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Spain

Catalan Identity Lessons From A Spanish Son In Switzerland

You shouldn't play with fire, with the deepest feelings of a people. That counts for Catalonia, but also for smaller battles of belonging, like those in Swiss cantons.

Taking another look at Catalonia
Taking another look at Catalonia
Antonio Rodriguez

-Essay-

It's a shame the parents of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy didn't emigrate from Galicia to Switzerland, as my own parents did. We could imagine that helping him better understand and manage the Catalan crisis.

In the 1960s, when my parents' generation moved to Switzerland, they got a taste of what had been for them a forbidden fruit in the Francoist Spain they'd left: democracy. They observed with surprise how the Swiss would go to the polls several times a year to express their opinion about issues as diverse as alcoholism or water pollution.

They soon became a political issue themselves, and they looked on, incredulous, as the Swiss were called to vote on the presence of immigrants in their country. I remember the anxiety of these two Sundays, in 1970 and 1974, as we waited for the result of these initiatives on capping immigration. Most of all, I remember our great relief when the news on TV told us we wouldn't have to pack our bags.

Thanks to their emigration, my parents' generation, the one that had grown up in post-civil war Spain, discovered that democracy wasn't the diabolical invention they'd been told about. In Switzerland, people were able to debate without breaking up with their families, to campaign without beating up the other side's flag bearer and to express their points of view without turning over the fondue pot in the middle of the table.

What a shame that Mariano Rajoy's parents didn't emigrate to the city of Delémont. There, their son would have experienced in full immersion the organization of a self-determination referendum. That was on June 23, 1974, when people from the Jura region voted to secede from the canton of Berne to create their own canton.

In the year that preceded this referendum, I remember how we'd follow the Jurassic People's Festival from our windows. Tens of thousands of people would demonstrate peacefully shouting "Free Jura!" Afterwards, they would meet under the great tent outside the Delémont castle to dance, just like Galicians used to do in their village festivals.

In such an environment, the young Mariano Rajoy would perhaps have identified with the Jurassic separatists, like I did. When I was 10, my teammates in the local junior soccer club destroyed a Bernese flag on the shores of Lake Biel as we headed to a tournament in Geneva. I joined them, thus disobeying my parents who didn't want anything to do with what they called "cosas de Suizos," matters for the Swiss that were none of our business.

My description of these years might start to sound romanticized. I know there also were excess and clashes, but the solution was ultimately reached through democracy. It would have been a lesson for Mariano Rajoy.

Suppression is an admission of weakness, a mistake.

It really is a shame that he didn't grow up in this newly created canton of Jura. In the early 1980s, he would have been able to see from his window, just like I did, dozens of people demonstrating with the senyera, the Catalan flag. The newborn canton of Jura was then paying tribute to the thirst for freedom its people shared with that of Catalonia. It even inaugurated a square dedicated to the "Catalan country" where my neighborhood's playground is. That day, perhaps Mariano Rajoy would have understood that the Spanish, just like the Swiss, don't all speak the same language and don't necessarily have the same flag.

Yes, what a shame that Rajoy didn't emigrate to the canton of Jura. He probably wouldn't have asked, as the then leader of the opposition did, for Spain's Constitutional Court to block the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, approved both by the Spanish Parliament and the Catalans in a referendum. He would have known that you shouldn't play with fire, with the deepest feelings of a people. He certainly would have decided against sending the police against the people who voted on Oct. 1. In the Jura, he would have learned that resorting to suppression is an admission of weakness, a mistake.

Alas, Rajoy didn't emigrate. It's too bad. Had he grown up in Switzerland, the current debate probably wouldn't be about Catalonia's independence but rather on how to make space for it within Spain. Just like the Swiss Confederation did with the Jura region where I was born.

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