By promoting its difference, Catalonia stoked separatism

Barcelona (AFP) - Exposed to waves of immigration over decades, authorities in Catalonia decided to promote the Spanish region's cultural singularity to try and bring everyone together.

They were successful -- so much so that Catalans emerged with a strong sense of national identity, which in turn stoked nationalism and the current longing for independence among part of the population, analysts say.

"For new generations, the idea of Catalonia as a nation is now quite a deep-rooted idea as it's present from (the start of) education," Catalan philosopher and political analyst Josep Ramoneda tells AFP.

"And for them, it's logical that if you're a nation, you have a state."

That's exactly what students at Barcelona's central University Square think, as they hand out information on an independence referendum planned for Sunday, but banned by Madrid.

Sitting at tables near a giant separatist Estelada flag that hangs on the Neo-Gothic facade of the University of Barcelona's humanities faculty, they help mainly elderly people to find out where they will be able to vote.

Having been banned by Spain's Constitutional Court, authorities have shut down websites promoting the vote so this information can only be found in clandestine web portals.

Humbert Blanco, a 19-year-old geography student, proudly says he's the grandson of immigrants from the sprawling, poorer southern region of Andalusia, from where many emigrated to Catalonia last century in search of a better life.

He says they "would never go vote in the referendum."

His mother is pro-independence and his father remains "neutral."

Analysts say Blanco's example is an illustration of the impact of various identity politics implemented in the wealthy region which for decades attracted immigrants from southern Spain, north Africa and Latin America.

- 'Language immersion' -

Gabriel Colome, politics professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, says the fact that all children learn Catalan is "a way to integrate all the different parts of Catalan society," and "avoid social fragmentation."

Repressed during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975, Catalan later burst out of the family circle where it had previously been confined into the public sphere -- the legal system, economy, science and films.

During much of that time, from 1980 to 2003, Catalonia's regional governments were led by a nationalist coalition, Convergence and Union.

Now in public schools, all subjects -- apart from Spanish literature -- are taught in Catalan.

"It's obvious that language immersion has played a very important role in building the Catalan nation," Ramoneda says.

Regional public television has also been important.

Created in 1983, it has developed over the years with channels dedicated to sports, culture, information and children.

"Television is the great transmitter of cultural and political socialisation in the country," says Colome.

- 'Spain robs us' -

Ferran Requejo, politics professor at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University, says "other integrating elements, on top of the language, have been for instance 'castells'," referring to human towers -- a tradition that has turned into a competitive sport broadcast live on television.

These are part of "a typically Catalan culture and many people with immigrant backgrounds take part," he says.

In the football world, "the Barca also acted as a binder," he says, pointing out that fans of the football club are not "only in Barcelona but in the whole of Catalonia."

These may all sound like positive policies but staunch independence critics like Catalan playwright Albert Boadella say Catalan nationalist forces took advantage of them "to indoctrinate in schools and via the media."

"Catalanism has strived to show the differences between the rest of Spaniards and Catalans" and has argued that "Spain has always prevented the development of Catalonia," he adds.

The expression "Spain robs us" was one of the slogans of the pro-independence camp when the economic crisis, which kicked off in 2008, converted this wealthy region in one of the country's most indebted.

That discontent was made worse by decisions like that made in 2010 by Spain's Constitutional Court, which cancelled part of a status granting Catalonia greater autonomy.

And the ban of a referendum which more than 70 percent of Catalans want -- even if under half want independence according to opinion polls -- has bred even more resentment.