An Adopted Catalan

from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Even today, most people who visit Barcelona think they are in Spain. Noticing and understanding the differences between Catalan and Spanish culture is not immediate. I was drawn in particularly by the language and history. Becoming a parent meant that I became increasingly involved in Catalan society. My political position only became clear after the first Partido Popular government came to power in Madrid in 1996. They were so anti-Catalan that they made me feel protective towards my adopted home.


Chapter 1: An Adopted Catalan

When I arrived in Barcelona in 1988, I landed in what I thought was Barcelona, Spain. I had no idea that Catalonia had ever been a separate country or had aspirations of separating from Spain again in the future. I immediately fell in love with life in the city of Barcelona and my early trips up the coast and out into the Catalan countryside convinced me that I'd wound up in a pretty cool place.

Catalonia still felt like a region of Spain to me so given the choice of two languages, I opted to learn Spanish rather than Catalan. All the bilingual Catalans spoke Spanish anyway and it would also mean I'd be able to get by on jaunts around the rest of Spain.


The process of immersion in Catalan culture was a slow one. I suppose it began by choosing to support FC Barcelona rather than Real Madrid and continued as I started to watch more and more television in Catalan. In those days, Spanish television was as dreadful as it is now and was mainly game shows, South American soap operas and dumb gossip programmes.

I vividly remember the first time I switched the dial on my cheap portable TV over to Catalan TV3 and was greeted by an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In fact, the 'Space the final frontier..' introduction was the first thing I ever memorised in the Catalan language. What's more, I was probably feeling a bit homesick and lots of British series were shown on TV3. Dubbed versions of sitcoms, such as Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and Yes, Minister, and the soaps Eastenders, Coronation Street and Neighbours all made me feel much more at home even if it was a little surrealistic hearing Michael Crawford say 'Oooh, Betty ...' and then continue in Catalan.

This must have been around 1989 or 1990 and I wasn't yet familiar with some of the differences between Catalan and Spanish culture. To be perfectly honest, everything seemed a foreign jumble to me. I do remember thinking, though, that if these people chose to show British TV series, they probably had more in common with me than the ones that chose to show South American soaps and bullfighting.

My grasp of the language improved very quickly and I began to notice the positive effect that a few words of Catalan had on people. I was mainly freelance English teaching in those days and every time I went to meet a new client things seemed to go better if I introduced myself in Catalan, apologised for my limitations and then switched to Spanish. So in many respects my first reason for getting to grips with the language was in order to get better work.

A Personal Introduction

The crucial person in this early period, though, was my ex-wife's, then girlfriend's, Aunt Magdalena, a committed Catalanist who was in her sixties and so had lived in Barcelona throughout most of the turbulent 20th century. Aunt Magdalena told me stories of the Spanish Civil War, of getting arrested for speaking Catalan under Franco and of the celebrations in Barcelona on the night the dictator died. As they were personal anecdotes, everything hit home much more deeply and my imagination was fired. I remember one story she told of how, unlike most of her generation, she learnt to read and write in Catalan.

In 1939, as soon as the Civil War was over, all schooling was done in Spanish even though this was long before the mass immigration to Catalonia from the rest of Spain began in the 1950s. All the children and teachers at Magdalena's school in the working-class neighbourhood of Poblenou spoke Catalan as their first language but weren't allowed to speak it in class.

Magdalena's class teacher made a pact with the children and their parents. All lessons would be done in Castilian Spanish during the school day and the children would stay behind for an extra hour to go over the lessons again in Catalan. This would serve both as revision and the chance to study in Catalan. It had to be a secret and the schoolbooks couldn't leave the classroom under any circumstances. The teacher hid the books behind the false back of the classroom cupboard. As she was quite pretty, every time the school inspector came, she would flirt with him to make sure he didn't look too closely at what was in the cupboard.

Magdalena and her friend Mercè would also take my ex-wife and I on cultural excursions out into different parts of Catalonia. This was taken as a great excuse for her to teach me Catalan history. She'd had polio as a child and had a walking stick that she used not only as a means of support but also as a form of exclamatory punctuation as she told her stories. I vividly remember her standing on the beach at Cambrils. She waved her stick in the air in the vague direction of the Balearic Islands proclaiming that it was here from where the fleet of Jaume I the Conqueror had sailed on the quest to capture Mallorca from the Saracens.

