Choral melodies reverberated from the arched walls of the chapel in Vila Rodona, a small pastoral village in the highlands of Catalonia. Earlier that morning, moments before the entirety of the town congregated within the church, the people of Vila Rodona had gathered together to celebrate an even more sacrosanct act: they cast their ballots and exercised their democratic right to vote. It was October 1 of 2017—the historic day of the Catalan independence referendum. Instructed by Spain to quash the vote in cities and small towns across Catalonia, the Spanish military police arrived in formidable trucks and began raiding the quaint streets of the neighboring villages in search of ballot boxes to confiscate. Hiding behind hymns, the people of Vila Rodona figured the military police would never suspect the subversive happenings cloistered within the ancient church walls. While the townspeople orchestrated a Mass to mislead the riot police, they clandestinely counted their votes at the altar: a sanctuary protecting the sacred ballot box.
Elsewhere in Catalonia, in the town of Sant Iscle de Vallalta, the tenor of celebration transmuted into one of terror, after a multitudinous voter turnout on referendum day was met by the heavy-handed arrival of La Guardia Civil. Fear propagated through the streets as the baton-bearing police swarmed in their relentless pursuit of the ballot boxes. In a panic, a woman cradled the town’s ballot box within her arms—protecting her town’s voice and her nation’s democracy. She knew she had to act quickly. As time ran out and the police ran amok, making headway into the heart of the village, the woman desperately fled into the town cemetery and hid the ballot box in the place of an urn—the last remaining option to save democracy from an otherwise assured death.
That same morning, a low-flying helicopter closely followed a car that sped through the highways of Catalonia. In the passenger’s seat, Carles Puigdemont—the president of Catalonia and the primary figurehead of the independence movement—sat disquietly. Earlier that day, Puigdemont had intended to vote in his home village, Sant Juliá de Ramis. Instead, a targeted mob of La Guardia Civil arrived like an army en masse and occupied the town square, forcing the figurehead to redirect to another polling station, but only if he could successfully evade the Spanish riot police. Shadows enshrouded the vehicle as it passed under a bridge, and a line of cars awaited. As decided beforehand, Puigdemont swiftly changed vehicles, and where one car had entered the underpass, several emerged and rapidly dispersed—only one of them bearing the president of an aspiring nation, fueled by the steely conviction to vote.
“It all seems straight out of a spy movie!” I uttered incredulously as Xavi Tedó—the Catalan journalist who details the elaborate operations underlying the referendum in his book Operació Urnes—regaled me with these vignettes from that historic day. As we sat on a terrace across from his newsroom, sipping café con leche on a balmy Barcelona morning, Tedó took a drag from his cigarette and chuckled in agreement. “Once they finish translating the book into English, they actually intend to turn the story of that fateful day into a movie,” he explained. “The excitement and urgency, the clandestine planning and execution, the violence and injustice, the fight of a nation for freedom: it’s got all the elements.”
As tempting as it was to fall into a state of delighted intrigue when listening to the intricate planning that went into the referendum day, Tedó reminded that the Hollywood-esque seduction of the accounts definitively ends with the grave desecration of democratic rights.
“There was so much fear,” Tedó explained, as I recalled my own experience at the polls that day, frantically tying my hair up in a sloppy bun to avoid being pulled to the floor by the military police, as had been done to so many other women who had attempted to vote. “You might perceive the story of the woman hiding the ballot box in the cemetery as epic and intriguing… but the story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the brutal aftershock. I talked to her about her experience—she was completely traumatized after that day. She had to see a psychologist. It’s important for the public to realize that these were real people putting their lives on the line in the pursuit of liberty.”
The story of the Catalan Independence referendum, Tedó explained—the product of a convoluted web of clandestine schemes that all coalesced on October 1, 2017—begins with the Catalans’ pivotal procurement of the referendum materials. For a legitimate vote to occur, first the people needed to obtain the very vessels of a sound democracy: the ballot boxes themselves. After outlawing the referendum from taking place, the Spanish government launched an unremitting fear campaign intended to stifle the sentiment that animated the independence movement itself. In an effort to dissuade the Catalans from insubordinately organizing against the will of the Spanish state, the government made every assurance that it would intercept and confiscate all balloting materials in the weeks preceding the referendum, thereby aborting the people’s vote before it even had a chance to develop a heartbeat.
Reflecting their ruthless intention, the Spanish military police baptized their campaign to stop the referendum “Operation Anubis”—coined after the jackal-headed Egyptian god of death. “For months preceding the referendum, the Spanish government had incessantly declared that there would be no ballot boxes on October 1. And yet, October 1 arrived, and thousands of ballot boxes crowned hundreds of polling stations across Catalonia,” Tedó explained with an impish smile. “And how they pulled it off is absolutely incredible.”
