Spanish Nationalism: The Catalans, Basques and Spanish.

Disclaimer: I am Switzerland and not taking a side in this eternal argument. I am neither Spanish, nor Catalán, nor Basque, and this is not my battle. I am aiming to write a post about the current situation in Spain without taking a side, and I am trying my best to show respect to a delicate situation. So please, proceed with caution! Also, this is a VERY condensed history. The full history is much more complex. This is a watered-down version.

My first time in Barcelona, I fell in love.

I fell in love with the city, my first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea, and my first glimpse at this amazing language Catalán. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I loved the discos, the beautiful Catalan guys, the streets, I even loved the Rambles, the kilometre long street that now is completely filled with tourists and I have successfully avoided on my last three visits.

I went back to Toledo, where I was studying for a semester, full of dreams of an amazing life in Barcelona.

I was greeted with “No, no way would you ever want to live in Barcelona. The Catalans are horrible people, and you’d have to learn Catalán. It would be better when you return to Spain to work and live in Madrid.”

I unfortunately took this attitude back to the States with me.

In 2008, my last year of university, I took a Spanish nationalism course. We studied the works of the famed Generación de ’98. We looked closely at works by Valencian, Catalán, Galician and Basque writers. We constantly talked about what it meant to be Spanish, using Ortega y Gasset, Unamuno and Machado as our sources. I wish I could retake this course now after living in Spain for so much more time. I would understand so much more than I did then.

Spain is not a nation. Spain is a country that consists of many nations. Galician, Asturian, Cantabrian, Basque, Navarran, Aragonese, Catalan, Valencian, Balearic, Murician (not “I’m *Mer-i-cuhn, give me my hamburger!), Andalusian, Canarian, Extremadurian, Castilian, Leonese…Spain is a concept dreamed up by the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella of a unified Iberian Peninsula.

To understand the situation in both the Basque Country (further referred to here as Euskadi) and Catalunya, one must look at their history.

The Catalans were always tied to Aragón and the Kingdom of Aragón since the 1137 union of Aragón and Barcelona. During the Catalán Revolt from 1640-1652, Catalunya was a republic under French protection. The northern parts of Catalunya were ceded to France in the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees, and the victory of King Felipe V during the War of Spanish Sucession lead to the abolition of Catalan and all non-Castilian institutions, along with the change to Spanish in all legal documents.  During the 19th Century, Catalan Nacionalism began to grow, and the Generalitat de Catalunya returned during the Second Republic of Spain. However, during the Franco dictatorship, Catalan was prohibited. Of course, people continued to speak Catalan in secret. I know people in Valencia who studied it in the basements of their teachers as it was forbidden to be taught.

In the 1980s, Catalanismo was rampant throughout Catalunya. As Barcelona prepared to host the 1992 Olympic Games, Catalán began to regain the strength it had before Franco. The Catalans were also jealous of their Basque brothers-in-spirit who were given much more autonomy and freedom to do things their way.

Euskadi is a small corner of Spain located between Aragón, Castilla León, Cantabria and the Cantabrian Sea. Euskal Herria, the land of the Basque speaking people, refers to Euskadi, Navarra and Iparralde, or Basque France. It’s hard to get to on foot, and the weather makes the Irish and the Seattlites wish to return home to a less rainier environment. Noah, builder of the arc, is said to have been Basque. The Basques remained isolated, and the Romans and the Moors left them alone for the most part. During the reign of the Catholic Kings, the Basques made a deal, exchanging an oath of loyalty to Queen Isabel in return for overseas claims and the ability to govern themselves. The French revolution brought about the end of this self-governing term.

During the Carlist Wars, the Basques feared a liberal Spanish constitution that would ruin their self-government, so they sided with the traditional army under Tomás de Zumalacarregui, who died in the Siege of Bilbao in 1835. A weak Pamplona in Navarra would sign the Kingdom of Navarra out of existence in the 1841 Ley Paccionado (Compromise Act), and Navarra became a province of Spain. At the end of the third Carlist War in 1876, King Alfonso XII’s army emerged victorious, the Act for the Abolition of the Basque Charters was signed, and the southern Basques were under Spanish control. (The northern Basques have a similar complicated tale with France.)

During the Second Republic, both Catalunya and Euskadi enjoyed a lot of autonomous freedoms. The Spanish Civil War began, and the Basques sided with the Republican side where Navarra was supporting Franco and the Nationalists. After the bombing of Gernika (Guernica in Spanish. You might know a painting or the song by Brand New), many Basques went into exile. During the Franco regime, any regional language was prohibited. Basque, Catalán and Gallego were banned. The treatment of the Basques during this time lead to the terrorist group ETA, now in a permanent ceasefire since 2011.  (There have been Catalan terrorist groups too, for the record, but none lasted for a long time nor had the impact of ETA.)

