Galicians live in the four Spanish provinces located along the far northwest coast of the Iberian Peninsula, but their language zone shades into northern Portugal as well. The autonomous region of Galicia covers about 6 percent of the total peninsular territory of Spain. The four provinces that make up the region are La Coruna, Lugo, Orense, and Pontevedra. The total population of these provinces in 1981 was about 2.8 million. None of the provinces was densely populated. Unlike the Basque and the Catalan regions, which were rich, urbanized, and industrialized, Galicia remained relatively poor, agricultural and dominated by rural and village society, as industry had yet to make its appearance there on a large scale. Moreover, its agricultural sector continued to be among the most backward in Spain, and farm productivity was severely hampered by the tiny size of the individual plots, known as minifundios. The minifundio was the product of an attempt to distribute land parcels in a closed rural system to a growing population by requiring that equal shares be left to each heir. After just a few generations, the land had been subdivided so much that most of the parcels were too small to support a family or to be economically viable. For these reasons, Galicia was a net exporter of population to the rest of Spain. Between 1900 and 1981, the net outflow of people from Galicia was more than 825,000.
Galician nationalism, which appeared as early as the 1840s, recalled a mythical "Golden Age" when the medieval kingdom of Galicia had existed. There had indeed been a king of Galicia who was crowned in 1111; the kingdom was partitioned some years later, however, leaving the northern half hemmed in and isolated while the southern portion expanded southward in the wake of the Moors' withdrawal. This southern part of the realm eventually became Portugal; the northern part fell into disorder. Finally, in 1483 Castilian forces restored order in Galicia, and the kingdom of Castile incorporated the region into its realm. Castilian rule also brought on economic and cultural stagnation that lasted into the nineteenth century.
The emergence of Galician nationalism in the 1840s was principally a literary and cultural phenomenon; its economic and political strength had been sapped by the continuation of its traditional, rural, even anti-industrial social structure. The peasantry was conservative; the bourgeoisie was tiny and was largely non-Galician; the church opposed modernization. The Galician language survived principally as a rural vernacular, but it had no official standing. Despite Galicia's contemporary nationalist movement, which dates from 1931, and the activities of the region's autonomous government, in power since 1981, Galician nationalism continued to be almost silent in comparison with the louder demands of Basques and Catalans in the late 1980s. The use of Galician in political and official forums remained principally a strategy of parties on the left of the political spectrum; more conservative political figures continued to use Castilian either predominantly or exclusively.
About 60 percent of the population of the autonomous community can be identified as ethnic Galician, the great majority of whom retained some use of their language, the remainder retraining, at least in the home. According to one source, some 80 percent of the population could at least understand the language, although it remained primarily a language for the rural and village poor of Galicia and was not much heard in the larger cities. Another source argues that at least 80 percent could speak the language but probably only about 60 percent actually did so on a regular basis, the remainder refraining, at least partly, out of a sense of inferiority. In any case, only an insignificant percentage would be unable to understand the language, given its similarities to Castilian Spanish. Nevertheless, like Catalan, Galician seemed condemned to second-class status while Castilian continued to enjoy the role of the dominant language in official and formal contexts. Galician nationalists were sharply critical of what they termed the "so-called bilingualism policy," because they believed that Galician, unless it were given privileged status vis à vis Castilian, would eventually be overwhelmed by the more popular and more dominant official language.
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