mid 19th century, which emphasized pride in the Catalonian language and traditions that are still celebrated today.

Catalonia was an individual territory at the time of the unification of Aragon and Castile, which created Spain as we know it, and September 11, the day Catalonians lost the right to rule themselves, has been celebrated as the National Day of Catalonia since 1886.

However, some potential ramifications of an independence declaration make me lean towards opposing separation—separation could harm the economy, the European Union would not welcome Catalonia, and there are even rumors that Messi would leave FC Barcelona if Catalan leaves. I think the Spanish government needs to be willing to open up a discourse with the Catalan government.

As a visiting American, witnessing this struggle gives me insight into the complex history of Europe. It is difficult to see something like this happening in America. The passion for independence in Catalonia is deep rooted, and has built over years and years of perceived poor treatment from the Spanish government. A cab driver described the relationship between Catalonia and Spain as that of an unhappy marriage. Catalonia has been having problems for quite a while, but Spain ignores the problems and expects the marriage to continue.

Now, Catalonia has had enough and is threatening divorce, but as a last resort, wants to try marriage counseling and work out their problems. I certainly hope Spain and Catalonia can create a happy ending.

Harper Johnson is graduate of South Eugene High School and former EW summer intern.