“I have hope and confidence that Aragonese will not die out”

Silvia Cebolla

Aragonese language disseminator

Silvia Cebolla, in front of Nogará school.
Silvia Cebolla, in front of Nogará school. Author: Mariona Miret
Silvia Cebolla (Zaragoza, Aragon, 1985) is one of the main disseminators of the Aragonese language in the media. A familiar face in many Aragonese homes after presenting the programme “Charrrín Charrán” on the Aragonese public TV, Cebolla has thousands of followers on social networks, where she combines the dissemination of Aragonese with activities such as gastronomy and hiking. Cebolla claims that Aragon should rediscover its language and re-appropriate it —she herself learned it at the age of 19— and talks in this NATIONALIA interview to linguistic revitaliser Mariona Miret, with whom she met in Lleida (Catalonia) in December 2022 at a CIEMEN conference on the digital presence of minoritised languages. That event gave rise to the idea for this conversation that we are offering to you. This is also a historic moment: the Aragonese Academy of the Language has just published its first official Aragonese orthography.

Mariona Miret: How did you get to know Aragonese? What is your story with the language?

Silvia Cebolla: I’m from Zaragoza, my family is from here, and in principle I have nothing to do with Aragonese, because at home it is not spoken, but I do have something to do with it because I’m Aragonese. When I was a child, I used to travel to the Pyrenees and I knew it was spoken there, because my brother commented on it. We were heading to the local village festivities, and he said: “I met a person who only talked in Fabla”.

I have always been shocked by this, and as a teenager I decided to learn Aragonese. It wasn’t easy, because it wasn’t like it is now. Aragonese is now better known, but at that time no one spoke Aragonese [outside the Upper Aragon area], there was no internet as we now know it, and it was very difficult to access it. But I decided to learn it: when I was 19, I signed up for language classes at a language school, Nogará, and did two courses. Then I did an internship as a teacher... When I signed up, I fell in love with the language.

M. M.: Your eyes light up when you talk about it. How was it for you to fall in love with Aragonese? Did you discover anything about yourself as a result?

S. C.: It is something that comes from within. Although I am not a native speaker, my essence is in Aragonese.
Many Aragonese idioms are preserved in the Spanish we speak in Zaragoza, but it is not a complete language; in reality, those few phrases your family tells you make you feel in touch with your roots. Through the language I found a way to get to know my territory more deeply, the idiosyncrasy of the Aragonese people, and why happen to us the things that happen to us. At the end of the day, Aragonese is connected to our personality, and to our territory as well: living in the mountains is different from living in the plains, and the weather also influences our personality...
There are many things that make up these roots; it is, in many ways, a research into who we are: why we are like this, the sense of humour, the way we see the world... all this is reflected in Aragonese. Although Aragonese is not spoken in my house, we have that connection through the phrases. Our way of thinking and expressing things has much more to do with Aragonese than with Spanish.

M. M.: How interesting. It seems to me that you don’t live and think the same when expressing yourself in Aragonese as when talking in Spanish... Many linguists say that language reflects world perception. I also speak different languages, and in each language I speak I feel different. They are like different alter egos.

S. C.: I hadn’t paid much attention to it, but now that I’m studying English, I feel like a different person. I feel shallow. When I speak Aragonese, I feel myself, even if it is a learned language for me. Whenever I chat with natives, people always tell me that I am not an authentic speaker because I’m from Zaragoza. There are many people with complexes… It seems that you have to claim a connection with a place in Upper Aragon to legitimise learning Aragonese. I always argue the opposite: I am from Zaragoza, and what I have learned is no less valid. It's not that Aragonese isn’t mine! Aragonese has been spoken in Zaragoza in the past, and the idiosyncrasy is the same everywhere.

M. M.: From what I hear, what you are doing is not learning a language, but rediscovering your identity and your territory, because Aragonese was already spoken here. It’s nothing artificial. You are only scratching the surface of something people already have inside them, but have forgotten. What is the perspective of a neofablant [new speaker of Aragonese]? Do you think it is different from native speakers?

