An expat writer explains the Catalan secessionist quandary

Catalan independence scored a victory in yesterday's election. But in a desperate economy, is secession the answer?

By Mara Faye Lethem
November 27, 2012 2:15AM (UTC)
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Artur Mas (Reuters/Albert Gea)

Just as I was breathing a sigh of relief at the end of the ridiculously long, ridiculously costly election cycle in America, it came in the mail. Small and folded, it sat on my desk threateningly -- the card telling me my polling place for the upcoming elections here in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. Only two years into his presidency of this autonomous region of Spain, Artur Mas called anticipated elections in an explicit bid to gain absolute majority of the Parliament, after negotiations stalled with Spanish leader Mariano Rajoy to ease Catalonia’s federal tax burden, following a huge, historic independence rally on Sept. 11: Catalunya’s National Holiday. Imagine if the Fourth of July was the celebration of a defeat. Suddenly, international eyes were on this stateless nation about the size of Maryland. Yesterday, Catalans went to the polls with the highest turnout ever, sounding the death knell for Mas’ megalomaniacal aspirations but increasing the independentist majority. Why should Americans care? Certainly in Europe the possible repercussions of the largest economy in Southern Europe fracturing off of the Kingdom of Spain are being looked at with much more than just morbid curiosity.

I love Catalunya. As we go through the worst recession in history — Spain's recession is expected to continue through 2013, and the unemployment rate is a record 25 percent — that has become clear to me. With all the cool kids moving to Berlin, I have stayed, thus far. This is my home, and this is where I have chosen to raise my children.


My path from growing up communally in 1970s Brooklyn to becoming a Catalan in an era of possible modern independence is a longer story than I can tell here. But being European has taught me important things about being American, and my most recent watershed moments came about because of the current push for a constitutional referendum on Catalan statehood that is having very interesting results.

My mother was a red-diaper baby. She was arrested on the White House steps protesting the Vietnam War while pregnant with me. Besides random epithets needed for schoolyard survival, some of my first words in Spanish were “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (Translation: When we stick together, we're never defeated) chanted at demonstrations against nuclear power, our involvement in El Salvador  — you name it, we carried a sign about it. But, to tell you the truth, as I grew up I saw very few examples of the power of the people. As much as I loved hearing Pete Seeger sing, it did seem the hippies had lost. By the time I was in high school, I could hardly be bothered with demonstrations. It was very much like my experience with religion: Sure, there were good people involved and all, but I just wasn’t feeling the magic.

When I first moved to Europe, I was dazzled by things other people took for granted: going to the doctor and not receiving a bill in the mail; the affordability of higher education; a politician fulfilling a campaign promise; gargoyles in the pouring rain. I was surprised to realize some things that shocked me in their basic humanity toward society; I felt buoyed and thrilled by the welfare state. Because as “countercultural” as my upbringing was, I never questioned the cost of my college education or the collection calls from the hospital for emergency care. I never believed there was another way. The Democrats and the Republicans took turns in power, and yet things never seemed to change much. And it wasn’t until very recently that I started to feel the magic, not as an American but as a Catalan.


I have a first cousin who is the only other “expatriate” in my family. She married an Egyptian some 45 years ago. I remember so vividly something she told me when I visited her there decades ago – my first time in the “Third World,” although we did have third-world dinners occasionally at my college cafeteria. As she watched my awkward clashes within her daughter’s social scene she said, “I grew up in the '60s, but I’m raising my kids in the '50s.”

This idea really captured my imagination, and I now suppose it was because I was already – at 20 — horribly jaded. And like my cousin, through immigration, I have in some ways been able to turn back the clock. Europe has not yet been as devastated by neoliberalism as the United States, but austerity measures are changing that all too quickly. Yet for the moment healthcare and education are still considered a basic right. And in a democracy younger than me, a political debate has seven candidates! Compare that to Jill Stein getting arrested for trying to sit in the audience. Full disclosure: I still find those debates pretty much total bullshit and boring. Yet these popular movements springing up around the world, well, it’s heady stuff.

We had a General Strike a couple of weeks ago. In the past, I struggled with the very concept of a general strike. Like one-piece bikinis, it made me feel very … American. Being that I am self-employed, the first one I just barely noticed, really, just that everything was shuttered like when you walk around on Christmas Day. The one earlier this year definitely made an impression on me, as I did my best to follow through on my vacation plans despite it. Trashing our plane tickets to avoid getting stuck in the airport with a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, we spent the entire day struggling against the strike, going overland to get out of the country, with no trains and firemen stretched out across the highway leaving us stranded, walking the kids up and down the highway in the sea of stopped cars. I ended up giving the firemen the finger when they finally let us drive across the border into France (you can take a girl out of Brooklyn, but …).


But this time I vowed no shopping, no social media. That was relatively simple. Our real decision to honor the strike was keeping the kids out of school, meaning we actually barely worked. Something we rarely do. My husband and I are freelance writers and translators, so our work leaks into weekends, vacations, mealtimes.

We went out for a walk with the kids to see what was open. Sadly, one of the holdouts was a bakery whose braços de gitano I truly love. We ended up at the playground. Often I try to avoid actively playing in the park with my kids, but in the spirit of the strike, I made more of an effort to “not be working,” even in my mind. I was on a swing parallel to my daughter’s, while my husband made sure our son didn’t take a nosedive (it would not be a good day to need emergency medical attention). My daughter wanted to play fairies, insisting that my role was that of a “newborn Tinker Bell who was still learning to fly.” OK, I said halfheartedly as I pumped only enough to feel free and not nauseous. The next step in our fairy game, she informed me, was to stand up on the swings. “No,” I said. “I’m too old for that.” My daughter’s comeback was “No! You’re too young!” In that spirit — the spirit of a newborn Tinker Bell — I later took my family to a demonstration against the debilitating austerity measures that are chipping away at much of what I hold dear in European society. My first real participation in a political demonstration in decades.


In Europe there is much wariness over the dangers of nationalism. But aspects of it have been a revelation for me. Catalan identity is appealing: anarchy, scatological Christmas traditions, heroes with names like Wilfred the Hairy. Just ask Sharif, a self-defined “no-name, nobody comic from New York City” who has become somewhat of an Internet sensation with his videos inspired by a trip to Barcelona that happened to coincide with the historic independence march that brought a million and a half Catalans onto the streets on Sept. 11. He has since studied up on all things Catalan and is preaching for the “right to decide,” viewing the process as a basic civil rights issue. The Catalan media can’t help wondering who put him up to this (it remains unclear). There are those who believe he is a spontaneous convert to Catalanophilia, and it’s certainly possible. I don’t think anyone given even a broad overview of the facts could deny Catalunya’s right to peaceful self-determination; it seems the U.N.’s rules on that are pretty clear. And now that the dust is settling on the failed power grab attempted by Artur Mas, the president of the Catalan autonomous government, to gain absolute majority by wrapping himself in flags, the people have spoken clearly for a democratic referendum on independence, in parties across the spectrum.

There is always a lot of flag-waving in times of economic desperation; these days in Greece the “Golden Dawn” (Neo-Nazi party currently holding 18 seats in the Hellenic Parliament) has been giving handouts to the hungry, but only those who prove they’re Greek. The first American presidential election I was aware of was when Carter was running for reelection. I remember thinking, “Who votes for Reagan? How can he win?” And I have a similar feeling about Artur Mas — whose campaign posters depicted him in a messianic pose with his arms aloft à la Charlton Heston in front of a sea of Catalan flags and the message “The Will of a People” — in the midst of a huge corruption scandal, slashes to healthcare and education, and a minister for home affairs who has become infamous for police brutality that has left eight demonstrators one-eyed. (By the way, who casts these votes? In both cases, some of my relatives.) Mas failed to gain absolute majority by co-opting the independence movement. In fact, his party lost more than a fifth of their seats in Parliament, and in order to remain coherent with his separationist bid will have to pact with the opposition party. And while the world’s eyes are on Catalunya, I would like to point out the very interesting entrance of the CUP as a “Trojan horse of the popular classes” come to “occupy the Parliament”  — an anti-party made up of community activists instead of professional politicians.

A couple of years ago we had an informal referendum on Catalan independence, since they are not allowed by the Spanish constitution. I voted yes, probably out of a mixture of genuine mongrel Catalan pride and some sort of rebel posturing. I became Catalan by playing at being Catalan. And with that I played at having political opinions, which had become divested of power in my mind, seriously eroded over time in ways I couldn’t really account for. Catalunya has suffered cultural genocide via brute force and forced ignorance, and I feel protective of it. But as these elections approached, I realized I felt fear: fear of change, fear of the unknown. Being jaded was awfully convenient for a long time. When I look into my newborn Tinker Bell heart, I can see the appeal of running out to the plaza and setting up a guillotine, not just for the monarchs, but the entire corrupt political caste, both Catalan and Spanish. And while my cousin returns to Tahrir Square today, I am trying to keep my Tinker Bell heart open and alive with the certainty that new, scary ideas are needed in this world.


Why are twice as many Catalans in favor of secession than in 2008? Sorry, but that’s obviously not all about our admittedly wonderful culture. Southern Europe is hurting, and hurting bad. An independent Catalunya would be the richest state in Southern Europe, although heavily in debt. Economists on both sides make the case that it would be our salvation or our suicide, but for many Catalans the impetus for this push now has to do with the economy, with the idea that Catalunya shouldn’t have to bail out poorer parts of Spain with its tax dollars. The results of this election have made clear that Catalans don’t want a right-wing independent state at the cost of education, pensions and eyes. Yet the “right to decide” is obviously beating strong in the Catalan collective heart. Will Spain allow a referendum on Catalan self-determination? What effect could the end of Spanish unity spell for the EU and, in turn, the world? We will have to wait and see. For my part, I ask you to please clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.

Mara Faye Lethem

Mara Faye Lethem is a Barcelona-based writer and literary translator. Her work has appeared in "The Best American Non-Required Reading 2010,"  Granta, the Paris Review, and work forthcoming in McSweeney’s.

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Arturo Mas Catalan Catalunya European Union Spain The Economy