Photograph by David Ramos, Getty
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Traditional correfoc, or "fire-run," performers dress as devils and light fireworks from pitchforks during a during a Catalan pro-independence demonstration in September, 2017.

Photograph by David Ramos, Getty

Why Spain’s wealthiest region wants independence

Catalonia has its own cultural identity and a robust separatist movement, despite crackdowns from Madrid.

An autonomous region in northeastern Spain with its own linguistic and cultural identity, Catalonia is a popular tourist destination and economic powerhouse. But its recent struggle for an independent nation of its own reflects its distinctive history within Spain.

People have lived in what is now Catalonia since prehistory, when a society of chieftain-led Iberian tribes emerged. In the sixth century B.C., Greek colonists arrived; around 220 B.C., the Romans took over. Roman rule brought advances in agriculture and infrastructure, the Latin language flourished, and Romans founded Barcino, which became the region’s largest city and current capital, Barcelona. Tarraco (now known as Tarragona) became one of the Roman Empire’s richest cities during this time.

As the Roman Empire foundered in the fifth century A.D., the region became vulnerable to other groups: First the Visigoths, then the Umayyad Caliphate, and finally the Frankish Empire, which conquered Barcelona in A.D. 801. The region became part of the Marca Hispanica, a buffer zone that served as a defensive barrier between Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire and the Moors.

Over time, the Carolingian Empire’s border zones became increasingly powerful and distinctive. The first reference to the Catalonia region was made in the 12th century; around the same time, the Catalan language made its first known written appearances. In the medieval era, Catalonia became a major sea power as part of the Crown of Aragon, and when Ferdinand I of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile in 1469, Catalonia became part of a unified Spain. Though Catalonia retained its own institutions at first, it was eventually integrated more fully into the Spanish state. This fueled a fierce Catalan separatist movement beginning in the 19th century.

These death-defying human towers build on Catalan tradition

Catalonia is ruled by the Spanish government, but its people have been constructing independent kingdoms for centuries. By climbing up backs and balancing on shoulders, Catalonians of all ages stack their bodies on-top each other to build castells, or human towers. The structures are not typical fortresses—notably, they are made of flesh and bone rather than sandstone or granite—but their strong foundations serve as a unifying force for many Catalonians.

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When Spain became a republic in 1931, it granted Catalonia semi-autonomous status. But during the Spanish Civil War, Catalonia backed the losing side, and in its aftermath the fascist general Francisco Franco again stripped Catalonia of its autonomy, restricted the Catalan language, and repressed its customs.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Catalonia regained much of its freedom, and four years later it became an autonomous region of Spain with its own parliament, government, flag and anthem. Catalonia quickly became Spain’s wealthiest region—but half of the income tax and value-added tax generated in the region, along with a percentage of some other taxes, goes to Spain’s government.

This transfer of revenue is a sore point for some Catalans. According to Reuters, the region pays $12 billion more to Spain than it gets back—the equivalent of five percent of its regional economic output.

After Spain’s 2008 debt crisis and a 2010 court ruling that limited the region’s ability to become its own nation, a renewed push for independence convulsed Catalonia. In 2014, 80 percent of Catalan participants voted yes on an informal independence referendum. Three years later, 90 percent of participants voted yes in a follow-up referendum approved by the Catalan parliament. But Spain insisted the referendum had not occurred, and after a violent police crackdown, Spain’s Supreme Court ruled it illegal.

Defiant, Catalonia’s regional parliament declared independence in October 2017; Spain then suspended Catalonia’s political autonomy and fired the entire Catalan cabinet. Pro-independence parties took 47.8 percent of the vote and a thin majority in the regional parliament in the new elections that ensued, and Catalan rule was restored when the new government took power in June 2018. Meanwhile, 12 separatist leaders were arrested and accused of a variety of crimes against Spain.

This October, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced nine of them to long prison terms. Since the verdict was announced, massive demonstrations have all but shut down Barcelona and other cities. But though Madrid has so far resisted calls for direct rule or an even more violent crackdown on protesters, an upcoming national election—and the threat of another referendum—could change their tune. Catalonia’s future has never seemed as consequential—or as contested.

Editor's Note: This article has been edited for clarity.