My first encounter with the sentence “I am Catalan” sticks in my mind as a quite sudden moment of change of my perception of Spain. It took place quite far away from the actual “scene of the crime”, in a hostel somewhere in Southeast Asia, nowhere near from Catalonia.

I introduced my Spanish –or Catalan– boyfriend to an anonymous group of travellers: “This is my boyfriend, he is Spanish and works…” I didn’t get further because he interrupted me with a dead serious voice, correcting my introduction: “Actually, I am Catalan.” Silence. “But it’s a part from Spain!”, somebody said. This was the quick conclusion about his national identity. For me  it marked the introduction to a new cultural identity conflict.

Growing up in Germany, I learned –through our education system– not to take my nationality too seriously. I learned that patriotism is a thing that should be better erased from society. After all that I have learned about the history of my country there is no reason to be proud of being German anyway. In general, how can anyone be proud of his or her nationality?

An image of Barcelona during La Diada de Catalunya in 2014. Since 2012, the attendance to the demonstration organized by Independence supporters has gathered millions of Catalans in the streets. Photography by Marc Velasco

Does patriotism make sense?

By being born into a certain place there is no own effort made that one could be proud of. Apart from that, which country doesn’t have a bit of shameful suppressive history? To me, patriotism, the concept of a national identity, never made sense. I consider myself as an individual, born by chance in a certain place called Germany.

So when my boyfriend persisted on calling himself a Catalan I didn’t understand how a world traveled young journalist can concede such importance to a national feeling –that theoretically can’t even be called national, but only local patriotism. It only occurred to me later that his patriotism doesn’t have a lot in common with the German right wing kind of patriotism: waving German flags between racist and fascist proclaims on the streets. I got to know Catalan patriotism more as a defence against corruption and Franco’s –Spain’s dictator until his death in 1975– still persisting influences in politics, through PP –Spain’s conservative party–, and justice. The independence movement is for many simply a defence against the Spanish government, rather than a fight against the country of Spain.

Certainly, it cannot be denied that right wing nationalist and racist people jump on the train of the Catalan independence movement to serve their own ideals amongst the ones that want independence in order to create more open minded and progressive politics. Nonetheless, from an outsider’s’ perspective like mine, this right wing nationalist part is not the core of the movement.

Usually, the conversations like the one in the first paragraph where earlier or later followed by a long discussion of what makes Catalunya so different from Spain. I had never been long in either of them, my history and political knowledge about Spain was quite limited too.

Asking for democracy

With time, I learned about the oppression and ban of Catalan language in school during the Franco regime. I dove into Spanish politics, learned about their failure to reflect on their own mistakes under Franco’s dictatorship. After all, Franco is still buried under his very own monument –erected by his victims– nearby Madrid. What’s more, former Franco supporters are still representatives of the conservative party in the Spanish parliament. I learned about numerous corruption, plagiarism and sex scandals within Spanish politics. Not to mention the fact that Spain still has a Monarchy which was many times accused of the same scandals as the politicians and judges. Coming from a federal republic I wonder if anybody has ever asked the Spanish or Catalans: do you want to have a king? (Spoiler: nope) Another reason that makes me understand why one would wish independence from Spain.

When Puigdemont, the president of Catalunya, got arrested only an hour away from my home town in north Germany I felt like I got personally involved, not only because of the geographic closeness. He got under arrest under the accusation of rebellion. My first thought was, how antiquated this word sounds. With my two years of law student knowledge, I knew that for rebellion there was a particular kind of violence needed that apparently should have taken place during the independence referendum in 2017. Finally, Germany, amongst other EU countries, doesn’t agree on the existence of such an extent of violence during the catalan independence process. They agreed on sending Puigdemont to Spain only for the misuse of public funds. The Spanish judge that requested extradition –under the order of the old conservative government, many suspect– suddenly wasn’t interested in getting Puigdemont back. Now he remains in Belgium under political asylum.

After this arrest I took a closer look and found out that there are actually Catalan politicians in Spanish prisons for more than one year who are accused of the same rebellion that the jurisdiction of several European governments rejected in the case of Puigdemont. The term or rebellion requires a strong threat against the constitution and democracy of Spain.

Can the wish of independence be really a threat to a democracy or isn’t it more an actual APPLICATION of exactly this democratic freedom that we are supposed to live in? The freedom of choice and to create our political environment as we, the citizens, wish? So how can there be political prisoners in Spanish prisons? How are these people supposed to face a fair trial when being charged for a crime that isn’t fulfilled in a obviously corrupt jurisdiction? What happened to the presumption of innocence?

A line for voting during the day of the Catalan Referendum on Independence of 2017, which wasn't legally permitted by Spain and ended up with Spanish police hitting its own citizens in various parts of the region. Photography by Marc Velasco

A Catalan identity

When I came to Catalunya, where I have now already been living for a couple of months, I wanted to build my very own picture about what Catalan stands for and what this fight for independence is all about. Building your own opinion through media seemed to me almost impossible. There are the Spanish news and the Catalan news, and both use the media to propagate their own political views. They create the image of the conflict that they would like to see. Informative and fact based press doesn’t seem to exist at this point of time in Spain.

So from this inside perspective I had, through living with a Catalan family, having a Catalan group of friends, allowed me to learn more about Catalunya and the conflict away from media manipulated influences. I have experienced a very unique and rich culture, a language that is for me a mixture between Spanish and French, still a mystery to solve for me. I joined music and theatre events and visited museums. Through this investigation I found out that Catalunya, unlike the very rest of Spain, barely had any islamic influences during the early Medieval age. Instead it was handed over between Spain and France for centuries. Due to its closeness to France, Catalunya experienced also the Industrial Revolution in a time where Spain was still a farming state. All these differences made me slowly understand why there might be actually something like a Catalan identity that goes beyond a feeling of local patriotism.

I went to every demonstration for independence and the freedom for political prisoners I could go to. I read their demands and I listened to many different ways of expressing and defending Catalan identity. There are people who don’t wish independence but only the freedom of their politicians and a more free and independent relation in economy, taxes and politics from Spain. In contrast to that I also got to know households, where Spanish language is banned from the dinner table.

Over the weeks I heard a lot of people say that they don’t know what will happen when Catalunya is independent, but everything is better than being a part of Spain that tries to oppress their culture and political opinions.

Young castellers celebrate during the 2014 Diada de Catalunya, National Day of Catalonia and main loudspeaker of the Independence movement. Photography by Marc Velasco

To be honest, I have no idea if independence is the right way, if it will help to preserve the Catalan culture or if it will damage it further. I don’t have an idea either if this Catalan culture and history differs so much from other parts of Spain so that calling them part of the same national identity is possible. I am not going to position myself on one side because there are, as in most conflicts, good arguments on both sides.

What I am sure of is that everybody should have the right to vote, everybody should have the right to speak their own language and certainly nobody should be imprisoned because of their political opinion. The fact that this is happening in Europe in front of everybody’s eyes; that the press and the jurisdiction is trying to create violence where here is none in order to silence political ideas; and the fact that the European Union doesn’t move a single finger but calls it an “internal affair” makes me question what the “freedom” in the European Union is about.

This makes me at least understand why over a million Catalans from all political spectrums and ages feel the need to go out in patriotic fashion on the street with Catalan flags in their hand screaming for their own nationalism in order to protect from the loss of freedom of speech and democracy.