DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So somewhere near a million people were rallying in the streets of Barcelona last night. It was the annual holiday in Spain's autonomous northeast region of Catalonia. But this year, the festival turned into a giant separatist rally ahead of an independence referendum that is coming next month. Lauren Frayer reports from Barcelona.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The atmosphere was both festive, with marching bands roving through a sea of yellow separatist jerseys, and also solemn, as elderly Catalan sang nationalist hymns that were banned in their youth under General Francisco Franco. Catalonia has its own language and culture repressed under the dictator through the 1970s. But more recently it's become Spain's richest region, with the tourist hub Barcelona as its capital.
MERCEDES RAMOS: We want to be free because we think we can live better.
FRAYER: Mercedes Ramos says she doesn't want her taxes to keep subsidizing poorer parts of Spain, especially after such a punishing economic crisis.
RAMOS: Because they don't recognize our deficit from economic - in the balance in Spain, we put a lot of money and they don't return.
FRAYER: Catalonia's economy is bigger than that of Finland. It has its own political parties and very little support for the conservative government in Madrid, which has had some high-profile corruption scandals. Separatist parties rule the Catalan regional legislature and have passed local laws establishing an October 1st referendum on independence. Spain's highest court struck down those laws. But in his holiday address, Catalonia's President Carles Puigdemont insisted the referendum would go ahead.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT CARLES PUIGDEMONT: (Speaking Catalan).
FRAYER: He says because the regional parliament approved it, it doesn't matter what the central government says. He no longer recognises its authority. Over the weekend, Spanish civil guards raided printing offices in Catalonia, seeking to confiscate ballots. Catalans say that's a bad image in a democracy. Polls show a majority of them want to vote but they're actually split 50-50 on the question of independence.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Catalan).
FRAYER: A few blocks from the separatist rallies, Javier Castellanos refused to participate. He wants to stay part of Spain and says the separatists are just more vocal.
JAVIER CASTELLANOS: And this is something that bothers me. There is hint of supremacism, and we have a lot of politicians that have been judged for corruption, like in - like in Madrid. I mean, we are not better.
FRAYER: Many Catalans do see themselves as closer to northern Europe than to Spain. But if this October 1st referendum goes ahead and leaders declare independence, a new country of Catalonia is not likely to be recognized either by Spain nor by the European Union. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Barcelona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.