In the US, we talk a lot about walls. In Barcelona, we talk a lot about walls too.
Historian David Frye says, “no invention in human history played a greater role (than walls) in creating and shaping civilization” (National Geographic).
For Barcelona, this couldn’t be more true.
My first week here we studied the remains of a Roman muralla constructed in 300 AD by the Romans around Barcelona. It was the start of the city’s long history of expanding and rebuilding its walls.
When the Visigoths took over, they maintained the Roman organization, and thus the city remained within its walls. By the time the Muslims came in 711 AD, the idea of Catalonia as a distinct region deserving distinct rights was already starting to develop. I can’t help but feel that the walls contributed to this sentiment.
When we build walls on our land, we also build them in our mind. The prolonged time spent within the Roman walls could be a reason why Barcelona and Catalonia see themselves as different.
I don’t want to boil this painful, complicated, centuries-long independence movement down to the construction of a single wall. And I certainly don’t know enough about Spanish politics to make an argument about it, but I think this is worth a closer look.
The Romans built another, more famous wall north of England, Hadrian’s Wall. This wall no longer serves a physical purpose, but is a symbol for the Scottish independence movement, even though its location does not coincide with modern-day borders (El País). It wouldn’t be a shock if the Roman wall in Barcelona had made some contribution to the Catalan independence movement there.
Another interesting case involving walls is in El Raval. In the twelfth century, Barcelona needed to expand its walls. The new walls were built around the Ramblas and excluded El Raval. It’s worth noting that these walls were built by Consell de Cent, the government institution of Barcelona that was in constant friction with the kingdom. This reconstruction of walls could serve as a statement of its desire to be a separate entity.
The exclusion of El Raval by this wall could possibly explain the state of the neighborhood today. Raval means outside. During its period of exclusion, El Raval was where they sent the sick and the sinister. Even though the neighborhood was fully included within the city’s walls by the 18th century, it never quite lost its reputation and reality of crime and poverty. It is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Barcelona and has one of the city’s lowest life expectancies. One article called El Raval Barcelona’s most dangerous neighborhood (The Local). Even though the wall no longer exists, the neighborhood is still excluded from the urban development of the city.
Finally, there is the Ciutadella. While the former two walls were to protect the inside from the outside, this fortification served a different purpose. In the years leading up to the 18th century, Catalonia was growing increasingly independent. In the War of Spanish Succession, England promised Catalonia independence in return for their support in the war.
Unfortunately, England lost and as a punishment, the king constructed the Ciutadella to prevent Barcelona from rebelling. While the previous two walls had psychological repercussions, this wall in particular was built with psychology in mind. The Ciutadella served as a form of oppression. It was eventually dismantled in the 19th century, but the Ciutadella hasn’t been forgotten. The fortification was transformed into the largest park in Barcelona.
The old military buildings are now used by the university I attend. The day that Barcelona surrendered is now the National Day of Catalonia, an important day for the independence movement. The fortification may no longer exist, but the city and region have turned the feelings of failure and oppression into resistance and pride. The Ciutadella is now a symbol for what it was a punishment for.
The case of Barcelona makes me wonder if Catalonia and the rest of Spain were so different before the construction of the first wall, or if the wall made the difference a reality. Even though these walls no longer physically exist, they still stand in the minds of many of the people. The truth is, walls change the way we see the world. And it’s very difficult to unsee even after they disappear.
I don’t have plans to build walls around my neighborhood anytime soon, but I do notice I build walls inside my mind. The hardest part about going to Georgetown was the realization of the number of walls that have kept students like me out, first-generation, low-income, urban, public school students. I’m now surrounded by people who I see have everything, but they regard as almost nothing. It’s painful and even lonely at times to live with that difference. Sometimes I ask myself why I have access to this while so many of my friends back home do not. I could be angry and hate the students here, but at the same time, we’re all just products of the side of the wall we were born on.
When we build walls, we have to ask ourselves if we would like to live with the consequences that come with them.
I’ve broken many walls to get to where I am now, but it’s my choice to keep living with them or not.