It’s late October and the Barcelona sun beats down on me with the sort of intensity I’d only thought was possible in late July. After nearly three months of living in Copenhagen, the coastal heat is a welcome change from the cool Scandinavian autumn.
Five-story apartment complexes line either side of the narrow street of Carrer Gran de Gràcia. All built in a single breathless row, they almost appear as one long building, if it weren’t for the changing colored tiles on the buildings’ facade. About every fifty feet, the buildings’ tiles change from pale blue floral to beige swirls to yellow geometric patterns, as if they are wallpaper.
Sprouting out from these tiled buildings are symmetrical rows of black wrought iron balconies, all uniform in appearance. When I look up, I notice the red and yellow striped Catalonian flag hanging proudly from a handful of them. These flags, along with signs reading “Free Catalan Prisoners” and “LLIBERTAT PRESOS POLÍTICS,” are the only remaining evidence of the previous week’s violent protests that transformed this now bright and sunny city into what, from news clips alone, looked like an anarchic dystopia.
Walking down this now abandoned street, I can’t believe this was the same city I had watched go up in flames on nearly every news station. The photos and videos of mobs of protestors hurling glass bottles and rocks at police through the fire barrier the demonstrators had lit in the street, made me question if I should even come to the city I’d always dreamt of visiting. In my four-and-a-half months of living in Europe, this was my one week free from classes, and despite my hesitations, the voice in my head wouldn’t let me forget that fact. From my little room in the heart of Copenhagen, I packed my bags and left.
Although the recent protests came as a shock to me, the truth is that these latest demonstrations tie into the tense, multi-century history between the Spanish government and the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia in north-east Spain. The region is home to about 7.5 million people who share a language, flag, and anthem, all of which are distinct from those of Spain. This unique history and culture has led to a rise in Catalonian nationalism since the 19th century and more recently, a move for complete independence that has been gaining momentum over the past decade.
In 2010, pro-independence sentiment resurfaced with Spain’s Constitutional Court ruling denying the recognition of Catalonia as an autonomous nation within Spain. Seven years later, in October 2017, Catalonian voters held an illegal independence referendum, to which the Spanish central government responded with direct rule over the region.
Fast forward to current day, October 2019, when nine Catalan independence leaders are found guilty of sedition regarding the failed 2017 referendum, receiving prison sentences anywhere from nine to thirteen years, sparking protests throughout Catalonia, and most notably, the region’s capital city, Barcelona.
Now, only a week after the October 14 sentencing and subsequent demonstrations, there are hardly any indications that anything ever happened. As I turn onto La Rambla and into the city center, I am immediately thrown back into the hustle and bustle of tourism. Thousands of people swarm the mile long street like ants to neglected food. They each walk sporadically towards one of the dozens of beige tent-covered shops that line either side of the street.
People walk past me from all different directions carrying their new “I heart Barcelona” souvenirs, but only a few days ago, La Rambla was flooded with 80,000 protestors waving Catalonian flags and pro-independence signs in the air. The shops that are still visible now, even through the crowds of tourists, were completely swallowed by the demonstrators. Now, it seems as though the fast paced and unsympathetic force of tourism has completely buried any indication that conflict was present. Although visitors are eager to ignore the conflict that happened beneath their feet, I soon learned that this amnesia is not felt by Barcelona’s residents.
“Just three days ago, this street was filled with people,” says Maribel, motioning towards the now empty street in front of us. “Hundreds of people with flags and signs chanting ‘freedom for political prisoners.”
A woman in her early fifties, Maribel sits next to me on a bench outside of a small music shop. Though, as a Catalonian native, she is used to the intense sun, ringlets of her dark brown baby hairs still stick to her forehead, while the rest of her short untamed hair wisps around her head. Escaping the humidity is impossible, but Maribel and I are able to get some relief beneath the shadows of the tiled buildings.
