In the ample, sun-splashed courtyard of the Jaume I building at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, vast banners proclaim the students’ support for Catalan Independence. “Hem votat la república,” they declare. “We have voted for the Republic.” On October 1st, 2017, the Catalans voted overwhelmingly in favor of seceding from Spain, although turn-out was only around 43% of eligible voters. The Spanish newspapers rarely refer to the October 1st referendum—widely known as the “1-O”—without attaching the adjective “illegal” to it, which is what Spain’s Constitutional Court had declared it to be. The students at the Pompeu Fabra are not concerned with such niceties. For them, the vote was a clear expression of the will of the people.
My conference is on the Hispanic essay. On the first day—Wednesday, October 25th—the panels and round-tables proceed smoothly—in Castilian. I try to detect references to current events, but fail to notice any. In the call for papers, the organizers had stressed their interest in connections, flows and networks. There is much talk in the panels I attend of journals, translations, publishing houses and exchanges of letters between prominent intellectuals. In the world that emerges before my eyes as I listen to the speakers, everyone seems to be conversing with everyone else, across boundaries. I see lines being drawn across the Atlantic, from Spain to Paris, Puerto Rico to New York, Brazil to California.
The organizers have provided ample time for lunch—two-and-a-half hours, from 2 to 4:30 pm. After the last morning panel, I walk back to my hotel on the calle Caspe. There is little traffic in the streets, enveloped in the warm glow of the afternoon sunshine. Two traffic policemen examine the location of a small white van parked on a street corner a few blocks from the Pompeu Fabra, and then start writing out a ticket. They do everything in a calm, deliberate manner. Near the bus station, young travelers crisscross the esplanade with their suitcases on wheels rattling behind them. I have lunch in my hotel, and then return to my room for a nap. Jet-lagged, I don’t make it back to the conference for the afternoon sessions.
Late in the evening I have dinner at the Xampú Xampany restaurant, near the plaza Tetuán. I find a table in the restaurant’s small sidewalk section. María Luisa, the Filipina waitress, who remembers me from previous visits, stops to make some small talk as she goes about attending to her customers. At one of the nearby tables, five prosperous-looking women in their twenties and thirties are drinking, smoking and talking loudly, switching almost unnoticeably between Castilian and Catalan. I can hear them enumerate the various places in Spain from which their forebears migrated to Catalonia. Cádiz, Cuenca, Sevilla, Extremadura… María Luisa tells me that there have been many demonstrations in the city in recent months, and fewer tourists. In the mornings she goes to class, and in the evenings she works at the restaurant. She wants to become a pharmacist. I learn that she has relatives in Southern California.
On Thursday afternoon, I present my paper at the conference. I talk about Octavio Paz’s views of the colonial period in Mexican history, and of the Mexican struggle for independence from Spain. The campus of the Pompeu Fabra is across the street from the Catalan parliament, where around the same time as my paper presentation, lawmakers have gathered to discuss the threats from Spain’s central government to suspend the region’s autonomy. There are rumors that Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, will declare independence. Or perhaps he will call early elections… In the end, nothing happens, and a new session is called for Friday afternoon.
After my paper presentation, I have a drink in a nearby café with Aurelio Major, the Canadian-Mexican editor of Granta en español. Major was close to Paz in the 1990s and over a beer he shares some reminiscences of that period of his life. After a while, the conversation turns to the Catalan situation. Some independentistas, he says, want the Spanish government to invade Cataluña; they believe there would be no better way to generate international sympathy for their cause. A few days later, I read a similar analysis in one of the Spanish papers. The secessionists in Cataluña long for their Tiananmen Square moment, the author says.
On Friday the 27th, I arrive at the Pompeu Fabra around 11 am. A helicopter is hovering ominously overhead. I can’t locate it in the sky, but I can hear its monotonous droning. In the lobby of the building where the next conference panel will take place, I run into several elderly women sporting Catalan flags as if they were Superman capes. One of the women, looking agitated, asks for directions to the bathroom.
Imagen de Adolfo Luján
I have lunch again at my hotel. Suddenly, there is honking in the streets, but the noise dies down almost immediately. The two young women at the table next to mine check their phones. “Pues ya está…” one of them says. “So it’s done…” They look at each other in silence. I decide to check my phone, too. El País has a headline up announcing the Catalan parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence. I ask for the check, and look at some more web-sites. El Mundo compares the independence supporters who have gathered outside the Ciutadella park to soccer fans. Apparently, a large screen had been put up on which the crowd followed what was happening inside the parliament building. Cheers had gone up with every “yes” vote. The reporter notes snidely that it was as if they were celebrating a goal at a Champions League game.
