ALTERNATE NAME: Gallegos
LOCATION: Northern Spain
POPULATION: 2.7 million
LANGUAGE: Gallego; Castilian Spanish
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism
Galicia is one of three autonomous regions in Spain that have their own official languages in addition to Castilian Spanish, the national language. The language of the Galicians is called Gallego, and the Galicians themselves are often referred to as Gallegos. The Galicians are descended from Spain's second wave of Celtic invaders (from the British Isles and western Europe) who came across the Pyrenees mountains in about 400 BC . The Romans, arriving in the second century BC , gave the Galicians their name, derived from the Latin gallaeci.
Galicia was first unified as a kingdom by the Germanic Suevi tribe in the fifth century AD . The shrine of St. James (Santiago) was established at Compostela in 813. Christians throughout Europe began flocking to the site, which has remained one of the world's major pilgrim shrines. After the unification of the Spanish provinces under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the fifteenth century, Galicia existed as a poor region geographically isolated from the political center in Castile to the south. Their poverty was worsened by frequent famines. With the discovery of the New World in 1492, large numbers emigrated from the region. Today, there are more Galicians in Argentina than in Galicia itself.
Although Francisco Franco was a Galician himself, his dictatorial regime (1939-75) suppressed the region's moves toward political and cultural autonomy. Since his death, and the installation of a democratic regime (parliamentary monarchy) in Spain, however, a revival of Galician language and culture has taken place. A growing tourism industry has improved the region's economic outlook.
Galicia is located in the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula. The region is bounded by the Bay of Biscay to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the River Mió to the south (marking the border with Portugal), and León and Asturias to the east. Galicia's coastline contains a number of scenic estuaries (rías) , which are drawing increasing numbers of tourists to the region. The area's mild, rainy, maritime climate is in sharp contrast to the dry, sunny lands of southern Spain. About one-third of Galicia's population live in urban areas.
Most Galicians speak both Castilian Spanish, the national language of Spain, and Gallego, their own official language. Gallego has come into much wider use since Galicia attained the status of an autonomous region after the end of Franco's dictatorial rule. Like Catalan and Castilian, Gallego is a Romance language (one with Latin roots). Gallego and Portuguese were a single language until the fourteenth century, when they began to diverge. Today, they are still similar to each other.
Galician folklore includes many charms and rituals related to the different stages and events of the life cycle. Popular superstitions sometimes merge with Catholicism. For example, amulets (charms) and ritual objects thought to ward off the evil eye are often available near the site of a religious rite. Supernatural powers are attributed to a variety of beings. These include meigas, providers of potions for health and romance; clairvoyants, called barajeras ; and the evil brujas, or witches. A popular saying goes: Eu non creo nas bruxas, pero habel-as hainas! (I don't believe in witches, but they exist!).
Like their neighbors in other parts of Spain, the vast majority of Galicians are Roman Catholic. Women tend to be more religious than the men are. Galicia contains numerous churches, shrines, monasteries, and other sites of religious significance. The most notable is the famous cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in La Coruña province. Santiago has been one of the world's great pilgrimage shrines since the Middle Ages (AD476–c.1450). It is surpassed only by Rome and Jerusalem as spiritual centers of the Catholic Church. According to local legend, a shepherd discovered the remains of St. James here in the year AD 813. The central role that Catholicism plays in Galician culture is also evident in the tall stone crosses called cruceiros found throughout the region.
Galicians celebrate the major holidays of the Christian calendar. In addition, they celebrate the festivals of a variety of saints. Nighttime festivities called verbenas are held on the eve of religious holidays. Many Galicians also participate in pilgrimages, called romer'as . Secular (nonreligious) holidays include the "Disembarking of the Vikings" at Catoira. This holiday commemorates and reenacts an attack by a Viking fleet in the tenth century.
Besides baptism, first communion, and marriage, military service can be considered a rite of passage for Galicians, as it is for most Spaniards. The first three of these events are the occasion, in most cases, for big and expensive social gatherings in which the family shows its generosity and economic status. Quintos are the young men from the same town or village going into the military in the same year. They form a closely knit group that collects money from their neighbors to organize parties and serenade girls. In the mid-1990s, the period of required military service had been greatly reduced. The government planned to replace required military service with an all-voluntary army.
Galicia is a mountainous land of ever-present rain and mists and lush greenery. The mood associated with the area is one of Celtic dreaminess, melancholy, and belief in the supernatural. There is a special term— morriña— associated with the nostalgia that the many Galician emigrants have felt for their distant homeland. Galicians are fond of describing the four main towns of their region with the following saying: Coruña se divierte, Pontevedra duerme, Vigo trabaja, Santiago reza (Coruña has fun, Pontevedra sleeps, Vigo works, and Santiago prays).
City dwellers typically live either in old granite houses or newer brick or concrete multistory apartment buildings. Outside of the largest cities, most Galicians own their own homes. They live in some 31,000 tiny settlements called aldeas. Each aldea numbers between 80 and 200 people. The aldeas are usually made up of single-family homes of granite. Animals are kept either on the ground floor or in a separate structure nearby. Hemmed in by Portugal, Galicia was historically unable to expand its territory. Consequently, its inhabitants were forced to continually divide up their land into ever smaller holdings as the population grew. Village farmhouses are distinguished by the presence of granite granaries, called hórreos . Turnips, peppers, corn, potatoes, and other crops are grown. Crosses on roofs call for spiritual as well as physical protection for the harvest.
