When Catalonia in northeastern Spain held an independence referendum on October 1, Alexandra Galceran Latorre, 29, went to her local polling station at dawn “to protect the ballot boxes,” she said with pride.
Madrid had sent in thousands of police to shut the referendum down. They were later filmed pulling elderly voters from polling booths, and firing rubber bullets and tear gas at people in the streets – scenes that prompted global outrage.
Millennials like Galceran are among Catalonia’s most passionate advocates for independence, even though they were born well after Gen. Francisco Franco’s decades of dictatorship, a brutal chapter in Spain’s history that helps give the secessionist movement its thrust.
An opinion poll by the Center for Opinion Studies in Catalonia found that more than half of Catalans between the ages of 18 and 34 would vote to break away from Spain given a simple choice of yes or no. Pro-independence parties vying for power in Thursday’s regional election are hoping that support will translate into votes.
“We are still seeing Franco in our political parties. They are fascists, and they are strangling us slowly, step by step,” Galceran told CNN in Barcelona.
She plans to vote for Together for Catalonia, headed by deposed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont.
“We are fighting to defend our language, our traditions and our culture. This is what our ancestors fought for.”
The global financial crisis has left a generation struggling to find secure work. Job security and having enough income to get a mortgage is a challenge, and many in their 30s still live with their parents.
Miríam Candelera, 28, who lives in Girona, north of Barcelona, said she didn’t think she would ever be able to afford her own home. Her parents moved to Girona – where there is huge support for independence – from the poorer southern region of Andalusia.
Now she supports independence because she thinks young people in Andalusia get all the help while Catalans are left to fend for themselves.
“They take all our money,” she said of the central government in Madrid, echoing something separatist leaders frequently argue.
Catalonia, Spain’s economic engine, accounts for nearly a fifth of the country’s economy, and leads all regions in producing 25% of the country’s exports.
The region has a proven record of attracting investment, with nearly a third of all foreign companies in Spain choosing Barcelona as their base.
It contributes much more in taxes (21% of the country’s total) than it gets back from the government.
Independence supporters have seized on the imbalance, arguing that stopping transfers to Madrid would turn Catalonia’s budget deficit into a surplus.
They are numbers that are especially hard to swallow for Catalan millennials, who — like almost all young people in developed nations around the world — will be poorer than their parents’ generation, according to an OECD study.
“Ever since the economic crisis in 2008, which hit Spain very hard, young people have felt perplexed. They are wondering: ‘What happened?’ They told us that if we studied, everything would be fine, and now we have no work, no money, no house,” said Marina Subirats, a sociologist from the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
“You have to understand that it means a lot for a generation that has no job or place in society when someone promises to build a new country where everything will be perfect.”
According to Artis International, an organization researching violence and conflict, unemployment and support for independence in Catalonia are linked.
Support grew every year between 2009 and 2013 in line with unemployment. In 2014, when unemployment began to ease, so did support for independence. That effect is multiplied among young people because joblessness affects them disproportionately.
‘The independence movement is closed-minded’
The younger generation in the region are the first to live completely immersed in Catalan culture since Franco’s death in 1975. Catalan is now the official language in schools, and students are taught the region’s history, something Franco didn’t allow.
Madrid claims that schools are indoctrinating children to support independence.
MORE: Spain loses 20% of its economy if Catalonia splits
Sergi Font, a volunteer with the pro-independence organization Òmnium Cultural in Girona, said that Madrid’s accusations of brainwashing were completely unfounded.
“The Spanish government just doesn’t like that our schools teach the history of our country, and that they point out that there are differences between Spain and Catalonia,” said Font, a 35-year-old.
But not all Catalans agree.
Rubén Salvador Santiago, 27, an app developer for a company called The Mosted started by millennials from different parts of the country says he’s proud to be Catalan, but doesn’t want the region to secede.
“I think the independence movement is closed-minded; it’s too inward-looking,” he said.
“Whether we’re Spain or not, nothing will change.”