A Country called Catalonia

Guest Post by: Lily Do, a Foster School Senior studying Accounting who participated in the ALBA Study Abroad Program in Spain.

One of my study abroad goals was to come back with a better understanding of Spanish. Naturally, I thought my time in Barcelona would be the perfect opportunity to not only take a Spanish class but to also practice Spanish with the locals. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the main language in Barcelona was not Spanish, it was Catalan. Like most people, I have heard of the country of Spain, but never the country of Catalonia. That is because Catalonia is not a country, but it would like to be. Instead, Catalonia is an autonomous community (similar to a state in the USA) in Spain, containing many cities including Barcelona. In October 2017, Catalonia announced independence in late 2017. Like most secessions, it did not go well and while their president (similar to governor in the USA) is in hiding, most of their politicians are currently on trial in Madrid, the capital of Spain. Although I came more than a year after Catalonia declared secession, the spirit of independence was still in the air. Yellow ribbons were on display, often in forms of pins on clothes or hung from windows, showing support for the pro-independence politicians on trial. The Spanish flag was rarely seen besides on government buildings, but the Catalan flag, yellow with red stripes and sometimes, with blue triangle with a star in the middle hung from balconies of apartments and waved at protests. The people of Catalonia, I learned, had their own language, culture, and history, although similar to Spain, was also very different. It took me a while to tell the difference between what was “Catalan” and what was “Spanish” but over time, with the help of my professors and tour guides, I came to learn that my study abroad experience in Spain was not going to be completely Spanish.

As an outsider, it was interesting to walk the streets of Barcelona admiring the beauty of it while knowing that there was unrest in the city. I remember visiting sites during my Barcelona history class, sites such as a mass grave or buildings with indents in their structure due to bombings from the Spanish Civil War, a war that Catalonia had lost. I learned that that war had led to the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who suppressed the Catalan people by banning their culture and language. In a way, the long history between Catalonia and the rest of Spain has made the Catalan people feel separated from the country they belong too.

Opinions from the rest of Spain may differ as I later learned. Money is always an issue and Barcelona, a prosperous city was tired of giving its tax dollars to Spain, often getting nothing in return while Spain saw Barcelona as selfish for not wanting to share. But my time in Barcelona taught me that it is not always but the money or the politics, but sometimes just about the emotions, the feeling of belonging to a culture that is not just Spanish. Whether those emotions will be justified in the future or not is a different story.

For me, as a student who only spent 10 weeks in the city, I cannot claim to know everything about the Catalan Independence movement because I do not.  However, I saw how important it was for the people of Catalonia to be seen as more than just Spanish. They bonded over the sport of human towers instead of Spain’s national sport of bullfighting (which is banned in Catalonia) and had desserts such as Crème de Catalan in addition to other typical desserts seen in Spain like churros and chocolate. Barcelona itself had its own football team that played against Madrid. According to my history teacher, the people of Barcelona are happier when Madrid loses than when Barcelona wins. It is these cultural differences that made me feel as if I was studying abroad in not just Spain, but a whole different community.

  • Alexis Leon

    As a Catalan and a member of the Foster community, I’d like to point out that it’s not true that “it [Catalonia] would like to be a country”, nor that the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 is “a war that Catalonia had lost” (Spaniards favoring the Republican government —including communist sympathizers— lost that war, and Spaniards supporting the Franco insurrection —including fascist sympathizers— won it).
    The conflict is not, and has never been, between Catalonia and the rest of Spain: it is between the half of Catalonia that wants to secede (and will flaunt the law, if needed to try to achieve that goal) and the other half that opposes secession (and would like the law to be respected, with any attempt at ammending current law to follow the established process that requires supermajorities in order to respect the rights of minorities).
    Separatists understandably try to present the conflict as one where they are the oppressed minority and the powerful Spanish state is the oppressor. In reality, this is an identity crisis that Catalans must solve amongst ourselves, which will require compromise on both sides.

  • Lily Do

    Hello Alexis,

    Thank you for your comment. I now understand that I do not know enough about the situation and may have been too ahead of myself on this post. I am truly sorry; it was never my intention to misinform people about the situation or speak on behalf of the Catalan people. To avoid further misinformation, I have sent an e-mail to the Foster Study Abroad program to take the post down.

    Thank you,
    Lily