Remarks made on Wednesday by a Catalan separatist lawmaker have reopened the debate about a sensitive issue in Catalonia: the practice of addressing people either in Catalan or Spanish depending on the other person’s background.
“We have to raise awareness among native-born Catalans that there are foreign-born people who want to [learn Catalan], that it is necessary for them to learn Catalan, and that we must end the practice, which is very common in some areas, of always speaking Spanish with anybody who does not seem to be Catalan, either because of their physical traits or their name,” said Anna Erra, the mayor of Vic and a lawmaker for the the pro-independence Together for Catalonia (JxCAT), during a question session in the Catalan parliament.
The statement was tied to a question aimed at the Catalan cultural department chief, Mariàngela Vilallonga, regarding a campaign called No em canviïs la llengua (Don’t change my language). This campaign encourages Catalan speakers to use this language by default when addressing foreign citizens, instead of automatically switching to Spanish on the assumption that the latter won’t understand Catalan.
The campaign was presented in September of last year by an activist named Rosario Palomino, and is viewed “very positively” by Vilallonga.
Opposition groups in the Catalan parliament reacted angrily at Erra’s remarks.
“Just when you thought you’d heard it all, there’s always some separatist lawmaker who sets the wretchedness bar even higher,” tweeted Alejandro Fernández, president of the Catalan branch of the conservative Popular Party (PP).
“Unfortunately, racists are not identified by their physical traits,” said Pol Gibert, a representative for the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC). The head of the leftist Catalunya en Comú-Podem, Jéssica Albiach, said that starting a debate on who looks like a Catalan is to fail to recognize the diversity of Catalonia.
The center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) asked the speaker of parliament, Roger Torrent, “to guarantee the equality of all lawmakers and to condemn the use of supremacist and racist expressions.”
Just hours later, Erra issued an apology. “I lament that my remarks in parliament were taken the wrong way, and I apologize to anyone who may have felt offended,” she wrote on Twitter.
According to Erra’s statements in parliament, many Catalan speakers have “the really bad habit” of switching to Spanish “when they think that the person standing in front of them is a foreigner or does not speak Catalan.”
This attitude, she said, “is seriously detrimental to our language” because “it prevents those who want to learn it from doing so.” Erra said that Catalans erroneously believe that in these situations, “addressing someone in Spanish is a show of respect, but that’s not so.”
“It will be increasingly difficult for the Catalan language to grow if it does not manage to attract new speakers,” she added.
In her reply, the cultural department chief Vilallonga cited a 2018 survey of language use among the population of Catalonia, which showed that around 900,000 people who were born abroad expressed an interest in learning Catalan.
English version by Susana Urra.