Sí, se puede

Immigrants say ‘Yes’ to Catalonia

The movement for independence from Spain is increasingly diverse and multicultural
Photo: Jordi Payà

On the day of the Catalan referendum, Ana Surra woke up early. “I voted, and then I stayed at the voting station from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., with my neighbours, to protect the ballot boxes and my vote,” she explains. Then she returned to Madrid, where she sits as a deputy for the left independence party, the Republican Left of Catalonia.

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This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet and has been translated.

Surra, originally from Uruguay, has lived in Barcelona for 12 years. She is the founder of the citizens group Si, amb nosaltres (Yes, with us), which is made up of immigrants who support Catalan independence. She is one of the most visible faces of an unusual nationalist movement — one that is proudly multicultural.

“Almost all the Pakistanis, Indians or Bangladeshis living in Spain are here. It’s a little laboratory of coexistence.”

In recent decades, Catalonia has attracted hundreds of thousands of newcomers, primarily from the Maghreb in North Africa, South Asia and Latin America. “Starting in the 1970s, many other countries restricted immigration, and the rules were more strict than in Spain. In that era, there was more work in Catalonia,” explains Mustapha Aoulad Sellam, an anti-racist activist born in Morocco who has lived in Catalonia for more than 20 years.

Mercè Amor teaches Catalan language and culture to immigrant women in a working-class neighborhood of Barcelona. “Men arrive, find work and do what they need to in order to bring their families legally,” she explains. “Once there were some families [from South Asia] here, others followed because they knew people. Almost all the Pakistanis, Indians or Bangladeshis living in Spain are here. It’s a little laboratory of coexistence.”

Diversity and independence

Catalonia has become a veritable land of welcome.

“There are people from 187 countries living in Catalonia, speaking over 300 languages,” says Surra. “Here, we see integration as an attempt to live together with respect for the culture and religion of everyone. We have to confront racism and xenophobia together, and tell people they can live in their culture without separating from others. It takes work, but more and more immigrants see themselves in our societal project.”

Although there are no official statistics on the number of immigrant independence supporters, the public face of the movement is more and more diverse. One of Surra’s parliamentary colleagues, Senator Robert Masih Nahar, was born in India.

Many from the Maghreb are also rallying to the cause. “In the community of people with origins in the Maghreb, there’s a big diversity of perspectives with respect to independence,” says Aoulad Sellam. “Of those interested in politics, a good number are for ‘Yes.’ Some are Berber sovereigntists who understand the struggle of Catalans to keep their language and culture.”

“We live in a time of multiple belongings, and the Catalonians have understood this. The real Quebec sovereigntists also know that we’re going nowhere with ethnic arguments.

He adds that people from his community who are in favour of independence feel welcome among other supporters of independence. “When people of foreign origins come to demonstrations, we are encouraged.” In his experience, people from diverse backgrounds are less welcome in the unionist camp.

Memories of fascism

Considering the rising power of the far right across Europe, from the National Front in France to Golden Dawn in Greece, to Poland (where 60,000 demonstrators recently called for a “white Poland”) and the rest of Spain, how did Catalonia, at a moment when about half of its citizens want to build an autonomous country, mostly avoid the identitarian trap?

For historian Xavier Casals, the reasons are as much historic as demographic.

“The Catalan independence movement has always evolved in opposition to Spanish ultra-nationalism, the same kind of ultra-nationalism that gave us the fascist regimes of Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco,” he explains. Franco, who led Spain from 1939 to 1975, went so far as banning the teaching of the Catalan language, forcing Catalan parents to give Spanish first names to their children, and even prohibiting certain Catalan dances.

For Surra, there are also practical reasons. She hopes to see the birth of a Catalonian republic that will control its own finances and immigration.

“Independence is not just a question of historic injustices, of the Castillian invasion of 1714 and all that,” she explains. “There’s also the idea that we pay too much in taxes to Madrid and that we do not receive enough services. In terms of immigrants who work here, who use the health services and who send our kids to school, it touches us as well. . . . All this makes it that there’s a large number of immigrants who struggle for independence. It’s absolutely our struggle.”

Lessons for Quebec

Charles Mordret, an activist for Quebec sovereignty and a former candidate for the Bloc Québécois, lived in Barcelona for a year and saw up close the rise of the independence movement. He came back inspired, particularly by the way in which Catalonians of different political and cultural backgrounds put their differences aside to pursue the project of independence. He also notes that arguments around identity are not instrumentalized by Catalonians working for independence. “Independence should not always be based on identitarian arguments,” Mordet said. “We live in a time of multiple belongings, and the Catalonians have understood this. The real Quebec sovereigntists also know that we’re going nowhere with ethnic arguments. All movements have their bigots, but it’s not their arguments that should motivate us.”

Ana Surra is spending her time preparing for Catalan elections on Dec. 21, where a new parliament will be chosen. “Until then, we’re going to continue working for the republic and showing the world that we are in a majority. Then, we can negotiate an amicable separation from Spain.”

For the immigrant families who follow Catalan teacher Mercè Amor, the national question is nevertheless relegated to the backburner. “With respect to independence our families are not asking who is right or wrong, but rather will we be able to work and live normally?”

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