In some senses, it’s like an adult vision of Disneyland: the streets swathed in beer bottles, flags and the odd choral outburst. It’s an almost suffocating heat as a million banner-clad locals take to the street, singing, chanting and – on occasion – grinding to a semi-flamenco rhythm. To the common foreigner, it seems like the quintessential Spanish festival. Quintessential that is aside from one striking fact: not a syllable of Spanish has been uttered. It is the sharp vowels of Catalan that reign supreme.
Such is the scene in Barcelona in its annual celebration of Catalan nationalism. Ordinarily, it’s a festival scribbled firmly in every local’s calendar. Yet, this year, its importance cannot be understated, undercut as it is by the visceral fight for independence.
“The current atmosphere in Barcelona is certainly slightly strained,” remarks English teacher, Jack Crinks. “After Las Ramblas attacks in August there have been two annual Catalan festivals – La Diada and La Mercé. There are ‘Sí’ flags on every street, adorning balconies and windows, and huge flags on some of the big buildings, including la Sagrada Familia. There are regular protests, but not really huge marching ones, just silent walking with flags and T-shirts. What’s quite noisy is the cacerolada: at 10pm each night, Catalans bang their pots and pans outside their windows for 15 minutes as a form of protest against Madrid.”
Since the death of its notorious dictator, Francisco Franco in 1975, modern Spanish history has been dominated by debates surrounding regional nationalism. Most vocal of all, however, has been Catalonia where – since the economic crash of 2008 – pro-independence movements have been gathering momentum.
“Many [Catalans] believe they are propping up poorer parts of Spain,” says Jack. “It’s similar to the feelings of many Brexiteers that their money and taxes were not being spent in local areas. People talk about toll roads in Catalonia being far more common than in other parts of Spain. They feel like they’re being punished for being successful.”
Indeed, according to figures analysed by El País, governmental investment in Catalonia has been distinctly below the national average since 1995. This coupled with Catalonia’s possession of the third largest fiscal deficit in Spain have provided two points of significant contention for Catalan politicians, merely fuelling opposition to the Spanish government. Yet, argues El País, this fiscal deficit is due to Catalonia’s national affluence: a misunderstanding that has been deliberately manipulated to stimulate rebellion.
“… Catalan politicians are taking advantage of the situation. They’re demagogues and blame Spain for all of Catalonia’s problems when perhaps they’re due to their management…”
“The Catalan government has always used fiscal balance data to convey the notion that Catalonia is getting a raw deal,” argues journalist, Antonio Maqueda. “But the fact is, Catalans are not currently getting fleeced, and an independent Catalonia would not suddenly enjoy a large fiscal surplus.”
For Erin Maher, a Barcelona-based marketing intern, it is “pride” rather than the economy that is motivating the referendum: “[Catalans] see themselves as having a very separate culture from Spain, which is really fuelling the whole situation and has obviously been a point of contention ever since Franco’s repression.”
“[Catalans] are a very proud group of people with historic animosity towards Spain lasting hundreds and hundreds of years. They have a fierce sense of identity, history and language,” agrees Jack. “[The fact] that ‘Madrid’ is not allowing the referendum to occur is making things even worse… They’re tired of being ruled from the capital, and I think just feel that they can do a better job on their own!”
Indeed, state opposition to the referendum has been fierce. Thousands of national police officers have been mobilised in Barcelona in a bid to prevent the ‘illegal’ vote; a Spanish court has ordered Google to delete voting location apps from its Play Store. Meanwhile, Spanish President, Mariano Rajoy, has sparked controversy after enlisting the help of Donald Trump, who condemned Catalan independence as “foolish”. Even amongst ordinary madrileños, resentment towards Catalan politicians has grown.
“It’s not that [the referendum] is ‘foolish’; it’s a consequence of the Spanish government’s inability to negotiate with Catalonia,” concedes Madrid-based graduate, Diego Martinez. “However Catalan politicians are taking advantage of the situation. They’re demagogues and blame Spain for all of Catalonia’s problems when perhaps they’re due to their management.”
Catalan resentment has been unleashed in a form that cannot solely be confined to a ballot paper.
However, will governmental measures be sufficient?
“When I arrived, it was obvious there were lots of indepentistas who are very vocal about their views. Despite this, I got the sense that it was about a half and half split,” says Erin. “However, since the Spanish government’s forceful interventions, I feel that people who were on the fence are maybe leaning towards a yes vote.”
As the chants of protest resound amongst Barcelona’s streets, there is only one certainty for local Spaniards. Regardless of the referendum’s outcome, Catalan resentment has been unleashed in a form that cannot solely be confined to a ballot paper.