Who are the Catalans? Demographics and national identity

Catalonia, a nation of immigrants

In times of crisis, we typically ask ourselves about our identity: who are we? As it stands, the question leads us, inevitably, to a further two: where are we going? and where do we come from? Demography’s answer would be that we are a population and a community that reproduces, demographically and socially, largely thanks to immigration; we are what Anna Cabré, the demographer, calls a Complex Reproduction System. In terms of identity, taking this demographic evidence onboard means reinterpreting our history and redefining our future. But, in what direction?

The pro-independence movement has promoted a discourse where building the foundations of a state and its past existence takes centre stage. From this viewpoint, Catalans are because we were. The 300th anniversary of the fall of Barcelona in 1714, during the War of Succession, is the perfect excuse to link our identity with a commemoration of the liberties that we lost back then. This way, September 11 is highlighted as the foundational myth of modern catalanism. In this discourse, encouraged by romantic historiography and enshrined by Noucentisme (1), demography appears as a burden: the small number of inhabitants together with immigration-related growth and a very low birth rate are all concerns that account for the failed evolution as a nation-state in the past and are a threat for the survival of the nation in the future, respectively. They are seen as potential causes of de-nationalisation.

Fifty years after Candel wrote his essay (2), if we ask ourselves about Catalonia’s identity from the point of view of demography and we accept immigration as a fundamental part of our identity, then we need to show resolve and face up to our fear of ethnic substitution. It is true that the pace and the condition of migratory cycles mean that Catalonia’s self-perception as a nation is closer to the realisation of sudden mutations than to a linear progression. This is caused by the sharp increase in the inflow of migrants during times of bonanza and the sudden drops during recession periods, coupled with the socio-demographic make-up of the newcomers, which is a test for social categorisation and stratification. But it is precisely in this constant renewal where continuity must be found.

Nationalism was the condition of a country that was changing very fast, of a Catalonia made up of people who had moved: starting with the exodus from rural areas that had begun in the 19th century --and would still continue for a long time-- as well as those who were declassed or migrated hoping for a better future. In these circumstances, it was the land that offered a sense of permanence in the mental representations in a changing world. In this uncertain context, the Catalan language became the privileged factor of self-recognition thanks to the immigration, not in spite of it. It was closely linked to the popular classes, as opposed to the local bourgeoisie who, by the late 18th century, had begun to abandon Catalan in favour of Spanish (diglossia). The Catalan language has survived and thrived thanks to the increase in the number of speakers as migrants from the rest of Spain (and now, from the rest of the world) adopted it, as did their children. This in itself would be enough to acknowledge the value of immigration with regards to Catalan. Additionally, the Catalan language itself has become a key element in the process of social integration of society as a whole (newcomers plus indigenous people).

What do we mean when we demand that immigration becomes one of the nation’s foundational myths? A foundational myth is a narrative about the origin of a particular group that concentrates --in a symbolic manner-- the political conditions and the experiences that define the group, where its members can recognise themselves, thus guaranteeing its future. A Catalonia that is defined demographically --as well as economically and culturally-- by immigration must recognise this as a common national trait. Not the only one, but a defining one. As immigration becomes a foundational myth, recognised in the mixing of different groups, it must face two great challenges that await us in the new millennium. The first challenge is how to transform the system of categorisation and social stratification to manage our own diversity, as has been argued by anthropologist Stefan Vertovec. The second challenge --directly linked to the former-- is to fight the growing inequality that endangers the desire of upwardly transgenerational mobility for large sectors of society, not only for immigrants, whose scope should be revised historically. This trend has been identified by economist Thomas Piketty as being a consequence of the arrival of what he calls “patrimonial capitalism”.

Needless to say, immigration and demographics are not the sole elements that allow us to define Catalonia’s identity. But since the mid-20th century it has been impossible to think about the nation without bearing in mind this reality. Most developed countries face the same question: how to organise themselves once they have become Complex Reproduction Systems. In other words, how can they organise themselves when the evolution of their population is largely the result of immigration --despite the existence of emigration-- and when the group’s social reproduction has, as a driving force, the massive inflow of people from elsewhere and an increase in diversity. The challenge is identical for all the countries involved, but the answer isn’t. In the case of Catalonia, the experience of our history should be an advantage when it comes to finding an answer for the 21st century, which requires a (re)definition of our national identity.



1 N.T. Noucentisme was a Catalan cultural movement of the early 20th century that originated largely as a reaction against Art Nouveau, both in art and ideology.

2 N.T. The author refers to Francesc Candel’s “The Other Catalans”, an seminal essay on Spanish migrants in Catalonia.