By Betsy Ross
"I am not Spanish," proclaims Ferran, our local business associate. "I am Catalan." At first, my husband and I are puzzled by 32-year-old Ferran's nationalist fervor. We know, of course, of Basque separatism and the ETA, known for their bombs and militant opposition to the central government in Madrid. But, Catalonia's historic quest for autonomy is new to us. Maybe that's because the Catalans have adopted methods that depart widely from their neighbors, the Basques.
One of the 17 communitats that constitute Spain, Catalonia has lately made bullfights its hot-button issue. This created a somewhat uneasy alliance between animal rights activists and the nationalists. The latter don't necessarily disdain bullfights per se so much as the imposition of the symbols of Spanish culture, in the form of bullfights and flamenco, on themselves. Much to the consternation of Spain's center-right, the Catalan parliament recently banned bullfights effective 2012. I envisioned droves of lovely flamenco dancers, heads bowed, toting luggage full of ruffles and castanets as they flee Barcelona for Madrid.
Still, as we soon discover, the origins of Catalan activism are deep-felt and complex, laden with significance for the future of Spain and potentially Europe. By far the nation's wealthiest communitat, responsible for 25% of GDP, Catalonia aches to stick it to Spain. Close to four years in development, the new Catalan constitution, the Estatutu, calls for autonomy and actually won acceptance by the Spanish parliament, along with Catalonia's 5.5 million voters.
But the new constitution was shot down by Spain's Constitutional Court three months ago, which declared that the central government alone can legally rule, with no self-rule allowed. A huge demonstration, the biggest in 20 years, followed in Barcelona on July 6th. "Tension is growing daily," says Guillem, the 22-year-old concierge at our hotel, who resembles a young Paul Newman.
Europe is becoming simultaneously more centralized and more fragmented in a process of devolution, with separatist movements extending from the UK to Belgium to Spain and over into Eastern Europe. "Under the EU, nations are weaker," contends Diego, Guillem's 32-year-old dark-eyed sidekick, originally from Brazil. "It's a continuum that started with the colonies in the 20th century. Spain is tearing apart."
September 11th takes on a far different meaning here in Catalonia. On that day -- known here as La Diega -- in 1714, Catalonia lost its independence following the War over the Succession of Spain. "It reminds us that we are oppressed," explains Ferran. In 1980, the first act of the newly established Catalan legislature was to declare La Diega a national holiday.
Though it had a rich literary heritage, and at the height of Catalan political power in the 13th and 14th centuries was spoken as a commercial language as far away as Naples and Athens, the Catalan language was banned or repressed during most of the 18th and 19th centuries, though it was still spoken by Catalonians at home.