When Franco died in the 1970s and King Juan Carlos restored a parliamentary monarchy, Euskadi and Catalunya were granted autonomous freedom (along with the other 15 autonomous regions of Spain). The Basques and Catalans were free to come out of the underground cellars where they had been studying their languages and speak it in the street.

The problem is, the Basque Country was granted a lot more freedom than Catalunya. After living in the Basque Country for two years now, I can honestly say I feel a big difference every time I cross the border into Cantabria or go to other parts of Spain. I can’t pinpoint the exact difference, but there is one. The Basques live as if they have already gained independence from Spain, referring to Spain as if it were a different country.

I honestly feel like the guy who tells the preacher to go f*** himself in the middle of Sunday School every time I say something positive about Spain while living in Bilbao. For that reason, I use “the greatest peninsula in the world”  on my blog to try to emphasize my love for the entire Iberian Peninsula. And you always have to say “Aquí” (here) or “la península” if you want to refer to Euskadi and Spain in the same sentence. It’s being politically correct and avoiding conflict.

The Cataláns, in my experience, still refer to themselves as being Spain, although with a frown or a sigh, dreaming of a unified “Països Catalans” (Catalunya, Andorra, Comunitat Valenciana and Illes Baleares, plus Northern Catalunya in France). “Aquí en España” is something never said in Euskadi but still said in Barcelona. The Basques will say “Voy a España, a La Rioja” (I’m going to Spain, to La Rioja), where as the Catalans still tend to  say “Voy a Logroño” (the capital of La Rioja).

The difference in autonomy has led to some resentment from the Catalans. Their quest for independence honestly began by feeling if they asked for something big, they would be rewarded with what they wanted, equal footing with Euskadi. Today, though, many Catalans want complete independence, fueled by Spanish government who wants to take away freedoms from the Catalan language and trying to go back to a Spanish-only way of life. As Spain has been suffering a horrible economic crisis since 2008 (despite the prime minister’s words to the contrary, the crisis is NOT over), they feel that they would have a better chance on their own without being bossed around by Madrid.

The Basques are sitting in silence, trying to recover from the horrors of ETA and restore their goodwill with the rest of the peninsula, learning from Catalunya’s trial and error process and planning a day in the probably not-too-distant future when they present their own plans for a referendum.

The rest of Spain usually remains angry and upset, and it’s a topic that is 100% unapproachable for mixed company. I may jest to my closer friends about how I miss Spain, but it’s not something I would ever say to the Basques at large. I still have dreams of perfecting my Catalán and living in a village somewhere between Barcelona and València with my husband and two golden retrievers, writing the day away. However, I would prefer to do it in Spain and not an independent Catalunya, which at this point in time could be catastrophic for both Spain and Catalunya, as economically, one cannot live without the other.  I also don’t want to have to go through customs and currency exchange every time I travelled from a point in the peninsula to my beloved Barcelona!

That said, I do respect the Catalans a lot and understand their frustration. Sometimes I worry that having a blog named in Catalán could lead toward resentment to me, the American with the Valencian soul.

This has just been a very brief introduction to the politics, the feelings and the history that has led to Catalunya’s quixotic quest for independence.

For more information on the Basques, be sure to check out The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky. It’s a fascinating read. I’d love to find something so entertaining on the Catalán history!


5 thoughts on “Spanish Nationalism: The Catalans, Basques and Spanish.

  1. Thanks for sharing this perspective. I have been wondering about the situation as we don’t get much news here in the states–until Cher opened up a tall can of tweets about it!
    There are some politicians that want to split California into northern and southern states. I can’t see that happening but you never know!
    I fell in love Barcelona too. It’s my favorite city in Europe. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wrote this because of your suggestion! I hope I explained it well without “Spainsplaining” (mansplaining but for Spain :)) Catalan President Artur Mas is now facing charges for last year’s illegal consult, and the pro independent parties won but don’t have the votes (somewhat akin to the Democratic White House with Republican Congress) so nothing will happen at this moment in time. I hear a lot about Washington being split into two states, but I hadn’t heard anything on California. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s no secret to you that there are interesting parallels with Canada. Quebec is our equivalent (in several ways) to the Basque country. But there are other regions, too, where their Canadian identity is somewhat more tenuous (or at least tinged with resentment against “central Canada” or “Ottawa”). Newfoundland is a latecomer to Canada, as it only became a province in 1949, and there have been many Newfoundlanders who thought this was a bad idea. And while there isn’t a viable “separatist” movement in the prairie provinces, there’s a real sense of separateness between Ontario and the prairie provinces (particularly Alberta).

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Quebec independence movement is more similar to the Catalan independence movement from my understanding. The Basques are more Puerto Rico with actual representation in Congress etc, where the passport and currency are American, but they live pretty independently from the US. I think the Canadian government respects French a lot more than the Spanish government respects any of the non-Spanish languages. Maybe certain Canadian PMs treat the First Nationers a lot like Spanish PMs treat Catalunya and Euskadi?


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