To be completely honest, I came to Barcelona as a clueless American. I had heard people mention the use of Catalan instead of Spanish, but I didn’t think much of it. It turns out that it’s a pretty big deal here.
As you roam through Barcelona, it’s impossible to miss the strong presence of Catalan. Street signs, store promotions, and even restaurant menus are all proudly displayed in this mishmash of romance languages. Although it shares some vocabulary with Spanish, its connections to Italian and French make it really stand out. Honestly, the language situation in Spain can get a bit confusing. Essentially, the entire country speaks Spanish, however various autonomous communities within the nation have implemented a co-official language. Barcelona happens to fall in one of these, Catalonia, where Catalan shares official status with Spanish.
This is where things start to get interesting. Due to this co-official status, Catalan is heavily promoted. Students are taught the language in schools, businesses have to create their materials in the language, and it generally serves as a source of identity and pride for residents. This Catalonian identity is so strong that many residents are calling for independence from Spain. You can certainly feel this sentiment in Barcelona, but Girona was something else entirely.
Every street we walked down was decked out in favor of independence. Banners, flags, and ribbons hang from nearly every patio, lamp post, window, and street sign. There were murals dedicated to independence, proclaiming “Libertat” (liberty in Catalan), and a separatist flag that took up nearly the entire side of a building. In fact, the first view we had of the city when we exited the bus was graffiti stating, “Welcome to the Republic of Cataluna.” So what has created such a strong drive for independence? Language (and money).
Putting aside financial reasons for separation, language is a major reason for independence. Coming from the United States, where there is not even an official language let alone two, I haven’t thought very much about the connection between language and culture before. Here in Catalonia, Catalan is much more than a means of communicating: it represents the identity of the community. The citizens here have essentially started an ongoing protest: political affiliations are blatantly displayed outside homes and businesses. In Barcelona, and especially in Girona, citizens take it upon themselves to speak up for their views very publicly and vocally. The flags certainly make for some nice pictures, but they also serve as a reminder of the strength and diversity in identity.