Celebrating Catalonia: Festivals Bringing the Region Together
Foreign Correspondent in Barcelona, Spain, Jasmine Zaman, explores how Catalonia is continuing to celebrate its festivals – despite debates over its independence.
Background Behind Today’s Catalonia:
The ruling of the illegal referendum two years ago and the decision to sentence nine Catalan leaders for up to thirteen years last month, angered people both for and against Catalan independence. In a society which has transitioned from a dictatorship to a democracy over the past forty-five years, the disruption to the democratic process can look more backwards than forwards – perhaps even echoing the repression of the Franco regime. In October 2019, protests and chaos broke out across the city. Youths expressed discontent by setting fire to bins, whilst firefighters watched on, and police used heavy-handed measures against peaceful protesters at the airport.
The beauty of these annual celebrations is that they bring together people from all walks of life.
It is clear that the international media coverage of the debate surrounding Catalan independence polarises those who are for and against the move. Being a multicultural city and capital of the region, Barcelona’s residents identify as Catalan and Spanish, Catalan or Spanish and neither Catalan nor Spanish. Evidently, the majority of Catalans, whether they also consider themselves Spanish or not, celebrate their linguistic and cultural differences. During my first three months in Barcelona, Catalan nationalism has been showcased through three different events and enjoyed by tourists as well as residents on both sides of the independence debate. The beauty of these annual celebrations is that they bring together people from all walks of life.
Celebrations that Continue to Unite Catalonia:
La Fiesta de Gràcia
Barcelona consists of several districts and each has their own festival throughout the year. The bohemian district of Gràcia, which was previously an independent settlement, hosts its street festival from 15 – 21 August, attracting people from across the city.
Leading up to the festival, residents collaborate to decide a theme, create handmade decorations – often reusing waste materials, and transform the streets and plazas. Many of the themes make cultural and sometimes political statements. This year, two of the streets showcased opposing views on the impact of globalisation. One was decorated as an American diner to acknowledge the presence of US immigrants in Barcelona and highlight one of the major influences of their culture. In contrast, the other criticised the monopolisation of global corporations and the street was adorned with products and advertising material from global brands. Ultimately, the streets and plazas compete to be crowned the best and this year, the Harry Potter themed street won the top prize.
The festival always begins on 15 August or Assumption Day – when Christians celebrate the assumption of the Virgin Mary and people across Spain enjoy a national holiday. Many of the Catalan traditions displayed during La Mercè are also incorporated into La Fiesta de Gràcia. Each day, there is a parade and live musical performances in the plazas – showcasing traditional folk songs alongside modern international and Catalan offerings. La Fiesta de Gràcia is a street festival which combines Catalan traditions with contemporary thinking and has a strong focus on uniting different people together.
Catalonia celebrates its La Diada or Independence Day every year on 11 September. The day long festival is yet another public holiday in Catalonia and commemorates the Siege of Barcelona during the War of Succession in 1714. By contrast to independence days across most parts of the world, the Catalan Independence Day is celebrated on a day of defeat rather than triumph.
Nevertheless, it is a day when Catalan culture is celebrated. The official and pro-independence Catalan flags are hung from balconies and draped over the shoulders of those in favour of independence. Local people, in addition to the regional president and city mayor, lay flowers at the monuments of Rafael Casanova and Josep Moragues – who were key political figures who fought for Catalonian independence and autonomy. People meet at Fossar de les Moreres in the Gothic Quarter, which was the site of the siege to remember the past struggles of the region.
On this day, entry to many tourist attractions that are distinctly Catalan is free, including both the Catalan Parliament and Catalonia History Museum. The focus on learning about Catalonia and its past is further facilitated by information points run by local people. Additionally, the Generaliatat and Catalan Parliament organise an event in Parc de Ciutadella involving Catalan poetry and music as well as speeches.
In recent years, as the Catalan independence movement has gained momentum, there have been large scale independence rallies on this day. In 2014, rally attendance peaked at 1.8 million people whilst this year, it was attended by half a million people. Here, the majority of people march peacefully whilst chanting in Catalan and carrying the flags.
From 21 – 24 September, Barcelona is transformed by a four-day festival to celebrate the Virgin of Mercy (Verge de la Mercè in Catalan), who is one of the patron saints alongside Saint George.
The festival, which is only celebrated in Barcelona, incorporates a plethora of Catalan folkloric traditions. Performances of the Sardana folkdance and the construction of Castells, which are human towers up to ten people high, are on show across the city’s plazas. One of the main spectacles is the Correfoc de la Mercè, directly translated as fire run, where fireworks, firecrackers and sparklers light up the streets.
Showcases of modernity and innovation run alongside the traditional displays. Light shows are projected on the City Hall in Plaza Sant Jaume every night and on stage during the techno festival at Parc de la Ciutadella. This year, in the park, there was also a sculpture in the form of a maze made from waste plastic on display during the festival – bringing the problem of single use plastic to public attention.
On the final day of the festival, people are encouraged to enjoy the festivities with their family and friends rather than going to school or work as it is a public holiday. Entry to many of the city’s museums and galleries is free and the festival draws to a close with fireworks and the magic fountain show at Montjuïc.
Festivals Taking Catalonia Beyond Politics…
Catalans channel their pride and passion into these celebrations that are enjoyed by Catalonian residents, other Spaniards and tourists alike. Regardless of whether local people are in favour or against Catalan independence, the majority want to keep their unique culture traditions alive. However, it is when people’s political freedom is supressed, that shockwaves ripple through society.