Casting a Vote on Catalan Independence in NYC

Participants in the Nov. 5 New York Marathon displaying the Catalan independence flag in Times Square. (Photo via Catalan National Assembly USA)

Participants in the Nov. 5 New York Marathon displaying the Catalan independence flag in Times Square. (Photo via Catalan National Assembly USA)

The atmosphere at the Smithfield Hall sports bar on West 25th Street on a recent Saturday afternoon was unexpectedly festive. Just after enduring a crushing defeat against their nemesis team, Real Madrid, dozens of FC Barcelona — or “Barça” — supporters huddled and loudly belted out the “Cant del Barça,” the soccer club’s anthem, in Catalan.

Then, after directing some profanity-laced barbs at Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo, the members of the Barça “penya,” a membership-based fan club, called out the demand most often heard inside and outside the team’s Barcelona stadium, Camp Nou, nearly 4,000 miles from New York City.

“In… Inde… Independència!”

In Catalonia, a 7.5 million-strong autonomous region in the northeast of Spain, everybody seems to be talking about independence these days. New York’s tiny Catalan community is no exception. The Big Apple is one of 19 cities around the world where Catalans living abroad are being asked to participate this Sunday, Nov. 9 in a “consultation” or informal referendum on independence that has been legally challenged by the Spanish government.

Among the chanting crowd at the Smithfield Hall pub, Laura Vidal, a young English student from the small town of Navàs, in the province of Barcelona, was seeking information about the voting.

“I want to have the right to decide what I want for my country,” said Vidal, who is in New York for three months before heading back to start college. She sported an estelada (“starred”), the flag symbolizing Catalan separatism. “The fact that they won’t let us vote gives us even more desire to do so.”

Alex Chicote, 46, vice president of the Barça penya, offered help. “Do you have valid ID? Does it have a Catalonian home address? Good,” and directed her to the offices of the Generalitat (the Catalan autonomous government) in Manhattan, where the voting will be held.

However, neither of them was sure what the vote would mean exactly.

Blocked Referendum

In September, Spain’s highest court blocked a referendum on independence scheduled for Nov. 9 after conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy deemed the vote unconstitutional. In response, Artur Mas, president of the Generalitat, went on to set a symbolic “citizen consultation” for the same date, which would be managed by volunteers. The central government struck it down as well, but Mas vowed to proceed with the vote.

Chicote, a stay-at-home dad who moved to New York eight years ago and whose wife is American, is determined to vote yes for independence. “We have our own culture. This is not a child’s temper tantrum. We’ve been trying to find a way to fit in with Spain for a long time, and it hasn’t worked out,” he said.

Catalonia is one of many Latin-speaking regions created in Europe in the Middle Ages. Its cultural influence extends beyond the limits of the current autonomous region, including neighboring Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Andorra and a small area in southern France. As part of the Aragon kingdom, Catalonia joined the larger Spanish kingdom established by the Catholic Monarchs in the 15th century, which became modern-day Spain. All the while, the region has maintained its language and cultural identity.

One of three co-official languages in Spain – along with Galician and Basque – Catalan is a Romance language quite similar to Spanish, and can also be easily understood by French, Portuguese and Italian speakers.

Laura Vidal vowed to vote in the Catalan secession consultation next Sunday in New York. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell for Voices of NY)

Laura Vidal vowed to vote in the Catalan secession consultation next Sunday in New York. (Photo by Carlos Rodríguez Martorell for Voices of NY)

Following the four-decade dictatorship of General Franco (1939-1975), who forbade the public use of Catalan, the autonomous government formed in 1979 prompted a revival of the language. Over time, increasing requests for more autonomy, as well as complaints of fiscal imbalance — the disparity between the tax revenue that prosperous Catalonia contributes to the country and what it receives back — have led to the current dispute.

The outlawing of the vote has set a cautious mood among Catalan officials in New York. A representative of the Generalitat in the U.S. who declined to be identified refused to estimate how many people are expected to turn up to vote at the 360 Lexington Ave. office. It is estimated that 12,000 Catalans live in the U.S., and they will also be able to vote at the Generalitat offices in San Jose, California.

Jordi Graupera, a columnist, political scientist and board member at the Catalan Institute — the city’s main Catalan organization — believes that there might be up to 3,000 Catalans in New York, though the number can’t be verified.

The Institute offers Catalan language courses to children of expats, and hosts traditional festivities through the year in different locations. These include the castanyada, a Halloween-like party where children wear costumes and eat chestnuts and candy; the Christmas gift-sharing tradition Tió de Nadal, and the Diada de Sant Jordi – a blend of book fair and Valentine’s Day.