“The brain behind the whole operation, known as ‘Lluís’ in order to protect his anonymity, searched through the possible countries in which we could buy the ballot boxes,” Tedó began. Evidently, they couldn’t be purchased in Spain, for if the hawk-eyed government caught wind of the mass purchase of ballot boxes, the vote would be dead before it hit the ground. “Lluís eventually figured out that they could be bought in China. Ten thousand ballot boxes traveled across the world on ship from China through Asia to Europe and into the port of Marseilles, France—they couldn’t arrive at any port in Spain as to not raise suspicion. And then in August, they finally reached Catalonia,” Tedó relayed.
To the unsuspecting eye, the ballot boxes looked like any nondescript plastic tubs that one could buy at Target. “You could take them apart, they had a removable lid…these boxes didn’t look at all like they were intended to collect ballots,” Tedó asserted. But then, that was the nature of the Catalan movement from beginning to end—a puzzle of ingenuity and reimagination, clarified by one incontestable vision. Faced with a repressive, unrepresentative rule, the Catalan people saw the possibility of a future as a free nation. Faced with bizarre plastic containers, the Catalan people saw symbols of democracy.
Though a resounding success, the operation behind the ballot boxes, Tedó clarified, was not executed without encountering unexpected complications that required improvisation. When the boxes arrived in Marseilles, where Marc—one of Lluís’s close contacts who orchestrated the box transportation operation—was stationed to pick them up, the custom guards stopped him and questioned him about the reason for ordering so many boxes. “This was especially interesting because the Catalan actors weren’t anticipating to be interrogated about the boxes. Marc had to fabricate an explanation entirely on the spot,” Tedó added. Ingeniously, Marc replied that the boxes would be used to build a grand castle, with one stacked upon the other, as a giant montage to honor a historic anniversary of the traditional North Catalan Castellers.
The human tower of the Castellers is an iconic image of Catalonia, and it’s a tradition dating back more than two centuries. During Catalan festivals, the Castellers gather close together to create a fall-proof foundation, and begin scaling each other’s backs in a feat of herculean proportions—with their multi-tiered human towers reaching higher than 50 feet. And although the boxes were not in fact intended to be used as part of an artistic homage to the Castellers, they would nevertheless become the pillars of democracy upon which the Catalan people could lift each other up and together could rise.
The schemes that brought the referendum to fruition ranged from the subtle and ingenious to the absurd, as Catalans thought up every avenue to mislead, deceive, and vote. At a polling station held in a community center in Barcelona called Foment Martinenc, Catalans settled upon a creative system of code names by which they would refer to various components of the voting process. Catalans called the ballot boxes “pizzas” and the ballots, “napkins.” They referred to the person who officially opened the voting center as “la pizzera,” the pizza maker. Those who drove between polling stations to ensure they each had sufficient “pizza and napkins,” were nicknamed “Telepizzas,” after a cheap pizza delivery chain in Barcelona. Following the order given to police in Catalonia to shut down all polling stations the weekend before the referendum, Catalans flocked to the voting spaces and began occupying them in order to keep them open. At polling stations held within elementary schools, recreational centers and other public facilities across Catalonia, citizens organized a weekend of events, ranging from knitting to dominoes to arts and crafts, and invited local residents to camp out during the night before the referendum. Within polling stations across Sabadell, Catalans orchestrated a weekend-long rock-paper-scissors tournament, recommending that participants bring camping gear, as the event was expected to run long.
“What’s most surprising about the whole referendum operation is the sheer number of moving pieces and involved players, all of whom subscribed to a foolproof code of silence in order to keep the plan from being uncovered and intercepted by Spain,” Tedó marveled. “The communion, the union for the common objective—of simply voting—made it so everyone vowed to maintain the code of silence. Those that hid the ballot boxes didn’t even tell their partners, nor their families and friends; they only told one person so that if they were apprehended by the police, that person could carry through their task.” Every actor in the Catalan operation only had insight into the tiny piece for which he or she was responsible—the grander picture of the mission, opaque by necessity.
“It was an enormous operation of silence. An operation of trust,” Tedó described. “The number of people who knew Lluís—the man at the helm of the Catalan operation—could be counted on one hand… and you’d have fingers remaining. The fact that five to six thousand Catalans carried through a pivotal piece of the puzzle blindly, guided only by their vision of the cause, is truly miraculous.” In the days following the referendum, the code of silence was replaced by a collective chant that crescendoed across Catalonia: “Hem votat.” We voted.
Each elaborate element that went into the execution of the Catalan Independence referendum seems beyond belief—the fact that the whole operation succeeded, even more so. But the reason behind the intricate plan itself—the notion that a nation had to resort to surreptitious scheming with utmost secrecy serving as its only salvation, simply to exercise the democratic right to vote—is the most surreal of all. Though Spain clutches Catalonia in an ever-tightening chokehold, on October 1, 2017, the indefatigable mobilization of the Catalan people still breathed life into democracy.