Europe

Santa Coloma: A town split between Catalonia and Spain

Map of Santa Coloma

Catalonia's dream of independence from Spain collides with some harsh realities on the streets of Santa Coloma.

This dormitory town of 120,000 people on the northern edge of Barcelona is sharply divided over the 9 November vote on breaking away.

Historically it was a summer retreat for rich people in the city, just across the River Besos. You can still see some of their mansions among the concrete apartment blocks.

But Santa Coloma de Gramenet mushroomed into an urban sprawl under the Franco dictatorship and these days it is one of Catalonia's poorest towns.

Outnumbering the locals

At one point in the 1980s it was possibly the least cool address in the Barcelona area, notorious for drug addiction.

With 20% unemployment today, it has a particularly high population of migrants from outside the region, who now slightly outnumber those born locally.

Walk around the town's Fondo area and you will soon see that the newest residents hail from around the world - China, Latin America, Pakistan.

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Media captionCatalonia vote: The mayor who opposes independence

Ask people you assume to be locals, and you will repeatedly find migrants or descendants of migrants from poor parts of southern Spain.

It is no surprise, then, that a Spanish national political party dominates the town's politics - unusual for Catalonia.

Santa Coloma's energetic young mayor Nuria Parlon is firmly opposed to independence, though she backs the right of Catalans to vote, seeking to distance herself from the hard line of the conservative government in Madrid.

The language of public administration at the town hall is Catalan, whatever the politics inside, and Mayor Parlon's party actually sits in a local coalition with the party of Artur Mas, Catalonia's pro-independence leader.

Independence, she argues, is a "placebo" which would not solve Catalonia's underlying problems.

Chief among those problems is the weakness of the economy after the debt crisis, she says, and half of the town's budget of €90m (£71m; $112m) is spent on social services.

Pride in language

A mothballed construction site, that symbol of crisis to be seen all over Spain, looms just around the corner from the town hall.

For the independence-minded Catalans of the old town, living in the streets around the nearby Major church, the challenge is to win over people with more on their minds than building new countries.

Health worker Galdric Arus, my hour-long guide to the old town's charms, used to feel lonely because he had never met another "Galdric" (an old Catalan name).

Then he discovered Facebook, he says laughing, and found a few Galdrics over the border in Perpignan, capital of old northern Catalonia in what is now France.

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Media captionGaldric Arus: "Catalonia can work alone and be a new part of Europe, a rich part of Europe - no problem"

He sees himself as a patriot, not a nationalist, and his greatest contribution to independence, if it ever happens, may be the teaching of the Catalan language. He does that voluntarily two evenings a week, in classes for recent migrants from outside Spain.

His vision of an independent Catalonia is of a happily integrated, multi-ethnic society living in prosperity, separately from Spain.

But for now he burns with indignation at Madrid's efforts to deny him and other Catalans the right to decide their future.

On Sunday he will have to go to a secondary school just outside the town centre to vote because the organisers are not allowed to use the normal polling stations in the centre.

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Media captionManel Pons says Spain's leaders have failed to live up to promises made to Catalans

Heading to a different school on Sunday, though he lives just a street away in the old town, is statistician Manel Pons.

For Manel, the record of Spanish governments of both the right and left, including Mayor Parlon's Socialists, is dismal when it comes to Catalonia. It comes down to too many broken promises of greater autonomy.

We meet at a cafe just outside the town hall, a stone's throw from the voter registration booth set up in a doorway between shops, where activists are busy building an electoral roll of their own.

During my day in Santa Coloma, would-be voters are more a trickle than a stream.

Manel introduces me to Sabina, who will work as an election volunteer on Sunday. She does not want to give her surname - not because she fears repercussions, she says, but because of privacy concerns.

"We have to show the government what the people think," she argues. "They must be made to understand what the people think."

What about jobs?

Among those definitely voting is Alonso Romero, an upholsterer who has a workshop in the Fondo area, still busy repairing sofas for the comfort of Santa Colomans at the age of 70.

But Alonso is voting the other way - a very definite "no" to independence.

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Media captionAlonso Romero feels perfectly integrated in the Catalan town of Santa Coloma, but he remains loyal to Spain

Since arriving from Andalusia in the 1950s - he still remembers some lonely moments conquering his nerves as a young migrant in Catalonia's dance halls - he has become, in his words, "perfectly integrated" and feels completely Catalan, yet he is still a proud Spaniard.

A more recent arrival from Andalusia is Guillermo Alvarez, who owns a newspaper kiosk just below the town hall.

A Catalan independence flag adorns his kiosk, but the man selling news to Santa Coloma seems to be keeping his options open.

What people want most right now in Santa Coloma is work and a decent standard of living, he argues.

"If the economy doesn't work, nothing works," he says. "It's the economic crisis which has spurred the independence movement and independence is seen as one way out of it.

"Spain is not allowing the Catalan people to decide and people want a free, democratic, constitutional country."

Image caption Guillermo Alvarez from Andalusia sympathises with the pro-independence argument
Image caption Santa Coloma town hall: There is some resentment towards Madrid in this Barcelona suburb
Image caption An unfinished construction site: All too common in Spain and a sign of its economic slump
Image caption The church in Santa Coloma

Madrid's efforts to block Sunday's vote effectively mean that only the pro-independence campaign is visible on Santa Coloma's streets in the flags and posters and banners.

As Madrid is ignoring the vote officially there is no anti-independence campaigning.

The town remains outwardly calm, with Spanish-speakers and Catalan-speakers living peacefully side by side, but the tension is palpable in the mayor's office.

In the current atmosphere, Nuria says, she is uncomfortable stating her position in public.

"If I put out a tweet now saying I do not favour independence, because I regard it as a trap, a lot of people will attack me with verbal abuse," she says. "They'll call me a fascist."

It is an insult that hangs in the air briefly, like a ghost from Spain's civil war past, but it is hard to think of the people of this quiet town ever going back to open conflict.

Follow my blog on Tumblr and Twitter as I report on this fascinating vote. Join in the conversation with questions if you see me live-tweeting discussions.

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