At first glance, Catalonia, the northeast region of Spain, and the state of Texas don’t seem to have much in common.
Catalonia is a fairly liberal state. The region’s stance on immigration is more open than other parts of Spain: Catalonia prides itself as the “the land of welcoming,” and Catalans have publicly demanded that the central government take in more refugees. Feminist and socialist movements have gained considerable traction, holding seats in the Catalan government through left-leaning political parties like the Candidatura de Unidad Popular (more commonly known as the CUP party), which sees Catalan independence as a chance to create a feminist republic. Gun ownership among citizens is almost nonexistent: In Catalonia, there are two weapons for every 1,000 citizens.
And Texas is, well, Texas.
But despite geographical and political differences, Texas separatists have been following the Catalan independence movement for years. The two regions have some similarities: Both are economic hubs, pride themselves on a deep-rooted identity, and have some citizens frustrated with the way their tax dollars are spent at the federal level. Texas, however, proudly boasts that—unlike Catalonia—it was once its own country: The Republic of Texas seceded from Mexico in 1836, only to be annexed by the Union ten years later.
Daniel Miller is president of the Texas Nationalist Movement, an organization founded in 2005 from smaller pro-independence groups, which now has around 368,800 active supporters. He says that today, the movement looks to Catalonia for inspiration. “If you look at [Catalonia’s] particular set of grievances with the Spanish central government, all you have to do is replace the proper nouns and it would read like one of our pamphlets that we hand out to potential supporters,” says Miller.
On October 1, Catalonia voted in an independence referendum to secede from Spain, an action which the Spanish government considered illegal. With a 43 percent voter turnout, official results showed 90 percent favored independence, as Spanish police hit citizens with batons and rubber bullets at polling stations to keep them from voting, sparking international outrage. And on October 27, the Catalan government took one more step forward: It declared independence from Spain, less than an hour before the Spanish government voted to dissolve the Catalan government. Catalan officials were arrested on November 2 for rebellion and sedition—punishable for up to 30 years—without bail. But the issue isn’t likely to end any time soon: Spain’s Prime Minister called for elections in Catalonia on December 21, and separatist leaders are again expected to win a majority.
Miller has watched the drama in Catalonia unfold from his home in Nederland, Texas, and has issued a statement from the TNM standing by the Catalan declaration of independence. He says that in Catalonia, the people and its government have acted “above reproach.”
“If you were going to classify how I felt, it would be a mix of inspiration from the Catalan people, mixed with outrage at the reaction from the Spanish central government,” says Miller, adding that the central government’s behavior is not reflective of a modern-day Western-style democracy.
The Catalan independence movement has been around for decades, but has gained significant momentum in the past five to ten years. Part of the reason for this increase in separatist sentiment was the 2008 economic crisis, which hit Spain especially hard. Catalonia is one of the country’s richest regions, contributing almost 20 percent of Spain’s overall GDP. Catalans feel they contribute more in taxes than they receive back in public funds, and in 2006, the Catalan government passed a statute of autonomy that would have, among other things, given it power to collect and allocate its own taxes. The Basque Country, another autonomous region in Spain, already has that power. But the Spanish Supreme Court, led by Spain’s conservative party Partido Popular, struck down the Catalan statute of autonomy in 2010.
“Economics plays a strong role in all of [the independence movements],” says Miller. “From an economic standpoint, it’s the same argument that we’ve made here in Texas, where we overpay anywhere from 100 to 150 billion dollars a year into the federal union.”
Like Catalonia, Texas is one of the richest regions in the United States. At 1.59 trillion dollars, Texas has the second highest GDP in the country—and according to Governor Greg Abbott, it would have the tenth highest GDP in the world, if it were a country.
But economics isn’t the most important factor, according to Miller.
“I think at the core, where you find the commonality in all of these independence movements is this idea of sovereignty or self-determination,” says Miller. As he sees it, when people look at the “inefficiencies and wastes” of a central government, they start questioning the current system and pushing for self-determination.
