“Corre!” I shouted, joining voices with almost a hundred thousand other spectators at the Camp Nou fútbol stadium. “Run!”
Up high in the nosebleeds of the stadium, I inched to the edge of my seat, clutching my precious Barça scarf as the FC Barcelona soccer team pushed up the field. The scarf, I felt, was as essential to the fan of any fútbol team as knives were to a chef. The thicker scarves were smoothly draped across the neck, while the thinner ones were tied in a slightly off-centered knot. To rally the team, the Barça fans (called culés) would unfurl and raise their scarves so that the words on the fabric could be read. During moments of tension and disappointment, scarves inevitably ended up on the culés’ heads and doubled as a tissue to wipe away tears.
After all, the team was as much a part of the soul of the city as Gaudi’s jaw-dropping modernista architecture. In the days of the Franco dictatorship, the entire city of Barcelona was under constant oppression. Its language, Catalan, was prohibited, as well as all other expressions of Catalan culture. Gone were the sardana, a circular dance where all participants held hands as a sign of unity. Gone were the fearless human towers, the castellers that stood on each other’s shoulders higher and higher until a little child shimmied up to the top and waved a hand to complete the tower. The red-and-yellow striped Catalan flag could not be flown anywhere, but there was always Barça. Overnight the team became, as its motto states, “més que un club.” Barça was more than a club team. Its flag became a symbol of Catalan pride, the red and blue blaugrana stripes a new representation of a city under siege from the capital. Seventy years of oppression passed, leaving behind generations of Catalans who would find it hard to forgive Madrid for its subjugation. Even now, not all has been forgiven. FC Barcelona versus Real Madrid is not just a soccer game, but a massive political and sociological expression of Catalan pride, resiliency, and independence.
My friend had half-seriously joked that every Barça game was a massive Catalan independence demonstration. Fans wore Catalan independista flags like capes on their backs while others carried them on massive poles. When the Catalan national anthem played at the beginning of my first Barça game, I felt like I was slowly beginning to understand the legacy of Barcelona. Yellow and red flags flew everywhere among the wave of red and blue shirts. By the end of the song in a language that I hardly knew, I felt tears prick my eyes. It was December, three months after my arrival to Barcelona, and finally, I could call the city my own.
I joked that I was born blaugrana, the Catalan word to describe the red and blue stripes on the jerseys of Barça. With blue eyes, red lipstick, and a face that could pass as vaguely Catalan, I could walk around the city in my blaugrana jersey and have people ask me for directions in Catalan. The majority of my Catalan language education was from listening to the fast-paced commentators of the Barça games. I learned more swearwords and creative uses of them during my first Barça game than I had in the first three months I had lived in the city.
I had gained a city and a second identity, but the excitement of being able to pass as someone else pulled me in opposing directions. In my blossoming group of Spanish friends, I was the token American girl and was accordingly bombarded with questions: “Do you like Spain? How did you learn Spanish so well? Do you have a boyfriend? Why not? What do you mean you don’t want one? I know many nice Catalan boys. Why do you feel uncomfortable when people are kissing on the metro? In your country, is everyone rich? Is everyone fat? I want to go to Los Angeles and Miami. Have you been there before? How big is America compared to Spain? Do you like Obama? Why do people shoot each other all the time in America? Do you go to the beach all the time? Do you live near any famous people? Has anyone ever told you that you have really pretty blue eyes? Why don’t you live with your parents? Do they not like you? What do you think about Catalonia?”
The last question was one I deliberately skirted. Calling the Catalans “political” was like saying that mother bears are “unfriendly” when their cubs are threatened. Every complaint was taken to the street with angry messages on pickets. The young people were even more indignant. Fifty percent of Spaniards ages 18 to 26 were unemployed. Jobs were scarce, and tuition was rising. One of the universities on the outskirts of the city shut down for three weeks while students barricaded the entire campus. As desperate as I was to fit in and pass as Spanish or Catalan, I realized that there were things I would never understand. I remember standing in front of the University of Barcelona on a strike day, frustrated that I had wasted a metro ticket on my trip to campus, only to find out that there was no way I was getting to class. I wanted to shout, “I literally pay 20 times more than you to go to school! And you won’t even let me in!” I learned to mentally repeat the mantra that it wasn’t my place, it wasn’t my place…
But wasn’t it? I was enrolled in the University of Barcelona. I took classes with the natives. I could pass as Catalan. My Spanish language skills were superior. I was not an obnoxious, entitled, party-animal young American. Why was it that the harder I tried to fit in the more I stood out? Why was I, as an American, so intriguing? I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be treated as an equal and not a novelty. I wanted people to stop telling me that I had pretty blue eyes long enough to realize that I was smart. I wanted to know the European secret to tying scarves, and I wanted to mimic the Spanish hand gestures. I wanted a Spanish lisp, I wanted to stop walking over the air vents above the metro when I was wearing a skirt, I wanted to understand every joke before someone had to lean over and explain to me why it was a play on words that I did not know. But as I stood in front of the university, knowing that I would probably never understand all the anger, I realized that I could never be completely Spanish. After all, I was American. Yet, as I sat in Camp Nou watching the Barça game that December night, I felt a strange sense of belonging as I shouted a mixture of Spanish, Catalan, and English at the players and referees.
“What are you doing? Push up! Joder, home, per el amor de Deus, CORRE!” I cried, already on my feet. Moments later, the nearly one hundred thousand other spectators sprang up as the ball sailed neatly into the back of the net. The beautiful game finished with a shutout 5-0 and the streets flooded with fans. On the way to the metro, I grabbed my friend’s FC Barcelona flag and ran with it streaming behind me.
“Corre, noia blaugrana, corre!” shouted an exuberant fan, waving his scarf in appreciation. Run, blaugrana girl, run.