Manel Manchón 02.05.2021
Iván Teruel, professor and writer, author of ‘Are we the failure of Catalonia? / VICTORIA AGUIAR
Iván Teruel: “The idea of ‘un sol poble’ offends anyone with a minimum of intelligence”
Iván Teruel (Girona, 1980) has a degree in Hispanic Philology, a DEA in Spanish Language and is a secondary school teacher. And from that position, in a secondary school in Girona, he lived with anguish the whole independence process, since 2012, and which culminated with the declaration of independence. In autumn 2017, Teruel said that he lived in fear and with the possibility of a civil confrontation. He is the author of the literary essay El Perú escindido (Ediciones irreverentes, 2012) and the short story El oscuro relieve del tiempo (Ediciones Cal-lígraf, 2015). After expressing his reflections on Facebook, and with the responses he found, Teruel decided to write the book ¿Somos el fracaso de Cataluña? (Lince), which has a forceful prologue by Félix Ovejero. What Teruel, whose family comes from the Andalusian and Extremaduran immigrants who arrived in Girona in the 1940s and 1950s, describes is the story of contemporary Catalonia. Many anecdotes about this possible integration end up becoming a profound reflection on how nationalism has constructed ‘its truth’ and sold it as ‘the truth’. The hard life of his family and his personal and professional history show that in Catalonia two communities have coexisted, not without tension, which the pro-independence process has brought to the surface with force. For Teruel, the conclusion is clear: “The idea of ‘un sol poble’ (a single people) offends anyone with a minimum of intelligence”.
–Question: You are a secondary school teacher in Girona. What reactions have you had to the publication of the book?
–Answer: I had not told almost anyone. I did not want to comment on it, not because I feared an angry reaction, but because many of my colleagues would not feel comfortable. However, a reference was published in the Diari de Girona and I found it strange that no one told me about it. Nor did it come up in the school’s teaching staff. I think it could be the effect of two situations: that they have not read it, because they move in other circuits, or that they have read it and prefer not to say anything to me. It is significant, in any case, with regard to the two possibilities.
–Not even among the students?
–One does, who is connected with the youth of a party. And he is interested. But I did not say anything among the students either. I did when I published a book of short stories.
–What you explain is a collection of anecdotes, you could say, about language, comments about football and Real Madrid, about the use of Spanish and Catalan, which end up having a relationship and a very specific background. Now, given the experience of the pro-independence process, you consider that these were not exactly anecdotes. The problem, precisely, is that Catalan society has considered that they were only anecdotes?
–Undoubtedly, and that is why it has been so difficult to criticise the background to these apparently insignificant situations. The book relates these anecdotes to taxable demonstrations by pro-independence leaders, not crazy tweeters, as Félix Ovejero points out in the book’s prologue. I wanted to be cautious, because of the limitations of memory, because of a possible bias caused by what has happened in recent years. But after the comments I received on Facebook, when I began to post reflections on what I felt during the procés, I realised the effect of it all. They told me that I was giving voice to a feeling that many readers had, but that they didn’t know how to put it into words. And as I was writing the book, I realised that these sensations, which could have been irrelevant, conditioned my behaviour throughout my life. Why did I begin to speak Catalan with Catalan speakers, but also with native Spanish speakers? These trivial situations have permeated my behaviour.
–The book could not be written by the previous generation. It is written by the grandson, not the father or uncle, a key figure in its formation. How does the grandson rethink what has happened in Catalonia since the return to democracy? Didn’t he think that the whole question of accommodation in Catalan society had been overcome?
—No, it had not been overcome, because the history has been told by the nationalists. What we have is Jordi Pujol’s magnum opus. A flamenco expert recently explained to me how the Andalusian entities had been domesticated under Pujol’s rule. It has been a story, the story of many people who came to Catalonia from other parts of Spain in the 1950s and 1960s, which has been hidden by the media and the official discourse. I tell this story because my relatives were unable to do so, because they did not have access to education. And the grandson tells it because when the pro-independence process arose, those of us on the other side who are opposed to pro-independence, we revise our memories and realise that everything was possible because there was a breeding ground. We were not aware of it. My mother is being reprimanded by her boss because she doesn’t speak Catalan. And when she tries, she is told that she would better not because she mistreats the language. It’s a second humiliation. I couldn’t be accused of that. The problem is that my mother didn’t mind that experience. She didn’t feel offended. And between 2012 and 2017, these so-called anecdotes make perfect sense. Many of us are forced to review our past and we are forced to reconstruct it.
