LOCATION: Northeast Spain
POPULATION: About 6 million
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism

Source Database: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures
Table of Contents


Catalonia is located in Spain's northeastern corner. It is roughly the size of the state of Maryland. It is bound to the north by the Pyrenees mountains, to the east and south by the Mediterranean Sea, to the southwest by Valencia, and to the west by Aragon. The region is dominated by the Pyrenees. Catalonia is divided into four administrative provinces: Lleida, Girona, Barcelona, and Tarragona. A fifth region within Catalonia is Andorra, a small country jointly governed by France and Spain.

Catalonia has a population of approximately 6 million people, roughly 15 percent of Spain's total population. Much of the region's population growth--up from barely 2 million in 1900--is due to immigration. Over 25 percent of Catalonia's inhabitants live in Barcelona.


The Catalan people live in an area of northeast Spain called Catalonia. Historically, Catalonia also included Valencia, Andorra, the Balearic Islands, and the French department (or province) called Pyrenees Orientales. Speakers of the Catalan language can still be found in these areas. Following centuries of foreign rule, Catalonia became an independent political entity in ad 988 and united with the Kingdom of Aragon in 1137. Together, the two regions established an empire that eventually extended to Sardinia, Naples, Sicily, and Greece. After the marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the fifteenth century, the kingdoms of Aragon and Catalonia were united with Castile and León. After this union, the Catalans struggled for centuries to preserve their political and cultural identity.

By the nineteenth century, Catalonia had become a major economic power in Spain due to trade and industrialization. It has remained one of Spain's wealthiest and most developed regions. It has attracted large numbers of immigrants from the south throughout the twentieth century. During the years of Francisco Franco's dictatorship (1939-75), Catalan regionalism was suppressed and the local language outlawed. In 1979, Catalonia became an autonomous region with its capital at Barcelona. In 1992, it gained the international spotlight as host to the Summer Olympic Games.


In art and architecture, Catalonia is especially prominent in connection with two widely separated periods: Romanesque, and modernist. The region contains some 2,000 buildings erected during the Romanesque period, which flourished from around ad 1000 to 1250. At the turn of the twentieth century, the modernist style was championed by architects including Antoni Gaudí, Josep Puig I Cadafalch, and Lluís Domènech. Great painters include Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dalí. Each has a museum in Barcelona devoted to his work. Well-known contemporary Catalan writers include Salvador Espriu and Llorenç. Prominent twentieth-century musicians from Catalonia include cellist Pablo Casals and opera singers Montserrat Caballé and José Carreras.


Catalan folklore has been strongly influenced by Roman Catholicism. Saints and visions of the Virgin Mary play a prominent role in legends, tales, and customs.


Catalans wear modern Western-style clothing. Their tastes tend to be more conservative than those of their neighbors in other regions. Traditional male Catalan garb includes the distinctive barretina, a sock-shaped, red woolen hat that can be seen at festivals. It is often worn with a white shirt and black slacks and vest. Women's festive costumes include elaborate lacework in both black and white.


Catalonia has a rich culinary tradition. The earliest Spanish cookbook in existence was written in the Catalan language in the fourteenth century. Typically Mediterranean flavors predominate in Catalan cuisine. These include olive oil, garlic, onions, tomatoes, nuts, and dried fruits. A favorite Catalan dish is escudella I carn d'olla, a boiled meal-in-a-pot comparable to the French pot-au-feu. Meats and sausages are simmered with vegetables; the broth is then served with pasta as a first course, with the rest served as the main course. Catalonians are fond of mushrooms. About six dozen edible varieties grow in their homeland. Mushrooms often appear sautéed as an appetizer (tapas) or as an ingredient in soups, sauces, and stews. A Catalan staple, eaten as a snack or a meal accompaniment, is pa amb tomáquet, bread smeared with tomato and sprinkled with oil and salt.


Catalans celebrate the standard holidays of the Christian calendar. Other religious dates include Epiphany (Reis) on January 6; Easter Monday, in March or April; the Feast of St. George (Sant Jordi), Catalonia's patron saint, on April 23; Pentecost (Pasqua Granada), in May; and several summer festivals marked by fires and fireworks, including the feasts of St. Anthony on June 13 (in Balears); St. John on June 24; and Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29. The Catalan national holiday is La Diada on September 11. The Day of the Dead (Dia Dels Difunts) is celebrated on November 2. Boxing Day (December 26) is also observed.

Towns and villages celebrate their patron saints' days every year in a "main festival," or fiesta major. This climaxes in an all-night dance. All Catalan festivals are marked by the dancing of the sardana, the Catalan national dance. Another typical feature is the presence of ritual figures called giants (gegants) and bigheads (capgrosses), enormous papier-mache forms that are carriend in processions. The grotesque bigheads are objects of jokes and mockery.