Magdalena's claims that Catalonia had once had an empire covering a third of Spain, the bottom half of France and most of the Mediterranean, including parts of Italy and Greece, struck me as a little far-fetched. I started reading up on the subject in various languages, English, Catalan and Spanish, and found that all these claims were backed up by reputable historians. Why had I never heard anything about this? I wondered.


In 1992, I moved to the Barcelona suburb of Sant Andreu and set up home with my future wife. Having moved away from the city centre expat haunts, the integration process accelerated. Gradually my social life became more locally centred and soon I was a regular attender at the Narcis Sala football stadium, home to third division UE Sant Andreu.

I also got to know my in-laws much better and to a certain extent, became a member of a Catalan family. One of the things that struck me was how Catalan they were in private but how they became Spanish in public. Catalan was the only language spoken over Sunday dinner behind the closed doors of the family home.

After lunch, Jaume, my Catalan father-in-law, and I would sometimes go for a beer in one of the local bars. As the lift hit the ground floor and we walked out into the street, Jaume suddenly became Jaime using the Spanish version of his name and only speaking Spanish.

It struck me as very strange having two versions of your name, one private and one public. I could only surmise that the change in identity went back to the Franco period when, if not completely illegal, speaking Catalan in public was definitely frowned upon. Nearly 20 years after the death of the dictator this was the learned behaviour that had become a habit. My father-in-law had no particular political axe to grind. He had always always kept his nose clean in order to earn a decent living for his family.

Another formative experience was attending the wedding of one of my wife's cousins in the Empordà region up near the French border. Half the guests were Spanish. The other half were French and included the children of uncles and aunts who had moved across the border during the dictatorship. The language used by everyone was Catalan and this was the first time I witnessed that the Catalan identity stretched beyond the borders of Spain. Perhaps it was true that the Catalans were a stateless nation who still occupied a territory much larger than modern Catalonia. The common bond between these people was obviously the language.

In 1994, my daughter Carme was born and becoming the father of a little Catalan girl, brought home what the expression 'mother tongue' really meant. When a mother comforts her baby or sings them to sleep at night, they do this in the language that comes most naturally to them and in my wife's case it was Catalan. Speaking to her daughter in her native language certainly wasn't any kind of strident political act as some people had led me to believe.

A Political Perspective

By the time Jose Maria Aznar's first Partido Popular government came to power in 1996, my affections were already Catalan. Beyond the odd insult for supporting Barça and once getting physically thrown out of a bar in Mallorca for ordering in Catalan, I wasn't really aware of how much the existence of the Catalan language annoyed a certain section of Spanish society. This all changed very quickly under a Partido Popular government.

It was immediately obvious that the Partido Popular's electoral tactic was to appeal to conservative deep Spain by attacking Catalans and Basques in much the same way as right-wing parties in Britain attack immigrants and attempt to create 'an ogre within'. As the legislature continued, so did the anti-Catalan insults, especially from the likes of Minister of Education, Culture and Sport, Esperanza Aguirre. I felt I was being pushed towards an increasingly pro-Catalan position but the idea of Catalonia as an independent state was still very far from my mind.

My political position at the time was broadly Catalan socialist. I supported PSC, the Catalan affiliate of PSOE, the Spanish equivalent of the Labour Party. Despite a growing commitment to Catalan history, culture and language, I wasn't yet convinced by the purely Catalan political parties. The hopes of Esquerra Republicana for an independent Catalonia were simply not realistic in the 1990s. The middle-class Catalan conservatism of Convergència i Unió smacked of racism and snobbery at times.

One might not be totally happy that more than 2 million Spanish-speaking emigrants had come to Catalonia during Franco's dictatorship but for Catalonia to live in harmony, they had to be integrated. PSC or the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya was basically an alliance between working-class Andalusian trades unionists and middle-class Catalan left-wing intelligentsia. It seemed the only party capable of serving the needs of both Catalans and Spanish speakers at the time.

In Defence of Education

My daughter had started pre-school in 1997 but it was when she began Primary School in 1999 that I really got the chance to see the Catalan education system from the inside.

I hadn't really given the idea of linguistic immersion much thought before but in a neighbourhood like Sant Andreu, which is about 50% Catalan-speaking and 50% Spanish-speaking, it definitely made sense that the main language of teaching was Catalan. My daughter came from a bilingual Catalan-English home but had picked up Castilian Spanish through television and other kids at pre-school so, by the time she started proper school, she was comfortably trilingual.

