Atletico Madrid supporters hold up a Spanish flag reading: “Catalonia is Spain” during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Atletico Madrid and Barcelona at the Metropolitano stadium in Madrid, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017. The match ended in a 1-1 draw. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

To understand how Catalan people see themselves as distinct, a word from their language is instructive: seny.

It is an adjective used to convey a supposedly unique Catalan sensibility: pragmatic, level-headed, and dignified. Seny is just about the last word the Spanish government and the European Union would use for the Catalans, who instigated a lurching attempt to declare independence from Spain with a highly controversial referendum this month.

Spain's Senate is expected to approve a federal takeover of Catalonia's regional government on Friday. Leading political proponents of the secessionist movement have been arrested.

Whatever the government in Madrid does, the sense of separateness that many Catalans feel from the Spaniards with whom they share a nation-state will not be extinguished. That is partly because it is a very old and seasoned sense, and one that has survived through long spells of Spanish suppression. But if many Catalans feel not only linguistically but culturally and politically distinct from Spain, how and why did Catalonia become part of Spain the first place?


“To understand, you have to go back to the Middle Ages, in part because that's where Catalan people also go back to when conceiving of their history,” said Paul Freedman, a professor of Catalan history (among other things) at Yale. Catalans “see themselves as always having been more entrepreneurial and modern than Castilians, who they see as more concerned with power and religion and honor and purity of blood,” said Freedman.

In the 12th century, a largely independent Catalonia was subsumed into the Kingdom of Aragon, through a dynastic union (when royals arrange a marriage as a way of merging territory, or forming an alliance). Catalan interests dominated that union, and trade in the Western Mediterranean was largely their domain. A few hundred years later, another dynastic union merged Aragon with Castile. After a series of minor conquests, the Spanish state roughly assumed its modern borders.

Since then, Catalonia has been a linguistic minority in a country mostly populated and ruled by Spanish-speakers. Modern Spain has many other such minorities, including Galicians, Basques and Canarians. To differing degrees, they have each experienced suppression of their language and culture. Separatist movements have been born and quashed for centuries.

For many in Spain, including the Catalans, the worst repression came during the years of military dictator Francisco Franco, who came to power in 1939 and ruled until his death in 1975. Franco is widely held responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people who opposed his totalitarianism. Many ended up in concentration camps or were summarily executed.

“Franco began the systematic destruction of Catalan political parties, prohibited the use of their language, destroyed countless cultural institutions, and drove much of Catalan society underground,” said Andrew Dowling, who teaches contemporary Catalan politics at the University of Cardiff. “To this day, Spain has never formally apologized for doing that.”

During those years, the Catalan language disappeared from schools and other public spaces, but, as in bouts of cultural suppression centuries earlier, its use among common people never waned. Nowadays, Catalan is not only Catalonia's official language (along with Spanish), but public schools teach migrants from the rest of Spain and the world how to speak it.

“It's a testament to strength of national sentiment that they’ve kept their language alive, instead of having to raise it from the dead like in Ireland or even Israel for that matter,” said Freedman. “These days, Catalan literature and magazines and culture in general are thriving despite the predominance of Spanish.”


Catalan human towers, which in Catalan are called a “castell,” or castle, are in an intrinsic part of Catalan national tradition, and performances now occur nearly weekly across Catalonia. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

While retaining its cultural distinctions, Catalonia has also become more cosmopolitan, however. Its industry and vibrancy have been a major draw for people from other parts of Spain, Europe and elsewhere. From the late 19th century until about 20 years ago, Catalonia had by far the most advanced economy in Spain. In post-Franco Spain, Catalonia regained much of its lost autonomy, including its own parliament and police force.

As the independence voted showed, Catalonia is now split into groups that hold drastically different views on the region's innate separateness from Spain. Inland and rural areas, populated mostly by Catalan-speaking people, are fervent supporters of independence. The working class suburbs of Barcelona, Catalonia's biggest city, are divided mostly by where their residents originated. And in the coastal metropolis itself, most did not feel strongly enough to vote.

Meanwhile, Madrid has overtaken Barcelona as Spain's cultural and economic capital, in addition to being twice as populous. A sense that Catalonia pays more in taxes to Madrid than it gets in return was a central argument of the independence campaign.

“Catalan people's sense of difference may be reinvigorated by these changes,” said Freedman. “Catalans have always seen themselves as smarter and richer. Breaking with Spain could be a way of preserving that.”

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