A Brief History of Catalonia for Expats

by | Feb 11, 2022 | Spain | 1 comment

When moving to a new country, there is so much to learn about the culture, history, traditions, and customs, and it’s one of the most exciting parts of becoming an expat. There is great importance to being cognizant of the history of the place you intend to end up in prior to landing there.

In my case, I was able to learn about and experience many Catalan traditions as a tourist because I visited for almost two months prior to moving. Thus, I learned quickly about the fascinating history.

Catalonia: The Region

How did Catalan come about?

Firstly, Catalonia is a region, like many others in Europe, which is rich in history that dates back to ancient times. Some of the ancient inhabitants of Catalonia were the Visigoths, or “Goths”, and one theory about the etymology of the word “Catalan” is that “Cata” refers to “Goth” in Latin, and “Alan” refers to the Alans, a nomadic tribe from present-day Iran who had migrated to the region sometime between the 4th-5th centuries A.D.

This is fascinating because the Alans had initially migrated to the Gaul region of what is now modern-day France, and Catalonia is thought to have initially ruled the historical Languedoc region, which made up a generous part of the south of France on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

A Little About Their Heritage

Presently, there are astonishing traces of Catalan culture in cities like Perpignan and Toulouse, originally forming a part of this empire. In the south of France, they still speak a language by the name of Occitan, which was previously an official language of Catalonia.

"Restaurant in the Parte Alta of Tarragona, built into ancient Roman Ruins" by Marjorie Jean Vera
“Restaurant in the Parte Alta of Tarragona, built into ancient Roman Ruins” by Marjorie Jean Vera

However, before these territories were formed, the Roman empire had ruled the region from 176 B.C. until the 4th century A.D.

During this time, Tarraco (present-day Tarragona) was the capital city of the province of Tarraconensis, and Barcino (present-day Barcelona) was the second most important city.

Tarragona has fully embraced its Roman roots and there are still many celebrations that are linked to this ancient heritage that is shared between the Catalans and ancient Rome, such as the modern festival of Tarraco Viva.

The Parte Alta of the city is also built into ancient Roman ruins, and many of the street names in this historic city reference these earlier times of Roman rule.

"Ancient Roman sculpture, Tarragona" by Marjorie Jean Vera
“Ancient Roman sculpture, Tarragona” by Marjorie Jean Vera

In Barcelona, one of the most important celebrations of the year commemorates a part of Catalan history which is very much alive today through the “Independista” movement – La Diada, which initially fell on September 11th, 1714, and marks the date in which Catalonia lost its autonomy to the Spanish. It is now celebrated as the National Day of Catalonia.

The Catalans have gone through many unfortunate periods of cultural suppression, and this date marks one of them.

With this in mind, another extremely important period in recent history that influences much of the current political tension in the region was the dictatorship of Franco, which lasted from 1936-1975.

Why does this all matter, you might ask?

Because it very much influences the passionate nationalism that many Catalans feel towards their region, not their country.

During the times of Franco, it was prohibited to speak the Catalonian language. Now, learning Catalan is compulsory for children as a means of cultural preservation, understandably so.

"Catalan flag projection during La Diada celebrations in Barcelona" by Marjorie Jean Vera
“Catalan flag projection during La Diada celebrations in Barcelona” by Marjorie Jean Vera

As a result, the “Independista” movement takes this idea of cultural preservation one step further as a separatist movement in which its supporters seek to separate officially from being controlled by Spain in order to, once again, become a fully autonomous region.

There is astounding support for the movement, though not all citizens believe in it; it can often make for uncomfortable family dinner conversations.

However, one thing that is unmistakable is that Catalans are proud of their roots, and it is not uncommon to see them donning the Catalan flag on the balconies.

There are often protests against the Spanish government, which can shut down major streets, subway lines, and make travel quite difficult.

This part of Catalonian history is truly alive even today. And it is something that anybody choosing to live in Catalonia will quickly become familiarized with when you land here. Want to know more? Leave your comments below.

by: Marjorie Vera