RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It's Election Day in Spain's northern region of Catalonia. It's a relatively wealthy industrial part of Spain known for its distinct language, cultural identity and coastal capital Barcelona. Catalonia is also known for its independent streak and a longstanding desire among many to break away from Spain. And today's vote is shaping up as an unofficial referendum on whether or not to secede. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Barcelona.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: The central square in the town of Vic is festooned with the red and yellow Catalan flags - symbols of aspirations for independence. This prosperous town is the heartland of Catalan nationalism. The local bookstore displays recent best-sellers

JORDI ANGLADA: (foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: Shop owner Jordi Anglada says there's a new wave of historical novels about three centuries of Catalan heroism against Spanish domination. The title of one book is "Either Free or Dead." The Catalan language re-emerged from suppression only after the end of the Franco dictatorship 37 years ago. It has since displaced Spanish as the official language in schools and public offices And the economic crisis has reawakened old resentments.

CHRISTIAN DOMINGO: We are not Spaniard. We have a different culture, different language, different attitude. We are different people.

POGGIOLI: Lung surgeon Christian Domingo, like many Catalans, says his region is being exploited.

DOMINGO: The Spanish government comes here, invests 10 percent and gets 100 percent. And this is what you do with colonies.

POGGIOLI: The pro-independence tide turned two months ago when huge numbers of people took to the streets of Barcelona on Catalan National Day. The leader of the regional government, center-right Artur Mas, long criticized for financial mismanagement, seized the moment. He wrapped himself in the Catalan flag and called early elections. On posters, Mas presented himself as Moses guiding his people toward a new independent promised land. Even along the elegant streets of cosmopolitan Barcelona, flags are everywhere. And election excitement has replaced economic gloom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POGGIOLI: In the Placa del Rei, surrounded by Gothic palaces, several hundred young people are joyfully square dancing to the tune of traditional Catalan songs. Thirty-year-old school teacher Laura Torra doesn't want to dwell on her wage cuts. She's here to celebrate her Catalan identity and culture that were repressed under Franco.

LAURA TORRA: Catalan it was not allowed to talk in the streets. Sadly, Catalan families have to talk Catalan but in secret, because if not, it was punished.

POGGIOLI: There are numerous pro-independence parties on both the left and right. The dream of secession has become a panacea for the region's economic ills, ignored by politicians and the media. No one seems to notice the many homeless who sleep at night on the floor of ATM enclosures, or the sporadic demonstrations by the growing number of jobless. Political analyst Lluis Foix says too many people are being blinded by the Catalan flag.

LLUIS FOIX: The flag, in many cases, is trying to hide corruption, for instance - how the employment is not rising, how the education is worsening. It explains why many young people are leaving for other countries of Europe or of the world.

POGGIOLI: Regional government leader Artur Mas has vowed that, if returned to power, he'll call a referendum on independence. But Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warns it would violate the constitution. And members of his center-right party say the army could be used to protect Spanish sovereignty. It's statements like that fuel Catalan patriotism.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POGGIOLI: At Mas' closing rally, tens of thousands of his followers filled a large stadium. They shouted in unison: Independence now.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

POGGIOLI: Whatever the outcome of today's election, the secessionist genie is out of the bottle. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Barcelona.

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