Lots of her friends, who spoke Spanish at home and only watched Spanish TV, though, would never learn Catalan unless proactive measures were taken. Teaching the majority of subjects in Catalan definitely seemed the best way to ensure that all my daughter's classmates would grow up bilingual. In the long run, this was the only way to guarantee a peaceful and integrated society.

As I was very happy with the education my daughter was getting, I was appalled to see attacks from Madrid on the Catalan school system and Education Minister Esperanza Aguirre's plans to make Catalan optional and homogenise the humanities syllabus were completely ridiculous. Having done quite a lot of reading about Catalan and Spanish history by that point, I realised that they were two quite different stories. Normally the Spanish version simply didn't bother to mention Catalonia's medieval empire or the conquest of the Iberian peninsula's eastern coast from the Moors. For most Spanish school history books, the founding of Spain began in Asturias, was consolidated in Castile and finished in Andalusia.

If central government had its way, my daughter would be taught an edited version of the truth. The official picture of Spain as a homogenous indissoluble unit conflicted with the Catalan view of a group of independent states that had gradually come together to form a nation state between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Another effect of having a school age daughter was that it acted as a motivation to take my Catalan to another level. I could already get by in Catalan but it seemed enormously important to be able to help my daughter with her homework and the only way to do that was by working on my Catalan. It was interesting actually because I started off with really easy subjects when my daughter was five and things got progressively more difficult as she got older.

I also started reading a lot more history and politics and colleagues at the British Council began commenting on how strange I was for being so keen on Catalan language and culture. However, the language was a key factor in getting a teaching job at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona so perhaps I wasn't so strange after all!

By this time I was also already writing what would later become my first book Going Native in Catalonia, which was published in 2008. I was a Catalanist in all but the idea of full independence. I identified completely with the defence of the Catalan identity and understood Catalonia's complaints against the centralist Spanish  government but separating from Spain completely still seemed impractical.

Autonomy and Democracy

When José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's PSOE replaced José Maria Aznar's Partido Popular as Spain's governing party in 2004, the atmosphere of tension appeared to subside considerably. Political decisions were still taken in Madrid but at least Catalonia wasn't on the receiving end of attacks and insults.

Around 2005 I finally picked up on news that a new Statute of Autonomy was being drafted. Popularly known as the Estatut, it would bring the out of date 1978 Statute into line with current feelings and specifically recognise some of Catalonia's historic differences with the rest of Spain. This seemed like a perfect compromise to me.

The new Estatut was finalised and approved by the Catalan Parliament in 2006 and although I heard complaints that clauses had been removed or modified by the Spanish Parliament in Madrid, it still felt like a step forward. The revised document received a convincing majority when it was put to referendum in Catalonia. My argument at the time was that now we had a few more rights in the bag, the next step would be to push for some more.

I heard rumours that the Partido Popular were going to appeal against the Estatut but not being actively involved in politics at the time, I didn't take them very seriously. Furthermore, in autumn 2008 I became quite ill so I was busy worrying about other things. Just as I was pulling through the worst of the illness in the late-spring of 2010, it seemed as if the Spanish Constitutional Court ruling on the Estatut was about to be announced.

I dismissed talk that Madrid would never cede any extra power to Catalonia as pessimistic fear-mongering. When news broke that the Estatut had been declared unconstitutional on June 27th 2010, I couldn't believe it. I was utterly and completely flabbergasted.

How could it be? The Estatut had been voted on by the Parliament of Catalonia, approved by the Spanish Congress and Senate in Madrid and finally ratified by the Catalan people. After so many democratic processes how could it possibly be unconstitutional?

At that moment I, and many like me, realised that however much Catalonia tried to make a space for itself within Spain, its claims would always be rejected. Any plurality or deviation from the official Spanish identity would not be tolerated. I'd been pro-Catalan for a long time but after the Constitutional Court ruling it became clear that independence for Catalonia was the only way forward.

A couple of weeks later, I joined more than million Catalans on the demonstration in central Barcelona against the Estatut sentence. We shouted "Som una nació. Nosaltres decidim" - 'We are nation. We decide.' - until we were hoarse. I don't think many of us were very clear of where this would take us but as events have since shown, there was no turning back.

Listen to An Adopted Catalan on YouTube

Now Read Chapter Two of Catalonia Is Not Spain - A Nationalist View of Spanish History

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