Fueros, Franco and Contemporary Catalan Language Politics

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Before I share some more recent news from Barcelona, I want to follow up on a comment I made in my previous post, which questioned how the legacies of monolingual and monocultural Franco-era policies might continue to influence public administration. While the opinions of linguists, lawyers and friends in Barcelona about the relevance of this period of history on language attitudes today are diverse, this post describes images of long-standing traditions of local governance and attempts to revitalize these institutions in Catalunya.


The image of Franco’s destruction of Guernica, a Basque town high in the mountains of Biscay and immortalized by Picasso, circulates world-wide as an anti-war symbol. However the reasons behind General Francisco Franco’s decision in 1937 to have Italian and German forces attack the town are not as well known, and have deep roots. Even during the early years of the Reconquista, Alfonso X of Castile sought ways to unify the Marca Hispanica (the buffer zone between Catholic Europe and Muslim Iberia). As a consequence, each fiefdom or city that was brought under the rule of Castilian Monarchy, was granted a charter, or fuero, recognizing its customary law and granting particular rights and privileges to residents. While Guernica was not the first town to receive a fuero, due to its traditional role as the center of Basque government fuero was particularly important in Guernica. A tree in the middle of the city was kept as a symbol of Basque rights and political autonomy obtained through the fueros, and legend has it that elders assembled around the tree to make decisions. Upon entering the city, Falangist forces bombed the tree and the town (Avatar? – makes one wonder how well James Cameron knew Spanish history) in an attempt to destroy a symbol not only of Basque identity, but what also represented a principle of local governance in Spain.
In response to Basque and Catalan local governments that did not support him during the Civil War, Franco proceeded to repress local governance, local languages and identities in Spain – including that of his native Galicia. The bombing of Guernica were part of a broader political project that suppressed local languages, subsidiarity (Catholic principle that emphasizes the importance of local decision-making) and anything that might threaten the territorial integrity of Spain.
Later, Franco would appropriate the term ‘fuero’ to refer to the law of a Spain united under his leadership, even including it in the lyrics he wrote for the (heretofore wordless) Spanish national anthem. In conversations with legal professionals in Vic and Barcelona, the central organization of the judicial system and the appointment of judges primarily from outside of Catalunya has been a concern. Judges from other regions of Spain who do not speak Catalan and do not know Catalan civil law (which in some instances may conflict with Spanish law) participate in fewer tribunals and other activities, and are generally rotated into new positions after a short time. Between 2000 and 2004 there were even financial incentives for judges to write decisions and documents in Catalan rather than Spanish that saw moderate success. However the high turnover of judges continued to create instabilities and other problems for an already overloaded Catalan legal system. In the words of the Catalan lawyer Harold Roig, referring to the lack of decentralization in the judicial system: “[the administration of] justice is one of the things, along with the monarchy, that continue to be linked with el franquisme.” I am interested in how the anxieties about the lingering influence of this period, and its impact on Catalan legal culture, may contribute to immigrants’ perceptions of Catalan, of Catalan public administration, and ultimately interethnic relations in Barcelona. Thus far, police stations and public defense in Barcelona are sites that consistently use interpreters – although usually between other languages and Spanish, not Catalan. A representative from the Col.legi d’Advocats told me that almost all of the penal and domestic violence cases they receive involve immigrants, and a minimum of half of those cases require interpretation. Young people comprise a majority of these arrests, as there has been strong police pressure to eliminate gang activity in the old parts of the city, where most of the affordable housing is located.
The role of the Catalan police, els Mossos d’Esquadra (literally ‘squad lads’) – itself a product of the project to revive institutions of local government – in maintaining ‘convivencia’ in Barcelona, and in working with local communities will be part of my next post, along with notes on my work in Vic, Lleida and at Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona.
Johanna Lenkner, PhD Candidate, Anthropology

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