I take a taxi back to the conference site. My driver—a young man—is noncommittal in response to my questions. I don’t much follow politics, he says. We don’t know yet whether this will have an effect on tourism. Everything will depend on how the Spanish government responds.
I arrive at the Pompeu Fabra around six-thirty in the evening for the closing plenary lecture by the Spanish writer and diplomat José María Ridao. It appears, however, that the afternoon sessions are running behind schedule, and as a result Ridao’s talk will begin around forty-five minutes to an hour late. I stand around with a few other conference goers, and no one talks about what has happened in Barcelona a few hours earlier. One participant who is originally from Barcelona but now teaches at a university in the United States sports a button on his lapel with the image of a rosy-looking baby. The words “mommy, I’m afraid of the government” circle the baby’s head. I refrain from asking the wearer of the button which government he’s afraid of.
Ridao begins his talk by referring to how “conmovido,” shaken, he feels by the afternoon’s events. “Es muy triste,” he says. “It’s very sad.” It is the first time I hear someone at the conference offer an explicit opinion on the political conflict racking the country. But Ridao does not delve further into the question of Catalan independence. Still, in his talk, which has been billed as a discussion of the readings that influenced him as his literary career developed, he adopts a decidedly anti-nationalist stance. He complains that Ortega y Gasset worried too much about questions of identity, and he states that among Octavio Paz’s books he prefers El ogro filantrópico over El laberinto de la soledad. Ridao is in his mid fifties, but he looks much younger. He speaks well, and he has an agreeable manner. After the talk ends, I walk to the street with a colleague from Barcelona who had presented on the same panel as me the day before. We complain about how cold it was in the room where Ridao delivered his lecture.
Back in my hotel, I quickly check the news. Within hours of the Catalan unilateral declaration of independence, the central government, invoking article 155 of the constitution, has suspended Catalonia’s autonomy, removed Puigdemont and his cabinet from office, dissolved the regional parliament, and called for new elections to be held in Catalonia on December 21st.
The neighborhood where I’m staying is full of Chinese-run businesses: hair salons, cafés and massage parlors. On Friday evening, my conference over, I decide to get a hair-cut in a modest, clean and brightly-lit salon one block from my hotel. Opening hours are until nine-thirty in the evening. A young woman with a bright expression on her face cuts my hair. I ask her what part of China she’s from. Her Spanish is excellent. I’ve lived here for ten years, she says. I like to learn languages. Then I ask her what she thinks of today’s declaration of independence. For us, she says, hesitating briefly, it makes no difference.
After my hair-cut, I wander around the city streets. The atmosphere is strangely subdued. The helicopter is still hovering ahead, emitting its menacing, seemingly interminable growl. I have a bite to eat at a sidewalk café on the Passeig de Sant Joan, only a few blocks from where the day’s momentous events took place. I witness no dancing in the streets, nor loud revelry of any kind. Only a few stragglers with their Catalan flags draped over their shoulders. I ask my server—who tells me that she is from Morocco—what she thinks of today’s events. She stands a little closer, and adopts a confidential tone. “This is a very beautiful city,” she says, “and they’re going to ruin it with their idiocy.” I ask her about the helicopter. “La policía nacional,” she explains. “And what do you think is going to happen next?” She places one wrist over another, as if she has been hand-cuffed. “Todos a la cárcel,” she says with a glint in her eyes. “They all go to jail.”
