Amanda Bennett: A Year in Zaragoza, Spain

San Sebastian or Donostia? December 14, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — psychohistoria @ 3:06 pm

The País Vasco is a part of Spain with a rich and unique history, which has given birth to a distinct politic today. The first inhabitants of what is now the País Vasco (Basque Country) were the Celtíberos. The Romans then proceeded to conquer the Iberian Peninsula, but their main settlements were on the Mediterranean and bordering the rivers which flowed into it – Zaragoza, for example. The Visigoths then invaded from the north, and these would be the first to erect permanent settlements in the País Vasco. When the Moors invaded from Northern Africa, they conquered all of Spain except the northern coast, leaving Basque Country in Christian hands. During the Reconquista (is Reconquest a word in English?), the País Vasco was part of various kingdoms: that of Asturias, then Castilla, which then changed into Leon; then Navarra took possession, only to lose the territory to Castilla once again. Regardless, the País Vasco remained rather isolated and removed from the Christian crusades, with its own language (Vasco, or Basque, or, in its own name, Euskara). When the Catholic Kings Fernando and Isabel loosely united the entire peninsula (minus Portugal), the País Vasco became part of Castilla. The Basque language also extends into parts of south-western France, drawing Spain’s northern neighbor into a lot of modern-today political conflicts as well.

Now, the País Vasco is a Spanish autonomous community divided into three provinces (San Sebastian and Bilbao are the respective capitals of two of them). It is the site of perhaps the most intense industrial development in Spain, although its beauty still shines through. Bilbao’s history has been divided into “pre-Guggenheim” and “post-Guggenheim”, as the uber-famous museum injected lots of “clean-up-the-city” money into the municipality. However, the different language and different culture have led some to call for independence. The most widely known independence group is ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna), a militant (technically classified as terrorist) group that utilizes car bombs and politics to fight for Basque independence. A new Spanish movie, “Celda 211”, which my political science class went to see, demonstrates well a few unforeseen problems involved with ETA (I don’t know if there is a subtitled version out somewhere in the US, but if there is, I recommend that you see the film – the literal translation of the title is “Cell 211”). My host mother’s friend warned me in jest that I should make sure not to enter any ETA bars by mistake – but the risk provoked by having a violent separatist group functioning within its borders is an everyday reality for Spain.

Hence, the city I visited has two names. The Castilian name is “San Sebastian”. The Euskara name is “Donostia”. The País Vasco also has a Basque name: Euskadi. “The locals appreciate it when you try to speak their language,” mentioned the hostel employee who led us to our rooms, so we acquired the habit of saying “Agur” (goodbye in Basque) instead of “Adiós” when leaving stores or cafés. However, even after a few days in the País Vasco, the extent of our Basque knowledge is “agur” and “kukuxumusu”, the name of a very chulo store which means “the kiss of the flea”.

Right now, Aragón’s government is debating a new language law, which would formally recognize the fact that a few towns in eastern Aragón speak Catalán. It has provoked a petition signature drive today in the Plaza de España called “Aragón doesn’t speak Catalán” and a radio commercial in which an innocent tourist asks directions to the Plaza del Pilar and receives an answer not in Castilian but in Catalán.

Spain is a small country, but it boasts four languages spoken officially within its borders: Castilian (Spanish), Catalán, Basque, and Gallego (spoken in Galicias). With a separate language come the various separatist movements in Spain, which call themselves nationalist movements. Seeing firsthand how linguistics isn’t just drawing tree diagrams but is also a powerful and polemic political tool has driven home the importance of language – it’s not just vocabulary, it’s life and death.


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