Identification. The Montes de Pas form a high mountain enclave in the Cantabrian range of northern Spain. They straddle the provincial boundaries of Burgos and Cantabria (formerly Santander) at the divide between the Atlantic coast and the meseta (plateau). Pasiegos define themselves as those who practice transhumant herding of the Pasiego type or whose forebears did so.
Location. Most Pasiegos live on the northern, or Cantabrian, slope facing the port city of Santander in the three official Pasiego municipalities (townships) of San Pedro del Romeral, San Roque de Riomiera, and Vega de Pas. The population also extends into the montane neighborhoods of adjacent Cantabrian municipalities and, on the Burgos slope, into the montane regions of Espinosa de los Monteros. The Cantabrian side is watered by the high sources of the Rivers Pas and Miera and the Burgos side by the sources of the Trueba. The defining characteristics of areas of Pasiego residence are the pronounced altitudinal variation along the montane rivers and the transhumant herding practiced there. Rivers descend as much as 1,000 meters in a distance of 10 to 15 kilometers. The highest peak in the Montes stands at 1,724 meters and the major passes at about 950 to 1,350 meters. Zones of human use range from the lowest permanent settlements—at 250-350 meters but mostly at 400-750 meters—to the summer meadows around and above the major passes, well over 1,000 meters. The natural grass crop on which the Pasiego economy depends is nourished year-round by rains and mists, with heavy winter snow at the higher altitudes. The low areas of the valleys on the Atlantic slope enjoy temperate winters. Four grass crops are grazed or harvested annually at the bottom of the valleys and two in the high meadows, visited only between May and September. The three official municipalities of the Montes de Pas occupy about 189 square kilometers, or 3.6 percent of Cantabria. Beyond the Montes, on gentler terrain, the conditions that support the rapidly repetitive, sequential exploitation of local meadows and that define the Pasiego way of life are absent.
Demography. The number of non-Pasiegos living in the zone has always been negligible, while about 1,500 Pasiego herders lived adjacent to the official townships in 1970. There were about 4,000 inhabitants in the three municipalities in 1970 and just under 3,000 in 1980. Emigration is, in cattle herding, to towns of the Cantabrian coastal plain and, in commerce and services, to the towns and cities of northern Spain. Emigrants remain emotionally and economically tied to their home zone, especially when lack of schooling hampers their ability to move into the mainstream of Spanish society and beyond herding and the lowest levels of petty commerce. Conditions favoring mobility are improving, and emigrants are increasingly breaking ties of deep dependency on the Montes de Pas. This was not so true earlier; then the community of Pasiego emigrants figured more heavily in the social life of the home zone.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Pasiego dialect of Spanish is one of the so-called Old Leonese Group, which was spoken widely (and written) in northwestern Iberia. It is an evolved archaic Spanish with some Celtic elements of vocabulary. Its affiliations today are principally with rural dialects of Asturias, León, and the rest of Santander. It is no longer spoken throughout entire communities. In the Montes de Pas, the dialect is spoken by the oldest generation and in private life in some but not all homes; its use varies in inverse proportion to the degree of schooling in textbook Spanish. The dialect has long been the object of nostalgic revival by provincial literati and some emigrants with interest in local traditions, but this revival has not enlarged its use within the Pasiego community.