In the morning, I look at some news reports. CNN states that the Catalan parliament voted “overwhelmingly” to proclaim the region’s independence. There is no mention of the fact that fifty-five lawmakers walked out of yesterday’s parliamentary session, not wanting to participate in what they regarded as an illegal vote. Out of the eighty deputies who participated in the vote, seventy cast a “yes” ballot. That makes seventy out of a total of one hundred and thirty-five. The Washington Post runs a piece hinting at sympathy for the secessionists, but with a strange mishmash of left-wing and right-wing perspectives. First, there’s a quote from a left-wing columnist, who equates the Catalan fight for independence with the struggle for democracy in the face of an oppressive state. Next, we hear from a right-wing columnist who sees the Catalans as rightly not wanting to share their wealth with their poorer neighbors in other parts of Spain. The Catalans, he says, feel “shackled to a corpse.” I wonder how a madrileño or a sevillana, or anyone from anywhere else in Spain, for that matter, would feel if they read that…
After spending the morning reading, I go out around noon. The day is cloudy and there’s a slight chill in the air. The city is beginning to look autumnal, wrapped in a greyish light, the tired-looking leaves of the plane trees that line its avenues waiting to drop gently to the ground. I eat a sandwich at an outdoor café on the calle de la Marina. The passersby are a mix of moderately well-dressed locals and tourists returning from a visit to the Sagrada Familia cathedral, only a few blocks up the street. After finishing my lunch, I walk along the Gran Via in the direction of the Rambla de Catalunya. At the Casa del Libro, I purchase two books: Alberto Fuguet’s Sudor and a collection of essays on Albert Camus by José María Ridao, yesterday’s speaker. There are plenty of the usual fashionably-dressed shoppers strolling along the city streets in this part of town. The sun has come out and a cool breeze is blowing. I head down to the Plaça de Sant Jaume, and find the square packed with reporters and camera crews. I take pictures of the ajuntament and the Palau de la Generalitat. To my surprise, I see that the Spanish flag is still flying over the government buildings.
There is a sudden tumult in the square. A man in his sixties, overweight, pushing a sports bike, and wearing a tight red-and-black cycling outfit, is shouting something at the policemen guarding the entrance to the Generalitat. He walks with his bike towards the middle of the square, where a reporter asks him a few questions. I approach to listen. The man is angry. “¡Esto es España!” he shouts, as he chops the air with his right arm. “This is Spain!” He points at the ground. “¡Yo estoy en España!” he declares. “I’m in Spain!” The reporter asks him a question that I can’t hear. He is describing the leaders of the secessionist movement as “liars” and “phonies.” Everyone, he shouts, should go back to work on Monday. “¡A trabajar!” he exclaims, glaring at the crowd that has gathered to listen to him.
In a different part of the square, a smiling, middle-aged woman is talking to another reporter. “They will never let us go,” she says, almost cheerfully, referring to the rest of the country. “Somos lo mejor de España,” she adds. “We are the best part of Spain.” She looks very pleased with her analysis. “Somos la coca,” she concludes. “We’re the crème de la crème.” The reporter thanks the lady for her words.
Back in my hotel room, I spend the evening watching the news. A representative for one of the pro-independence parties insists that several countries are on the verge of recognizing Catalonia as an independent nation. Slovenia, Finland, Argentina… the list is not very long. It is reported that Carles Puigdemont has returned to his hometown of Girona, where he is spotted, on Saturday around lunch-time, enjoying a glass of wine in a bar, while he watches himself on television delivering a brief statement rejecting his removal from office by Spain’s central government, and calling on the Catalans to resist the imposition of article 155 of the Spanish constitution, albeit in a peaceful manner.
By Monday, I’m back in Los Angeles. Puigdemont has left Catalonia and is now in Brussels. A friend informs me that Manuel Castells, the eminent Catalan sociologist, is giving a talk on the situation in his homeland at the University of Southern California, where he occupies a prestigious chair. Later, my friend tells me that there had been a confrontation between Castells, who supports independence, and the Spanish consul in Los Angeles, who had attended the talk. According to my friend, Castells had argued that support for independence had increased after the Spanish government’s rough attempt to halt the October 1st referendum. The comment reminds me of what my taxi driver had said on the way to the airport in Barcelona on Sunday. What do you think will happen now? I had asked him. It depends on what the Spanish government does, he had said. If they overreact, they will drive more people into the independentista camp. Castells had also claimed that the latest polls showed that the pro-independence camp would win the upcoming election. When I check the polls myself, Castells’s confidence in the victory of his cause turns out to be unwarranted. The Catalan electorate is closely divided, and the outcome of the election remains extremely difficult to predict.
*Cover image by Sasha Popovic
Maarten Van Delden is the author of Carlos Fuentes, Mexico and Modernity (Vanderbilt University Press, 1998) and–along with Yvon Grenier–coauthor of Gunshots at the Fiesta (Vanderbilt University Press, 2009)