–So, it could be said that the procés, the acceleration of the pro-independence project, has been a great clumsiness on the part of the pro-independence supporters, for having raised something that could have been latent, but which had not been clearly manifested.
–I think that part of nationalism felt cornered by the judicial processes and the economic crisis. If I had waited ten or twenty years… taking into account that everything was already naturalised… I myself have internalised nationalist argumentative tics. In the situation before the procés, I don’t know if I would have realised the background that underpinned the structure that has prevailed in Catalan society. So, yes, I think it was clumsy. We wanted to avoid the conflict, which existed, and I think that, despite what has happened, with many people harmed by the procés, a large majority would like to return to the situation of 2011, even if one part is left in control of all the levers of power and even if half of society is not paid attention to. Many people want to turn the page on the procés, but not on nationalism.
–Would it be the moment, with everything that has happened, to play the cards again, to rethink the consensus in Catalan society?
–I think it would be a good thing if it were not a capital sin to question the principles of nationalism. And yes, the cards would have to be dealt again, on issues such as language immersion or the idea of nation, and on the discursive and moral scaffolding. Because it is not so clear what a nation is, as nationalists define it. It creates problems, because it leaves me out, like many people with parents from the rest of Spain, with Spanish as their mother tongue. If everything depends on will, then the nation cannot be defined by its millenarian character. Nations are invented, although it is difficult to sustain a nation-state without cultural references. But I would be satisfied if dissent in Catalonia were not an act of heroism, if no one were branded a bad Catalan for expressing it or had less chance of promotion for doing so. And the fact is that promotion in Catalonia depends a lot on ideological affiliation and not so much on quality.
–What can the state do to give these new cards?
–First, it is not clear to me that the state is helping in this direction. The state should have done, led by governments of one colour or another, to educate people about the ethical and moral implications of territorial unity. Historically, territorial unity has been associated with a desire of Francoism. And there has been a lack of education on unity in the republican way, a unity that is essential to guarantee the equality and freedom of all citizens. However, since the transition, unity has been seen as something outdated, instead of being associated with an essential system for the equality of citizens, with the same rights and obligations. And if the government now proposes pardons for those who brought us to the brink of the abyss, it will not offer much pedagogy. Because the law is very pedagogical. We saw how the pro-independence politicians, during the trial, denied what they had done, pointing out that they did not want independence and that they would not do it again. And then everything changed with the motion of censure. And they set certain conditions to allow that motion. The discourse changed and the independence movement saw that the interpretation of the law was malleable. And for me that will mean that in the short and medium term the independence movement will try again, because doing so will have been almost free for them.
–Your father and uncle were involved in trade union struggles, in Salt, in Girona. And they realise that the left-wing parties are involved in something else, or that they coincide with the nationalists with very similar discourses. This is the case of the PSC, with the mayor of Salt, Salvador Sunyer. Was that a mistake, even at that time?
–There has been a lot of talk about the two souls of the PSC, the Catalanist left and the left that came with other priorities, with people who joined from immigration. And I think that yes, the PSC aligned itself with the discourse of anti-Francoism and condescended to the rhetoric of nationalism. Nationalism was understood to be the advanced as opposed to Francoism. The PSC proposed linguistic immersion, with good intentions, to give access to certain positions based on the Catalan language. But it was later applied as a single vehicular language system. The entire Catalan left, the PSC, the PSUC and later the ICV, moved in those coordinates closer to nationalism, with the defence, at first, of self-determination. It was a mistake on the left. But the PP also did something similar, except during the Vidal-Quadras period. The PP has not been very concerned about the language issue. Nor has it raised the cultural battle with nationalism, conditioned by the complex of being branded a Francoist. I myself was terrified that I might be linked with something Francoist, right-wing.
–So, has Josep Benet’s idea of ‘un sol poble’ been a farce? Have there been two communities that, without a clear hostility from a certain moment on, live separate lives in different worlds and with different references?
