My family, the colonisers of Catalonia

My grandparents arrived to the outskirts of Barcelona by train, carrying with them two toddlers, a baby and whatever humble luggage they managed to drag behind them. They did not know where they were going to spend their next night, let alone the rest of their life.

One of my grandfather’s most successful jobs in Catalonia was driving a lorry. Here with my father, uncle and aunt.

My grandfather explained to me how, on the day they arrived, in the early ’60s, trains in the direction of Barcelona were packed with people like them. So much so that document controls by Franco’s police were made on people arriving to Barcelona by train, in order to, somehow, stem the flow into the Catalan capital. That day, inside their train compartment, the voice went round that people were being refused entry into the city and, for this reason, and to save themselves the unpleasantness and an extra dose of penury, my grandparents and the children, alongside hundreds of others who were making a similar journey, got off the train in whatever station they happened to be at and started asking around for a place to stay. The station was called Sta. Maria de Barbará, the name of a small village 30 kilometres from urban Barcelona and a couple of stops before the police controls. That place was to become, two generations later, the home of my childhood memories and, therefore, the place where I would belong.

That my family was poor is an understatement. During the Spanish Civil War my grandfather’s family just about made it alive eating lizards and whatever they could find around the impoverished Spanish province of Murcia. They were nomadic, going from village to village looking into rubbish piles for anything they could sell, scooping olive oil with spoons from puddles around an oil press factory and selling it for some change. My grandfather did any job he could get his hands on, with no credentials, which was the rule at the time in post-war Spain. Up until he died he carried in his car different business cards featuring, below his name, any trade under the sky: plumber, plasterer, electrician, decorator, photographer.

My grandmother worked as a hairdresser. Here with the children in La Cruz de Barbará (today La Creu de Barberà, Sabadell).

When he arrived to Catalonia, I suspect, he must not have had any doubts he was going to find work, with the assurance of having survived in a place where there wasn’t any, and soon he was scraping a living working as a lorry driver, as a photographer and as cook in an Italian ship that sailed regularly to Brazil and Perú, where he would buy exotic objects to sell to wealthy Catalan families. And while my grandfather was out and about doing jobs, my grandmother trained, and then started working as a hairdresser from home, raising more money than my grandfather while also running the house. She ironed, sew, washed, cooked, took the children to bed and earned a regular, if modest, income.

After my family arrived to Catalonia they initially lived in a slum, in zinc roofed houses with no bathrooms of what was called La Cruz de Barbará. My father remembers the communal baths where the whole neighbourhood would wash every weekend. But just a few years later, my grandparents had managed to save enough money to buy the materials for my grandfather to build, with his own hands, what was to be our family house for decades, one of the most solid structures ever built by humanity, possibly suitable for nuclear tests and with direct views to the emblematic mountains of La Mola and Montserrat.

Catalonia was a place where poor people from Spain could earn a living and, in Franco’s Spain, this was a lifeline to millions of impoverished Spaniards of similar backgrounds to my family’s. This was a difficult and brave step that many took, looking for a better life in a different place as so many people do all over the world.

One thing that needs to be pointed out is that when my grandparents arrived to Catalonia in the ’60s they never learnt Catalan. That was, without any doubt, the last of their worries. And their children did not learn Catalan at school either, as Franco’s Spanish nationalism had set out to eradicate it, and speaking or teaching Catalan was a punishable offence. The damage done by these policies to millions of Catalans was enormous: their customs, traditions and language banned, the culture of the people that had lived in the land for generations declared officially non-existent.

My grandfather built a family home. It was built to last, not to look good.

It is not difficult to see how the flux of people like my grandparents had a handy collateral outcome for Franco: on one side, due to anti-Catalan legislation no-one, newly arrived or not, would be exposed to anything Catalan and, thus, everyone would become uniformly Spanish, an aim ingrained in the fascist moto “Spain: one, great and free”, with emphasis on the word “one”. On the other side, every Catalan speaker would become overwhelmingly more exposed to Spanish. This worked a treat. By the time Franco died in 1975 Catalan culture was totally eradicated from public life and in urban areas Catalan culture was not even to be found in the privacy of homes, as somewhere around 2 million Spaniards, like my grandparents, had arrived and now formed more than 50% of the population (source: INE).

It is important to make clear that this would have never been a problem if Catalan culture had not been repressed. Any country in the world can maintain an equilibrium to support all communities, the existing ones and the incoming ones, which is done with more or less success, but it is rarely a process in which a culture is actively wiped out. However, there have been many exceptions in history, usually preceded by a military powerful country taking over another, something that has been known with many names: conquering, creating an empire and colonising being a few examples. Call it what you may, Catalonia, a dominated subject under fascist centralised rule, was not allowed to behave as a normal country. Thus, all Catalan speakers were forced to use Spanish language and incoming Spaniards were banned from using Catalan. What is more, they, including my family, saw it as a right to address everyone and be addressed in Spanish, although, to be fair, nothing was in place to be able to circumvent the state policy. Not for the first time, Catalan language and culture had been repressed and colonised out of existence.

