Spanish politics are interesting in a way that we just don’t experience in the United States. To understand this, you have to know a little of the history. During medieval times, the Iberian peninsula was a patchwork of warring Christian kingdoms and Muslim caliphates. Alliances were constantly shifting. The foundations of the kingdom that we now call Spain was formed in 1469 when Fernando, heir to the throne of Aragon, married Isabel, heiress to the thrones of Castilla and Leon. (This is the Isabella who later hocked her jewels to finance Christopher Columbus’s crazy scheme to sail west to China.) When Fernando and Isabel came to their thrones, their combined kingdoms covered most of modern Spain. When they kicked the Muslims out of Granada in 1492, they pretty much established the traditional borders of Spain.
“Spain” therefore includes a number of different ancient kingdoms and cultural groups, many with their own customs and even languages. The last 500 years has been a history of trying to bring all of these groups together into one national identity, with mixed success. To call the language “Spanish” is a bit of a misnomer; it is actually Castellano, the language of Castilla. Other languages, such as Catalán (from Cataluña), Gallego (from Galicia), or Vasco (from the Basque country) have as much claim, but they weren´t the rulers. At least Catalán and Gallego are romance languages, closely related to Spanish, French, and Italian; Vasco is a pre-Indo-European language which has no relation whatever with Spanish. During the mid- 20th century, the dictator Franco tried hard to suppress all of these regional cultures and turn everyone into good Spaniards. This had the predictable effect of causing a resurgence of regional pride in the local cultures. After Franco died, the constitution of 1978 created “autonomous regions” to allow some self-rule by the local cultures.
Unfortunately, this local pride sometimes goes to ridiculous extremes. This is illustrated by news stories in the Spanish newspapers, stories which generally don´t get much attention in the USA.
The first example comes from the Basque country. Spain has an annual bicycling event, the Vuelta Ciclista, something like the Tour de France. For years, the route has not gone through Euskadi (the Basque region) because of threats from the ETA, their home-grown terrorist organization. (Recall that in the Madrid bombings of 2004, the government originally tried to blame the Basque separatists.) The ETA has been greatly diminished in recent years, due to a number of high-profile arrests and a decided lack of popular support even in Euskadi. Therefore, the Vuelta Ciclista proposed that the route end in Euskadi. The response from the “nacionalista” Basque government was no. They said, “Euskadi no es España (Euskadi is not Spain).” Now, try applying this to the United States; can you picture someone saying, “Minnesota is not the United States”? It just doesn´t compute.
Another example occurred in Galicia, where a father pulled his daughter from a music school because the school would not teach her in Spanish. The school only taught in Gallego. The father took the position (reasonable, I think) that Spanish instruction should be available in Spain. That one is still being fought out in the courts.
The third example is from Cataluña, probably the richest area of Spain, which has historically not been pleased with being ruled from Madrid. In Barcelona, the city government is forcing businesses in the downtown area to post signs in Catalán rather than Spanish. Several businesses have said that they would close before doing so. Face it; there are hundreds of millions of Spanish-speaking people in dozens of countries all over the world. How many people speak Catalán? I can see where the businessmen would want to appeal to the larger market.
The “nacionalista” movements are not universally supported, even in the areas with the most cultural pride. When Tonya and I travelled to Barcelona last month, I asked a cab driver if we´d have any trouble since I spoke Spanish and not Catalán. I liked his reply: “Bah! If you go into a shop and they insist on speaking Catalán, go to another shop.”