Catalans Rediscover Their Culture

As fireworks soar over the Castillet in Perpignan on Bastille Day, Catalans spontaneously unite to dance the traditional Sardane, recognizable by its circular choreography and steady pace. And Castellers, a Catalan form of the human pyramid, can easily be found on the schedule of the Feria, an annual bullfighting spectacle that takes place in the southern French town of Céret.

But France has not always willingly embraced its Catalan roots.

Having lived in Perpignan his whole life, Vincent Dumas enthusiastically describes his hometown as an area that has a unique culture, in comparison to the rest of France. But when this young Catalan describes his family history, there is a sense of disdain in his voice as he acknowledges the treatment of his ancestors.

Not so long ago, Catalan children in France were punished for speaking their native language in schools. Many Catalans felt obligated to identify with French culture, and some were even tempted to relocate to Spain.

And while over the years Spanish Catalans have progressed toward having rights to self-governance and establishing themselves as an official nationality, Catalans living beyond Spain’s borders were constantly being reminded of their minority status.

“There was a certain self-hate that was taught to our grandparents in school,” Dumas explains. “There were severe punishments for speaking Catalan, so it’s very difficult now for the generation of my grandparents to go back to being Catalan.”

But today’s generation of Catalans do not face the same tribulations. The yellow- and-red-striped Catalan flag flies side-by-side with the flag of France on government building and private residences. Public festivals and national celebrations are often accompanied by activities rooted in Catalan customs. Many young Catalans are actively embracing their culture.

“One hundred percent, I am Catalan from the tips of my toes to the ends of my hair,” says Hermine Duran, 48, a member of a local Casteller troupe, Angelets del Vallespir.

 Catalonia is a region that spans from the Pyrénées-Orientales at the southernmost tip of France to the area surrounding Barcelona in Spain. While South Catalonia has become an autonomous community in Spain, the French side of Catalonia, known as North Catalonia, remains a region without any political power of its own.

As a result, less than an hour away from Spain, cities like Perpignan located in North Catalonia have developed a distinct identity – not quite French, not quite Spanish, but Catalan – equipped with its own language, culture and social history.
Perpignan, the last major city before Spain’s border, has especially inherited this identity. According to a survey conducted in 2007, of the 9 million people who speak Catalan in Southern Europe, only 125,000 live in France.

“[The Catalan culture] certainly would have disappeared if it weren’t for South Catalonia in Barcelona,” says Dumas. Despite his mother hailing from the Spanish portion of Catalonia where Catalan is a co-official language, Dumas has found himself searching for ways to maintain his culture in a region accustomed to identifying as either French or European.

Since the start of the 17th century, Catalans living in the south of France have been somewhat disregarded as a cultural group. Sparking oppression and resentment that would last for centuries, King Louis XIV declared that the use of the Catalan language was “repugnant and contrary to the honor of the French nation.”

Dumas offers the term francisme, which indirectly translates as “French-ify,” to effectively describe the French government’s efforts to stamp out the Catalan language in favor of the nation’s primary tongue.

And despite their recent popularity within mainstream culture, even the Sardane and the Castellers have experienced difficulty surviving in France.

“It’s like all histories, there are golden periods and downfalls,” says Joseph Bonet, coach and founder of the Angelets del Vallespir. “But then there came the francisme and it almost disappeared.” Bonet, who was a Catalan teacher for 15 years before becoming a casteller, says that the 200-year-old tradition of building human towers didn’t resurface until the 1980s.

But many Catalans like Dumas and Bonet, have taken on the challenge of reviving the disappearing culture of their ancestors. This generation, Dumas says, has more freedom to be Catalan; it’s much easier for younger people who haven’t experienced the oppression of years past.

The resurgence of the Catalan culture has become increasingly evident. Today, North Catalonia is in a period of revival. Dumas has even co-founded an online publication, La Clau, to aid in the recovery of the Catalan culture.

The web magazine aims to defend the Catalan point of view on society while simultaneously changing European perceptions of the Catalan community. Through La Clau, Dumas says he hopes to strengthen the relationship, divided by modern geography, between North and South Catalonia to keep the community alive in France.

“You’d have to ask my psyche why this is so important,” he says. “It’s just a part of me. I am an inheritor of a thousand-year-old culture.”

About the Program

Fifteen college students came from North America to Perpignan, France, in June 2011 to produce these videos and stories. To find out more, read a welcome letter from program director Rachele Kanigel, meet the program faculty and explore the 2010 website.