Standing outside a local, Catalan public school, two mothers examined a display of children’s drawings hanging in the window. “This one belongs to your son,” said one woman to the other, pointing to a picture of a naïvely draw human figure outlined in blue standing beneath an enormous Catalan independence flag. The mother of the artist grinned, “That’s my Enric; that boy is tremendous.” A third mother poked her head into the circle, “He’s on the right road,” she said, and Enric’s mother laughed, unable to mask her pride
For the uninitiated, a clumsily drawn picture of l’Estelada Blava, the red and yellow flag of Catalunya with a white star sitting in a blue triangle, does not provoke the same effect as it does on a true-blue local. It may be difficult to understand what moved two million Catalans to take to the streets, many travelling from the outer-reaches of the country last September, and cry out for something as radical as independence when the entire peninsula is standing on quicksand. To the outsider, it may look like political opportunism, kicking Spain while they’re down, taking the pressure off of local politicians to face up to the crisis. But there’s a long, antagonistic history that rests in the collective unconscious of every Catalan that seems to go deeper than plain, old-fashioned political manoeuvring.
Historically, you would have to go back pretty far to see where the trouble began. Kingdoms, counties and principalities in the middle ages were often at war in order to maintain the sovereignty of their territories from falling in the hands of a larger power. Catalunya, being no exception, struggled to maintain control of its regions, under threat from larger, more powerful forces. But it’s not necessary to go back as far as the Goths or the Moors to understand the frustration of a people with a particularly good piece of real estate and their problem with invading forces. Nation building is a form of self-preservation as much as pride. Over the years, Catalunya has been a pretty pawn in wars between France and Spain and in power struggles within the peninsula, with Catalunya sometimes backing the wrong horse when asked to pick sides. Historically, as punishment for Catalunya’s lack of allegiance to the more powerful kingdoms that surrounded it, they have lost both property and sovereignty. But what they managed to hold onto was their language, sense of community and culture.
So what do Catalans want now? If you ask many, they will answer with one word, “respect”. Despite dissatisfaction with the modern fiscal agreement made with Madrid, the way Spain taxes the local economy, managing the money it takes from Catalunya without much interest in local concerns, I have even heard Catalans say the point is not money. What many Catalans seems to need, to crave, is a recognition that Catalunya is a strong, proud and productive nation with it’s own language, it’s own traditions; that Catalunya’s destiny may include collaboration and cooperation with Spain but as a partner, not as a servant of the Spanish state. For many, self-determination or even independence means pulling away from the grip of a centralized, self-serving Spanish government. A show of respect and a willingness to sit down and discuss the problems that face Catalunya would be a sign that there was the prospect of redefining the future and healing old political wounds. A simple gesture of appreciation and recognition from Madrid, beginning with a willingness to discuss a more fair financial agreement from the central government, may be sufficient to cool the flame of separatist sentiment. Or at least, it would be a good place to start.