News Archive 2009-2018

In Barcelona, Ezra Rice ’19 Has Close-Up View of Independence Fight Archives

Ezra Rice with his host mother, Señora Vida

We asked Ezra Rice ’19, who has been abroad this semester studying in Barcelona, to tell us about his experiences living in Spain in the lead-up to and aftermath of the historic Catalan vote for independence. Rice is a history and government major, and an economics minor.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length.

Bowdoin News: What did you study in Barcelona?
Ezra Rice: I tried to take many area specific classes, including classes on the European Union, the culture and history of Barcelona, the United Nations, and the history and politics of Spain. It pays to learn something in class and have it immediately applicable outside school. After reading of the tyranny and suffering caused by Franco, I could go home and hear firsthand accounts of the oppression from my host mother. When the president of Catalonia fled to Belgium, I already understood the extradition process and regulations of the European Union.

BN: Why did you choose this city for your study abroad?
ER: I had never left the continent (besides a mission trip to Haiti) and wanted to maximize my cultural experiences….Furthermore…the Spanish and Catalan culture, geography, people, and food are second to none. It has been a fascinating experience; I could not ask for a more welcoming, distinct, or fun country to spend a semester in.

BN: How aware were you of the brewing political troubles before you arrived? Had you studied them in class?
ER: I had not studied the tensions and growing crisis extensively, but I was well aware of the situation. My brother, Tom, had studied in Barcelona as a junior two years ago and lived with an extremely pro-Catalan family.

BN: What were the days like leading up to the historic vote?

ER: In a word, unsettling. No one knew what the future held. The Spanish High Court declared the vote illegal, the national police raided and confiscated ballots, and two activists were jailed on charges of sedition. While Puigdemont (the president of Catalonia) promised, and the Catalan Parliament passed, legislation invoking independence pending a simple majority, the turnout, consequences, and likelihood of the vote even happening were all unknown.

BN: And what were the days like afterward?
ER: Company headquarters fled Catalonia, discussion of strikes, martial law, insinuations of Spain’s fascist past made, and bewilderment and confusion abounded. It was horribly frustrating and sad to watch a people perceive their country fall apart. Neighbor was pitted against neighbor and friend against friend. I heard stories of brothers, sisters, parents, and children refusing to speak with one another. We face many difficult even fundamental disagreements in the States. Yet we share a common culture and agree our constitution holds ultimate authority. Spain and Catalonia have neither, allowing their fight to continue on for hundreds of years.

BN: How has the tumult affected the university? Your studies?
ER: Following police brutality during the referendum, a general strike, including all non-essential workers, essentially shut down the city in protest. Smaller strikes have lead to sporadic class cancellations. During the height of the crisis, starting at 10 pm, Catalans banged pots and pans out their windows and dropped firecrackers in protest. This proved the larger issue, interfering with homework and sleep. Past that our program attempts to shield us; they, along with the US embassy, send emails warning us where and when protests take place so we can avoid them. In reality, for many these emails serve as information on how to get involved.

BN: Have you engaged in the protests?
ER: Absolutely, I went to many protests, particularly early in the semester. They are always nonviolent, unthreatening and to be honest somewhat festive. Beyond chanting and banner waving, drinking and socializing are widespread. At some point though, you must limit yourself or else fall behind in sleep and studies. If there were ever professional protestors, it’s the Spanish. At the height of the crisis it seemed every other day near a million people were gathering somewhere in the city.

BN: What’s the craziest/most shocking thing you have seen?
ER: During La Diada, a day commemorating Catalonian history and culture, shirts with the word “Sí,” an answer to the question of independence, are sold and worn by thousands in the streets. In the spirit of “being at home in all lands,” I had to have one. Weeks later in a grocery store, while wearing my new shirt, an elderly woman began calling me “ugly,” “disgusting,” and “shameful,” these being the most appropriate of her heckles. Trying my best to both apologize and ignore her, she quickly raised her voice. As things escalated, others began pointing, and telling me to take it off. I retreated to the street and switched my shirt inside out. The shirt has yet to be worn again.

One thought on “In Barcelona, Ezra Rice ’19 Has Close-Up View of Independence Fight

  1. Cristian Nitsch '00

    Dear Madam/Sir: I work as an in-house lawyer for a Spanish energy company in Madrid, having previously been based in Barcelona, and have lived in Spain for many years. The interviewee’s impressions are interesting, and I am glad that they are being shared for what they elucidate about perceptions of the events unfolding in Spain, but what this interview obviously cannot deliver is an explanation of the complex issue of identity among Spaniards, why this issue of self-determination came about, the way in which both sides have succeeded and failed to make their case for independence and unity over the years and what the consequences of their actions would be. Furthermore, while I understand that no harm is meant and that the objective is a summary of impressions, I do take particular issue with (a) the occasionally flippant way in which a very serious issue is being summarized by way of “post-card” replies or experiences arising from someone’s temporary study abroad (for instance, a simple reference in the interview to “police brutality” – a very serious charge that is thrown in the air – is extremely unnerving and worrying without proper context, analysis and explanation) and (b) the lack of discussion or reference to the legal issues at play because they are fundamental in the way that this debate can take place. Certainly, it appears that a large number of Catalans have felt strongly about seeking independence, particularly as the central government may have failed to deal proactively with some of the underlying issues that gave rise to this wish for self-determination (such as improving Cataluña’s autonomy on tax collection, recognizing it as a “nation” and/or more recently sending police to stop a “vote on independence” in the first place) but to date at least half do not want an independent state and more are beginning to doubt it (at least as polls go, which is always difficult to gauge). And here is the rub: wanting something because you feel it very strongly cannot justify the means or indeed the ends in a country subject to the rule of law where the law tells you how to go about self-determination. While the central government could do much more politically in Cataluña and even reconsider some use of force, the idea that a region can flout the national Constitution (which the Catalans themselves adopted democratically by absolute majority in 1978) by unilaterally calling for self-determination (when the Constitution requires a national plebiscite) is anathema to the rule of law. Reasons for self-determination really only exist in the ambit of oppression or colonialism for which see ICJ case commentary or indeed examples from Canadian jurisprudence on the issue of Quebec. But these do not apply here even under generous concessions to those Catalans who believe in their “plight”: the autonomy and freedoms enjoyed by Cataluña are practically unequaled elsewhere in Europe for a region within an essentially federal system. On a personal level, I have always said to my “independently minded” Catalan friends that I have struggled to understand their endgame on a rational level, particularly if establishing independence would mean at least for some time leaving the European Union (and the currency) and setting a precedent for other towns and cities even within Cataluña to make themselves independent from their own region, but that of course is worthy of debate as long as you first understand the legal framework within which you must have that debate: your own Constitution. If by a national referendum ALL Spaniards (i.e., also those outside of Cataluña) have a say and vote as a significant majority for Cataluña to become independent then so be it. Whether Cataluña would be better off is another issue altogether. Think of Ohio or California or Texas or Florida one day deciding that they are going to break away because they do not like their cut of the federal subsidies. That evidently raises a lot of issues particularly with the history the US has already lived and evidently requires broad national discussion. So, my main message is this: I suggest readers look elsewhere and do more significant research on something so serious being lived in Spain (with some implications worldwide) and to remember the legal order itself adopted by the Catalans before coming to any conclusions from this interview or, indeed, the interviewee’s t-shirt. Cristian Nitsch ´00

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