NYC’s Spaniards Debate Catalan Independence Movement

In Washington Square Park on Oct. 7, protesting Spanish police brutality against Catalonians (Photo by Talib Visram for Voices of NY)

While they share concern for the police brutality that occurred during a referendum vote on Oct. 1, Catalan-born New Yorkers remain divided over the political movement for their state’s independence from Spain.

At one particular protest against the brutality, Catalan natives gathered in a small section of Washington Square Park last Saturday, wearing striped yellow and red attire and draped in the region’s “senyera” flags.

“None of us were expecting it. We were all in shock,” said Andreu Corominas, a member of the National Assembly of Catalonia, an unofficial group that seeks an independent Catalonia. The group helped organize the event, but Corominas said it was a protest against police brutality, rather than a rally for independence.

Catalonia has long been considering secession from Spain, and the momentum has accelerated since the election of Carles Puigdemont, president of Catalonia, in January. But the Spanish government sent in the National Police to silence independence voters, resulting in violence in the Catalan capital of Barcelona. Videos spread across the web that depicted police beating voters with truncheons and firing rubber bullets.

“I don’t believe in violence, especially in a democratic country,” said Camila Falquez, a native Catalan, using air quotes when uttering the last two words. While she was surprised by the actions of the police and the government, she said many older people were not. She spoke to her boyfriend’s father on the phone on the day of the turbulence, and he calmly said, “This is not the first time I’ve had to hide.”

She added that some are worried that this is an early sign of the revival of dictatorial rule, which Spain experienced under Franco for 36 years. Another Catalan, Marta Plana, echoed this notion, saying that her grandmother also stayed home instead of voting, since she’d personally seen this sort of violence during the Spanish Civil War.

But when the conversation moved from police aggression to independence, views differed. Falquez expressed her desire to stay a part of Spain. “I love Spain with all my heart. It’s a country full of beauty and tradition,” she said. From her viewpoint, the answer is Spain recognizing the asset it has in Catalonia. “Spain should want to protect Catalonia. It adds richness.”

Other Catalans expressed a complete lack of allegiance to Spain, saying that they saw it as a neighboring country. Adria Quingles explained the emotional motives for independence. “Spain still has a flavor from Franco,” said Quingles. “I don’t identify myself as a Spaniard.”

Spanish Benevolent Society (Photo by Talib Visram for Voices of NY)

Further uptown on 14th Street, in an area of Manhattan once known as Little Spain, the Spanish Benevolent Society has since 1868 helped Spanish immigrants settle into New York life. Robert Sanfiz, executive director of the society, is a proud Catalan, but he deeply disagreed with separation from Spain. He added that it’s not rare for Spaniards to feel more allegiance to their region than to their country, but said that should not be a reason to separate.

“Everybody in Spain thinks of their region before their country. They all have different cultures and customs. But they all like the same things: their jamón, their tinto de verano, their calimocho,” he said, talking of ham, sangria and a wine-and-cola drink from the Basque Country. “I feel deep allegiance to Spain. I feel deep love for Catalonia. In these times, instead of thinking of separating, unity is the way of the future.”

José Navajas Trobat, a radio journalist from Andalucía, in the south of Spain, was visiting the center. He now splits his time between the beach town of Marbella and New York. A Spaniard but not from Catalonia, he was most concerned with the lack of legality of a separatist vote, since it goes against the Spanish constitution. “They are a member of a team. In soccer, a central defender can’t say, ‘I’m going to play alone.’ Suddenly, in the middle of a match? This is not legal.”

The soccer comparisons continued, as Trobat explained how he thought separatists wanted the best of both worlds. He said that the most important Catalan brand is FC Barcelona, but that many fans hate Spain and yet want “Barça” to play in the Spanish league. “They want to do independence à la carte.”

At the protest, Quingles was, in fact, wearing a Barcelona football shirt. He’s a big supporter of his club team, but has no allegiance to the Spanish national team. “I’m a lifelong fan of whoever plays against Spain.”

On Oct. 10, Carles Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia, officially declared independence at a parliament session, but said it would be delayed to make room for talks with the Spanish government. To Trobat, that announcement seemed vague – just as it did to Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, who has demanded clarification. But Trobat added that negotiations are crucial. “If, one day, the Catalans want to leave, and everybody agrees with the negotiations, I really don’t mind if they go.”

If legality is the priority for Trobat, avoiding violence is the main concern for Sanfiz – even if the price for that peace is Spain’s union. “Sending in the police was a mistake. I’d rather independence without violence. Priority number one is no violence,” said Sanfiz.

Talib Visram is in the 2018 class of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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