Buoyed by Scotland's upcoming independence vote, Catalans by the hundreds of thousands surged into the streets of northeast Spain on Thursday, using their national day to rally for their own chance to vote on breaking away and forming a new country.
In T-shirts of red and yellow, the colors of the Catalan flag, participants linked arms to form a more than 10-mile human chain in the form of a "V" — for vote or votar, in Spanish and Catalan — across downtown Barcelona, the Catalan capital. Organizers said more than 500,000 signed up to take part, but police said 1.8 million turned out. Dozens of similar demonstrations packed town squares across the region.
"No country in the world can show mobilization like this," Catalan leader Artur Mas said in an evening address to the nation.
Sept. 11 is La Diada, a regional holiday in Catalonia commemorating the day in 1714 that Barcelona fell to Spanish forces in the War of Spanish Succession. Thousands of Catalans died alongside their Habsburg allies, and Catalan politicians lay wreaths on their graves each year. Though Catalan language and culture were repressed during the last century under the nearly 40-year dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, the Siege of Barcelona is still seared in local lore.
"Still 300 years later, we still feel oppression from the Spanish government," said Barcelona protester Xavi Moral, a 25-year-old engineer wearing a Catalan flag as a cape. "This year we are looking ahead though, at what could happen in Scotland. We are quite jealous!"
Scotland plans to hold a Sept. 18 referendum on independence from Britain, but the Spanish government has forbidden any such vote in Catalonia. Mas said Thursday that he would nevertheless move ahead with a non-binding public vote on Nov. 9, and that he would do so on legal grounds.
"We have some similarities with Scotland. We are both nations. We both have our own cultures. We are both economically viable," Mas told a small gathering of foreign journalists. "So if the Scottish people have the right to decide their political future, why not the Catalan people?"
Aside from the Catalans, Scotland's referendum has stirred hope for variety of separatist groups across Europe, including the Basques in northern Spain, Flemish speakers in Belgium and the island of Corsica in France.
In a nation where the central government exercises a great deal of control over regions such as Catalonia, activists hope the Nov. 9 ballot will lead to an new arrangement in which they at least gain more local control if not independence.
The ballot would ask: "Do you want Catalonia to be a state, yes or no? If yes, do you want that state to be independent?"
Polls show that a majority of Catalonia's 7.6 million residents would answer yes to the first question, but like Scotland, they are roughly divided on whether they want to break away and form a new country in Europe.
"My father was born in Catalonia, and my mom was born in Madrid. So I'm quite mixed," said Gerard Orihela, 32, who works at a car factory. "I will vote for independence, but I understand as well people who prefer to be a Spanish region. I understand it perfectly."
The Catalan parliament is scheduled to debate and vote on legislation next week to lay the legal framework for the Nov. 9 vote. But that is likely to be trumped by a veto by Spain's Constitutional Court. Spanish law holds that any public referendum must be open to all Spanish citizens, not just from one region.
Mas has said that he will not push for a referendum if it is illegal. When Spain's Basque region floated plans for a similar independence vote in 2005, Madrid warned that Basque leaders could face arrest. That vote was never held.