I believe that the first time I thought about Catalan to any significant degree was when I read Barcelona by Robert Hughes.
But when exactly did I read it? It was first published in 1992, the year of the Barcelona Summer Olympics. In 1994-95 I worked in the NYC 5th Avenue B Dalton bookstore, and I remember seeing copies of it and looking at it as I look at a book I have not yet read and may want to read at some time. Which would mean that I read it some time after -- July? -- 1995? I don't remember exactly when I stopped working at the bookstore. And as I pointed out in this blog post, I have learned that I can't trust my own memory when it comes to the chronological order of events in my life.
So anyway, in Hughes' book I read about how Franco tried to wipe out the Catalan language, and to deny that it really was a language of its own and not merely a dialect of Spanish, as had many other earlier rulers of Castile, of the majority of Spain:
"As a result, you could walk down the Ramblas in 1966 hearing Catalan spoken on every side and see newspapers, magazines and books in all languages -- Spanish, German, English, French, Dutch, Swedish -- except one: Catalan." (p 9)
The Ramblas is a busy street in central Barcelona:
I got a copy of Barcelona at a thrift store or a discount table in front of a used-bookstore, or a discount or free table at a library. I don't know exactly where I bought it, but I know I wouldn't have paid full price for a book by Hughes.
I still have that copy. I also have a copy, also surely obtained either at a thrift shop or discount or free table, of Volume VIII, Numbers 1-2 (1994) of Catalan Review. It contains pieces in Catalan and English. Catalan Review is still published today. Here is its main website. My copy from 1994 contains papers in Catalan about computer databases about Catalan literature, Catalonian culture and history and literature; The pieces in English include photocopies of an official and originally confidential report about Catalonia, written in 1951 by an employee of the American Consulate in Barcelona, entitled "Salient Problems of Catalan Economy." It does cover economics, but also much more, including a brief but comprehensive history of Catalonia going back to the 6th century BC. And stating with no ifs when or buts that Catalan is not a dialect of Spanish, as the Franco regime insisted, but an independent language in its own right, "as distinct from Spanish as is Portugese or Franch."
I think that I got this copy of Catalan Review because I was impressed by Hughes' insistence, in his book Barcelona, of the separate and independent quality of the Catalan language and culture.
However, there has also been the little detail of my not entirely trusting Hughes. No doubt, he was an above-average writer -- how far above average, was always and continues to be the question. He seemed to be the sort of writer who cashed in -- the fact that Barcelona was published just a few months before the Olympic Games opened in Barcelona is just one of very many examples. Now, there's nothing at all wrong with great writers being widely read. On the contrary, it's great and it should happen more often. (It should happen to me.) Was Hughes great, is the question. I don't really completely trust that smooth son-of-a-bitch.
No offense meant to Catalonians. It's not their fault that I don't wholeheartedly like Hughes. And for all I know, everything he wrote about Catalan and Catalonia is accurate.
News of Catalan seems to reach the US mainstream relatively rarely. I heard about it in 2012 when, to my surprise, Pedro Almodóvar, Mario Vargas Llosa and hundreds of other intellectuals signed a manifesto against Catalonian separatism. Barcelona and Catalonia appear over and over in US TV shows about travel and food, and I can't recall any mention of any tension between the region and the Spain as a whole in any of them. I don't get the impression that Andrew Zimmer and Anthony Bourdain could string together a complete sentence in Catalan between the two of them. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe they're both fluent in Catalan, but watching their shows, I haven't gotten the impression that they know that more than one language is spoken in Spain, or that if they know, they particularly care.
Amazon lists Robert Hughes' Barcelona in a "Spanish Edition" :
Lord knows, Amazon very often doesn't know which language the books they sell are in. But I think this listing is a Spanish translation, a Castilian one, not Catalan, which is a little ironic.
Inside the front cover of my copy of Catalan Review from 1994, in what looks like a note by a used-bookstore employee, there stands written: "Largely in Spanish."