BARCELONA — In a mass demonstration of youth and enthusiasm, thousands of students marched down the Gran Via here Thursday afternoon, presenting the well-scrubbed face of a separatist movement hoping to sever the Catalonia region from Spain.
The rally, the largest in recent memory, featured throngs of university and high school students draped in Catalan flags and protected by cadres of sympathetic firefighters in yellow helmets.
The young people took countless selfies, smoked a little marijuana and plastered signposts with posters featuring cartoon characters.
The atmosphere was festive, raucous, contagious — with folk songs from a generation ago. When elderly supporters came out on their balconies to bang pots and pans in support, the students stopped to honor them with chants, “No revolutions without the grandmothers!”
But the situation is growing serious.
The secessionist leaders here are pressing forward with their promise to stage a controversial referendum Sunday that asks a seemingly simple question: Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state, in the form of a republic? Yes or no.
The central government in Madrid, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party, says the plebiscite violates Spain’s 1978 constitution that declares the country indivisible — and therefore is illegal.
The Rajoy government, backed byconstitutional court rulings, has vowed to stop the vote, and it has deployed thousands of national police and paramilitary Guardia Civil officers to the region.
“We have no idea really what will happen Sunday. But it’s hard to see a peaceful ending, no?” said Pablo Sanchez Crespo, 21, a psychology major hunkered down in the courtyard of Barcelona University, which has been occupied by…