Though we have just met, she speaks to me as she would an old friend. Growing up in the neighboring town of Sant Cugat, Maribel is familiar with the long history of Catalonia, a history I’ve only experienced from the desk of a high school Spanish classroom in Illinois.
“I was maybe thirteen or fourteen when Catalonia became recognized as a nationality. I remember it because it was around that time we started having elections and a president.”
What Maribel is referring to is the 1979 statute of autonomy, which recognized Catalonia as a distinct national community within Spain, and Catalan as an official language of the region along with Spanish. Prior to this process of regionalization, the region faced a suppression of Catalonian autonomy under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
Maribel continues on, seldom making eye contact. Instead, she looks somewhere over my shoulder as if the memories of her childhood are playing out on a screen behind me.
“I don’t really remember too much. I was a kid so I didn’t really pay much attention. To me it was all the same. I was Catalonian. I spoke Catalan as well as Spanish. I didn’t understand why we needed someone else to tell us what we already knew…But to my parents it was probably a bigger deal because they grew up while Franco was in power and remember it.”
She broke out of her trance and looked away from the imaginary screen over my shoulder and looked back at me, chuckling, “I guess that’s what happens when you’re a kid. You don’t want to be told what to do because you think you know everything.”
Although Maribel didn’t recall having strong feelings about the region’s autonomy when she was younger, that sentiment changed as she grew older.
“When I got older and started to understand more about our culture and history I realized that there are a lot of things shared between Spain and Catalonia’s history, but there are a lot of differences, too,” she explains with a confident cadence that is only achieved with age. “For me, it is not about money or politics. It is about identity. To have autonomy means we are recognized as a culture different from Spain’s. I don’t think that means we need complete independence, just recognition and respect from the Spanish government would be enough. But, if the choice is full independence or nothing at all, I choose independence.”
Maribel shrugs her shoulders as though the ultimatum holds no weight, but the sincerity in her eyes tells me that this is a stance she takes on with a quiet passion.
Other than the whirring cars and the occasional clusters of passersby, the street in front of us is rather quiet, a trait that Maribel finds to be quite a contrast to recent days.
“It was like everywhere I went people were all over the place. Here, there, everywhere,” she says about the recent protests, motioning her arms around her as if her hands were paintbrushes and the air was her canvas. This time, rather than looking off into the distance past my shoulder, Maribel describes what she saw with wide vibrant eyes.
“They would march down the street and twenty minutes later, I would look again and they’d still be there.”
Despite believing in Catalonian autonomy, Maribel did not participate in the protests, nor did she approve of the violence that came from them. Although the demonstrations she witnessed were peaceful, many, especially those in the city center, were not.
“I did not see any fires or violence but I know they were there and I don’t agree with it, but I understand why. You cannot ignore the fires.”
Yet, one week later, here we are, looking out into the deserted street, and I can’t help thinking that Maribel is right. Nobody could ignore the fires. The fires made the world listen, but now that they are gone, the world has gone back to forgetting.
The shadows of the buildings have now stretched out to touch the edge of the road. It is time for Maribel and I to part ways. She lights a cigarette as I gather my things. I walk back towards the main sidewalk leading back to the city center. Before I turn the corner, I glance back to the bench next to the music shop. As the puff of smoke from Maribel’s cigarette dissipates, I notice something I hadn’t noticed before. Above the music shop door, a little piece of paper hangs from its door frame that reads “Freedom for Catalan Prisoners.” It’s size is no match for the flags that hang from the balconies above it, but it is a reminder that the fight for independence continues on, even in the shadows.
Gabrielle is an English-Writing major at Illinois Wesleyan University, graduating in May 2021. She’s written for her local newspaper and magazine, and is currently a features writer for her university newspaper. Most recently, the Illinois College Press Association awarded Gabrielle with second place for her features writing. Gabrielle also enjoys creative nonfiction writing and is working on a piece about identity inspired by her multi-cultural upbringing. To learn more about Gabrielle, check out her website at https://gabrielleghaderi.wixsite.com/mysite.