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A Journey to the Comarca of Osona, Catalonian Independentist Ground Zero

By Irene Praga

In the comarca of Osona, 70 km from Barcelona, the numeronym “1-O” is ubiquitous. “1-O” honours the region’s first and, for the time being, last unilateral and illegal independence referendum which took place on 1st October 2017. The development of the separatist story of Catalonia is well known: in the referendum’s aftermath, President Carles Puigdemont fled to Brussels, those in the leadership were immediately arrested, tried and given lengthy prison sentences. The so-called 155 Law was promulgated in the region of Catalonia, temporarily suppressing its autonomy in favour of the central government in Madrid. The referendum symbolizes the climax of a story, the last page of which has not been written yet. More than two years later, “1-0” still embodies the perennial hope of thousands of people calling for independence and the end of the Spanish authorities’ oppression. Their fight is far from being over. In this article, I travel to the heart of the movement, to the yellow-coloured towns of Vic and Taradell.

‘Rodaderas’ trains connect Barcelona with its vastly populated, mountainous periphery. Barcelona faces the luminous Mediterranean: the sea is an open door steadily enriching the town with its tidal renewal. “I was born in the Mediterranean/ and you approach, and you leave/ After kissing my village/ Playing with the tide” read the lyrics of “Mediterráneo” by Joan Manuel Serrat, recently awarded the title of the greatest Spanish song ever written (RTVE). Drawn into the eternal ebb and flow, citizens of the world come and settle in turning the oxymoron “cosmopolitans at home” into a plain, corporeal reality Barcelona’s seeming boundlessness only mirrors its diversity and tolerance,, made manifest at every corner and with every smile. Multilingualism is the source of local pride and joy: Spanish, Catalan, English or Chinese are all sharing the same common space of brotherhood.

On my way to Sants train station, I walk with my backpack to the neighbourhood of “L’Eixample”, an eclectic, versatile area where one might find painter’s Joan Miro sculpture next to a huge Korean supermarket. Sants is the daily destination of a large part of the mountainous periphery. It is six p.m. and large crowds gather to take my (apparently-always-delayed) R3 train. Despite the fact that the town of Vic is only one hour and fifteen minutes away from Sants train station, it is fascinating how much the humanscape changes in such a short distance. Getting off the train, two middle-aged women wearing reflective vests ask me something in Catalan that I do not understand. I excuse myself in Spanish, and they reply: “may you take us a picture?”. It was then that I noticed a monochromatic crowd walking around the station square holding home-made wooden banners in complete silence. “Llibertat presos politics” (“Free political prisoners”), “Som republica” (“We are republic”) or “dignita” (“dignity”) were among the slogans they carried. I realised that the two women were leading the so-called local Committee for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), and walking silently in circles to protest against Madrid’s infringement of Catalan policies. The 155 Law and the refusal of the former central government to engage in dialogue has stalled the conflict and even moved it backwards. The speechless demonstration seeks to address separatist demands in the public space of the town. In the comarca of Osona, public space belongs to the CDR. On every bench, tree or corner, a yellow ribbon, the movement’s logo, reminds passengers not to forget the word “independence”; pictures of political prisoners’ faces decorate walls and doors. It is no coincidence that during the last regional elections of May 2019, 78% of voters supported separatist parties in Vic (JxCat, ERC, CUP)

Rosalía, my Couchsurfing host, is waiting for me with her car. She has kindly accepted to drive me to her house in the tiny town of Taradell. In our 15-minute journey, she briefly describes herself: coming from Madrid, she arrived by chance to the comarca of Osona five years ago, coinciding with the ever-increasing popularity of the separatist movement. Without a word of Catalan, she faced difficulties in getting involved in the local community. Her two children, aged 11 and 15, rapidly learnt the language at school, and now they are in between Madrid and Barcelona, two regions divided by more than “El Clásico”, the legendary football match between two fierce rivals. Rosalía is an administrative worker at a gourmet sausage meat factory (indeed the signature smell of the comarca of Osona) where she speaks Spanish with her colleagues “But wherever I go people would talk to me in Catalan. It is the norm here. If you don’t speak Catalan you are pigeonholed as a foreigner right away”, she posits. Whereas Catalan is literally a liquid language – “l” is the prevailing sound –, Spanish language grounds on the Arabic “j” and the double “R”. Accents here define your home belonging. “Accents, and the lack of ‘bares’ [Spanish pubs to drink red wine and eat ‘tapas’]”, remarks Rosalía. She greatly misses going to a “bar”, which according to her, extremely differs from going to a restaurant, a formal, premeditated Catalan “social experience”, in her own words. 

In Taradell, where Rosalía lives and her two teenagers attend high school, the “ajuntament” (council) is infused with the colour yellow. With nine members of the nationalist left-wing ERC and four of JuntxCat, the local council’s tone is yellow monochromatic: statistics and praxis show unity under the “Estelada”, the unofficial flag flown by Catalan independence supporters. The “Estelada” and yellow ribbons decorate the monolingual town of Taradell, in which “ayuntamiento” (council, Spanish) is not the same as “ajuntament”. If someone gets lost in Taradell (as I did), “calle mayor” (main street) does not have the same connotations as “carrer”, the accurate Catalan word. Speaking of getting lost in translation, Taradell is not very receptive to travellers who have lost their way. The few older citizens I met did not seem used to meeting foreigners in the silent and empty streets.

That said, I was looking for an authentic Taradell experience, therefore I went to the hairdresser’s. A smiley local welcomed me in Catalan, I then excused myself in Spanish: “I’m sorry, I do not speak Catalan”, I said. Even though she said it was fine, my language difficulties prevent me from engaging in the free-flowing conversation of Taradell locals which was taking place around me. Notwithstanding, I was able to prove that not everyone is Spanish-Catalan bilingual in the comarca of Osona – actually, I dare say that almost no one is bilingual, at least those I got the chance to talk with. I reckon one’s mother tongue is always more vital than any imposed language, the hairdresser having issues talking in Spanish. As I fully realised while getting my hair cut, language shapes the world (as well as the “ajuntament” in Taradell). 

I took the ‘Rodaderas’ train from Vic back to Barcelona the following morning. Somewhere in between the two towns, a fictional border divides the monolingual mountainous Catalonia from the cosmopolitan home-of-world- citizens that is Barcelona. It is no coincidence that Barcelona and Taradell are two sides of the same coin of a political conflict whose end is far from being written.

Feature Image by Irene Praga

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