My town is a very poignant example. Back in the late ’80s, over a decade after Franco’s death and democracy and autonomy granted back to Catalonia, my school class had two first-language Catalan speakers. The other 28 children, including myself, were Spanish speakers, the second generation of migrants from Spain. On the light of this you would think that a natural disappearance of the Catalan language was on the cards, but Catalans were keeping a very useful card up their sleeve. Their culture and language might have been wiped out from the streets, but it was preserved in the privacy of homes, in meetings and activities done in hiding, and a sense of purpose in the collective effort against oppression had meant that, as soon Franco died, work was done enthusiastically to redress the damage.

The task ahead was huge. It can be objectively said that Catalans had been welcoming towards Spaniards and the task to introduce Spaniards to Catalan culture was a charm offensive: my father was offered a job at the age of thirteen in a bank in a (non-officially) Catalan speaking environment. He was never made to feel different. What is more, he was invited and included in traditional Catalan cultural activities: mountaineering, local gastronomy, you name it. He incorporated this, as well as the language, to his cultural make up and identity, a mixture of his past and his present. I experienced the same when I studied music outside my Spanish speaking area of comfort of Sta. Maria de Barbará (now renamed Barberà del Vallès). Catalan speaking music teachers taught me both music and Catalan and I became bilingual.

When I was a child, with my grandmother and my aunt.

To fix all the damage that had been done bold action was needed, but both Spanish and Catalan speakers worked together and both supported the re-introduction of Catalan in the public domain, first in public media, and later on as the main language used in education (note that Spanish was and still is taught in Catalan schools). All political parties in Catalonia, until very recently including those voted by Spanish and Catalan speakers, supported this approach as a means to achieve that Spanish speakers became bilingual, in the same way that Catalan speakers already were. This was the backbone of rebuilding the country.

Currently, studies show that more Spanish speakers are becoming bilingual, at least in theory. In practice, though, Catalan speakers tend to speak Spanish when there are Spanish speakers around, while Spanish speakers still tend to expect others to adapt. Studies of public use of language attest to this – the use of Catalan is not increasing in public life.

This is a complex issue, a consequence of a long history of unnatural cultural domination of a group of people. As a Catalan of Spanish origin, being bilingual allows me to see the world from two different perspectives, as a language means much more than just words. I do not intend to renounce to using Spanish as my first language or speak it to my children, but I embrace the Catalan language as a refreshing and enriching contrast, and I want that Catalonia can protect it and make this different cultural view point that does not exist anywhere else finally take solid roots, become the main language while at the same time respecting all the cultures that make up the community.

With my grandfather, by the fence of Sabadell’s aerodrome.

Catalan political parties have multicultural political programs that advocate exactly this, promoting the use of Catalan while respecting the rights of every group of people to learn their language and culture. The two largest Catalan parties have even stated that Spanish will be made co-official if they achieve their aim of a Catalan independent state. ERC, the close second Catalan party, specifically includes in its manifesto the mandatory provision of additional school language tuition in areas where a language is spoken in significant numbers, be it Spanish, Arabic or Cantonese. Likewise, two Spanish parties represented in Catalonia subscribe to this view, with only small variations.

‘Volem acollir’ (We want to welcome) demonstration in Barcelona in support of migrants on 18 February 2017, the largest ever in support of displaced people, supported, amongst others, by Catalan pro-independence parties, but not supported by the two right wing Spanish parties in the Catalan parlament who, ironically, call pro-independence supporters ‘xenophobes’ and ‘supremacists’.

However, the two right-wing Spanish parties represented in the Catalan parliament oppose the promotion of Catalan within a multicultural framework, on the grounds that it constitutes “indoctrination”, and that active promotion of Catalan is “xenophobic” and “supremacist” (both terms being used) that makes Spanish Catalans “second class citizens”. It is ironic that the only complain for racism presented by the Council of Europe against a Catalan politician is against the leader of one of these two parties, Xavier Garcia Albiol, and that these parties were nowhere to be seen in the largest demonstration in Europe in support of immigrants that are dying on a daily basis in the Mediterranean, while the leaders of all the other Catalan parties were present, to put in perspective who is welcoming to people of all origins and who are the real xenophobes.

To go back to our historic example: I don’t think my family did anything wrong at an individual level by getting on with their lives in the repressive environment of the time. However, at a collective level much damage was done to a whole group of people. We have a responsibility, to let all Catalans rebuild the country that was destroyed by Franco, and to protect the culture and view of the world that is now also ours. Learning and speaking another language is not a chore, it is a great, mind opening thing to do and I can only encourage everyone of my background to do so if they haven’t. The only result is that their horizon will open.


Some links related to this topic that I would like to share:

For Spanish speakers, a reflection on how and why Catalonia is looking away from Spain and towards Europe and the wider world:

For Catalan speakers, proposals for a future language policy from ERC, as mentioned in the article:

Also related to this article is a nice and positive video featuring prominent Spanish speaking Catalans promoting the learning and use of the Catalan language among this group. The video, it goes without saying, is in Catalan:

Update: The optional tuition of Arabic and Chinese is now official in secondary schools in Catalonia, not just a plan for the future.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here