I’m a US-born foreigner living in Barcelona. Here’s my take on what’s happening in Catalonia.

[PLEASE NOTE: This piece was written and published two days before the referendum.]

I’ve come a long way from willful ambivalence.

At this point, I honestly think the idea of an independent Catalonia has the potential to be something great. I’m disgusted with the Spanish government — I already knew it was rife with corruption, but the repressive actions taken over the last several weeks have me (and a lot of other people, by the look of it) thinking that it’s finally flying its true fascist colors, loud and proud.

The roots of said fascism go back generations, leading to a wound from Franco’s time that’s never been able to heal. As such, embarking on a project to establish a new, more forward-thinking state is definitely compelling. A lot of the propaganda that I see around the city talks about a feminist, environmentalist, etc. Catalonia, which is something I could absolutely get behind.

All that said — I am glad I’m not a citizen and cannot vote, because I would have a very hard time voting yes on this referendum.

The structure of the Catalan Independence project isn’t even close to clear. When I ask independentists questions like “What about EU membership?” “What will happen with people’s pensions?” “What about all the banks that have said they’ll pull out?” “What will happen with all the bureaucratic processes that go through Madrid?” and so forth, the answer I constantly get is “Don’t worry, we’ll figure all that out.” Uhhhh…

If you’re an optimist (I’m not), then okay sure, maybe this stuff WILL be figured out, and in a way that’s much less fascist-influenced than Spain is today. But that’s not going to happen in 48 hours (the Catalan government has announced that they will proclaim independence within 48 hours if the vote is YES). Nor will it happen in a couple months. I am doubtful that it will happen in five years.

And over the course of (let’s say) five years of chaos, economic collapse is a very real threat that has the potential to cause very real sorrow to very real people.

And then there’s the objection that any declared state of independence won’t be recognized, not by Spain nor by anyone else. And existence as an unrecognized state has the potential to be quite fucking awful (not to mention quite shit for Spain as well). If no one respects a place as a country, then it is, de facto, not a country. As far as I can see, the only way to have a real independence referendum is to have it backed by Spain, which should have happened ages ago.

Can a Spain-backed referendum happen in the coming years? Maybe. Depends how the chaos unfolds. I have a feeling that the aftermath of Sunday’s referendum is going to be X months/years of Spain and Catalonia calling each other’s bluff. How long can Catalonia deal with being an unrecognized state? How long can Spain deal with having a rebel state within its borders?

I really, really hope that the EU steps in before Sunday’s referendum. However, I doubt that will happen.

The independence movement in Catalonia has NOT done a swell job in attracting foreign sympathy. Exaggerated claims of oppression under a present-day Spanish dictatorship turns people off. It turned ME off from thinking critically about the cause for years.

From everything I’ve read, I DO think that the Spanish government has treated Catalonia unfairly over the previous decades. I DO think that people have good cause to be upset. I do NOT think that the situation is comparable to, say, South Sudan. And I take great issue with the rhetoric plastered all around the city insisting that “Votarem per ser lliures.” (“We vote to be free.”). It boils everything down to a righteous act of rebellion rather than a carefully considered political strategy.

Internationally, this makes people roll their eyes — and then look the other way.

This conflict is coming to a head on Sunday with millions of people expecting to vote and a huge police force in place to prevent them from doing so. The lack of international support to resolve the conflict means high potential for disaster.

This movement is driven by an unhealed wound that was inflicted decades ago, inflamed by growing corruption in Spanish politics, and then slapped across the face by recent movements by Madrid (censoring referendum info online, seizing ballots, arresting politicians, shipping massive police force + water cannons into Catalonia). Not to mention the awful videos now circulating of people elsewhere in Spain cheering on the police as they leave for Catalonia with “A por ellos! (“Go get ‘em!”) as though it were a football match.

All these things are more than reasonable to be upset about. They leave me personally feeling sick to my stomach.

I’ve been quite upset about the “us vs. them” rhetoric that I see from people across the board. Regardless of what happens Sunday and the following days, it’s that narrative that has already caused a huge rift between people living in Spain.

I frequently get the feeling that politicians/other people with power are playing a game of chicken. And that they know the easiest way to get masses of people riled up is to simplify the complex situation down to “Those bastards — we’re gonna WIN!!!!

Where I, Janel, a foreigner that’s been living in Barcelona and Madrid for the last 7 years, am in all this:

I’ve been dealing with pretty serious anxiety over the past weeks. Heart beating out of my ribcage, chest tightening, shallow breathing, overwhelming emotions, so forth.

I’m quite terrified to say anything publicly, because emotions are running super high, and the only visible rhetoric is quite polarized. My particular position is a weird one that has the potential to make literally everyone upset with me. I feel more distant from my chosen home than I ever have.

I keep starting to write pieces on the experience of anxiety in the face of political conflict, in the hopes that I might help out someone else who finds themselves caught up in/overwhelmed by something similar. And I keep trashing them as the little voice in my head tells me, “This isn’t about you, so just sit down and shut the fuck up.

I’m scared of being called out as uninformed, heartless, disrespectful, or just a stupid foreigner.

The overwhelming majority of my close Catalan friends are independentists. My partner is an independentist. My non-Catalan friends are all across the spectrum.

A (very) small handful of people I’ve spoken with feel more or less like I do: that the independence proposal has great potential, but not executed like this.

It feels like we (Spaniards, Catalans, foreign people living here, the EU [which thus far has refused to act in any capacity]) are driving a car directly off a cliff and into the black, screaming that there’s simply no other options left — and I just want someone to fucking hit the brakes.

The way things have evolved, no one is going to “win” this conflict, and absolutely everyone will lose.

Regarding portrayal of the Catalan independence movement by outside media

My strategy throughout this whole thing has been to read as many sources as possible, including those known to be skewed one way or another, plus a ton of reddit/Twitter/FB stuff.

One of the major difficulties with this particular conflict is that it is damn complicated. You gotta be super well versed in the previous century’s worth of history to put the movement in context. And most foreign news sources are not able to do that, because it would lead to long boring articles that no one wants to read.

I see some good stuff coming out in Spanish (from Spanish sources), and I’m told there’s a bunch of good stuff in Catalan. Which, clearly, isn’t accessible to most people worldwide who might be wanting to get informed… but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, one I’m not willing to open here.

Articles I’ve found useful in the past weeks:



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Janel Torkington

Janel Torkington

Content designer. Sassy futurist. Ukulele plucker. Ottolenghi acolyte.