Catalonia, land of immigration, by Andreu Domingo

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Migrations and language: a system of social reproduction

In contrast with the rest of Spain, Catalonia has historically been a land of immigration. As of January 1, 2012, 18.6 percent of the 7.5 million inhabitants were born abroad, outside of Spain—mostly having arrived during the international migration boom at the beginning of the 21st century. Another 18 percent were born in other parts of Spain—products of the two waves of migration in the 20th century, and the remaining 63.4 percent were born in Catalonia. Close to 70 percent of the Catalan population is a direct or indirect result of contemporary migrations (that is, either an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants), and if we went back in time, this figure would cover an even larger majority of the population. Thus, like many other societies, including the United States itself, Catalan society faced what appears to be a worldwide tendency, accelerated by globalization. Its population growth, but also its economy, its society and culture, and in short, that which we call “identity” has largely been defined by the contributions of immigrants. Indeed, we can even consider immigration an endogenous factor of the population dynamic itself. It is precisely the increase in migratory movement that helped language—more than other differentiated characteristics of the Catalan culture—become the most defining, precisely because out of all the others—blood or ancestry, place of birth, religion, or race—it had the advantage of being the most inclusive.

In this way, and with the progressive arrival of migratory currents, the Catalan identity ended up defining itself as a reality of voluntary conscription, in which language serves as an anthropological marker. The use of Catalan or at least the respect for the Catalan language was the minimum act necessary for the integration process that, in exchange, promised upward social mobility, in other words, what all immigrant workers are after: the improvement of the living conditions in their own lives and those of their family. They end up defining membership with “A Catalan is whoever lives and works in Catalonia, and wants to be one.” This may well be a Catalan version of the “American Dream”—with all of the extenuating circumstances that may need to be taken into account, and all of the disappointments obscured by a promise not always kept. The major difference, however, is not the volume of immigrant movement, but rather can be found in the lack of local institutions, and the subordinate role they play. The State not only has not respected the Catalan differences, but has openly persecuted them during the 40 years of the Francoist dictatorship between 1939–1976. During the so-called Democratic Transition the State put those differences in doubt at every opportunity (for example, with the coup d’état of 1981) and each time there has been a conservative majority in the Spanish Parliament. That explains why the bulk of integrating efforts has fallen almost exclusively to the citizenry. To make matters worse, the cyclical character of the migrations themselves, which follow the pattern of the general economic situation, made it so that in Catalonia, as in other countries of immigration, the moment when the maximum number of new residents arrived coincided with the turning point in the economic cycle, just as we are suffering currently.

An overview of migration in Catalonia during the 20th and 21st centuries

Apart from the massive population movements that took place in the formative period of Catalonia’s history during the Middle Ages, due to the process of repopulating and colonizing the territories occupied by the kingdoms of Al Andalus, there is important historic evidence of significant migratory currents that originated in France during the 17th century and that also match the structure of modern Catalonia. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until the last decades of the 19th century that Catalonia clearly became a society formed by immigration. The subsequent era was protagonized by migrations that came from the rest of Europe throughout the 20th century, divided into two great waves: the first at the beginning of the 20th century until the Spanish Civil War, and the second that began in the fifties, peaked in the sixties, and tapered off after the oil crisis of the mid 1970s. This second wave was followed by an international immigration boom which peaked in 2007 only to bottom out after the impact of the financial crisis since 2008 (See Graphic 1).