S. C.: Many natives do not have linguistic awareness because historically they were judged because they spoke “badly.” Since it was not known that it was a language until recently, they did not have the consciousness of being, and they also had no connection with other valleys; therefore, the Aragonese speakers of Graus say that they speak Grausino, and this makes it difficult to have a true linguistic awareness. They have a bit of rejection towards the other, the somehow typical rejection, “what is not from my village is not good enough.”

Another reality is that a large percentage of the population do not know that Aragonese is spoken in Aragon, and a large percentage —the majority— do not know the linguistic reality of Aragon: neither do they know that the language is called Aragonese, nor how many people speak it. They think it is a dead language.

M. M.: The minoritisation of Aragonese also comes further back in time.

S. C.: Many Aragonese speakers died in the Civil War. Francoism also did a lot of damage, since it depopulated many parts of the Pyrenees where the language was spoken. From the 60s there was a large migration towards cities. That created a rift between the rural and the modern world. In the 1960s, some people still lived precarious lives. In Zaragoza they led a city life, and in the Pyrenees there were places without electricity or water. They lived in another era. After that, native Aragonese speakers left for Huesca and Zaragoza.

M. M.: And people abandoned the language in favour of a better life, progress and life in cities...

S. C.: Yes. Depopulation has been a very hard time in the history of Aragon’s villages. It is a little-known subject outside, but it became very popular through Julio Llamazares’ novel La Lluvia amarilla. He gave visibility and words to this phenomenon. Franco’s regime did not bring resources to those places: either it displaced people through creating reservoirs, or it did not provide basic services such as the doctor or the post office to those villages. Total isolation. People had to leave because they couldn’t live like this. Some may say this did not play such a big role. However, the history of the Aragonese language and its decline has a lot to do with all of this.

M. M.: This has happened in mountain areas all over Europe. The fact that many languages were spoken in these areas, which have been isolated from modern life and cities, means that they have been preserved there. However, it has also given their speakers a negative stigma: rural, backwards, folkloric.

S. C.: Exactly. Seven years ago, I set up a vegetarian bar to promote the Aragonese language in Zaragoza’s La Magdalena, a neighbourhood where there is a lot of youth movement in general. There are many feminist associations, an LGBT association, and a lot of social revitalization. It was called A Flama, and I set it up with three other partners, and many neighbourhood associations came and supported us; people became familiar with Aragonese by listening to it... at that time, the language did not have a very positive image.

I had the bar for seven years, and then passed it on to friends. Now A Flama has turned 14 years old; they have modernised it, deliver home, and it is vegan. People used to advise us against opening it. They said: “An Aragonese bar, and a vegetarian one! This won’t work.” You don’t have to pay attention when people tell you “don’t do this.” If I had listened to them, I would not have done anything in my life!

M. M.: Now we walk past a very meaningful place for you and the language, don't we?

S. C.: Yes, we are outside Nogará. Here I learned Aragonese many years ago! In addition to a language school, Nogará had a programme of activities to spread Aragonese. At that time there were two levels of Aragonese. It was here that I did my internship to become a teacher, and later I also taught classes. Let’s go in. They must be having a language class now.

M. M.: Hello, how are you? It makes me so happy to be here and meet you!

Cherardo Callejón [Nogará teacher]: Hi Mariona, welcome! As you can see, I am in class with six students, and a girl who follows us online. We have an Aragonese student from Japan. Have you ever seen this? I am sure you have not! This is the first level class. It is one of three classes at this level. We can take face-to-face classes and distance learning.

S. C.: Cherardo does many projects in Aragonese: one of them is to bring together 120 artists who have made a song in Aragonese to release on a compilation album. Once a year we have a weekend meeting with other speakers. And Cherardo also does theatre in Aragonese. There is not enough time to attend every activity!

M. M.: So many initiatives! Let’s keep walking and talking while you tell me more about all of this. I have heard of an initiative that brought many positive things to the language and is relatively recent, “Charrín Charrán”.