Additionally, the Institute has hosted conferences about the nationalist movement and, alongside the non-governmental Catalan National Assembly, helped stage in New York a series of small-scale replicas of the massive street demonstrations that have characterized the movement back home.

Graupera, who is also a doctoral student at The New School and teaches philosophy at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, said that the vote has generated a lot of excitement among Catalans in the U.S. Although Catalans are divided on the topic, he added, the community abroad is mostly pro-independence. “We know of people who are flying in [to NYC] to vote, and we have helped them coordinate affordable accommodation,” he said.

Although the demonstrations have barely made a dent in U.S. media, outlets such as Bloomberg News and The New York Times have called on the Spanish government to allow the Catalan vote, noting that the United Kingdom permitted the referendum in Scotland in September, in which the pro-independence forces were defeated.

“I’m hearing more comments about independence lately,” said Marc Tió, 39, a journalist who moved to the city in 2009. He runs Cap a Nova York, an agency offering tours of New York City in Catalan. “When people know that you’re from Barcelona, they bring it up: ‘What’s going on down there?’”

Catalan residents in the city interviewed for this article — both for and against independence — expressed discomfort with Rajoy’s refusal to allow the referendum, but also lamented the politics at play carried out by Mas.

Jordi Getman-Eraso, president of the FC Barcelona Penya of New York and a history teacher at Bronx Community College, said that he does not consider himself a nationalist but that the aggressive attitude of the Spanish government has turned him into a supporter of independence.

“It is important that, in the future, we can say that we are Catalan and that it means something,” said Getman-Eraso, 39, born in Barcelona to American and Catalan parents.

“What I’ve always appreciated about catalanisme is that it includes anyone who lives in Catalonia. If you come to Catalonia, you’re Catalan,” added the professor, pointing out that both his grandparents were from other Spanish regions but made Catalonia their homeland.

The tension between Catalonia and the federal government is long-standing, and Madrid has consistently dug in its heels in its dealings with the breakaway sentiment in the comparatively wealthy northeast region.

Marginalized?

“The problem is one of disaffection,” reflected Tió. “The worst that can happen in life is to feel undervalued, marginalized, even hated and insulted sometimes. I think that if they showed us some affection, things would change a lot. But we feel this hostility, and we feel it in the politicians. It’s not a social issue; we all have friends here and there.”

Graupera said that, while there is no animosity among Spaniards in New York, the political tensions are palpable here too. “There has been clear and explicit pressure coming from the Spanish government to avoid anything that would feed the process,” he said, referring to the intervention of Madrid officials in conferences and events held by Catalan officials in the U.S., among other measures within business and academic circles.

Although some Catalans abroad are not comfortable calling themselves Spaniards – usually using the shortcut “from Barcelona” – others have no problems embracing their Spanish identity.

“I usually say that I’m from Spain and that I’m from Barcelona because, frankly, people here don’t know about Catalonia,” said Brooklyn restaurateur Elena Manich. “There is so much culture in Spain, and I love this cultural diversity. I love having Basque blood and Andalusian blood and Catalan blood.”

Manich, 32, opened El Born last year in Greenpoint, seeking to replicate the experience of dining out in Barcelona. The menu is written in Catalan and English, and the staff greets customers with free pa amb tomàquet,a typical starter of bread topped with olive oil and raw tomato.

However, El Born – which is named after a Barcelona neighborhood – also serves dishes and wines from other Spanish regions. “My idea was to open a Spanish restaurant in Brooklyn, where I live, and to promote Spanish and Catalan culture,” said Manich, a visual communications graduate who moved to New York six years ago.

“I thought it would be a fun idea to write the menu in Catalan. Some people said: ‘What are you doing, you’re going to upset the Spaniards coming here,’ but I say culture must be respected, no?”

Manich won’t be able to vote on Nov. 9, but said that if she could she would vote “no” to independence.

Still, while she is critical of Artur Mas’ political maneuvering, she condemns Madrid’s blocking of the vote. “Even though I’m not pro-independence, I’m pro-freedom.”

Other restaurants in New York, such as the Socarrat and Boqueria franchises, offer traditional Catalan treats like butifarra (Catalan sausage), fideuà (noodle paella) and crema catalana custard for dessert. Still, there is not an established meeting place for the Catalan community in the city.

Even at Smithfield Hall, the crowded Barça game broadcasts attract a vast majority of non-Catalans. “Of the nearly 170 paying members in our Penya, only 10 percent are Catalan,” said Getman-Eraso.

“There isn’t a Catalan neighborhood or a Catalan bar in New York,” said Graupera. “Catalans are not the kind of immigrant looking for a place that recreates their homeland. Maybe it’s quite the opposite.”

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