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Catalan Man Sentenced to Prison after Refusing to Speak Spanish

Categories: Spain, Citizen Media, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Language, Politics

Carles Mateu, a man who refused to speak in Spanish during a routine traffic test in Valencia, was sentenced to six months in prison and had his driver's license revoked for disobeying authorities.


“WE ARE ALL CARLES MATEU / Group supporting the driver sentenced to 6 months in prison in Valencia.” Poster from the group supporting Carles Mateu in the town of Alemenara (Castelló). 

Mateu was driving his car in December 2012 when the Civil Guard [1], the federal military guard of Spain, stopped him for a routine traffic stop in Castelló [2](Valencia [3]). But he was detained for three hours by two agents, who accused him of refusing to submit to a breathalyzer test and of not wearing a seat belt nor a reflective vest. Mateu, however, claims that these reports are false and the agents sanctioned him for speaking to them in Valencian [4], a regional dialect [5] [ca] of Catalan [6] that is spoken in the territory, and refusing to express himself in Spanish.

The Valencian language [4] holds official status in the region along with Spanish, just as in Catalonia [7] and the Balearic Islands [8]. According to online news publication La Veu del País Valencià [9] [ca], Mateu felt that the agents were displaying signs of “contempt” toward him and his language, using phrases like “speak to me in Spanish, we are in Spain.”

Mateu was acquitted [10] [ca] in January 2013, but the district attorney appealed and the sentence was revoked. At the same time, Mateu's previous countersuit against the agents’ false accusations was thrown out. The new sentence [11] [ca] issued on September 20, 2013 condemns him to six months in prison and the suspension of his driver's license for a year and a day.

A victim turned into offender

The case has attracted much interest, both civil and political, along the Catalan-speaking territories, given that many view it as one more case of discrimination with linguistic motives, similar to those reported [12]at music festival Arenal Sound last summer. In an interview [13] [ca] with Catalan newspaper El Punt Avui, [14] Mateu explains:

He de dir que vaig reaccionar com qualsevol persona a qui intenten furtar el seu dret a la lliure expressió i vaig reaccionar –ho dic sincerament i amb el cor a la mà– per sota de la pressió a què els dos agents em van sotmetre.

I must say that I reacted just like anyone else whose right to free expression was taken away, and I reacted—I say this sincerely, with my hand to my heart—under the pressure I was subject to by those two agents.


“I, TOO, POSSESS THE FLAW OF SPEAKING VALENCIAN.” Shared image on Twitter from Alícia (@marclia), professor of Catalan at the University of Valencia.

Mateu's lawyer explained to digital newspaper VilaWeb [15] [ca] that the linguistic conflict [16] [ca] is now considered Mateu's strategy for slowing down the breathalyzer test, which converts the victim into the offender.

We are all Carles Mateu

Demonstrations of solidarity have multiplied online. A Facebook page, Jo També Sóc Carles Mateu [17] [ca] (I, too, am Carles Mateu), collects messages of support.

On Twitter, many users showed their discontent with the hashtag #TotSomCarlesMateu [18] (We are all Carles Mateu). Antoni Manyanós [19] [ca] (@amanyanos [20]), professor of geography and history, says:

Valencia, a place where the Spanish regime can condemn you to prison for speaking in Valencian with the Civil Guard #WeAreAllCarlesMateu [18] #Enough [21]

Valencian journalist Amàlia Garrigós (@AmaliaGarrigos [23] [ca/es]) encouraged her followers to sign a petition on Change.org [24] [es] for Spanish security guards in the territory to speak in Catalan:

A Valencian driver sentenced for speaking in his own language. Will you sign this petition? I just did! #WeAreAllCarlesMateu [25] http://t.co/g33L4XeCWK [26]

Moreover, a group [28] [ca] supporting Mateu was organized in his town of Almenara [29], and a petition on Change.org [30] [es] has gathered more than 11,500 signatures to demand the sentence be withdrawn.

Political reactions

Carles Mateu's case arrived at the Spanish Parliament thanks to the representatives Joan Baldoví [31] [ca] of the Coalició Compromís [32] (Compromise Coalition), and Joan Tardà [33] [ca], of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya [34] (Republican Left Party) (ERC). Baldoví said [35]that it would be “barbaric” to send a citizen to prison for speaking his own language, while Tardà formulated many questions for the Ministry of the Interior.

Ramon Tremosa [36], a member of the European Parliament representing the Catalan moderate right-wing ruling party, Convergència i Unió [37], reported the case to the European Commission with the support of opposition parties ERC [34]and ICV-EUIA [38] [ca]:

Now we will ask the European Commission about the sentence against Carles Mateu for speaking Catalan. The undersigned: @ciu [39] @Esquerra_ERC [40] i @icveuia [41] #WeAreAllCarlesMateu [18]

Rising awareness to stop language conflict

Josep Escribano, president of El Tempir [43] [cat], a civic association for the language, encouraged [44] [ca] people to report cases of linguistic discrimination to generate social pressure.

Escribano argues [44] [ca] that the language supremacy of Spanish has allowed, over time, for Catalan-speaking people to interiorize their prejudice toward their own language, considering it of an inferior status. But he remains optimistic:

Cada vegada més, la gent que és ferma i que té una lleialtat lingüística, que s'estima el país i que s'estima la llengua, està fent un pas endavant i ho denuncia.

More and more, people who are strong and have a linguistic loyalty, people who love the Catalan nation and love the Catalan language, are taking a step forward and reporting cases of this kind of discrimination.

By making these cases of linguistic discrimination public, citizens receive support from the entities defending the language and from the community, which facilitates the linguistic normalization [45] [ca] and universal linguistic rights [46] of Catalan's use.