Several people have written to ask about my impressions of last weekend’s events in Cataluña. Here they are, a week later, stated as briefly as I can.
When red and yellow flags began to appear in the neighborhood last Friday, I at first paid little attention to them. By Saturday afternoon, there were so many hanging from balconies, windows and rooftops that it was impossible not to notice them. Thinking that there was a national holiday coming up, I wasn’t able to grasp their significance until I asked a local shopkeeper. “It’s not about a holiday,” he said. “Tomorrow on Sunday, the Catalans will be voting in a referendum to decide whether to become independent from the rest of the country, or not. The flags you see represent the solidarity of those of us who oppose Catalan secession and support a unified Spain.”
Early Sunday afternoon I left Paco’s flat and was walking on Avenida Jacinto Benavente overlooking the old riverbed on my way to catch a Metro to Mislata, when I noticed many fellow pedestrians looking behind me in the direction I was coming from. I heard a growling sound, like thunder. It wasn’t a storm, but a procession of hundreds of motorcycles, each rider or passenger waving a Spanish flag. Valencian police on their white motorcycles with flashing blue lights escorted the immense parade as it roared across the Aragón bridge to the other side of the river and the echo of its passing rumble gradually dissolved into the usual Sunday racket of cars, buses and taxis.
An hour later in Mislata, while enjoying a paella with the family and friends of my friend, Isabel Navarro, I told them what I had witnessed. This prompted Isabel to leave the table. She returned a few minutes later with a grave expression. “There are riots in the streets of Barcelona. It’s on the television. Hundreds of injuries. Police too.” For awhile, none of us said a word.
It wasn’t until I read the papers on Monday morning that the weight of the damage began to sink in. Yes, hundreds of people hurt in the streets. Police too. But the most serious injuries are deeper and more threatening. In the view of the central government in Madrid, the vote violated the basic terms of the constitution of 1978; it was illegal. From my point of view as an estranjero, I have to agree. But police preventing voters from casting ballots,confiscating ballot boxes and beating citizens bloody with truncheons is not going to snuff out the desire of many Catalans for self-determination. If anything, it will probably make the desire even more ardent. And make the opposition even more inflexible.
I’m looking all this with the sadness of an outsider who loves Spain, handcuffed, watching a disaster unfold, as if in a dream, with no power to stop it. I feel that a great deal of the blame– and shame– lies with the Rajoy government and the Partido Popular. Politicians are supposed to negotiate settlements before things plunge out of control, but then, I’m only a mute bystander watching a parade of motorcycles. Or better said, I’m helplessly watching a tragedy unfold like a bitter flower, wilted even as it blooms.