Almost everyone in Spain has a village — un pueblo. Whether they are currently living in the village or were born there and subsequently moved to the city or were born and bred in the city, they still have a village. Since the post-war economic boom, this having a village is a powerful, all-pervasive phenomenon of Spanish life. And it explains many things: it’s the reason why much of Spain (even the large cities) still has a down-home, rural, traditional feel to it, why there are so many unoccupied properties in the country (I’ve read figures of anything up to two million) and why, at key times of the year, the main roads become as clogged as a pie eating champion’s arteries.
OK. Some background. Post-Civil War Spain was a predominantly agricultural country. There were pockets of industry concentrated around the Basque Country, Catalonia and Madrid, but the majority of its population earned their living from farming. The country suffered from economic isolation during the Second World War and was later excluded from the Marshall Plan, but with the Hispano-US Pact of Madrid in 1953, the beginnings of a modernisation and industrialisation programme were seen. Around the late ’50s, early ’60s, Spain went through a remarkable boom and two factors were responsible for drawing young men and women away from their villages and into the larger centres of population. Firstly, there was the pull: new industries in the cities required workers, wages were good and city life was perceived to be less harsh and more “modern” than toiling on the land. Secondly, the push: with the modernisation and mechanisation of agriculture — including the replacement of horses and donkeys by the tractor and the introduction of combine harvesters and threshers — there was less work in the villages themselves. Many young people were surplus to requirements at home and were forced to find work in the cities.
This period saw huge waves of inward migration. Thousands left Extremadura in the south for Madrid. Similarly, huge numbers of gallegos left Galicia in the northwest for the capital. Andalusians tended to make for Catalonia, while Castilians and their neighbours from Leon headed north to the Basque Country (mainly to Bilbao and towns like Lasarte with its Michelin factory).
The thing is, the migrants continued to maintain strong links with their native villages, years and decades after bidding adiós, hasta la proxima to their families and friends. Summer and Easter holidays were spent back home. Very often, the kids were sent to granny and granddad to spend the long school holidays in the birthplace of their parents, with the result that many second-generation migrants consider themselves to have partly grown up in their parents’ village.
All this new mobility, of moving with relative ease between city and village, often separated by hundreds of kilometres, was as a result of two side shoots of the economic prosperity of the ’60s and ’70s: the development of Spain’s excellent system of motorways (autovías) and the availability of cheap, cheerful and (more-or-less) reliable cars, lead by Spain’s own mark, SEAT. Spanish people of a certain age fondly tell of epic journeys (and tailbacks) on crowded roads and in the boiling heat of August with no air-conditioning in their little SEAT 600‘s packed to the rafters with luggage and kids.
Many countries with similar stories of recent large-scale inward migration and equally strong family ties have seen the migrants’ relationship with the native village weaken when those left behind (especially parents) begin to die off. Why has this not happened in Spain? Why do the children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren of those who left for the big city in the ’50s or ’60s return to their village year after year and continue to consider this place as much theirs as anyone who has spent their entire life there? The answer lies in Spanish inheritance laws.
In most parts of Spain (outside the Basque Country, Navarre and Catalonia) inheritance is partible, meaning that the worldly goods of the deceased are shared out among the children. So, for example, when Fulanito Rodriguez, who has 100 hectares of land, a large house with a corral (back yard) and five children, dies, the land, the house and corral are divided up among the five. This practice seems strange to us Irish, where, post-Famine, every effort was made to move away from a similar system (based on Brehon law) and keep the family farm intact, but is so widespread in Spain that a special initiative called the concentración parcelaria exists to maintain field sizes to efficient, workable levels.
Back to Fulanito! Two of his sons who stayed and made lives for themselves in the village (let’s call it Buenafuente de las Malvas) inherit most of the land, but the three who left thirty years ago (two daughters went to Madrid and the youngest son to Alicante) are not left wanting; they get the house, the corral, and an orchard of about one acre’s area. This means that the children (now adults with children of their own) have property in the village — a financial, as well as emotional tie to their birthplace. They also have what amounts to a summerhouse for themselves, their kids and grandkids. If the three siblings can come to some arrangement (divide the house into three or build a couple of new houses in the corral) their holiday retreat in the village of their birth can be heaven on earth. If, on the other hand, things get acrimonious between the siblings (and remember that partible inheritance and strangling Spanish title- and deed-transfer bureaucracy seem purpose-built to facilitate internecine warfare) the opposite can be true, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
In summary; the Spaniard’s ties to his (or his parents’ or grandparents’) village can be attributed to strong family bonds, the economic boom of the latter half of the twentieth century, and local inheritance laws. Remember then, the next bank holiday when you’re stuck in a two-hour traffic jam on the outskirts of Madrid think of el pueblo while your car bakes in the sun and you stew in your juices.