Catalonia: To become whole again

Xpress Mag Staff

A group of Catalans pose together while celebrating their culture. This bevvy of friends and family go to picnics filled with traditional Catalan food. (Tony Santos/Xpress Magazine)
A group of Catalans pose together while celebrating their culture. This bevvy of friends and family go to picnics filled with traditional Catalan food. (Tony Santos/Xpress Magazine)

Written by Anais Fuentes

After losing their homeland 300 years ago, Catalans are still fighting for their independence.

For Americans, September Eleventh will always be remembered as the tragic day that terrorists attacked our country.  Every year on this day, we mourn for the lives that were lost and we stand together as a nation.  However, this day is also significant for another culture—and for a very different reason.  For Catalans, this day will always be remembered as the day they lost their independence and were forced to become part of the Spanish Kingdom. Now known as the National Day of Catalonia, every September Eleventh, Catalans join together and protest to gain back their independence.

Anna Preston, sociology major at SF State, grew up in a bicultural household with a Catalan mother and an American father.  “We strive to be independent from Spain, but unfortunately it is not seen as something feasible to the Spanish government.”

At this point you might still be wondering, who are Catalans anyways? Catalan people are from Catalonia, one of the seventeen regions of Spain, located in the North Eastern corner of the country.  With their own language, traditions, and culture, Catalans consider themselves different from the rest of Spain and have been fighting for their independence ever since they lost it.

“I grew up learning both English and Catalan,” says Preston. “In the summers I would go to Spain and during the school year I would be in the United States so I grew up as a part of both worlds. There is a huge sense of pride in our culture that we do not take for granted.”

Catalonia existed as a free nation until 1714, when Catalonia became incorporated into a Spanish state.  It all dates back to the fourteen hundreds, when King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile got married, uniting the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. Their marriage united the two kingdoms, which unified Spain.  Then, during the period between 1936 and 1975, dictator Francisco Franco took over Spain in the Spanish Civil War.  During this time, Spanish was declared Spain’s only official language and the public use of other languages became prohibited. Catalan language, traditions, and culture were suppressed to the point of near extinction.  Schools were banned from teaching Catalan, Catalan books were not published, and some even burned.  It was a hard time to be a Catalan in Spain, but Catalans were able to resist this repression and salvage their culture.  Once Franco died in 1975, Catalans were able to regain their culture that had almost completely disappeared. It is because of those thirty-six years of oppression that Catalans have become so proud of their distinct culture, traditions, and language.

Susan Wigham started a Catalan meetup group called Trobades Catalanes, which invites both Catalan and non-Catalans to get together and celebrate the language and culture.  This group has been meeting up monthly at different locations around the Bay Area for the past four years.  As an American, Wigham became fascinated with the culture and language after visiting some friends in Barcelona.

“What interested me about Catalans is the fact that they were once very repressed under Franco’s regime and now they are beginning to grow and gain independence,” says Wigham. “I got started organizing the meet up group because it was an opportunity for me to learn the language and give something back at the same time.”

Four years after creating the group, Wigham has become fluent in the Catalan language. “People have remarked to me on multiple occasions that I must have been Catalan in a previous life” says Wigham, “and I feel like that is possible.”

There are so many traditions unique to Catalan culture, that if I were to attempt to write about all of them, I would have to write an entire book instead of an article.  So I chose to write about just a few of them.

Fútbol

You may have heard of the famous soccer team, FC Barcelona, or Barca, known for their long-standing rivalry with Real Madrid.  “What many people do not know is that this team is Catalonia’s National team and the majority of their players are Catalan as well.  FC Barcelona has become more than just a soccer team to the Catalan people, to them it represents their identity.  The club has been used to openly promote Catalan independence. In Spain, soccer has deep political and cultural connotations and Barca has become a prominent symbol for Catalan Nationalism.

Language

Preston talks about what it is like being a Catalan living so far away from Catalonia.  “I spoke Catalan throughout my childhood and I still speak it, but I find it hard sometimes to feel connected when I am so far away from Spain.  I do not have that many Catalan friends around here so every opportunity I get to go to a Casal, which is a picnic gathering of Catalans, I will go to there just so I can feel reconnected to where I am from.”

Catalans are very proud people and their language is something they are particularly proud of, and rightly so. The Catalan language almost completely disappeared during Franco’s dictatorship but it survived against all odds.  Catalan is not a dialect of Spanish; it is derived from Latin and is spoken by millions of people around the world.  Most Catalans, however, are fluent in both Catalan and Spanish. But if you go to Barcelona and speak to the locals in Catalan, you will get huge brownie points and appreciation from the Catalan people.

Food

Catalonia’s gastronomic industry has gained a reputation for producing some of Spain’s finest cuisine. Because Catalonia is located in-between the ocean and the mountains, their meals include a diverse variety of seafood and meat dishes.  In recent years, a new wave of modern experimental chefs have come out of Catalonia, one of them being Ferran Adria, founder of El Bulli.  El Bulli was a Catalan restaurant near the town of Roses in Catalonia that received up to one-thousand reservations a year and only eight-thousand of those guests actually got a table.  Many have considered Adria the best chef in the world.

Dia de Sant Jordi

Among Catalonia’s many holidays, Sant Jordi day can be compared to our Valentines Day, in which Catalans celebrate their patron saint by exchanging books and roses.  On April 27th, the Catalan Meetup group held a Dia de Sant Jordi meet up at Hoover Park in Palo Alto.  It was a warm Sunday afternoon and by one p.m., people started to show up to Hoover Park with typical Catalan dishes and beverages in hand.  This was a chance for both Catalan speakers and non-Catalan speakers to immerse themselves in the culture.

Among those who showed up to the meet up was George Vidal.  Vidal’s grandfather was Catalan but his parents did not learn the language, losing the remaining ties they had to the culture.  “I wanted to get that back,” says Vidal.  “I am finally getting back something that I think our family lost because of the civil war. The language connects you so much with other Catalans, even if you are not Catalan yourself.”  Vidal is now working with the National Assembly of Catalonia, a civil organization that is pushing for Independence of Catalonia.  They are currently collecting votes to petition for independence.  So far they have collected about one -hundred-thousand votes and they are trying to reach their goal of one million.

Alejandro Pujol, a Catalan who has been living in the United States for the past 13 years, also attended the San Jordi festivities.  He came to America to pursue his masters in business and has been here ever since.  “I feel very Catalan,”says Pujol, “To me being Catalan is a strong cultural feeling that you are part of.”

Although the road to independence is long and windy, Catalans will continue to fight for what they believe.  And whether or not Catalonia becomes an independent nation, their distinct culture and traditions will always live on.