Thursday, November 8, 2012

If you know it already, don't tell

There is a translation of this article into Catalan on my Catalan blog.

If you've got small kids, you'll have had the experience where they're about to tell you a joke or riddle, but before they get to the punchline, they say, "If you know it already, don't tell." This is what came to mind as I watched the internets go crazy about a video created by a New Yorker, ostensibly new to Catalonia, on his experience at the massive march for Catalan independence on September 11th.

Indeed, I was one of the few people that SharifStandup sent his video to on Twitter (along with PauGasol, Xavier Sala i Martin (although with the wrong twitter address), Gerard Piqué, Josep Ma Mainat, Antoni Bassas, Gavin Mair, and Help Catalonia, kind of a curious group of people. When I first looked at Sharif's twitter account, he was following 13 people, and was followed by 3. I was the 4th.

Like many, many others, I was taken with the video. It is charming and fairly accurate, and it fulfills many a Catalan dream: being noticed by the rest of the world for who they are. Sharif mentions a list of Catalan icons, from La Moreneta (the black virgen of Catalonia's sacred Montserrat mountain, which has long been a friend to independentism) to the caganer (a defecating figurine typical of Catalan nativity scenes—really!).

Not only did I like it, I tweeted about it, in Catalan and English, and it quickly caught fire. By the evening around 6000 people had seen it, by the next day, the number had risen to 65,000. If you search for "sharifstandup", it is my tweet that is at the top of the list, since it was favorited and retweeted a bunch of times. SharifStandup is now followed by 1609 people.

Twitter _ Cerca - sharifstandup

So I feel kind of responsible. And worried. And curious. Before it went viral, I tweeted Sharif and asked him about it. His initial responses seemed authentic, but he offered no information about himself.

On Wednesday, I insisted a bit more, asking "Can you tell us who you are? You’ve gotten a huge reaction, and I’m hoping my helping wasn’t a mistake."

Twitter / lizcastro: @Sharifstandup Can you tell ...

That's when SharifStandup started following me. For now, I'll keep his DMs confidential, and just say that he doesn't want to identify himself, and that he says that he is what he portrays in the video.

Honestly, I'm not sure. I told my (young) daughter the whole story, and she said, "So he's upstaging you?" And I had to laugh. At first I denied it. I really am glad that he's telling Catalonia's story. But I'll admit to a bit of jealousy as well. I happened to notice that Eduard Voltas and Quim Monzó were following him, and they've never followed me!

But that's just silly. More important is the question of what is it about this guy, a young, smart, guy, and yes, a person of color, talking about Catalonia in English, that made these Catalans so happy? You have to read the comments on the video on Vimeo. There are almost 400 thank yous and other expressions of appreciation, most of them in English, but from Catalans, not Americans. He really touched their hearts.

The fact that he says he had no idea about Catalonia or its desire for independence before happening on the march is an essential part of the story. If you know already, don't tell. But he says he didn't know, that he figured it out. It also reminds me of the 15-M movement (Spain's Occupy movement), in which they specifically rejected the participation of politicians. If you know already, don't tell.

I have studied Catalonia for years. I have translated articles, published people's books, tweeted way too much, and I've never had 65,000 people look at what I've done on the same day. So my next thought is, maybe I'm doing it wrong... maybe I should be making videos? Maybe I should write more and study less? How can I learn from his success? Or is it that if I know already, I can't tell?

And who is the audience? ShafirStandup gave his monologue in English, and had Mireia Seguí (did he meet her at the march) add subtitles in Catalan. Given the overwhelming response from Catalans, those subtitles were key. My Catalan tweet was retweeted three times as much as my English one, and even the English one was retweeted almost exclusively by Catalans.

Is there any way to get Americans to pay attention to Catalonia? I'm not at all sure. I've tried a lot. And my experience is that it's pretty hard. Perhaps just because, like any other people, we Americans are overwhelmed with our own lives, and it's the rare person who will go out of their way to learn about what feels like a very local issue in a far away country. How many Catalans know who, for example, Elizabeth Warren is? How many have read up on her positions on various issues?

And what if it's a fake? And what would it mean to be a fake? What if he's from an advertising agency looking for followers? A Catalan political party looking to promote independence? A Spanish political party looking to make everyone look stupid once it's revealed? What if he's just reading a script? What if he lives in Catalonia? What if, what if?

