A PLACE TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY | BARCELONA
BY Cristina Roca
It is refreshing seeing hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to demand that refugees be allowed in. Especially at a moment where other European countries refuse to treat the refugee crisis as their problem, and have used refugees as political bargaining chips.
Coming to Barcelona gave me hope that a modern society could do things differently.
I moved here a few months ago, partly wanting to know a part of my roots I’d never explored, and partly having missed the Mediterranean sun I grew up under in Athens. My Barcelona-born dad taught me Spanish and took me to visit his family during the summer, so though I spoke the language and had been in Barcelona many times before, I’d only ever seen it through the eyes of a tourist.
Coming to live here and trying to become a part of the city rather than voyeuristically consuming it revealed some of its less-than-idyllic sides (it turns out that people don’t have tapas and sangria for lunch every day, and you always risk finding a drunk tourist’s dried-up vomit round the next corner of the city centre). But it also — like getting to know a person better, flaws and all — unveiled the things that would truly move me about it.
I see a city where people interact with each other, are not only preoccupied by their own lives and their narrow social circles. I see a city that is made up of more than individuals consumed by consumerism; I see engaged citizens.
Barcelona is a city that keeps track of how many people live on the streets — 940, the posters affixed by the municipality on metro stations remind me daily — and runs a public campaign to remedy the situation rather than shoving it away from the public eye.
The Plaça dels Angels is one of my favourite places in the city. On this vast square and the ramps on one side of it, skaters gather to practice and show off their tricks. On the steps of the Contemporary Art Museum on one side of the square, people sit and drink beer and watch the skaters. I find it incredibly cool — and telling — that this is one of the hottest ‘places to be’ in the city and that culture seems to seamlessly flow in and out of the museum, rather than being contained by it. The museum is not a stuck-up place where coiffed old ladies go to see works by dead artists; it is a place where lively debates take place.
I once went to a series of free talks about democracy, with guest speakers from all over the world, that was organised by the Centre of Contemporary Culture, right behind the museum. The auditorium was always full, and in attendance were people of every age — from young people who go outside to smoke weed during the breaks to white-haired pensioners. The fact that one group went there didn’t make it 'uncool' for the other one; on the contrary. Everyone was there to participate in a dialogue, to talk about what was happening to democracy.
While reporting on Barcelona’s new measures to curb mass tourism, I discovered that the city hall had workshopped the measures with representatives of the hospitality business, but also with members of neighbourhood associations and civil society. In Barcelona, there are dozens of neighbourhood associations. Ordinary people with jobs and obligations spend their free time going to meetings and organising actions and protests, because they want to actively improve things in their neighbourhoods. And while the ones I spoke to were not always satisfied with the way in which it happened, they had (and were using) the right to attend and have their say on city policy planning.
Society here doesn't place blind trust on a politician’s promises, washing their hands after votes are cast. People here advocate for their demands and keep politicians accountable every step of the way.
This comes, at least partly, from Catalonians’ ‘us vs them’ mentality towards the Spanish government. The issue of refugees is, to me, no exception to that tradition of resistance.
A belief that is perhaps intensified by a backlash to the Franco regime’s effort to suppress Catalanism and create a uniform ‘Spanishness’, Catalans see themselves as completely separate from the rest of Spain, historically and culturally.
They have the reputation of being more entrepreneurial and, in their own eyes, more progressive and open to the world.
Whatever their opinions on the question of becoming an independent state, everyone I’ve asked has told me the following: Catalonia generates wealth for the rest of Spain, and is therefore perceived, by the Spanish government, as an asset and an adversary at the same time. It wants to keep Catalonia, but it also has to prevent it from getting too powerful, they say.
To Catalans, the Spanish government does not merely represent a higher authority that the province resents for not granting them enough funds or independence; it also represents an antagonising power that uses its authority to purposely overrule Catalonian decisions. This means that there is deep political dissent in Spain, but it also means that the Catalans are used to having to fight to get things done.
I’m not saying that things are perfect here; that there is no corruption, apathy, or petty politics. But people here have a long tradition of mobilizing, of keeping governments — from the most local to the national level — accountable.
If something is broken, people react, they get angry, they care, they hope. Barcelonian people — an elderly woman I met at a protest told me — have always achieved progress by mobilizing. If you want something, you have to go out on the streets and demand it. She said:
The protest we were at that day was a peaceful gathering against mass tourism. The atmosphere wasn’t threatening; it was joyous, inviting. People were talking to each other and playing music. There were old people, students, young parents with toddlers on their shoulders. Engaging with civic issues seemed to be part of life.
Barcelona's stance towards refugees, declaring an intention to welcome them with open arms, reflects both this instinct towards mobilization, and Catalans’ traditional openness toward the world.
The “refugees welcome” march certainly didn’t solve everything. But to me, it was inspiring to see Barcelona, a city that faces its own problems, and part of a country still ravaged by the effects of the crisis, open its arms in solidarity and defy a hate-filled, to-each-their-own discourse that's becoming increasingly loud throughout the world.
Perhaps I’m naïve to think this, but I thought that Barcelona’s stance on refugees is an example of how we can still be European in a solidary sense; an ideal that Europe once imagined for itself, and from which it is now removing itself further and further.
Populism is gaining ground all over Europe and other parts of the world, hailed as the suspiciously simple solution to angry citizens’ woes: the system is rotten, politicians say, vote for us and we will change it for you.
Many in Barcelona are still choosing, it seems to me, for the more demanding answer to our imperfect political system: changing it through civic engagement. And isn’t that how Europe was originally meant to be — a borderless union shaped not by bureaucrats or arm-wrestling politicians but by its citizens?
Whether the Barcelona Refugees Welcome march was one of the European dream’s swan songs, or proof that we can still turns things around is, I think, up to ourselves as Europeans to decide.