Government Policies

Spain Table of Contents

Franco's policies toward cultural, ethnic, and linguistic minorities were directed at the suppression of all non-Spanish diversity and at the unification, integration, and homogenization of the country. Until 1975 Spain's policy toward its ethnic minorities was more highly centralized and unifying than that of its neighbor, France, where a liberal democratic framework allowed private-sector initiatives to keep regional cultures and languages alive.

With the restoration of democracy, Spanish elites (many of whom come from one of the peripheral ethnic homelands, especially Catalonia) were much more tolerant of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic differences. Article 2 of the 1978 Constitution includes this wording: "The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible fatherland of all Spaniards, and it recognizes and guarantees the autonomy of the nationalities and regions that comprise it [the Spanish Nation], and the solidarity among them." It should be pointed out, however, that the word "autonomy" is never defined in the Constitution, leaving a serious ambiguity in Spain's treatment of its ethnic minorities. While requiring that Castilian be the official language throughout the country, the Constitution also recognizes the possibility that other languages may be "co-official" (an ambiguous term that is taken to mean "having co-equal status with Castilian for governmental purposes") in their respective autonomous communities. By 1988 five languages had been accorded such treatment: Catalan, Galician, Euskera (the Basque language), Valencian, and Majorcan.

From the vantage point of the state, the Basque, the Catalan, and the Galician peoples were "nationalities" within the larger and more inclusive Spanish nation. There was only one nation, and its capital was Madrid; ethnic minorities were prohibited from using the term "nation" in reference to themselves. For the Basque or the Catalan nationalist, however, there was no Spanish nation, only a Spanish state made up of a number of ethnic nations, of which theirs was one.

It should be noted that ethno-nationalist sentiment varied greatly within and among Spain's important ethnic minorities, throughout the years. In other words, not all Basques or Catalans felt themselves to be solely Basque or Catalan, and even those who did possessed varying levels of identification with, and commitment to, their ethnic homeland, depending upon the circumstances of the moment. For example, a 1979 study by Goldie Shabad and Richard Gunther revealed that, in the Basque provinces of Alava, Guipuzcoa, and Vizcaya, 28 percent of their respondents identified themselves as "Spanish only" or "more Spanish than Basque," 24 percent said they were "equally Spanish and Basque," 11 percent said they were "more Basque than Spanish," and 37 percent identified themselves as "solely Basque." In the Basque province of Navarre, in contrast, 26 percent said they were "Spanish only"; 52 percent, "Navarrese only"; and 15 percent, "Basque only." In Catalonia, the figures were as follows: "Spanish or more Spanish than Catalan," 38 percent; "equally Catalan and Spanish," 36 percent; "more Catalan than Spanish," 12 percent; and "Catalan only," 15 percent.

Such variation in ethnic identity was related to two factors: the migration of non-ethnics into the ethnic homelands from other parts of Spain, especially in the economic boom years of the 1950s and the 1960s; and the impact of industrialization, modernization, and urbanization on the usage of non-Castilian languages. After several decades of migration of non-ethnics into the Basque and Catalan regions, the native-born population represented between one-half and two-thirds of the total; and in many working-class neighborhoods and large cities, the nonethnics were actually in the majority. Whereas many migrants were able to learn Catalan because of its close similarity to Castilian Spanish, the number of migrants who learned the Basque language was insignificant because Euskera is not an Indo-European language. Moreover, the impact of mass media, urbanization, and other modernizing mass cultural influences gradually weakened the place of the non-Castilian languages. This was especially true in the Basque region, where non-Basque speakers found it pointless to learn a minority language that apparently had little utility in the modern world.

For these reasons, the Basque, the Catalan, and the Galician autonomous community governments placed the highest emphasis on policies to save their respective languages. In each of these regions, the local language was declared co-official along with Castilian Spanish; residents of the regions came to expect that they could communicate with their government in their native tongues when dealing with the courts and the police, and in a wide variety of other contexts in which citizens interacted directly with their state. Trials were conducted in both languages. The regional parliaments and governments, as well as most other institutions of government, were bilingual in theory if not in practice. Each government subsidized native-language schools through the high-school years and supported a television system that broadcasted largely, or, in the Basque case, entirely, in the native language. The Basque autonomous government placed great emphasis on recruiting a native police force made up of bilingual officers able to interact with the local population in the language of their choice.

At the end of the 1980s, it was still too early to assess whether or not such policies could salvage these minority languages. Catalan seemed assured of survival, even if as a subordinate language to Castilian, but Euskera and Galician were spoken by such a small portion of the modern, urbanized population that their fate would probably not be known for another generation. Under the best of circumstances, the representation of such complexity in Spanish society and politics will present a major challenge to the country's political elites and opinion leaders through the 1990s.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress