This is an 800 word edit of an earlier post entitled “One evening in Catalonia“, published to contribute to the conversation. Events took place on Tuesday 17th October 2017.
In Girona, on an unusually warm October evening, I find myself in the centre of a crowd of Catalans noisily demanding independence. Jaume responded to my advert on Couchsurfing for a place to stay. To his surprise, I asked to join him on tonight’s protest. The previous day the Spanish state imprisoned two of the leaders of the independence movement, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, on charges of sedition. They face a maximum sentence of 14 years.
There are Catalans of every generation here, from those who lived under Franco, to young children on their parents’ shoulders. Ahead, variations of the Senyera, the Catalan flag of four red stripes across a golden field, wave back and forth.
On a podium, flanked by a banner reading “Democracia” and two larger than life gegants i capgrossos (giants and big-heads – cultural figures brought out at times of importance for the community), local politicians and union leaders make short speeches. They are occasionally interrupted by chants to free the two Jordis, or end the Spanish occupation.
After about half an hour the oratory finishes and a band plays Els Segadors, the Catalan national anthem. Unlike the Spanish Marcha Real, this has lyrics, recounting the time in 1640 when Catalan peasants took up arms and ousted Castilian troops stationed there. The crowd raise their left arms high, some in fists, but most with four separated fingers, representing the Senyera flag.
The square begins to empty. Jaume says they’re going to march down the road past Spanish government buildings to the post office. As we prepare to leave, a woman asks where I’m from. She asks me to share my photos and videos widely, to show that they’re just ordinary people: peacefully meeting, asking for their rights.
We skirt around the square to catch the front of the procession. Jaume grew up in Girona and has lived here his whole life. He keeps bumping into acquaintances and good friends. Some ask what the outside world know about the referendum, is it on TV? What are we told on the news, what do people think? Protesters file past us, chatting, chanting, some waving flags.
After pausing briefly in front of the post office, the gegants i capgrossos and thier marching band continue to the town square. We follow and the national anthem is sung again, followed by a couple of traditional Catalan nursery rhymes. “This is the song we sing on our last day of primary school”, Jaume explains, “everyone remembers it”.
We head to Jaume’s favourite local bar and order a beer. The sign reads Aqui lluitem per la independència – “here we fight for independence”. Later, there’s a Cacerolada protest planned outside the offices of La Guardia Civil. These are the more than 4000 extra military police the Spanish government sent to Catalonia before the referendum and has kept there since. The parallels to the occupying Castilian troops that Catalan farmers rose up and overthrew almost 400 years ago are too stark to ignore. But Jaume is at pains to remind me that all through the Basque terrorism, Catalans peacefully, patiently waited to be heard.
Outside the offices of La Guardia Civil there are about forty protesters, conspicuously young after the main rally. The sound of ladles hitting thick metal pans rings out, but the few police officers stationed outside look on dispassionately. After half an hour we return to Jaume’s for dinner.
We sit around the balcony table, joined by two of Jaume’s housemates. They all study agricultural science at Girona University and have family links to the land. Enric spent his summer helping with the harvest on the family farm. Jaume travelled Europe for a month. “I want to be outside, using my hands, doing something that matters”, he tells me. The rest nod in agreement.
Unlike the other two, Enric voted no in the referendum, but he isn’t against independence per se. He doesn’t trust the current centre-right government to deliver what he thinks Catalonia needs; investment in public services, jobs and cheaper living costs. Jaume tells me that before the Euro, a coffee and croissant was a third of the price it is today.
Jaume is planning to become a tour guide to earn while he studies, and as he practices his route and script on me the following morning he tells me how recent events have affected his identity. “I never used to have any national identity”, he confesses, “I never felt Spanish. I thought I was European, but then the response of the EU, to abandon us, that made me think, then I am Catalan.
“On the morning of October 1st I just thought, wow, I’m finally going to vote. It’s an important day, I hope everyone will vote. But then I saw the police brutality. I saw them break a man’s leg. I felt, this is wrong. This is wrong and we have to be free of them.”
Names have been changed.
I am deeply indebted to Ria for helping to edit this post.