(Photos by Charlotte Crang)
By Charlotte Crang
When I arrived on Friday at the square outside the government palace in Barcelona, it was crowded with demonstrators young and old. Some had pitched tents.
I thought of other squares that have become symbols of change and revolution — Tiananmen Square in China, Tahrir Square in Egypt, the Place de la Bastille in Paris.
One young man seemed content to stand quiet in the center of the buzzing crowds, wearing the bright Catalonian flag and holding a photograph of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who last week took the unprecedented step of announcing direct rule over Catalonia after secessionist lawmakers in the region voted to make Catalonia an independent state.
Around him, people were singing, spurring one another on, chanting “Long live Catalonia” in the local dialect.
The crowds were still thick when we went back at 11 pm, and the ground underfoot was sticky with beer. Crushed cans were everywhere, but the spirits of the young Catalonians seemed anything but. Instead, there was an air of defiance in the crowd.
The younger demonstrators were wearing the region’s vibrant blue, red and gold flag draped around their shoulders like the capes of superheroes. And it seemed to me that they saw themselves as superheroes — as the guardians of independence.
Some of the older occupants of the square chose subtler symbols of resistance — badges or stickers or flags flying from the windows of their flats.
On Sunday, we faced an onslaught of Spanish flags.
The friend I stayed with in Barcelona told me that the excitement has died down. “A few weeks ago, my neighbors would bang pots and pans on their balconies every night around 10 pm. It’s a form of protest called ‘Cacerolazo,’ and it’s a bit of a tradition.”
As I left the center of town, people were happier to voice their opposition to independence. A group of junior doctors, hailing from different parts of Spain and living in Barcelona for work, all believed that a unified Spain is the better option.
“It’s unconstitutional,” a doctor named Aida said. “We have bigger problems in Spain that we should solve before creating new ones, like unemployment and health issues.”
Feliu, an engineer, took aim at politicians. “The country uses nationalism to try and maintain a united Spain. How can we stay united when the politicians are robbing us and don’t care about giving everyone the same labor rights?” he asked, adding that he had voted in three locations during the controversial October 1 referendum for independence.
On Sunday, we faced an onslaught of Spanish flags, worn and waved. It seemed like more flags than I’ve ever seen in my life. It was a mass response to the independentistas by citizens who want Catalonia to remain part of Spain.
The excitement spread even onto the narrow train platforms, where we heard sporadic singing and arguments breaking out.
Watching the protesters on both sides, I thought of the Basilica de la Sagrada Família — the large, unfinished Roman Catholic church in Barcelona designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí — unique in identity and yet still incomplete.
We won’t know what the finished product will look like until all the work has been done and the scaffolding comes off.
Charlotte Crang is a graduate of King’s College London, with a degree in French and English. She has lived in six countries and worked at international events including the London 2012 Olympics. Charlotte is interested in learning about other cultures and innovators around the globe.