In the summer of 1980 I boarded a flight out of New York City bound for Spain. After a brief layover in the Canary Islands, I went on to Madrid and then to Valencia. I was to spend eighteen months in Castellón de la Plana, a provincial capital forty-five minutes northeast of Valencia. A port city of circa 170,000 inhabitants on the Mediterranean Costa del Azahar. James Michener’s novel begins in Castellón.
Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the Fascist Dictator who had ruled Spain since the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), had died four years prior. The country’s political future was by no means certain. A constitutional monarchy, there were still large numbers of Fascist sympathizers who openly sought a return to autocracy.
We boarded a shuttle bus in Valencia and rode along the picturesque coast through the huertas (orchards) which stretched from the azure of the Med up to the hill country several miles in from the coast. Along the highway were such sights as the ancient ruins of Sagunto (L. Saguntum) where Roman allies had withstood a year long siege by Carthaginian forces led by Hannibal during the Punic War. Rather than surrender, the brave Saguntinos had lit the town below ablaze and jumped to their deaths. I was immediately and forever captivated.
Introduction to Catalonia and the Catalans
I also noted a series of curious linguistic markers en route: Road-signs in Spanish had been altered, changing Castellón to Castelló, the Catalan version of the city’s name. Nationalistic graffiti was pervasive. Here and there, someone had crossed out “palabras” and written “mots”, “pais” became “pays”, “mesa”, “tavola”. Though I spoke Spanish fairly well and of course knew of Catalonia from Orwell and other authors, my knowledge was fairly thin. Fascinated by languages from earliest memory one of the first things I did on my arrival in Castellón was begin what I would now deem an intellectual onslaught into all things Catalan. I read everything I could lay my hands on and at the end of that first year I spoke the language passably well.
The Catalans and the Basques had mounted some of the fiercest resistance to the Fascists during the Civil War and when Franco assumed power in 1939, efforts aimed at the suppression of cultural and linguistic autonomy were undertaken. Instruction in the Catalan language was forbidden as was its public use. Also forbidden were the publication of books in the language, as well as, its usage in the arts. Unlike Spanish, written Catalan is not orthographically reflective of the phonology of the language–it is not written as it sounds. A consequence of this cultural and linguistic suppression was that an entire generation of Catalans were unable to write the language properly.
During Franco’s latter years, state restrictions had begun to ease but with his death and the fall of the fascist regime, a cultural renaissance or renaixença ensued. My classmates at University extolled the virtues of the language and all things Catalan. A flurry of books appeared and poets, musicians and authors reveled in the use of the language whenever–and wherever–possible.
An estimated 9 to 9.5 million people speak Catalan as a first language with several million more speaking it as a second language. Catalan is spoken in the Spanish provinces of Barcelona, Gerona, Lleida and Tarragona (Catalonia proper), as well as, in Castellón, Valencia, Alicante and the Balearic Islands–Menorca, Menorca and Ibiza. The language is also spoken by 20,000 people n the Sardinian City of Alghero, in the Rousillon and Cerdegne of France and is the national language of Andorra. There are considerable differences between the various dialects, with Valencian, Central, Northern, Northwestern and Balear forming the major dialectical divisions.
There are considerable cultural distinctions between the Catalans and the rest of the inhabitants of the Peninsula. Music, cuisine, literary traditions, architectural styles and general lifestyles are quite distinctive. And the Catalans have long reveled in their difference. As two of the four largest and most prosperous of Spanish cities fall within the boundaries of greater Catalonia, Barcelona and Valencia, their economic importance for Spain is paramount.
History of Catalonia and Catalan Nationalism
Catalonia and Aragon had been independent kingdoms prior to 1469. In that year Ferdinand, overlord of the two kingdoms, married Isabella, Queen of Castile and Leon. Their betrothal marked the unification of Christian Spain. The marriage led to a united push toward the conquest of Granada, the last Islamic Kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula, in 1492. What is referred to as “La Reconquista” had begun in the 8th century C.E. and marked the westernmost wars of religion between Islam and Christianity.
Interestingly, though the bulk of the mariners who navigators who piloted Spanish galleons to the New World were Catalan or Valencian, Isabella and the Kingdom of Castile had granted Christopher Columbus his charter. Thus, the majority lands in the Americas were handed out by royal charter to the men of Castile and not those of Catalonia or Valencia. By such twist there are no countries in the Americas where Catalan is the official language.
Throughout the history of Spain, Catalan nationalism and separatism have appeared. There were a number of revolts and separatist movements and efforts which occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries. Particularly noteworthy was the Catalan Revolt of the 1640s. There were periodic rumblings well into the 19th century and talk of a breakaway nation never fully ceased and, in fact, there have been several Catalan Republics, though their duration was very short. Perhaps most memorable for American readers are Catalan efforts during the Spanish Civil War, memorialized by George Orwell in his recounting, “Homage to Catalonia“.
Many Catalans resent that their economic prosperity and commercial prowess are often drained away to support less-prosperous areas of the nation such as Andalucia and Estremadura. These are old and persistent complaints.
Referendum and Possible Birth of a New European Republic
On October 1, 2017 residents of the semi-autonomous region held a referendum regarding secession from Spain. The leadership of the national government in Madrid decried the action as wholly illegal and unacceptable and vowed to prohibit the establishment of an independent Catalan State.
In Barcelona the streets descended into chaos and wide instances of excessive violence perpetrated by national police were widespread. The Spanish Prime Minister, Rajoy, acted decidedly, dissolving the Catalan regional government and firing its President Carles Puigdemont. Significant numbers of Catalans remain defiant and tensions remain very high. At this point, it is uncertain how the dilemma will be resolved. Chief among considerations is the level of involvement to be undertaken by the European Union and its member nations.
Events in Catalonia are being watched closely by a variety of other groups such as the Basques who have also aspired to form a separate state for many years. Spain without Barcelona, Valencia and, one day, Bilbao wouldn’t be much of a State….and what about Galicia, the Baleares? The further Balkanization of European States might present some long-term perils.