The Charnego and Catalan Independence

Charnego. It’s a word which exploded back into the public conscience with a speech last week in Spanish Parliament by the ERC (Esquerra Republicana Catalana) spokesperson Gabriel Ruffian. According to the Real Academia Española, charnego means an ‘immigrant in Catalonia who comes from a non-Catalan speaking region of Spain.’

In his now-infamous and inflammatory speech the controversial 33-year old politician Rufián, a member of the Spanish-speaking Catalonian independence committee, Súmate , suggested that Spain had been run so badly it resembles a medieval state and referred to himself as a proud ‘charnego and independentista,’ the idea being that the even the sons of Spanish immigrants can desire a separate Catalan state.

Rufián, whose Andalusian grandarents (a construction worker and a taxi-driver) arrived as part of the massive mid-20th Century immigration wave, has since had a public twitter row with the respected Spanish author and historian, Arturo Pérez-Reverte. The war of words began when the Madrid-based novelist called Rufián a product of the ‘stupid Spain of Aznar, Zapatero and Rajoy’ and said ‘they don’t refer to you as a ‘charnego’ in Spain, but in Catalonia. That’s where the problem lies, I believe.’ With Rufián responding ‘Don’t worry @perezreverte, we (Catalonia) will be leaving soon.’ To this the writer of the Alatriste books replied, ‘I have no problem with you and whoever else going wherever you wish. I even understand it.’

What Perez-Reverte perhaps overlooked is the more up-to-date significance of the term ‘charnego’. In 16th Century France, charnego was a word used in the Gascon language to denote someone with mixed Catalan and French heritage. By the 1950s , during the Franco dictatorship, its use became common in Catalonia as a derogatory label for families who had migrated to the north-eastern comunidad from the rest of Spain. It was the fear that that this in-rush of outsiders would solidify Franco’s objectives in ‘diluting’ Catalonia, its language, its customs and its people.

Like many other terms with negative social/racial connotations, in a modern society where few people can claim to owning pure heritage (in this case Catalan surnames on both sides of their family), the term has either been discarded or reclaimed by the very people it was once aimed at. That public figures such as José Montilla, whose ancestry was distinctly ‘Charnegan’ could become elected President of the Generalitat meant that the word’s meaning altered drastically. First there came the idea of the charnego agradecido, or an immigrant who made the effort to fit in with local customs, including the language. But now, such is the nature of modern Catalonia, that it’s come to signify a kind of Spanish immigrant who no longer wishes to merely gain acceptance but sees himself as 'mes catala que les anxoves de l’Escala’.

As Catalan as the anchovies of L’Escala,’ that is.

That Rufián, whose Catalan Republican party won nine seats and 599,289 votes in the December elections, is a public speaker who likes to make incendiary remarks to get himself in the news, there can be no doubt.

Then there’s his much-ridiculed speaking style; ‘one listens between interminable pauses as he stares at the horizon as if he’s not interested…one listens when what he has said he has repeated 20 times and doesn’t look at the interlocutor even when he’s interrupting,’ said one writer in El Periodico. He’s been compared by his detractors to Joseph Goebbels, Benito Mussolini and, most bizarrely, North Korean dictator, Kim-Jong-Un.

In short, he’s a polarizing figure. But the idea presented behind the charnego comments, ‘that it doesn’t matter where you come from, anyone can be a Catalan, and even believe in a separate Catalonia’, as an inversion of the more traditional idea of Castile as being the unifying cradle for immigrants from all around the peninsula, is an intriguing one, in the struggle for Spain’s soul. After all, beyond all the ‘constitutional legality’ shtick Moncloa is always using to conserve the unity of the state, which, let’s face it, doesn’t really wash as a logical argument against a referendum, why shouldn’t another part of Spain present itself as a cultural, economical and political umbrella, even an independent one, if it wishes to? The question is, does it really wish to? In the end it might all come down to one thing to make the difference: the Charnego.