I am sitting at the dinner table with my Catalan host family. The TV is turned to the local news but these images are the same on every news channel in every country. My host mother tells me they never keep the TV on during meals, but tonight is different. The father eats nothing. His wife begins scooping salad onto his plate but he shakes his head, does not touch the bread or cheese, does not even pour water into his glass. He says nothing, only stares at the passing scenes of Spanish police officers, maybe trying to interpret the blood pattern sprayed across their helmets, the type of medium velocity spatter that results from dealing a blow just lighter than a gunshot. He keeps his elbows on the table, hands clasped in front of his mouth and thumbs tucked under his chin to ensure his head stays above his shoulders. I assume he is reflecting on his earlier arrest, how Spanish police detained him for hours because he is a Catalan officer, because he tried to keep their helmets stainless.
"To understand how analysts interpret bloodstains, one must first understand the basic properties of blood." - A Simplified Guide to Bloodstain Pattern Analysis
I arrived in Spain on what my host family called “an unfortunate date.” They also called it a date that would forever be part of Spanish history, forever be taught in Catalan schools if Catalans are allowed the privilege of teaching their own history in their own schools. Catalonia has been fighting for independence from the Spanish nation for years. They have protested peacefully through silent demonstrations, created the human version of the Catalan flag by lining up in the streets according to red, yellow, blue, or white shirts and remained united from northern to southern Catalonia. It is a region by political boundaries but an entire country by cultural identity. Catalans have their own language, though since most of them know Catalan, Spanish, English, and French, their dialogue is an exclusive mixed verse. Catalans roast chestnuts on Halloween and draw faces on firewood at Christmas, calling the wood El Caganer (the crapper) and the kids hoping it will turn up cookies and chocolates. Catalans dance the sardana, hold fiestas where they compete to see who can build the tallest human tower; they even banned bullfighting before the Spanish government overturned the law. Catalans want to honor and preserve their heritage so their children’s grandchildren will still be drinking Cava and praising Gaudí, still remembering the fight their ancestors undertook to uphold their culture.
On Sunday, October 1st, the day I landed at the Barcelona airport, Catalonia held an election for an independence referendum. If the majority voted in favor of the referendum, Parliament would be forced to take steps toward a Constitutional amendment that permits Catalonia to secede. The Spanish government is not in favor, and had been attempting to halt the election. As Sunday neared, Catalans hid ballot boxes – clear plastic tubs with a slot in the lid – at polling locations around their region. They made signs baring quotes about peace and persistence then took them to to the streets with their family and neighbors. Meanwhile, the Spanish government hid more than 4,000 military police officers in ships dispatched to Catalonia. Their ordered mission: prevent voting.
And Catalans still showed up. They left their homes to leave their mark on a square piece of paper asking simply if Catalonia should be independent. They checked the box labeled Sí or the box labeled No.
"Hallelujah to making everyone uncomfortable,
to the terrible manners of truth,
to refusing to clean the blood off the plate."
- Andrea Gibson, Etiquette Leash
But democracy in 2017 cannot be as easy as a straight-edged square. Not even in the United States where the presidential nominee with the majority of votes lost to the inept runt of a monster litter who is probably unable to read the First Amendment without stopping to tweet about how wrong it is. He - with his roundabout support of a white ethnostate, his ignorance towards suffering and anything not branded in gold, his abuse of woman - he might be trekking the same path as Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator who attempted to cleanse Spain of all ideals and identities he did want. Franco ordered the murder of anyone who opposed him by means of concentration camps or execution, the arrest of woman fleeing abusive husbands; he banned the Catalan language and the sardana, banned every thread of every identity that he did not like.
This occurred fifty years ago. It is happening again.
I am sitting next to my host mother, Marta, in her parent’s living room, listening to their fully Catalan conversation about politics. I do not understand their words but I understand the redness in their faces when their voices rise, the way Marta throws her arms up before bowing her head into her hands, the vibrato in her voice as she slips into tears for just two held breaths. Her father reminds me of my grandfather, leaned forward in his recliner, elbows on knees - one of which is scarred from thigh to shin - passionate in his ideals but always willing to listen. Marta is like my own mother: intelligent and humble but fearless to the strength of her voice, and she reacts viscerally to suffering. The TV is turned to the news. I have a feeling everyone’s TV is turned to the news. At some point they laugh, and Marta turns to me to say “we must have humor in these times.”
