“Catalonia didn’t exist as it does now. Institutions and civil liberties were abolished in 1714. That had long-lasting consequences. In the 18th, 19th century living conditions were hard. Life expectancy was below 40 years old. The first thing people had in mind was food and survival,” quietly explains pro-Catalan independence supporter, Sergi Trias Llimós, in between taking sips of his mint tea. He is perched on a stool in a dimly lit cafe in the centre of Groningen.
“I will tell the story from my point of view” confesses the 26 year PHD student, pointing to his own bias. RUG pays for him to conduct demography research, the study of statistics. The opportunity has afforded him the chance to live in what he considers to be a comfortable city. His academic achievements to date are highly commendable. He begins to list them in a softly spoken manner, displaying much humility for someone who has achieved so much in a relatively short time. He holds an undergraduate degree in Economics and also a masters from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. At 23 years old, he left Barcelona, relocating in Warsaw, Poland, where he began yet another masters in demography.
The tall and pallid introvert hails from Torelló, a small town in Catalonia, where “everyone speaks Catalan”. At School he was taught in Catalan, although he also studied English and Spanish. For those that may be unaware explains Sergi, Catalan has differing dialects and lexis. He is adamant that culture and language help to preserve identity, which accounts for why the Institute of Catalan Studies began to standardise the language.
Historically, the national day of Catalonia is celebrated on the 11th September. Sergi describes how it harks back to the war of the Spanish succession. A peace treaty was signed, following years between the troops Bourbon King Philip V of Spain in 1714 and the Catalan army. This conflict resulted in a loss of the Catalan constitutions. However, in 1886 it later became a celebrated holiday. Sergi explains that during a dark and turbulent period under dictator Franco, Catalan history, cultural and linguistic expression was suppressed. “My parents never learnt Catalan in school”, he adds slowly, carefully selecting his words and not opening up too much. Following Franco’s death in 1975 the regional government of Catalonia restored the date as a national holiday.
“There have been big protests for the last 5 or 6 years, since around 2010, every year” says Sergi. He continues that 1.5 million people took to the streets of Barcelona on 11th September, clamouring for independence. Living in Groningen he was unable to attend the gatherings back home. Although through Facebook a group of 10 Catalans came together to mark the occasion in Groningen. A photo was taken of them with the independent flag of Catalonia. “You’re able to express yourself better and they are able to understand you better, we are in similar situations,” he smiles reflecting on success the day.
Recently more than a million Catalans demanded a referendum on independence and following several attempts voting proved unsuccessful. For Sergi his priority is to remain politically active, despite living Groningen. He could vote in the Netherlands at but doesn’t “want to go the Spanish embassy to give personal data and to pay money”. He organises his flights home around the political situation.
“To be able to decide things for ourselves”, cites Sergi as the primary reason why he demands for greater autonomy. This clamour for change is something he believes unites him with other pro-independence supporters. Sergi becomes more circumspect, slowing down his normal speech, as he lists the perceived bureaucracy from the Spanish government. At present he feels Catalans are discriminated in many aspects, as they cannot govern themselves. He explains that the law against energetic poverty was prevented by the national government. As much of Spain is suffering financial hardship, the regional government of Catalonia looked to create a safety net to subsidise the poor, who are unable to pay the water or electricity fees. The Catalan parliament banned bullfighting, only for it to later be annulled annulled by the Spanish Constitutional Court.
He cites an economic factor as another important reason for independence, as there is a disparity around the tax that regional governments pay. The Basque country taxes its citizens and in turn pays the national government. Catalonia wanted a similar agreement, but the Spanish government denied it. “They should take into account that Spain is formed by different regions,with different needs” says Sergi.
One of Sergi’s greatest pastimes is football, as he begins to open up as his speech gains momentum. He is a supporter of Barcelona, having attended games at the Camp Nou. For him it is inextricably linked to the Catalan identity. “Més que un club”, translates as “more than a club”. It represents the solidarity Catalans shared, whilst only Spanish was allowed to be spoken. Moreover, during dictatorships of Rivera, from 1923-1930 and Franco 1939-1875 during the whole cultural identity was denied.
Sergi advises excitedly how Pep Guardiola, the ex-player and coach of Barcelona is the embodiment of Pro-Catalan independence. Sergi explains that he was extremely successful winning 14 titles, always displaying the pride in his cultural heritage by conversing with local media in Catalan. Last year in September he was symbolically listed in last place as a politician for one of the main parties, Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) party. The president of the Spanish Sports Council (CSD) criticised the move as “manipulation” of voters. Sergi believes there is an anti-catalan agenda within some sections of the Spanish press, forcing silence upon Catalan players representing the Spanish national team. Recently Gerard Piqué , the Barcelona defender, was alleged to have cut of the Spanish flag from a sleeve in a disrespectful sign of anti-Spanish sentiment. The journalist later had to apologise as this was never the case. “They look to magnify any situation”, he says whilst rolling his eyes in disgust.
Despite living in Groningen he doesn’t feel too far away from home and the push for independence. “It is something that now goes beyond the limits of Catalonia. It’s down to the language and culture.” Ultimately he concludes that he is able to maintain this by regularly gathering with other Catalans, all of whom politically and regionally indentify with him. Sergi ends the conversation by explaining they are all meeting for the next Barcelona game against Manchester City on Wednesday.