In a new Catalonia, who would be Catalan?

After Catalan officials declared independence last week, the definition of a Catalan citizen becomes increasingly important. Yet, as Lucia Benavides explains, identity is a complex concept. 

By: /
November 1, 2017
Protestors hold placards reading "Republic now" as an Estelada (Catalan spearatist flag) flutters during a gathering at Sant Jaume square in Barcelona, Spain, October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Luis Collazo and Roberto Cardozo stood outside the doors of the Institut Josep Serrat i Bonastre, a high school in Barcelona, shortly before 9 a.m., chatting nervously about what could happen next. The two had been there since 6 a.m.; they joined hundreds of others at the school to vote on the Catalan independence referendum that took place on Oct. 1.

In the weeks leading up to referendum day, Spanish police had confiscated ballot boxes, arrested local separatist officials and shut down official referendum websites. The sounds of Catalan, the regional language, filled the air as people outside the high school kept a lookout for Spanish police and wondered whether they’d be able to go ahead with the vote. But the words coming from Collazo and Cardozo were different from those around them: it was Spanish, but harsher-sounding than the Castilian of Spain, and with traces of an Italian accent.

“I’m Catalan,” said Collazo with a perfect Argentine accent.

Collazo is originally from Buenos Aires; he’s been living in Barcelona since 2001. Like many others, his Catalan grandmother fled to Argentina during the Spanish Civil War. Now in Catalonia, he says he has returned to his roots — his wife and children are Catalan too.

“When they ask me if I’m Argentine, I tell them that I’m Catalan and I’m a Barça fan,” said Collazo. “They laugh, it humors them. I’m one of them.”

Cardozo is also from Argentina; he says he still considers himself Argentine, but feels that he’s enriched his sense of identity since moving to Barcelona 16 years ago — in some ways, he says, he also feels Catalan now.

“Catalonia allows that opportunity, to say, I have two cultural places or identities: Argentina, my country, and Catalonia,” said Cardozo. “And what’s the problem? Nothing, it’s great. It enriches you more.”

The existence of a separate, Catalan identity is one of the key arguments for Catalan secession, which, on October 27, proceeded with a declaration of independence. The declaration was mostly symbolic, however, as less than an hour after the Catalan government voted in favour of independence, the Spanish Supreme Court dissolved the Catalan government and called for snap elections on December 21. Until those elections, central government ministries will take over the Catalan administration. Spain’s High Court also issued a summons for Catalonia’s president, Carls Puigdemont, and 13 other public officials to testify in Madrid on November 2 and 3. They’re being charged with rebellion, sedition and breach of trust. It’s unclear if they will show up, but Puigdemont has publicly accepted the upcoming elections.

In Catalonia, supporters of independence argue that Catalans should not be ruled by a central Spanish government, but rather by its own. And while, up until late October, Catalonia did have a semi-autonomous government, Catalan separatists felt that they should have more autonomy. This perceived need for self-determination grew even stronger when a Catalan statute of autonomy — that would have recognized Catalonia as a “nation” and given them more control over collection of their own taxes — was struck down by a Spanish court in 2010.

Now, Catalan leaders want to take it a big step further: breaking away from Spain and creating a Republic of Catalonia. Official results from the Oct. 1 referendum — which the Spanish Constitutional Court has declared illegal — showed 90 percent favoured independence, though only 43 percent of eligible voters took part.

But when faced with the question “Who is Catalan?” rarely do people have a clear answer. The question of identity — especially its implications for citizenship, voting rights, business and residency permits — and questions around integration and belonging are complex. Such dilemmas are present not only in Spain right now, but all throughout Europe. And Catalonia, though its chance of gaining independence in the near future is unlikely, is home to one of the most heated debates on the matter.  

Some say simply feeling Catalan is enough. Others say those who live and work in Catalonia are Catalan. Yet there are others who consider themselves Catalan, but say self-identification is not enough — at least not in the eyes of others, and especially when your skin isn’t white.

A history of immigration

The former president of Catalonia, Jordi Pujol, once said: “A Catalan person is that who lives and works in Catalonia, and who wants to be Catalan.”

Decades later, his phrase is still repeated by people trying to get at the meaning of Catalan-ness. Jordi Casassas, professor of contemporary history at the University of Barcelona, said the phrase resonates with many people because of its inclusiveness: Catalonia has a long history of immigration. He says four out of five people living in Catalonia today have roots in other parts of Spain or the world.

“It’s not a closed-off place, in fact, it’s a very open place,” said Casassas. “It’s very Mediterranean.”

During the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when Catalonia flourished as an industrial hub, the region received an influx of working-class immigrants — mostly from Andalusia, a province in the south of Spain — in search of better jobs and lives. Almost half of the two million Andalusians that fled poverty and unemployment in the latter half of the 20th century ended up in Catalonia.

As those immigrants settled down and built new lives in Catalonia, their children — born in Catalonia — took on the nickname of xarnego by the Catalans around them. It was a pejorative term used to differentiate the Catalans with Spanish ancestry from the Catalans with “true” Catalan blood.

Anton Fernandez, 36, says this term doesn’t mean any harm; it’s only used to “make a distinction” and insists that it “doesn’t imply anything.”

