Catalonia, Elated but Fearful, Braces for Independence Vote

That it has progressed to this dangerous point is testament to the power of a nationalist narrative. It has unfolded so naturally, older people worried, that the young did not fully understand the risk that they were taking.

“You see how it is going to end,” said Mr. Juanico’s mother, Serafina Sabaté, who is 89.

She said it sharply: Under the fascist government of Francisco Franco, her father was imprisoned for six years for producing fabric for the republican army. She asked her grandson, who was elated about the vote, what he would do if the government sent tanks.

“Look, we have lived through a war,” Ms. Sabaté said, her voice shaking. “If people go to the street, if someone does something against the state, they will jump on him. Anyone who has lived through the war wants these days to pass by.”

The city of Terrassa, an old textile manufacturing center just outside Barcelona, seemed preternaturally calm last week, the sidewalk cafes full and a yearly theater festival underway. Under the surface, however, there was the sense of an approaching collision – a collision that was days away, and then hours.

The mayor had mostly disappeared from public view, explaining in a Facebook post that he had come under a torrent of abuse when he had tried to remain neutral on the vote. Elementary-school principals had received letters warning them they might face sedition charges if they opened their doors for voting. Teenage activists — joyful, full of expectation — talked about blocking security forces with their bodies.

“We have been waiting for this moment for 300 years,” said Guillem Carbonell Vidal, 18, who is studying to be a theater technician. He was excited, and also sleep-deprived, having spent the last week running from one political meeting to another, debating such matters as whether to print a new currency and nationalize the banks.

“I am 18, and I will be able to live the way I want,” he said. “We will be able to build a new future. We have to build a society that is anti-patriarchal, where women don’t have to suffer violence, which anyway is created by men, and where the working class has power.”


Jordi Juanico Sabaté, 59, a counselor in a psychiatric hospital. “All my life, I had the dream of dying in an independent country,” he said. Credit Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

The last few weeks, he said, have been “a dream.”

Opinion polls suggest that about half of Catalonia’s 7.5 million people support breaking away from Spain, but the separatists’ influence ballooned in 2015, when independence parties won a majority in the region’s Parliament. There was already resentment that the Spanish government was siphoning off too much of the region’s wealth.

Madrid — which allowed a nonbinding referendum on independence in 2014 — has taken a hard line this time, arguing that a unilateral act of separation flies in the face of the rule of law, and sets a dangerous precedent for other European countries struggling with similar movements.

Ask “independistas” why the need to break away from Spain is so urgent, and the answer goes back to 1714, when Philip V of Spain captured Barcelona during the War of Spanish Succession, bringing an end to the Catalan principality. This was a period of consolidation across Europe, as strong monarchies absorbed smaller, weaker neighbors. In Catalonia, this is not obscure history: It is common, these days, to hear the archaic insult “botifler,” which means a supporter of Philip V and his ally, the French house of Bourbon.

Many Catalans have grown to adulthood believing that they were, simply, not Spanish. Under Franco’s dictatorship, which ended in 1975, the government tried to stamp out all Catalan institutions and the language, and thousands of people were executed in purges. Virtually no Catalan family emerged from that period unscarred.

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