The breeze flowed easily through the open-air café in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. The light gray of the early October morning lent itself well to the café con leche placed in front of me. A cup of art — always the same, always different.
My attention was fixated on the elderly Spanish couple sitting at the table across from me. They were drinking glass-bottled Coca-Colas and pulling homemade bocadillos out of a wrinkled, brown paper lunch bag. Perplexed, I wondered (and doubted) if bringing your own food to a restaurant was an accepted phenomenon in this country, but after a moment or two, I decided that it was likely yet another example of Spaniards doing, being, and acting as they like. During my time there, I found myself constantly inspired by this notion — it seemed like everyone around me had no fear of being completely unique, completely individual, completely independent. The 24-year-old in me envied and admired that enormously.
As I tilted my arm up to sip the milky coffee, a Catalonian newspaper marked “October 1st, 2018” revealed itself beneath my forearm. I was naive to the fact that today marked the one-year anniversary of millions of Catalonians voting to secede from Spain, per the decree of Regional President Carles Puigdemont — a decree that defied the Spanish constitution, which requires such a vote to be called only by national Spanish authorities. I was also unaware that the date staring up at me was minutes away from making its own mark in history.
It started with the rhythmic hum of a helicopter flying overhead, a sound I had initially waved off as construction. I paid it no mind until the elderly couple at the café began to direct their attention to the street. I followed their gaze to find a handful of young people with yellow-and-red flags draped over their backs, each with a blue-and-white star on the top. Their faces were painted with excitement and uncertainty as they chanted something in Catalan — there were so few of them that the unique sound of each voice clearly reverberated off of the cement buildings in the compact alley.
As many of the onlookers returned to their meals, dates, newspapers, and phones, my eyes remained glued to the street. Those initial chanters seemed to have left behind a feeling; it was as if they were trying to tell us that something bigger was yet to come.
I got down from my barstool and walked outside, determined to see where they had gone. Turning my head to the right, I watched as the initial group disappeared around the corner of a dark alleyway. To the left, I was faced with an approaching mass. The small trickle of individuals had transformed into a flash flood. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were pouring out of every alleyway in sight, conjoining into a single body of beings, their chants all unified into one, powerful, synchronized wash of words.
One after the next, draped in Catalan flags, marked with nose piercings, alternative haircuts, inspiration, unity, and defiance, Barcelona’s youth turned the quiet, breezy street into a sea of electric beings. I pressed my back against the stone wall, pondering the cause of the procession and why there were so many youth involved — perhaps it was a better alternative than class. I watched as red Converse and laced-up combat boots shuffled past in a uniform rhythm, the bodies attached to them sporadic in movement — shouting, jumping, laughing. It was clear that certain individuals were confident in their actions, spearheading chants, looking ahead, serious. Others were still questioning what they had gotten involved with, smiling bashfully as they gradually adopted the actions of their peers after quickly glancing to see what the next action was or who might be watching. It was a stunning and accurate depiction of adolescence — a wild spectrum of certainty — painted on the face of a protest making history.
I followed as the stream of energized youth flowed through the twists and turns of the historic streets. Finding the right moment, I let myself be engulfed into the crowd, feeling like I was inside electrically charged molecule, with atoms bouncing off of one another in the form of bracelet-covered wrists and backpack-adorned torsos.
As we turned the corner onto a more open street, two teenage boys waited along the side of an old bicycle shop. One stood silent as the other fumed, trying to get his point across to whoever was on the other end of his phone call. I chuckled to myself, picturing the boy’s mother, hand on hip, demanding her son return that instant, as he begs to remain part of this massive compilation of people his age.
Like a river into an ocean, we eventually poured out of the rickety street into the Palau de la Generalitat, where my perception of this protest changed abruptly. This was no innocent excuse to skip class. Woven into the pods of young adults — giggling with their cliques, standing stoically with their hand-made politically-charged signs, discarding cigarette ashes with a quick flick — stood adults of all ages. They were protesting as well. Beside them, photographers, police, tourists, news crews, and pickpockets shared in the anticipation of the government official who was soon to speak.
I paused, humbled by the parallel being drawn before my eyes. There we were, in a city comprised of people who refreshingly embrace the power of individuality, in a plaza buzzing with the youth of that city — young protesters who were going through their own natural versions of finding that individuality — fueling a movement for the independence of their nation. It was as if Catalonia and its youth were finding inspiration and courage in one another, each to become their own.