By Ben Tanosborn
Patriotism is, fundamentally, if we follow George Bernard Shaw’s dictum, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it. And as I look around me here in the United States, or around much of the world for that matter, I see little room to contradict GBS. The Irish playwright had us diagnosed well… all victims of man’s oldest and greatest epidemic.
Very early in my childhood – in a place the world then called Franco’s Spain – I remember my colorful cultural introduction to those people who populated the Northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula: the Catalans. Some entrepreneurial relatives who had ventured to establish a dairy business in Mollerusa, a small city in Catalonia’s Lleida province, would bring back the strangest tales from that land during their summer visits to Cantabria, the land of their birth. We would listen with incredulity, at times in awe, how our relatives extolled the money-virtuosity in Catalonia where wasteful spending was treated as if mortal sin; and children like us, none older than 10, were taught to carefully manage a weekly allowance, most often laboriously earned with duties at home; the children, we were told, were even expected to pay their own street car fares.
Not everything was virtuosity and admiration, however, as I do recall; for there were also claims of both Catalan treason and cowardice voiced by neighboring Asturian miners who a generation before had counted on workers from that Spanish region to put up a greater fight during a failed workers’ general strike-insurrection back in October 1934. And then, we had the “traveling city-slickers,” mostly carny-type Catalans, who would make their weekly rounds at the towns’ open markets where they would use their palavering skills and mastery of human greed to diligently relieve from the local yokels some of their excess money. I also recall how upset it made my godfather-uncle to listen to Catalonians speak to each other in their language, seeing him several times address them menacingly with a forceful request “to talk in Christian,” which I assumed to be our pure, unadulterated and accent-free Castilian as spoken by “us,” the urbane people of our beloved Cantabria.
Those days of long ago predating today’s era of political correctness – often the mask for hypocritical pretense – may seem verbally harsh and unacceptable, but I feel we survived them without measurable damage to anyone’s psyche… the multi-lingual, business-savvy Catalans coexisting, for the most part in conviviality, with the mono-lingual, ascetic Castilians, plus the many other distinct peoples of peninsular Iberia.
Unlike the balkanization that took place in Tito’s Yugoslavia after he died in 1980, the death of the Generalissimo (1975) did not fragment Spain quite the same way with cooler heads and a living brand new constitution (1978) saving the day for a super-plural nation, rich in common history, but just as rich in communal alliances deep-rooted in ethnic-cultural-language diversity, which defined some geographic areas more as separate countries than regions of a political state. Catalans and Basques had long felt their uniqueness in that respect, often voiced in cries for independence. But past political efforts to obtain some federal or con-federal answer/option to the prospect of separatism, some dating back over one and a-half centuries, did not find common ground… or purposely failed to seek common ground.
Spain’s last two decades under Franco had seen resurgence in its economy which was further stimulated by Spain’s entry in the EU (1986). Those decades saw the internal migration in Spain increase more than three-fold as the labor demand increased in the more developed regions, specifically in the industrialized areas of Madrid, Barcelona (Catalonia) and Bilbao (Basque Country). It became an internal migration which accelerated the change in the ethnic make-up of both Catalonia and the Basque Country, most particularly in the urban areas.
Last week’s unilateral declaration of independence by the parliament in Catalonia, instigated by ex-President Carles Puigdemont and his cabinet-advisers, after what had been deemed by Spain’s central government to be a non-constitutionally-approved referendum by separatist parties, could become the ultimate modern test case to the conflict that brings homogenous people to band together against diversity and communal plurality.
Will Barcelona become the see of a small but wealthy Catalan Republic proud of its final revenge against an “oppressor” incapable of dancing sardanas or, will it become the great urban-cultural center of a greater, more inclusive Spain; a city of communal plurality, just like the Córdoba of a millennium ago with its cultural, religious, ethnic, political, and economic acknowledged-universality?