History professor H. W. Brands, who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, says that may be the case for Catalonia. It’s not, however, the case for Texas.
“I would say that the Texas movement is largely symbolic: ‘We’re Texas, we’re proud Texans, and this is the way to show it,’” says Brands. “The Catalonian movement is quite serious, I don’t think it’s simply symbolic. I think that they believe that Catalonia can be more successful on its own than as part of Spain.”
Brands says that while some Texas nationalists make pro-independence arguments around economics and border control, the movement tends to be for people who don’t like big government.
“Once you get down to the details of arguments, then they become pretty hazy,” says Brands. “Because Texas benefits, in many ways, from being part of the United States. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Texas gets a lot more out of being part of the United States than the United States gets out of having Texas as one of the states.”
Carlos Delclos, 34, was born in Texas to Catalan parents. He’s been living in Barcelona for twelve years now, and has watched the independence movement gain momentum in the past decade. On referendum day, he went out to vote after seeing videos surfacing online of Spanish police showing up at Catalan polling stations in riot gear, smashing windows and confiscating ballot boxes. It was the scale of the state-sanctioned violence that moved him, he says. He was one of the few that voted “no” to Catalan independence.
“In a way, it makes sense,” Delclos says of Texas looking to Catalonia for inspiration. “Because you’re seeing these devolutions, or local power kind of movements, all over the world. We’ve seen it since globalization started. The more you feel the power is in the hands of supranational institutions, the more you feel like you need to develop your own national institutions.”
Delclos sees the two movements as starkly different. They both want to be identified as nations, yet in Catalonia, where people have always spoken Catalan, rather than Spanish, the idea of nation is largely based around linguistic affinity. From 1936 to 1975, the region faced repression for their Catalan roots under the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who aimed to “unify” Spain. He saw anything that wasn’t considered “Spanish” as a challenge, so he prohibited the use of the language in public institutions, jailed anyone that opened up shops with Catalan names, and banned books written in Catalan.
Texas doesn’t have that kind of history with the United States. On the contrary, Delclos sees the Texas independence movement as appealing to the state’s “exceptionalism,” to the idea that it was once an independent country. The identity of a Texan nation, he adds, is a bit unclear.
“I’m not entirely sure whether the Texas independence movement quite reflects its population,” says Delclos. “If we were to think of Texas as a nation, what would it be really? Who are we talking about?”
The Texas Nationalist Movement Facebook page is currently filled with photos of Catalan pro-independence protests. Followers have left comments like “Catalonia is an inspiration to #TEXIT” and “We can do it here.” The organization published an article after October 1, outlining the lessons Texas can take from the Catalan referendum and citing the “crucial difference between Catalonia and Texas” being that “Texans are armed… a substantial deterrent to tyranny.”
And the organization isn’t the only one pushing for Texas independence. Pro-independence advocates at The Republic of Texas believe that the U.S. violated its conditions when it annexed the Republic of Texas in 1845—therefore, they insist, Texas is still legally its own country. And in June of this year, the Texas Boys State, a summer program where youth leaders create and run their own government, voted in favor of a secession bill in a mock legislature. It was the first time in eighty years of the program that it happened.
“Texas already tried this in the 1860s. And it brought on, along with the other Confederate states, the Civil War,” says Brands. “It would take quite a leap of imagination to think that what happens in Spain, with Catalonia, is going to set any precedent that would work for the United States. Because these issues have already been worked out in the United States.”
Brands says that the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly forbid secession, so an independence referendum wouldn’t be illegal or unconstitutional like it is in Spain. But he doubts that what’s going on in Catalonia—despite the Texas National Movement watching it unfold so closely—will change anybody’s minds in Texas.
Miller believes otherwise. He hopes that Catalonia will cause Texans to reflect and ask themselves: “Why not us next?”
“I think that’s the beauty of it: It’s a common beauty among independence movements,” says Miller. “When it comes to the right of self-government, it may be difficult to get there. But the benefits of being able to call your own shots and create your own destiny—I think that’s the ultimate allure of independence.”