Galician Literature Day, a celebration of language and culture

Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - 6:23pm

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May 17 can be one of those spring days where everything goes right. For those in Galicia, Spain, it’s known as “Día das letras galegas” (very roughly translated to Galician Literature Day) and, at its core, is meant to celebrate Gallego, the official language of the region.

Like Spanish, the roots of Gallego are Latin, but many say the language is also relatively similar to Portuguese. Historically, Gallego has been a marginalized language throughout Spain, forced to the rural areas of the country and, eventually, frowned upon by general society. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Galicia experienced a “cultural ‘rexurdimiento’ (rectification),” and citizens tried to standardize the language.

As such, many writers have spent countless hours and written pieces trying to elevate the social status of Gallego. The first Galician Literature Day was originally established to celebrate the publication of “Cantares Gallegos” by Rosalía de Castro, but the holiday wasn’t instituted until 1963, the year of the 100-year anniversary of the book’s publication.

The first time I heard about Galician Literature Day, I did what anyone my age would do, and Googled it. While I gained some valuable background information, I was still confused about what actually happens on Galician Literature Day. Based on the Wikipedia page, it almost sounded like one huge award ceremony for a particular Galician writer. But, with more reading, it became clear that the writer being honored had to have been dead for at least ten years.

So, then, what does Galician Literature Day actually look like?

The answer? A lot like the marches we have back in the United States, at least as far as my Galician Literature Day experience while studying abroad in Santiago de Compostela went. People of all ages descended upon the park right near “la zona vieja” (the old zone) of the city and walked to the steps of Santiago’s famous cathedral. It’s not a long walk on a normal day, but as people were chanting and the city’s characteristic rain started falling, it seemed like it would go on forever.

While the advertised goal of the celebration, on the Internet at least, is one of reverence for a specific author (this year the festival celebrated Antón Fraguas), the feeling was more collective in the actual parade. There was a focus on the beauty of the language and the fact that it’s becoming overwhelmed by Castellano, the official language of Spain. Flags flew and signs waved, advertising everyone’s pride and love for the Galician language. The parade was the prime example of organized chaos, but as the rain stopped and the chants got louder, it turned into a surreal experience.

It’s a heartwarming thing to know that there are places that celebrate their language and culture, even in the face of a waning community that knows how to use it. As an English-speaker, celebrating the language of an autonomous community within a country is exciting to me. Sure, we talk about the beauty of English in books and writing, but there really is no need to set out and celebrate English. Gallego, on the other hand, is still trying to build its following throughout Galicia, fighting against the well-known Castellano.

When the speeches ended and people’s flags came down, the crowd broke into the official hymn of Galicia. The haunting melody echoed off the church and, even as kids screamed and people’s phones buzzed, you could still hear the beauty of Gallego and the pride of its people.