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After spending a month in Catalonia, I returned to California in September even as the referendum took place there. Looking back, I marvel at my naiveté as I set off for a writers’ residency in the high Pyrenees in early August, never suspecting that I was traveling into the troubled soul of Catalonia.
But the signs were all there. When Lluis, the director of the Centre d’Art i Natura, responded to my email about practicing Spanish by suggesting that I should instead learn another romantic language, I should have taken note. The Catalans, I would soon discover, were nationalistic to a fault, speaking their idiom at the dinner table even as I sat there not comprehending a word.
Don’t get me wrong, Catalans are some of the most spirited, generous, caring, and individualistic people I have ever met. But their ethnic fervor bewildered me at times. Like when Montserrat, a resident I had become close to, attacked Spanish as the language of the imperialists. Toward the end of my stay, when I summoned up enough courage to express my frustration over the language barrier, I was surprised to discover that not everyone favored ethnic jingoism. “When we create these cultural distinctions,” Oulalia, another friend said, “we create barriers. As humans, we have more in common than not.”
“We look at the Middle East and criticize divisions between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds,” another resident piped in. “Yet we do the same thing here.”
Lluis asked me what I thought.
“I come from a country that was colonized for hundreds of years,” I said. “But instead of hating it, I love English, the language of our rulers. I am a global villager. I transcend national boundaries. I’ve traveled thousands of miles to be with you, a people I previously knew nothing about.”
We cannot go back, my fellow-residents agreed, and erase our history. We have to move forward.
I did not know then that in less than a month after my visit, violence would break out in the streets of Barcelona. After inciting his people to agitate for freedom, Carles Puigdemont, the president of the autonomous region, would, at the last minute, seek negotiations with Madrid.
I could have told you so, I felt like saying.
I have always had mixed feelings about identity politics. Perhaps it is the result of being with my father who agreed with Gandhi’s secular attitudes. “Look what religiosity has done to our country,” he always said. “Hindus and Muslims have split us up in two.”
So I dread identity politics, and at the same time, I support it. When Colin Kaepernick takes the knee during the national anthem, I am 200% behind him. Because he is protesting America’s history of racism and tyranny. Of course Catalans claim they have been subjugated too; at one time, their language was banned in schools, their culture is now in danger of disappearing, they say.
But are there levels of subjugation? Are there times when identity politics is a must and times when other avenues are available to resolve conflict? The United Farm Workers were vital to promoting a just cause. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) continues to play an important role today. But where do we draw the line?
Residents of Mumbai believe outsiders have taken their jobs and are discriminating against them. At one time, the Sikhs wanted to separate from India. The tribal peoples of India are the real underdogs; would they not be better off having their own states?
The Catalans I lived with even hoped that California would soon secede from the United States, giving impetus to their movement, even as I told them that it would never happen. So where does it end?
By creating and sustaining ethnic differences, are we falling prey to the very tactics of divide and rule that the imperialists used? Hotel Rwanda portrayed the Hutus senselessly killing the Tutsis. But new evidence is emerging that the CIA was involved.
I, forever the global villager, am grateful that the world has become such a small place. On the other hand, I long for an epoch when every region of India had different wedding rituals, culinary traditions, music, art and theater. Globalization and social media are wiping out cultural diversity, I fear, making our world homogeneous and bland. Soon, my native tongue Marathi will be written only in Latin script, I am afraid, and many dialects will disappear from the face of the earth.
At the same time, I realize that the real enemy of the people is not a rival ethnic group, race or religion but the international corporate oligarchy that is buying up politicians and exploiting the 99% for the benefit of the 1%. By using hatred and fear of the other, the powerful are abusing the powerless for personal gain.
If an American white working class male realized that he had more in common with an African-American single mother, who, like him, was struggling to make a decent living in the age of automation and a shrinking social safety net, how would individuals in both groups feel? What if we moved to unite the two groups? What if those who were higher up in the pecking order, namely the white working class, initiated the movement?
Spain is still recovering from its recent economic crisis. Perhaps a negotiated settlement would be preferable to a traumatic split? Identity politics and a unified world are paradigms that can co-exist, I believe.
We just have to open our hearts a tiny bit.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.