Catalan is the official language of Catalonia. It is also spoken in Valencia, Andorra, the Balearic Islands, and the French department (or province) of Pyrenees Orientales. Catalan is a Romance language like French, Italian, and Castilian Spanish. It is similar to the Provençal language spoken in the south of France. From the late 1930s to the mid-1970s, Catalan, like other regional languages in Spain, was suppressed by the Franco regime. Now the language can be heard on television and radio and is taught in the schools. Road signs in Catalonia are printed in both Catalan and the national language, Castilian. The most common Catalan names are Jordi (the equivalent of George) for men, and Montserrat and Núria for women. Catalan was the official host language for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona.


Homes in northern Catalonia often house an extended family above a first floor that is used as a barn and/or storage area. Traditionally, Catalan homes and workplaces were often combined into a single building. This type of arrangement has become less common with urbanization and the spread of multistory apartment buildings.


The majority of Catalans, like most other people in Spain, are Roman Catholic. However, the role of religion has decreased in the lives of many people in the region. This is due to the industrialization and modernization of Catalonia, as well as to outside cultural influences. Most Catalans mark major events such as baptism and marriage with the appropriate religious ritual. However, many are not regular churchgoers. Religious minorities include Protestants, evangelical Christians, and Jews.


As Spain's most prosperous region, Catalonia has been spared many social problems. Catalan efforts to maintain cultural identity and independence have remained peaceful--unlike those of the Basques. The traditional Catalan family structure has been weakened in the postwar decades. Immigration to the region has resulted in social and cultural discrimination and sometimes violent conflict.


About 10 percent of Catalans in the labor force are engaged in agriculture, 45 percent in industry, and 45 percent in the service sector (jobs that serve the public directly). Catalan has a thriving tourism business. Much agricultural work is performed on small, family-owned plots. Fruits and vegetables are grown, and animals, including cattle, pigs, and sheep, are raised. Catalonia is one of the top five industrialized regions of Europe. Catalan industrialization began with textile production in the nineteenth century. Other important industries include chemicals, leather, construction materials, automobiles, and appliances. The region also has the greatest number of small, high-tech companies in Spain.


Catalan children, like other Spanish children, receive free, required schooling between the ages of six and fourteen. Many students then begin the three-year bachillerato (baccalaureate) course of study. Following this, they may opt for either one year of college preparatory study or vocational training. Schooling in Catalonia was dominated by the Catholic Church until the 1970s. An expansion of educational services followed the Franco regime. Study of the Catalan language is required in the region's schools.


The Catalans generally have a reputation for being hard-working, ambitious, and conservative. In contrast to the passionate flamenco of the Andalusians, their national dance is the stately sardana. They tend to regard themselves as European rather than Spanish. They spend little time in other parts of Spain, preferring to vacation either in their own region or abroad in France, Italy, or England.


Besides baptism, first communion, and marriage, military service can be considered a rite of passage for Catalans, as it is for most Spaniards. The first three of these events are the occasion, in most cases, for big and expensive social gatherings in which the family shows its generosity and economic status. Quintos are the young men from the same town or village going into the military in the same year. They form a closely knit group that collects money from their neighbors to organize parties and serenade girls. In the mid-1990s, the period of required military service has been greatly reduced. The government planned to replace required military service with a voluntary army.


Economic interests have traditionally played an important role in rural, and even some urban, marriages. According to custom, one son inherited all the family property. This resulted in the creation of many wealthy estates but also in a high rate of emigration. In cities, the nuclear family (parents and children) make up the household. In the country, a family may include grandparents as well as aunts and uncles. Men have a limited role in child-rearing, which is primarily the responsibility of the mother and female relatives or nannies. The last three decades have seen a weakening of family ties among many Catalans.


The Catalan national dance is the sardana. It is performed at festivals and other special occasions throughout the country. Dancers form a circle, holding their clasped hands high in the air. Short, quiet steps alternate with longer, bouncy ones. The bands that play music for the sardana are called coblas. They consist of the flabiol, a three-holed flute that is played with one hand while the player beats a small, elbow drum called a tabal; woodwind instruments called tenoras and tibles; the brass trompeta, fiscorn, and trombó; and the contrabaix, or double bass. A regular sardana session, or audació, consists of half a dozen dances, each lasting about ten minutes. Marathon sessions called aplecs, however, include twenty-four dances played by three or four different coblas and last all day. Group singing is very popular among Catalans, and many belong to traditional Catalan choirs.


Like other people in Spain, the Catalans enjoy watching television. The fine arts have played an important role in the Catalonian heritage. Catalans enjoy going to opera houses, theaters, and museums in Barcelona and other cities. Catalans generally vacation in their own region, usually going to the same place every year. They also enjoy traveling abroad to other European countries.


Soccer (called fútbol) is Catalonia's most popular participant sport. Fishing, sailing, and hiking or climbing in the Pyrenees are other favorite outdoor activities. Winter sports include Nordic and cross-country skiing, ice skating, and ice hockey. Squash, tennis, and golf are also widely played. The 1992 Summer Olympics were held in Barcelona.