The nuclear family (parents and children) is the basic domestic unit in Galicia. Elderly grandparents generally live independently as long as both are alive. Widows tend to remain on their own as long as they can, although widowers tend to move in with their children's families. However, this is less often the case since Galicians often relocate from their native villages or leave the region altogether. Married women retain their own last names throughout their lives. Children take their father's family name but attach their mother's after it. Galician women have a relatively high degree of independence and responsibility. They often perform the same kinds of work as men in either agriculture or trade. Over three-fourths of Galician women have paid jobs. Women also shoulder the bulk of responsibility for household chores and child-rearing, although men do help in these areas.
Like people elsewhere in Spain, Galicians wear modern Western-style clothing. Their mild, rainy, maritime climate requires somewhat heavier dress than that worn by their neighbors to the south, especially in the wintertime. Wooden shoes are an item of traditional dress among rural dwellers in the interior of the region.
Galician cuisine is highly regarded throughout Spain. Its most striking ingredient is seafood, including scallops, lobster, mussels, large and small shrimp, oysters, clams, squid, many types of crab, and goose barnacles (a visually unappealing Galician delicacy known as percebes). Octopus is also a favorite, seasoned with salt, paprika, and olive oil. Empanadas, a popular specialty, are large, flaky pies with meat, fish, or vegetable fillings. Favorite empanada fillings include eels, lamprey (a type of fish), sardines, pork, and veal. Caldo gallego, a broth made with turnips, cabbage or greens, and white beans, is eaten throughout the region. Tapas (appetizer) bars are popular in Galicia as they are elsewhere in Spain. Galicia is famous for its tetilla cheese. Popular desserts include almond tarts (tarta de Santiago) , a regional specialty.
Schooling in Galicia, as in other parts of Spain, is free and required between the ages of six and fourteen. At that time, many students begin the three-year bachillerato (baccalaureate) course of study. They may then opt for either one year of college preparatory study or vocational training. The Galician language, Gallego, is taught at all levels, from grade school through university. About a third of Spain's children are educated at private schools, many of them run by the Catholic Church.
The Galician literary and musical heritage stretches back to the Middle Ages (AD 476–c.1450). The Gallegan songs of a thirteenth-century minstrel named Martin Codax are among the oldest Spanish songs that have been preserved. In the same period, Alphonso X, king of Castile and León, wrote the Cántigas de Santa María in Gallego. This work consists of 427 poems to the Virgin Mary, each set to its own music. It is a masterpiece of European medieval music that has been preserved in performances and recordings up to the present day. Galician lyric and courtly poetry flourished until the middle of the fourteenth century.
More recently, Galicia's best-known literary figure has been the nineteenth-century poet Rosal'a de Castro. Her poetry has been compared to that of the American poet Emily Dickinson, who lived and wrote at approximately the same time. Twentieth-century Galician writers who have achieved fame include poets Manuel Curros Enríquez and Ramón María del Valle-Inclán.
The Galician economy is dominated by agriculture and fishing. The region's small farms, called minifundios, produce corn, turnips, cabbages, small green peppers called pimientas de Padrón , potatoes said to be the best in Spain, and fruits including apples, pears, and grapes. While tractors are common, ox-drawn plows and heavy carts with wooden wheels can still be seen in the region. Much of the harvesting is still done by hand. Traditionally, Galicians have often emigrated in search of work, many saving for their eventual return. Those who do return often go into business, especially as market or restaurant owners. Galicia also supports tungsten, tin, zinc, and antimony mining, as well as textile, petrochemical, and automobile production. There is also a growing tourism industry, especially along the picturesque Atlantic coast.
As in other parts of Spain, the most popular sport is soccer (fútbol) . Basketball and tennis are also gaining popularity as spectator sports. Participant sports include hunting and fishing, sailing, cycling, golf, horseback riding, and skiing.
Like people in other parts of Spain, Galicians enjoy socializing at the region's many tapas (appetizer) bars, where they can buy a light meal and a drink. The mountains, estuaries, and beaches of their beautiful countryside provide abundant resources for outdoor recreation.
Galician craftspeople work in ceramics, fine porcelain, jet ( azabache— a hard, black form of coal that can be polished and used in jewelry), lace, wood, stone, silver, and gold. The region's folk music is enjoyed in vocal and instrumental performances. Folk dancing is popular as well. Accompaniment is provided by the bagpipe-like Galician national instrument, the gaita , which reflects the Celtic origins of the Galician people.
Galicia is one of the poorest regions in Spain. Historically, many of its inhabitants have emigrated in search of a better life. In the years between 1911 and 1915 alone, an estimated 230,000 Galicians moved to Latin America. Galicians have found new homes in all of Spain's major cities, as well as in France, Germany, and Switzerland. So many emigrated to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the twentieth century that the Argentines call all immigrants from Spain gallegos (Galicians). In recent years, a period of relative prosperity has caused emigration to decline to less than 10,000 people per year.
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Valentine, Eugene, and Kristin B. Valentine. "Galicians." Encyclopedia of World Cultures ( Europe ). Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.