The northeastern corner of Spain is home to the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia, whose people have long regarded themselves not as a region, but as a nation. They have their own language, Catalan, and less than half of the population regularly communicates in Castilian Spanish.
On Sunday, October 1, Catalan voters took to the polls for the first time since their failed attempt at establishing full independence from Spain in 2014. The vote was once again declared illegal by the central Spanish government in Madrid, and many voters had their ballots confiscated by police. Officers in riot gear blocked other citizens from voting—at times beating them bloody and firing rubber bullets into the crowds.
Doors of polling stations were smashed by police with hammers; people were pulled from the polls by their hair. Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected the result of the vote, while the Catalan government has claimed that 844 people were injured in the process. Voter turnout was just under 43 percent, with officials saying 90 percent of the more than 2 million voters said “yes” to independence.
Pressure Under the Surface
National Geographic contributor Simon Worrall—who has experience covering the region—says tensions between Catalonia and Spain’s central government are partly rooted in lingering trauma from the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. He says the central government’s heavy-handed response this week is reminiscent of such past conflict.
“During the civil war Catalonia was the Republican fortress and stronghold, and it was from there that the battle against Fascism was launched,” says Worrall. “The memories and tensions of the civil war linger just below the surface—they have left deep and bloody wounds in the Spanish consciousness.”
Worrall also pointed to a long simmering rivalry between Catalonia’s iconic fútbol (soccer) team, FC Barcelona, and Real Madrid C.F., which he says is sometimes symbolic of the tension between central Spain and the outer regions. Catalonia’s separatist movement has raised questions about the future of Barcelona’s popular football club, and if it will possibly exit Spain’s national football league, La Liga. The team has currently won 24 La Liga titles.
Catalan photographer Edu Bayer and journalist Marc Serena made the conscious decision to pen their book, Microcatalonia: a journey through the tiniest villages, in their native language of Catalan.
“During the civil war, the use of our native language was repressed. Catalan was banned from being spoken, and from being studied in school,” says Bayer. “The consequences of the prosecution of our language and our cultural identity continue to last.”
Bayer and Serena set out to capture the essence of rural Catalonian “microvillages,” each with less than 500 inhabitants. The book accounts for a third of the Catalan territory, where only 1.4% of the country’s population resides.
Microcatalonia is a testament to the deep cuts created by the civil war, which are not yet healed. Small villages continue to stand divided from stances taken during the war. For example, one of the oldest cinemas in Spain is located in the small village of Caseres, home to only 250 residents. The cinema, which is owned by a family who fought with the Nationalists, is still not visited by many families who stood with the Republicans.
What Happens Next?
Catalonia’s outspoken leader, Carles Puigdemont, continues to push for independence for the region. He has now called for mediation, which the Spanish government says is unacceptable. A Madrid source said to the BBC, “mediation about what?”
Puigdemont has said that Catalonia will declare its independence from Spain within days, specifically, “48 hours after all the official results are counted.”
Worrall notes that this will be a mostly symbolic act, but that the immediate repercussions for Spain are potentially drastic. Prime Minister Rajoy has said that if Catalonia declares independence then the central government will suspend the legislation that grants the region it’s semi-independent status. Catalonia would then be governed by direct rule, which could possibly result in a deployment of troops to the region and the detainment of local politicians.
The fallout could spread throughout Europe, as other regional separatist movements may find reignited desires for independence, such as Scotland and the New Flemish Alliance in Belgium.