The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time to give a voice to Catalonia’s silent majority

Thousands of people celebrated in Barcelona on Oct. 29, in support of the Spanish government's takeover of the newly declared independent state of Catalonia. (Video: Raul Gallego Abellan/The Washington Post)

José Andrés is a Spanish-American chef and owner of Think Food Group.

I was born in Mieres, Asturias, a coal mining town in the north of Spain, but in 1974, my family picked up and did what tens of thousands of families were doing across the country: We moved to Catalonia, the land of opportunity. We lived just outside Barcelona, among communities of Spanish immigrants who helped build Catalonia into the economic power it became in the years after Spain’s democratic transition. I fell in love with Catalonia’s food, its language, its songs and stories, and unique traditions. In my heart, I was both a proud Spaniard and a proud Catalan — a seamless and symbiotic dual identity I’ve carried with me my entire life. I was the product of a true melting pot.

But on Friday, all of that changed when the Catalan government convened an emergency session and voted to declare independence from Spain, setting into motion a constitutional crisis that has brought my homeland to its knees. Hours later, Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, and the central government voted to enact article 155 of the Spanish constitution, giving them control of Catalonia temporarily.

If you’ve been following the events in Spain over the past few months, you’ve likely read one of two opposing narratives: that of a hard-headed federal government keeping Catalans from their democratic right to vote, or of a rogue group of misguided politicians leading Catalonia off a political and economic cliff. But in between these two extremes is the true story of Spain and Catalonia, where I and millions of other Spaniards find ourselves.

In Spain they call us the silent majority. The last polls released before the Catalan government’s controversial Oct. 1 referendum showed that a clear majority of Catalans were opposed to independence. And a poll released this weekend from Metroscopia found that 46 percent of Catalans feel as Spanish as they do Catalan, compared with just 19 percent who feel exclusively Catalan. That includes people like me, Asturians and Valencians and Andalusians who have made Catalonia their home over the past four decades, as well as many voters born and raised in Catalonia who love both their region and their country. We may have been less vocal than the separatists, but we cannot remain silent any longer; to do so would make us complicit in the demise of our country.

To be clear, this is not just a Catalan issue. This is a Spanish issue, as the fate of one of its largest and wealthiest regions has a deep impact on the lives of all 46 million Spanish citizens. It’s unreasonable to think you can unilaterally make decisions that will affect the lives of all of us —politically, economically, socially.

As a young boy I learned an important word in Catalan: seny. Literally, seny means sanity, but in actuality it espouses a larger worldview governed by levelheadedness and integrity. Catalans have long prided themselves in being pragmatic — to have seny — and I’ve tried to build my life — as a cook, as a family man, as a citizen of Spain and the United States — around this idea.

I’m afraid seny has abandoned Catalonia in recent months. Not because certain Catalans want independence — we all have the right to pursue our dreams and to preserve our identity — but if we want to live in a civil society, we need to respect the laws of the land. I support the idea of a vote for Catalan independence, but not in the haphazard, unconstitutional way it’s been conducted in recent months.

The blame isn’t squarely on the separatists. Seny has abandoned the Spanish government at times as well. For me and for millions of my compatriots, it was painful to see the images of police clashing with voters last month in Catalonia. But King Felipe, Rajoy, the Spanish courts and the constitution all made it crystal clear that this was an illegal referendum, and to encourage the vote and put its people at risk was a deeply cynical political calculation by the separatists. On Friday, shortly after the Catalan government declared independence, Spain did what it has long promised it would do if that happened: It stripped Catalonia’s leaders of their power and wisely called for snap elections on Dec. 21 that will reshape the regional government.

Spain is in crisis, and the steps both sides take over the next few weeks will have an impact on this country and all of Europe for years to come. For Catalonia to ensure a stable future for its people, the silent majority will need to find its voice and bring seny back to the heart of Catalan and Spanish society. That means voting for new leadership on Dec. 21 that will represent all Catalans, not just the ones who will stop at nothing short of independence. That means the politicians of Madrid need to be less hard-line and more willing to listen. That means both sides recognizing that we will only build a viable future individually and collectively through compromise and levelheadedness. That means supporting politicians who know how to build bridges, not just dig holes. Seny is the word upon which Catalonia was built into one of the great regions of the world, and it should be the foundation upon which Spain and Catalonia build their future.