If you read those comments, and the discussion on Twitter, you see that there are many with doubts. Some say it doesn't matter. If he makes those people happy, and if he gets people revved up about independence, is that a net gain, even if it turns out he's not what he says he is?

A trip to Barcelona on Vimeo

Others say it matters a lot. That if it's a lie, it'll make independentists look bad, and that lies and deception aren't good tools for convincing people of anything. I'll admit, I feel protective. If he turns out to be not what he says he is, I will hate having helped him, even unintentionally, make Catalans feel duped. I hope he's for real. And if he's not, that he doesn't do too much damage. Catalans are used to being betrayed, but it doesn't feel good.

Twitter / VioletaCamarasa: @jordipueyo @lizcastro ...

Mostly, I wonder what else SharifStandup can offer. He says wait for next Tuesday, that he will have another video about Catalonia. He even asked me what other books he should be reading. And I'll be happy to see what he says. And if he can offer some ideas about how to get people talking about Catalan independence, I'm totally willing to give him props for it, and learn something. And if he can get Americans to listen, well, chapeau, but that remains to be seen. But if he stops being a newcomer, will his videos have the same charm?

But, me? I want to listen to people who really know what they're talking about. I want to read columns by Vicent Partal. I want to listen to Xavier Graset's Oracle and hear Mònica Terribas' interviews. I want to read books by Germà Bel and Carles Boix and Xavier Sala i Martín. I want to go straight to the horses' mouths and listen to Artur Mas and Oriol Junqueras and Anna Simó and Eva Piquer and Toni Strubell, and sometimes even Joan Herrera and Pere Navarro, and well, even Alícia Sánchez Camacho.

And I really, really want to not be the only American who's reading and listening about Catalonia.

If you know, please speak up. Preferably in English, too.


  1. Dear Liz Castro,
    I'm a catalan girl who was totally convinced by the Sharif's video this week. I was sharing the video in Facebook, even posting it in group of international friends that I have, also to my boyfriend that he is from Germany. After one day I wanted to know something more about this guy and I read some articles and blogs about the non identification of this American guy.
    Like every sigle catalan who was believing in him, I saw some kind of hope in his words, that was something that could be listened not just in the rest of Spain. But on the other hand, I thing you are totally right. America is so far away to think about our problems and also is so rare that all this circumstances around this guy.
    Let's see what is happening next Tuesday, maybe he is gonna post the next video and all what he is doing is encrease the success with his silence. The anonymity is something curious and he just want to fulfill with the aim that he suggested.
    The social networking and the online politic advocacy is working so fast. It doesn't care if you have studies, you have all the information or who you are, you just need a bomb for the net which in 12h hours is making you famous. But most of the times in the same way you are diappearing.

    Thank you and sorry for my english!


  2. My first gut reaction is that this guy is legit.

  3. Dear Liz

    I'm a Catalan girl living in London. As Leonor said in the previous comment I shared Shariff's video too. I was so happy an American guy talked about Catalan people I didn't even thought about this being a fake. You're right, nowadays everybody is sharing and nobody thinks about what they are actually sharing. I started to read this book: "You're not a gadget" from Jaron Lanier. This book is an amazing reflection about this whole new "shared" world where you can see everything and share everything. A couple of ideas that are in the book, I find them amazing: "You have to find the way to be yourself before you share yourself", "Social networks replaced individual creativity. There were more places to express ourselves than ever before...yet no one really had anything to say." Cool Blog by the way, you're now in my Favourites List :)

  4. Hi Liz!

    You're definitely not the only American who cares about Catalonia! I'm an American girl living in Barcelona, and I'm so interested in Catalan culture and language, etc, that I'm writing my thesis on it. I find it absolutely fascinating. I took a government subsidized Catalan class (for free!) did loads of interviews with foreigners learning Catalan, as well as with native speakers, etc. My focus is more on the link between Catalan language and identity as well as how we can get more foreigners motivated to learn Catalan and the best way to teach it.
    Anyway, I just wanted to say that I like your blog! I'll definitely follow you. And I, like you, am trying to get the word out to other Americans. But I know the feeling; it's sometimes difficult to get people to care about something happening so far away which they don't see as having any effect on their lives.

    Visca Catalunya! :)


    1. Thanks, Claire! And I'd love to hear more about what you're working on. Are you on Twitter? Or feel free to email me at lcastro at