Did you miss me? I missed you: I’ve been traveling pretty much nonstop since the beginning of July, and am glad to be home (in body at least—my spirit needs to complete the journey through nine time zones).
I had speaking engagements in Barcelona and London, and in between, vast conversations about culture and politics. In memory, they have the aspect of those cartoons where the backdrops change—now palm trees, now snow-covered hills—while the characters carry on chasing each other: one long dialogue with frequent changes of scene. My next few posts will be about what I learned from my travels.
One thing that stands out is the depth of commonality it was easy to experience with people whose cultures and circumstances are hugely different from my own, but whose commitments and preoccupations feel the same. One of my gigs in Spain was addressing a large group of civil servants employed in culture, education and related sectors by the municipality of Sant Boi, about half an hour outside of Barcelona. There, an enlightened public official is pursuing a policy of “transversalidad” (transversality, which we might translate as “cross-cutting collaboration,” getting people out of their departmental “silos” to work together). My topic was “social inclusion,” which is the current European way of describing efforts to include and support immigrants and members of other cultural groups that have been excluded from a fair share of social goods or access.
In Catalonia, this inclusionary project is complicated. Catalan culture was strongly suppressed during the Franco period, which didn’t begin to unfreeze until the dictator’s death in 1975 and the adoption of a democratic Spanish constitution in 1978. Catalan language and history have been increasingly stressed in schools, animated by a sense of righteous restoration of what has been lost. But this protectionist impulse has unfolded at a time of increasing economically driven immigration, with most newcomers from North Africa and Latin America, who may not have much interest in the Catalonian cultural project.
Spain has benefited from immigration, with newcomers making up about 12 percent of the population (it’s about 11 percent in the U.S.). For example, as one of my colleagues explained, newcomers’ contributions have staved off the collapse of the social insurance system: Spain has a low birthrate, well below the replacement level, and without newcomers and their families contributing to the economy, the system was projected to run dry. So, as in so many places closer to my home, the issue has a double edge, as I described to my audience in Sant Boi:
[Y]our situation in Catalonia is unusual because you have been involved in the big project of restoring Catalan culture, the region’s heritage culture. Such cultural restoration is also happening in some other places, primarily in post-colonial societies where language, spiritual practice and other cultural elements were suppressed by a colonial power. But most of those regions are not coping with immigration at the same time; they are more likely to lose population than to gain it, whereas Catalonia is gaining immigrants.
Your situation is unusual because it seems to be the opposite of that confronted by most minority cultures: generally, the oldest people are the repositories of cultural knowledge while the youngest have the most remote relationship to heritage. But here in Catalonia, 85 percent of young people between 10 and 14 can write in Catalan, whereas for the entire population, it’s about 50 percent. Older people have longer cultural memories and are the repositories of lived experience, but younger ones may have more day-to-day facility in the language and culture as it is being developed.
Your situation is also complicated by a conflicted relationship with Spain, which might be symbolized by the question of whether Catalonia is its own nation (nacion) or a nationality (nationalidad) within the Spanish nation. There is a painful history of cultural suppression before the restoration of democracy, and imagine that creates an intricate ambivalence, a simultaneous desire to be connected and to be protective.
So in a sense, the tangled relationship between Catalonia and Spain mirrors the tangled feelings that arise between new, non-Catalan immigrants and those who feel protective of Catalan cultural heritage. This is undeniably challenging: it is natural to want to protect what you have, especially if it has been threatened. Yet if the predominant social atmosphere is one of suspicion and resistance, the result is perpetual alienation and conflict, escalating fear and mistrust.
You have a very difficult and noble task, which is to behave toward newcomers to your community as you wish others beyond Sant Boi to behave toward you: with respect and a spirit of inclusion, recognizing and appreciating differences within a presumption of equality. In your jobs within the municipal cultural sector, your responsibility is to maintain an overview, a larger perspective than that of a single individual looking only at his or her own feelings and circumstances. You have a great opportunity to extend a hand in both directions: to people who have been here for generations and feel threatened by newcomers; and to newcomers who fear that they are unwelcome. This is a challenge, but it is a worthy one. It reflects the cultural policy of Catalonia: as the Statute of Autonomy says: “the only truly free country is the one in which each individual may live and freely express different identities without any hierarchical or dependent relationship between them.”
They say Sant Boi is a city of associations, with many active community groups and forms of popular education and organizing creating a climate in which social provision is expected. The community centers I saw In Sant Boi would knock most Americans off our feet. My talk was given in a beautiful old theater, part of the Cal Ninyo community center, which features a cafe, an advice center, exhibition space, offices and meeting rooms. The historic building housing all of this was restored at city expense and opened to the public in 2004. It is part of a network of wonderfully equipped and accessible community and cultural centers that people expect as a matter of course, the way we used to expect clean, well-lighted public libraries to be open all day every day. In larger Catalan cities, public provision is spottier, but from what I saw, they all exceed what is offered in the post-public sector USA—and for all that, a video was shown before my talk that incorporated public comments citing the need for far more to be done for young people, for instance.
Today, transnational immigrants account for about 3 percent of total global population, suggesting that social inclusion is a nearly universal responsibility. But we don’t all rise to it. My brief visit to Sant Boi gave me a tantalizing glimpse of how some things might look if we tried.