When Barcelona fell victim to a terrorist attack earlier this year, the Spanish government sent very few police officers to aid in the immediate and prolonged devastation, a time when Catalonia was relying on their national government to provide aid in defending their major city, rescuing lives, and managing the aftermath. Even though the national government knew an attack was likely. U.S intelligence had warned Spanish officials that ISIS had been planning to target tourist-dense cities like Barcelona. Intelligence even stated the exact location - Las Ramblas - where ISIS was likely to strike. On the day of the Las Ramblas attack, 14 people were killed and more than 130 injured from a van driven into a large crowd; the next day, another five men drove into a crowd therefore killing and injuring even more people. But Spanish police and officials held back.
They showed up, however, on the day of the independence referendum election. Catalans went to their proper polling places to cast their vote; some gathered in the streets to show unity in their desire to be independent, some brought their children to remember this historic day; some were 80 or 90-year-old women and men recalling the Franco era and celebrating the possibility of finally leaving Spain’s control. On this day, the thousands of officers sent by the Spanish government were the cause of immediate and prolonged devastation, not the aides. They operated under the order to not allow Catalans the democratic right to vote. Whatever means necessary. So where a crowd of voters sat still on a sidewalk, Spanish officers approached and began beating their entire bodies with crowbars. When a woman walked up the steps to a school, officers pushed her to the ground before throwing her down the stairs. They fired rubber bullets at those whose only weapon was resilience. Elderly people were grabbed from their families and drug by the throat across the street. People standing with their arms up in surrender were knocked unconscious. A man extended a single carnation, Catalonia's signature flower, to an officer as a peace offering. The officer looked at the man as if he were the stain left from week-old roadkill before a rainstorm, then shoved him back into the crowd. Reporters tried to interview a grey-haired woman with her mouth hanging open, saying nothing, a thick river of blood running from her hairline to her chin; instead of answering, she wilted into sobs.
Rubbing petals between your fingers leaves
a stain of pollen and amputation.
No Catalan who stepped out to vote was safe from the violence by Spanish police. Resulting in more than 350 injuries, election day proved more dangerous than a terrorist attack.
At a protest in Granollers, a small city in Catalonia, I am watching a giant Catalan flag being passed overhead. The teenage boys in front me, elderly woman behind me, and little girls on their dad’s shoulders are all reaching their arms up to help move the flag forward. There are cheers and whistles and chants, the Catalan national anthem as well as silence. Most people are either wearing a flag pinned around their neck like a cape or waving one from the same arms that were beat against two days before. I ask Marta why there are also tractors. She tells me that 300 years ago, when Catalans first went to war for their freedom, there were not enough soldiers to fight the Spanish empire. So farmers turned into soldiers, carrying their axes to battle in place of rifles they did not own. The war ended with Catalonia’s defeat and Barcelona fell to the Spanish empire. Now, Catalonia celebrates the defeat as inspiration to keep moving, and they bring tractors to remember that they move together.
When the election was over and ballots were counted, about 90% of Catalans had checked Sí. The Spanish government is still denying the election's credibility, still undaunted by the opposition. But Catalans are hoping that the European Union intervenes with a rational plan of action; they are still flying flags from their terraces and keeping the television turned to the news. Marta tells me this is no longer a ballot issue, but a human rights issue. She and her husband discuss the fate of their hometown as their nine-year-old son draws pictures in a box fort he built from the remains of a sofa delivery. He wrote "leave your shoes" on the cardboard. How magical it would be if our borders could be recylced for red carantions, if we let everyone in so long as they leave their blood-soiled boots.
No podran res darant d'un poble unit, alegre, i combatiu:
"They will not take anything from our united, peaceful, and combative town."