–I return to the idea of Jordi Pujol. We can’t make very positive moral assessments of Pujol now, but we can’t hide his political talent. The so-called 2000 programme he promoted has been successful, with an enormous nationalist infiltration. With covert and subtle supremacism, Catalan society was made to believe that it did not harbour conflict. And that there was consensus on basic principles. The idea of ‘un sol poble’ offends anyone with the slightest intelligence. It does not exist. Ortega argued that the state is by definition multicultural, because it is the overcoming of the natural state. And Vila-Sanjuán has shown that it was not true that Catalan was the only language and, therefore, the legitimate language in Catalonia. Deliberate lies were constructed and a discursive panorama was formed that has conditioned the perspective of a large part of society. We have been conditioned by this discourse. And it has conditioned our approach to reality: there have been two communities, there have always been two communities. I myself had no problems at the beginning, because I didn’t relate to them. I lived in a Spanish-speaking community of my own. When I did, friction arose. The particular thing in my case is that I have managed to rise socially, in the world of education, where Catalan culture prevails. Those of my origin either fall by the wayside or take on the nationalist vision and keep quiet. And they assume that this is the price to live more or less peacefully, to avoid civil death or social rejection.
–Does the way to rise in Catalonia involve renouncing your original identity?
–Or you assimilate or pass yourself off as an autochthonous Catalan. You are accepted if you adhere to nationalist principles.
–Has the ideal of nationalism been achieved in the education system with immersion?
–They will say that there is plurality, but it is not so. I lived through the autumn of 2017 in the centre. During the strike on 3 October, which was a general strike, only two or three teachers attended. On 2 October, in the middle of school hours, most of them went out with the students to the playground to protest against the police action. Most of the teachers are nationalist, and in the organisation of 9N most of them were happy to be able to collaborate as volunteers. Nobody came out saying that it was illegal. The majority of civil servants have been like that, with a great complicity with the nationalist ideology. Except in bodies such as the Mossos d’Esquadra, where many non-nationalists, Spanish-speakers, slipped in, because when they needed a lot of personnel, higher education was not required, and many ‘charnegos’ entered. But in the Catalan administration this is a reality. I remember going to the delegation of the Generalitat in Girona, a theme park for pro-independence, to do some business, and I saw in the waiting room the bench, reserved for users, turned into a pro-independence altar, with photographs of all the imprisoned politicians. And in the interior rooms there were all kinds of symbols and posters in favour of the release of the imprisoned politicians. In the case of the Mossos, things are more divided, because of the influx of many non-nationalist people. And thanks to this, the Mossos backed down at the last moment. Otherwise, I don’t think we would have been faced with a very unpleasant scenario.
–A teacher can ask to be transferred, did you do it, and should you continue to put up a fight, in any case, on the basis of the responsibility that each person has?
–There are always personal situations. I experienced hell at that time, from the attacks on Las Ramblas to the declaration of independence. They were very complicated months. I understand Javier Cercas, when he said that for him it was harder than the Covid pandemic. Although the pandemic had very harsh global effects, it is true that for those of us who were against independence that moment was tragic. I remember Zweig’s book, Yesterday’s World, when he tells how you get to war without hardly noticing it. I had the feeling that we could be close to a civil confrontation. Everything is different now. And of course, you have to stand up to it, it’s just that everything is so polarised. Although the atmosphere is friendlier, it’s still high voltage. And I was on the point of going to Malaga and I don’t rule it out later on. But I wouldn’t do it so much for myself as for my children, who I don’t think should have to pay an identity toll, with this insistence that Catalan should replace the Castilian mother tongue. That’s why I think it might be a good thing for them to grow up somewhere else.
–What you say has to do with the root of the problem, with the idea that, even if the problem can be solved politically, there will remain a residue that is very difficult to overcome. Do you have hope for the new generations, as has happened in Quebec, where young people ‘pass’ the independence movement?
–My perspective changes from time to time, but it is true that I perceive a certain weariness among the younger generations, even among young Catalan-speakers. What’s more, new technologies are transforming everything. And I keep hearing complaints from nationalists who say that, after setting up the whole administrative set-up, their children watch series on Netflix or HBO with everything in Spanish. I am hopeful that the suffocating identitarianism will not be so pervasive in the new generations as a matter of pragmatism. But if you analyse the results of the last elections, you will see that the weight of the nationalist parties is enormous. And I don’t think I myself will see another government that is not nationalist. Nothing has changed. Not even with the left-wing tripartite changed, with Pasqual Maragall in the wake of ERC. I don’t see a constitutionalist alternative in the next 20 years, because there is an entrenched vision. And those who do not support nationalism do not get involved, because they do not see the point of doing so. On the other hand, the nationalists are very mobilised and persistent. There is always Ortega’s connivance, condemned to live in this tension.