Spain is a country with strong regional identities.  The central government recognizes four official languages: Spanish, Galician, Basque, and Catalan.  The people in the “periphery” of Spain may refer to Spanish as Castilian, to distinguish it from their own language.  In the Basque country, Catalonia, and Galicia, signs in the regional language are omnipresent.  At least two million people speak Galician (estimates run as high as four million), and perhaps seven million speak Catalan.  Galician and Basque have their own Royal Academies that rule on usage, and Galician is more closely related to Portuguese than to Spanish.

In the northeastern corner of Spain, Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona, have a long history of periods of autonomy or outright independence alternating with suppression of the Catalan language and culture.  One can see Barcelona’s leftist stance in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s as another attempt by the Catalans to preserve their autonomy.  Under Francisco Franco, who ruled the country after the right won the Civil War, it was illegal to use Catalan in public.  One political leader gained a jail term and lifelong popularity by serenading the dictator in Catalan.  Only after Franco died in 1975 did the language begin its long climb back to health, with legal recognition of Catalan and even, in many realms, legal preference.

Recently, when my job took me to Barcelona, my friends kept returning to the topic of the distinctive identity of the Catalans.  Celso, a former research fellow at the center where I work, had told me stories of the favoritism and nepotism he encountered in Madrid when he returned to Spain after his training.  But, he said, such things usually didn’t happen in Catalonia.  He described the Catalans as the hardest-working of the Spanish and the least likely to be promoted on the basis of time serving.

My friend Emilio took me on a walking tour to his favorite sites in the city, which sits on a long coastal strip that slopes up from the Mediterranean to the nearby hills.  The first site was a rambla, a long series of outdoor stalls and kiosks in the middle of a broad street.  Guidebooks usually refer to this rambla as if it were the only one, but we passed through others on our tour.  At the first, we stopped in front of one stall with several birdcages.  Many of the small birds were singing.  “This,” Emilio said, smiling, “is very Catalan.”

Barcelona is noted for its architecture, and Emilio concentrated on the buildings, the most famous of which were designed by Antoni Gaudí i Cornet in the late-19th and early-20th century.  Gaudí declared war on straight lines and clean surfaces, covering his buildings’ exteriors with stone seedpods, blossoms, pineapples, mushrooms, and pine cones.  In the modern shopping district, the Casa Milà, which the people of Barcelona call the Quarry, has a facing of stone in frozen waves.  The roof offers a wonderful view of the city, but the tourist must first adjust to the gigantic chimneys shaped like stone knights that loom threateningly above.  Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral has become a medieval project in scope, its slow progress financed by private donations, and generations of artisan families have spent their working lives on it.  Many photos of Gaudí’s buildings can be found on the internet, but beware: You will start pricing tickets once you have seen them.  Whether Barcelona’s eccentric style is beautiful or not, there is no other architecture like it in the world.

Within walking distance of some of Gaudí’s most famous works is the Gothic Quarter, a maze of dark buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries where narrow streets spill out into brick-paved squares.  The building housing Catalonia’s regional government—the Palau de la Generalitat—stands on the Plaça de Sant Jaume, with a vaulted ceiling, visible from the plaza, that is painted à la the Sistine Chapel.

It was dark when Emilio led me down another narrow street in the Gothic Quarter that opened onto a small plaza.  The back of a 14th-century church was on one side of the plaza, and the small open space was dominated by a curving metal structure reminiscent of a tree—or a gallows—where a triangular area covered in brick gently sloped down to a low wall.  On the wall, an inscription in Catalan read, “In the mulberry graveyard not a single traitor is buried; even if we lose our flags it will be the urn of their honor.”

I stood on the bricks as I examined the inscription, while Emilio explained that, in 1714, the city had fallen to the army of the Spanish central government.  When the Castilian army stormed Barcelona, the Catalans fought house to house until they were overcome.  The Bourbon victor placed a permanent garrison in the city and banned the Catalan language.  Thus ended the War of the Spanish Succession and another brief period of the Catalans’ independence—with a Castilian boot on their neck.

The Catalan soldiers who had died defending the city were buried in a mass grave where I was standing, in the Mulberry Graveyard.  Realizing I was standing on the soldiers’ grave, I stepped back.

The day Barcelona fell—September 11—is the national patriotic holiday for Catalonia, their Fourth of July.  Emilio joked that only Catalans would celebrate a loss.  I didn’t tell him that, on that point, he was certainly wrong, for many other peoples also remember great defeats.  The Serbs commemorate their loss on the Field of Blackbirds, and, in elementary school in Texas, I’d had to memorize Travis’ letter from the doomed garrison at the Alamo.  Faulkner was acutely aware of his people’s defeat at Gettysburg: “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon.”

When I think of the Mulberry Graveyard, I think of Dr. A—— .  Emilio kept warning me about my meeting with him: He was difficult; he didn’t like Americans; he was very obsessive; he was very Catalan.  Dr. A——  and I had no problem when we met, and my hour with him passed quickly.  He told me about his work, but he also told me about the experience of growing up with the language that he spoke at home and with his friends having been banned from his school and all public use.  I said that my conclusion from his experience was that it was important not to lose your war, as Catalonia had lost to Franco.  He replied that he thought the conclusion was not to have a war.  I argued with him, but to understand my point of view, it may help to know about two experiences—among many—that I’d had, echoes of another war.

Around the time of my visit to Barcelona, I was flirting with a job in Dallas.  The woman who was recruiting me asked, more than once, whether I was really willing to move to, well, Texas.  I told her the prospect didn’t bother me, so she asked if my wife would mind.  Finally, she asked me why I would want to leave Maryland—not in the sense of changing jobs, but as if I were living in Paradise and had decided to move to Hell.  I thought Dallas sounded good.  It sounded like home.

I told her she didn’t need to apologize for Texas.  I was from there, I said.  I could have added that my mother’s people had been in East Texas and Louisiana for 200 years—they even fought in That War—but something told me not to.

Through the local gossipy kid, one of our daughter’s friends, the whole neighborhood found out that we might move.  When the ladies in the neighborhood ran into my wife, they told her not to go.  She wouldn’t like the South, they said; it wasn’t like Maryland.  “It’s almost a different country,” one of the women said.


A few months before I went to Barcelona, I listened as the fervent feminist at work told us in a faculty meeting that she was going to accept a job in Texas.  She lamented the fact that she would have to live there but said the opportunity was too good to pass up.  Her announcement turned into a free-for-all, with jokes about the backward nature of the entire state.  A native Texan joined in the fun, attacking Baptists, people with rifle racks in the windows of their pickups, and other undesirables.  In short, he spit on his own people.  Our chief, a native of North Carolina with a thick mountain accent, smiled and laughed along with the rest.

When Dr. A——  told me that the lesson of Barcelona’s history was to avoid war, I told him there were things worse than war.  I didn’t say what those things were, because he knew what I meant: to have your songs and your mother tongue taken from you; to raise your children as if they were foreigners; to lose your literature—in short, to lose your identity.

In Spain, it’s not polite or even acceptable to ridicule a regional language or culture.  But in the country where I live, people from other regions feel free to call Southerners unintelligent, uneducated, fanatically religious, filled with hate, and violent.  In polite company, people laugh and agree.  In my circles, to suggest that the South might have had a point about state autonomy within a federal system, a valid concern over tariffs, reasons to object to Yankee culture, or any reason to go to war other than racism is to invite those around you—including many Southerners—to say you are pro-slavery and a hate-monger.

You see, we’re like the Catalans.  We lost our war.