"It’s more of an anti-Madrid, anti-central government sentiment than anything.”

Fernandez, whose family has been in Catalonia for multiple generations, has never felt a strong sense of Catalan identity. When asked to define a Catalan person, he stopped and looked serious for a few seconds. Then his face relaxed, and he began to laugh. 

“A really stupid answer comes over me,” he said as he shrugged. “Someone born in Catalonia.” Then he added, “Or someone who spent their formative years in Catalonia.”

Fernandez says that for him, nationalities separate more than they unite.

“I remember when I was about nine years old, in school, the first question kids asked you after ‘What’s your name?’ was ‘Are you pro-independence or a fascist?’” said Fernandez. 

This question is rooted in history. During the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, from 1939 to 1978, Catalans were banned from using their language or having regional autonomy. They faced repression and jail time for publicly portraying their Catalan identity. That history is still very much alive in people’s minds today — not only from stories that have been passed down, but from the very people who remember what it was like to live under a dictatorship.

“I think sometimes there’s this idea that the more Catalan you are, the more you’re against Madrid,” said Fernandez. “It’s more of an anti-Madrid, anti-central government sentiment than anything.”

Philip Resnick, emeritus professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, says history is an important part of Catalan’s story.

“A lot of that is based on supposed oppression, repression,” said Resnick. “The narrative tends to emphasize the victim, or the weak, or being in a dependent position.”

Today, Catalonia has more autonomy than during the Franco dictatorship — their schools, public institutions and even movie theaters are in Catalan. Yet the history of repression is still engrained in Catalonia’s identity. Resnick says that this is common among minority nationalities: in Quebec, he says pro-independence people argue that French Canadians were always a conquered people with a history of repression. 

A more inclusive Catalonia

Catalonia has not gone unscathed by globalization. In Spain as a whole, from 2000 to 2011, the number of foreign residents rose from 900,000 to close to 6 million, or 12 percent of the population. The biggest migrant groups are from Romania, Morocco, Ecuador and England. Now, their children are being born here and integrating into Catalan society through schools and community.

Zeynabu Said, 23, was born in Manresa, a quaint town in the Catalan mountains. Her mother’s family has been in Catalonia for many generations, but her father is from Western Sahara. Said says this aspect of her genetic history has made others question her Catalan identity.

“This is a topic that has followed me around my whole life,” she said. “If Catalan people are constantly asking you, ‘But where are you from?’ in reality what they’re telling you is that you’re not Catalan.”

Said has short black hair, olive skin and bright brown eyes. On break from graduate school classes, she carried around her University of Barcelona binder as she ordered in Catalan from the cafe near the school. Her cheery mood turned serious as she talked about her experience growing up half-Catalan, half-Saharawi.

“So you want to tell me that because of my name, or my physical appearance, or the colour of my skin, I can’t be Catalan?¨ she said, raising her voice. ¨I’m speaking in the same Catalan as you, I was born here, I can show you my ID if you want.”

Said says that Catalan people with roots in places like Africa or the Middle East — or put simpler, those who aren’t white — have to work harder to convince others that they, too, are Catalan. She says that when she speaks Catalan, people praise her for her “wonderful accent.” She laughed and added, “I even speak small town Catalan,” referring to the particular accents people have from different towns across Catalonia.

"You’re never going to be Catalan, because it seems incompatible to be Catalan and Muslim."

“So what does it mean to be Catalan? Catalan means to be white, to have a Catalan name,” said Said. “I have a friend who wears a hijab, and she told me, ‘Well at least they may accept you as Catalan. But imagine being Muslim. You’re never going to be Catalan, because it seems incompatible to be Catalan and Muslim.’”

Said hopes that, if a Catalan state were to be created, people take it as a chance to put a famous local phrase into practice: “Catalonia, a welcoming land.” 

Resnick, the political science professor, says it’s likely that civic nationalism would be the base for citizenship in Catalonia. This ideology sees citizenship as something acquired through birth or naturalization — as opposed to ethnic nationalism, which refers to one’s ethnic affiliations or origins. But in Catalonia, a region with multiple nationalities like Quebec and Scotland, it’s not easy to have one definition of identity and simultaneously embrace all of its different origins. Resnick says that separatist movements, however, have attempted to use this multi-nationality to their advantage.

“The nationalist movement [in Quebec] has understood that they’ve got to try to win support among some of the immigrants,” said Resnick. And in Catalonia, “there was hope that, for example, among Latinos, or among those coming from North Africa, there might support for the cause.”

In Spain, citizenship can be acquired through marriage, after 10 years of permanent residency, or if your grandparents or parents were Spanish; simply being born in the country isn’t enough. Resnick says that anyone currently living in Catalonia, though, would theoretically have the right to be Catalan.

“It would not be confined only to those who speak Catalan,” said Resnick. He says the majority of minority nationalists, including those in Quebec, are civic, and not ethnic, in their self-determination.

Said says this is what pushed her to participate in the Oct. 1 referendum.

“I voted ‘Yes’ for a feminist republic, for an inclusive republic,” she said. “Where anyone that wants to live here can do so, where we’ll all have the same rights, and where we won’t question each other’s identities.”