personal travel

My Experience with Catalan Independence

In late September 2017 I decided to take a leap and moved to what was then, and still is, Spain. I hadn’t done much research before I went; I just knew that I was moving to a city a couple of hours outside of Barcelona. I was ecstatic. Being 21 and a recent graduate, the years following the completion of my degree were what I had been looking forward to for some time. Free from the confines of Britain, I was ready to explore somewhere new, exciting, and sunny.

Following a brief flirtation with the idea of moving to Japan, I decided to take the plunge and move to the sangria state to teach English. This was because if things went wrong I was closer to home, similar to when students leave for a new city and don’t move too far away – so they can come back easily and get their mums to do their washing.

After arriving at Barcelona El Prat Airport and partaking in the initial training, all the teaching assistants were scattered across the Catalonia region. A handful of us and our bags were then placed in a tin-can with wheels and shipped off northward, to the city of Lleida. Some noteworthy things about the city of Lleida: It is located in what is called the ‘Catalan Central Depression’, La Seu Vella is one of the most stunning and dominating pieces of architecture I’ve ever seen and that it’s the city were San Miguel is brewed and bottled. I also discovered that drinking San Miguel is looked down on by the locals; Estrella or Voll-Damm are seen in a much better light and are considerably more potent. Another thing, in Catalan the pronunciation of the city is ‘YAY-dhah’, but due to articulation issues in the other regions, the city is called Lérida in Spanish.

The first day with my new host family (I don’t wish to mention their names, but they are incredible people who made me feel like their eldest son and we still keep in touch to this day! Et trobo a faltar) was encapsulated by a ‘correfoc’ or in English ‘fire-run’, in the city centre of my new home. Let me tell you right now, correfoc’s are a health and safety nightmare. People ran around dressed as the devil, flailing around enlarged flares on sticks above their heads until they burst into flames. The crowd that watched these events are urged to get as close as possible to the ‘creatures’ and run with the fire themselves. It was carnage and I loved it.

A castell mid-construction in central Lleida (September, 2017)

We had also witnessed a ‘castell’ during the day of these celebrations, this involved adults and children stacking themselves on top of each other in public places – building a human castle for the audience. It was capped off by an ‘enxaneta’ climbing to the top and reaching an open hand to the sky, before they all gradually dismantled themselves back to the ground below.

The region was insane, I had never seen anything like it. I was immediately hooked.

The next day I awoke under the pretence of a rest day. It had been non-stop since my arrival and I was excited to embrace a lazy Sunday from the comfort of my new bedroom. That did not happen. I was informed that we would be attending the kid’s roller hockey game that morning in the small village of Juneda. Sure, why not – my host-siblings were very excited for me to come, so how could I say no?

Roller hockey is actually one of Catalonia’s national sports. Barcelona has won 19 European League Championships with a ruthless domination, not unlike the world-renowned football team. I watched as kids a quarter of my age glided around the arena on their roller skates with such a finesse I could only dream of, screaming in Catalan as their parents roared them on. I would later attend a hoquei game for the local team in Lleida, I was nearly smashed in the face with a ball and I got to pound the fan-drum to the beat of the vivacious crowd. 10/10 would do again. Following the game, I was told that we were going ‘to vote’.

“To vote for what?”

“Per la independència!”

This was the 1st of October 2017, the day of the Catalan independence vote. The Spanish government had declared the vote illegal and unconstitutional, warning many people away from the polling stations. This resulted in many pro-Spanish and pro-Catalan voters who feared the backlash not turning up.

Catalan flags draped over a building in Juneda (October, 2017)

The polling station itself had a strange atmosphere. The children ran around playing with tubs of fairy liquid blowing bubbles, while the adults were fearful of the police as they filled out their voting slips. A large barbecue was taking place, serving traditional Catalan meat like ‘butifarra’ and we were drinking from traditional ‘porróns’. If you aren’t aware, governments find acts of protest with traction irritating and normally try to quash them with force. Local farmers had tactically parked their tractors in the middle of the roads blocking entry to the polling station. There were murmurs that the police were going to arrive, but luckily, they never came to where we were.

It was a different story in the main population centres: Barcelona, Tarragona, Girona, and Lleida. We were watching the evening news about the vote; the numbers had been 92% in favour of independence. Over 2 million votes had been cast in favour of becoming an independent state – it is worth noting that the population of the region back in 2017 was 7.4 million. 43% of Catalans were able to vote in these elections, despite enforced polling station closures and excessive force from the Spanish police. The vote had been disregarded as a terrorist rebellion and police in riot gear had stormed cities. There are videos of them pushing elderly people down sets of stairs and hitting protestors with batons. One video showed these police officers attacking voters at the doctor’s surgery just outside of the flat we lived in.

Raw: Over 760 Injured by Police in Catalonia (Associated Press, 2017)

Walking down the streets of Lleida at night in the weeks following was deafening. Catalan independence flags were draped over balconies – men, women and children stood every night at 9 o’clock bashing pans together in protest of the Spanish police and their government.

The Catalan regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra had allowed the vote to go ahead – which was what led the National Police Corps and the Civil Guard to enter the region and ‘take back control’. 893 civilians were injured that day. Spanish police action was heavily condemned by many players of the international community; including the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon, yet others including Boris Johnson failed to condone the violence…

Three years on, the situation remains largely unchanged. The leader of the independence party Carlos Puigdemont is currently living in self-imposed exile in Belgium, knowing that he will be tried and arrested should he ever return to Spain. Nine Catalan independence leaders were sentenced for their roles in the 2017 referendum on counts of sedation and crimes against the Spanish state. In turn this triggered more protests during October 2019 that are continuing today, slowed only by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Civil rights protests and independence movements are like tubes of toothpaste, when they are squeezed out, they are impossible to put back in. Especially when there are massive cultural differences between the region and their governments. Bull fighting is an internationally known form of entertainment enjoyed by the Spanish, yet it was banned in the region on the 1st of January 2012. The residents speak Catalan as a first language, and it is rare for two Catalans to converse in Spanish. Gastronomically, the region is more alike to France than it is to Spain. For more examples of how the culture in this region is so unique, go back and read this article again. This is a country/region/autonomous area close to my heart and whether within in Spain or outside of it, I just want the people to be treated right.

Visca Catalunya.

A banner at the Copa Del Rey match between Lleida Esportiu and Real Sociedad (Camp d’Esports, October 2017)

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