Barcelona—A friend of mine, Núria, a Barcelona-born Catalan, has always believed in the unity of Spain; she has never wanted Catalonia or the Basque Country—Spain’s wealthiest regions, each with its own culture and language—to secede. However, not long ago Núria changed her mind. “How come?” I asked her. “I can’t go against my own people when they want Catalonia to be independent,” Núria answered. A columnist from Madrid, who was present that evening, didn’t take long to state in his newspaper that Núria had changed her opinion because opposing secession had become politically incorrect in Catalonia. “You didn’t understand me properly,” Núria tried to explain to him after reading the column. “What I meant was that Catalonia and Spain have entered a cold war, and I am on the side of my people.” But the columnist still didn’t get it. Barcelona and Madrid, which once made common cause in the struggle against the Franco regime, have ceased to understand each another.
I told this story to Aleksandar Hemon, a writer of Bosnian extraction who now lives in Chicago but who recently taught a course on creative writing in Barcelona. We were sitting on a cafe terrace in the Gothic Quarter, the borders of which are marked by two medieval cathedrals. While Aleksandar selected a few tapas for lunch, I distractedly watched people crossing the square: students, women in multi-colored saris, Africans in hats that looked out of place on such a warm day.
I told Aleksandar that Barcelona had a long tradition of welcoming foreigners, be they political exiles or economic migrants. In past decades, many Latin Americans found refuge here, including Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez and thousands of Cubans. What’s more, during the Franco dictatorship, over a million migrants from the then-forsaken Spanish south migrated to prosperous Barcelona. Back then, Franco tried to kill two birds with one stone by offering work to unemployed southerners while Castilianizing rebellious Barcelona. In reality, what he did was turn the Catalan capital into a bilingual city—one that was more open and cosmopolitan—never suspecting that he would convert many Andalusian migrants into Catalans who were proud to have prospered in their new home. Franco banned the Catalans, Basques and Galicians from using their languages in public, but forbidden fruit tends to be the sweetest. After the death of the dictator in 1975, Spain’s minority languages and cultures flourished like spring buds after a long winter.
I ordered the tapas and wine in Catalan; the waiter noted everything down, then answered me in Spanish. Aleksandar, noticing that we were switching languages, asked me about the linguistic situation here. I told him that Catalans grow up bilingual and are used to switching between their two languages. Some Spaniards who don’t know Catalonia don’t understand that Catalan is the area’s native language, and believe that the Catalans speak another language out of “spite,” or so a man from Madrid told me. Some Spaniards call the Catalan language “Polish” and the Catalans “Poles” to express their distrust of these “foreigners.” It’s true that many Catalans think of themselves as Catalans first and Spanish second. This irritates the right-wing governing party, the Partido Popular (PP). Its vision of Spain is monolithic and Catholic, and it tries to play down several centuries of Arabic and Jewish cultural influence, not to mention that of the Catalans, Basques and Galicians; the PP’s Spain is a castrated one. For example, when the favorite historian of the PP’s ex-president and former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar was invited to contribute to an anthology of articles concerning the history of Spanish religions, he asked, in vexed tones: “A history of religions? But in Spain there’s only been one!” Aznar told George W. Bush that as far as the struggle against radical Islam was concerned, “In Spain we have centuries of experience in fighting the Arabs.”