I majored in Spanish Language and Literature at UCLA, and throughout my studies I also took Catalan language and literature classes. When people asked me what I was studying, and I would mention Catalan, they would give me a funny look and say something to the effect of “But isn’t that just a dialect of Spanish?” No, it most certainly is not. Catalan is a Romance language that may have similarities to Spanish, just as it does to Italian, French, and Portuguese, but it is still its own language. I found that most of the people who asked me this had lived through the era of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, and this is just the kind of thinking he would be so pleased to know was still common.
Catalunya is an autonomous region in Spain, probably most famous for being home to Barcelona and for receiving the brunt of Franco’s punishment after the Spanish Civil War. Catalunya sided with the Republicans, who opposed the Nationalists and their general, Franco. Unfortunately for Catalunya, the Nationalists were the winning side, leaving Franco in power for 36 years, until his death in 1975. Throughout this time, Franco made sure Catalunya paid for their folly. He banned the use of the Catalan language in daily life, and enforced the Catalan people to speak it only in the privacy of their own home. The government even posted street signs that said, “Don’t bark. Speak the language of the Spanish empire!” Franco tried to tear apart their culture, their legacy, and their pride, but they persevered. Today, Catalan is spoken by over 3 million people, and it is the co-official language of Catalunya.
When you travel to Barcelona, or any other wonderful city in Catalunya, you will notice something very special: the unification of a people who are very passionate about their language, culture, and history. Most of Barcelona building balconies and windows fly the Senyera (the official Catalan flag) and many also fly the Estelada (the flag flown by supporters of the Catalan independence movement). When you travel to this region, don’t expect a welcome reception should you choose to try your broken Castilian out. The Catalan people are incredibly friendly, but I highly encourage you to learn a few words in Catalan before you go. You can even learn for free on Parla.cat!
When I first became enthralled with Barcelona, I had no idea that Catalan even existed and I was not privy to the hardship that Catalonians have historically suffered through trying to preserve their language and culture in a Castilian dominated country. I went into a store and began speaking in Spanish, and much to my surprise, the clerk answered me in English. When I discovered that UCLA offered classes in Catalan, I was incredibly excited to learn the language from a native barcelonesa and to learn more about the history, culture, and literature.
Since that first trip over 10 years ago (and many trips since then), Barcelona has become one of my favorite places on earth, even slightly above my home city of San Francisco. The region of Catalunya has so much to offer with the Mediterranean coast (check out Barcelona, Tarragona, and Sitges), the vast mountains (spend some time in Montserrat and Ripoll), and beautiful rivers (tour Girona and Besalú). The Catalan people are rooted in a wonderful culture that they are deeply passionate about, they have risen above oppression and attempts at extermination, and are happy to share their passion with those who visit. If you are looking for new places to vacation this year, I encourage you to choose Catalunya.