The first migratory wave which began in the first decade of the 20th century, benefited from the economic prosperity that came of Spain’s neutrality during World War I, peaked at the end of the twenties, and then collapsed with the Crash of 1929 and fell definitively after the Spanish Civil War. These flows contributed to the growth of the population from the 1.9 million people at the beginning of the century to 2.7 million in 1930. The second wave is responsible for an influx of 350,574 people between 1961–1966. This second 20th-century migration blended into the economic crisis of the second half of the seventies, which ended up resulting in a net negative migration of 85,443 people less between 1981–1985. The virtual stagnation of the population at 6 million for more than 20 years is seen until the second half of the nineties. In this way, the total growth between 1951–1976 was 2.4 million people, which almost doubled the population of 3.2 million people in 1950 to the 5.7 million who were registered in 1975. Immigration was responsible for 57.8 percent of this growth. These rates were comparable to immigrant attractor countries like Argentina or the United States, and reveal how Catalonia maintained its proportion in relative terms with respect to the worldwide population, which was undergoing a population explosion. The international character of the migratory currents intensified in both volume and proportion of immigrants. That is how a population increase of 83,804 in 1991–1995 turned into 132,819 in 1991–1996, and reached a new record in the first five years of the new millennium with 722,753 new immigrants. The population thus grew from 6 million to 7.5 million in little less than a decade, a factor of 1.2 thanks, as we’ve seen, fundamentally to immigration, and in a much smaller measure, to the increase in birth rate that the immigrants themselves contributed. Nevertheless, migration made up a whopping 91 percent of this growth.

Graphic 1: Migratory growth, five-year natural growth, and evolution of the population in Catalonia from 1901 to 2010.

Source: Created by the author from Census and Registration records of the Padró Continu (INE).

Spanish nationalism on the attack

The Spanish conservative government has gone on a two-pronged offensive against the political autonomy of Catalonia: first by provoking discord among those who live in Catalonia by calling language use into question and second by making it difficult for immigrants to integrate themselves into the community. It’s for that reason that the principal attacks, beginning with the economic plundering, have been directed at the education system, and in particular the Catalan linguistic immersion system that has been in place since 1983 and the Law of Immigrant Integration approved by the Catalan Parliament in 2010. On the one hand, they’re looking to substitute history subject matter with standardized texts that impose the story of Spanish -nationalism—in which Spain’s origins are confused with the origins of time and racial unity—and at the same time relegate education of the Catalan language to a second tier, in the name of the international power of the Spanish language, or as they like to remind us, the “language of the 300 million”. Spanish nationalism is dressed up in progressivism, liberalism, cosmopolitanism, and internationalism in order to achieve the recognition of a binational character of Catalonia, and thus to create a “Spanish-speaking linguistic community” as a splintered political entity within the Catalan reality, and depends directly on an ethnic rereading of the demographic history of Catalonia.

It’s telling that empirical data—almost 70 percent of the Catalan population is a direct or indirect result 20th and 21st-century immigration—is constantly repeated by Spanish nationalists to defend the assertion that only a third of the population in Catalonia is Catalan. This affirmation presupposes that Catalan identity is only defined through blood, and what is more, that any contamination with foreign blood is discarded from this ethnic calculation. This interpretation clearly contradicts what has been the definition of Catalan identity that has been forged throughout the 20th century, a definition that has tried, more or less successfully to translate the demographic reality, to wit: that the demographic reproduction (and the social reproduction) of Catalonia includes immigration as an endogenous factor, since it is as important as biological reproduction and often contributes even more than the birth rate to Catalonia’s population growth. In a way, that they use the data in this way shouldn’t surprise us, since the obsession of pure blood (and religion) has been an essential component of Spanish nationalism. They are projecting in Catalonia their historic patterns of exclusion and homogenization. From this desire, whose objective is none other than to downplay Catalan identity in Catalonia, the revisionist reading in the demographic field is accompanied by negationism in the historic field. According to the latter, the Catalan language has never been persecuted, the Francoist repression has never existed, and the Decrees of Nova Planta—with which the self–governing institutions of Catalonia were completely erased and the Catalan language was banished and replaced by Spanish after the defeat of September 11, 1714—was just a way of modernizing the country (Spain).


Andreu Domingo

Ph.D. in Sociology. Currently Deputy Director of the Centre for Demographics Studies (CED) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), where he has been researcher since 1984. Main research areas are: demography, international migration, foreign population, marriage, family and kinship. He is the director of the Study Group for Demography and Migrations at the Centre for Demographic Studies.

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