Catalunya: Spirit Animal? 

The flag of Catalunya, seen from Las Ramblas.

The flag of Catalunya, seen from Las Ramblas.

Though I’ve casually read about the efforts of Catalunya (a region in northeast Spain, with Barcelona as its capital) to secure independence from Spain, I was moved by how fierce that separatist spirit was when I set foot in Barcelona. It certainly struck a chord with my stubbornly independent, anti-authoritarian side.

Ever since we stepped off the aerobus, we couldn’t help but notice Catalunya’s vivid red- and yellow-striped flags hanging from balconies on virtually every block. And occasionally, there’d be a banner that stretched the length of the building, when a bunch of flags seemingly wouldn’t do.

And virtually everything was in the Catalan language… not in Spanish, which I had spent years learning (and then, years forgetting). While everyone there speaks Spanish, it typically plays second fiddle to Catalan on menus and other texts. Children learn Catalan in schools, and it’s clearly the city’s preferred language.

Catalans, as the people of Catalunya are called, have some interesting cultural customs too. For one, there’s the sardana, the national dance of Catalunya in which everyone holds hands and dances in a circle, Zorba the Greek style. According to our guidebook, the rest of Spain mocks them for this “lazy circle dance”.

The Sardana, the national dance of Catalunya (credit:

The Sardana, the national dance of Catalunya (credit:

There’s also the castell, in which participants essentially create a tower of humans reaching around 50-60 feet, with a small child at the very top (seriously).

As soon as I learned of the communal dance and the tower of humans, I instantly added them to my Barcelona bucket list. A moment later, I modified the sardana item to specify that I wanted to see John participate in the sardana while I captured the whole thing on video, but sadly, we saw neither a sardana nor a castell during this particular trip. Bummer.

Anyway, these are just a few of the many things that signaled a Catalan identity distinct from Spain. Their differing cultures, attitudes, and beliefs have clashed many times over the centuries, and it’s been a strained, complicated relationship to say the least.

A castell (credit: Wikipedia)

A castell (credit: Wikipedia)

Everything I’ve described above – the flag, language, and customs of Catalunya – as well as their laws and governing system was banned by Spain (or other ruling entities) multiple times in history, most recently under Francisco Franco, dictator of Spain from 1939-75. It’s remarkable a language could not only survive, but thrive, after being banned for so long, but it did.

More recently, there’s been a separatist resurgence. It’s not just a cultural thing – there are some complex economic and political issues at hand too. This won’t be the last time we’ll hear about Catalunya’s struggle to break free from Spain.

I’m not sure if we’ll see an independent Catalunya in our lifetime or not. But from what I saw in Barcelona, their strong sense of identity and zeal for self-determination seems here to stay.  And speaking to that alone, I gotta hand it to them for (peacefully) fighting for it.

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