S. C.: Nogará was my first love, but “Charrín Charrán” was a dream I had had for many years. In 2010, when the Law of Languages in Aragon came into effect, it was established that Aragonese-language programming was required on public television. Nogará led the project, and from the beginning they counted on me. After years of being stuck, in 2019 the programme was aired.

M. M.: What did you enjoy the most about shooting the show? How was the experience for you?

S. C.: I liked chatting with people the most. The people I have met, the places I have visited, how the people have welcomed us... “Charrín Charrán” has brought Aragonese closer to the native people. The programme has acted as a glue for this. Although it was only 5 minutes on TV interviewing the speakers, I spent hours with the interviewees.
Each episode of the programme, which lasted 25 minutes, had different sections: two or three coverages, then a fixed section with a mini class of Aragonese, a section with school children who sang a song or told a story, and an interview on set. Some sections were introduced later, such as a science section in Aragonese, or another audiovisual section in Aragonese, which showed a clip or a music video.

It was a programme that brought normal people onto the screen, which is what I am really interested in. For me, working at “Charrín Charrán” was a dream. For Aragonese, to have a place on public television was a milestone. It had never happened.

We are very upset that Aragón TV did not renew the programme. It is a very, very important cultural project for Aragonese and Aragonese culture. They can’t cancel this project, because it’s such a cultural asset.

M. M.: I feel you super passionate about true, authentic contact with people. How was the experience of being with them? How did people feel about speaking Aragonese on TV?

S. C.: That was one of the reasons I was excited to talk to them. At first, they were a little embarrassed, but later they felt valued. For the first time, what they did was valued: you appeared on TV because you spoke Aragonese. People felt very well.

What was difficult was getting them on camera. We didn't have a normal TV show structure: I was the producer. Someone who spoke the language and knew a little about Aragonese culture had to make the first call.

When I called them and asked, “Do you have a person who speaks Aragonese?”, at the beginning they always said “no”. Even if they spoke it! Because they have no linguistic awareness, or they think they speak badly. But I went there, started speaking in Aragonese, encouraged them... “if you make a mistake there is nothing wrong, we can change it”... the interviewees were very insecure. They wanted us to send them the questions before, so they could answer in better words: “I'll call my cousin, who speaks better, so she can tell me the right word”.

M. M.: It is a sociolinguistic work, and a psychological one as well!

S. C.: I was delighted. For me, it has been one of the most significant projects of my life, of which I am most proud. It was a time to enjoy. I didn’t work, I had fun. We met people of all ages.

With “Charrín Charrán” we have broken many myths. “No one speaks Aragonese” —in each programme, another three people appeared speaking Aragonese. We probably showed 500 different people speaking Aragonese in total. Another prejudice: “Only old people speak Aragonese.” It has also been proven not to be the case because we have shown people of all ages.

M. M.: You have a lot of presence on social networks, and you consider yourself an influencer. How is it to be an influencer for Aragonese?

S. C.: It’s a job with a lot of variety. I have many lines of work in terms of dissemination. On the one hand, I participate in all kinds of events, in person, because I think it’s interesting that Aragonese is seen as something modern: I go to restaurant openings, solidarity activities, etc. I also collaborate with beauty centres: a friend of mine is a beautician, and every week she gives me a treatment, and I share it on social networks while explaining what the treatment consists of in Aragonese. I also collaborate with mountain clothing brands, which I then wear when hiking in the mountains and explain the route in Aragonese. I am the only person who does something like this worldwide!

As regards events, I find it interesting because the people who attend these types of events are not very supportive of the language. It's a way to make it easy for them to hear Aragonese. It makes me happy, because people who at first would have not accepted the language suddenly find it in a natural situation, and it gets them differently.

Another dissemination channel that I have is Instagram, especially live stories. This network allows me to do what I want to do, which is to show that it is possible to live in Aragonese. Stories allow me to do it at any time; it’s natural, and that way I can create new content in Aragonese every day. People get hooked on your life. I share things from mountain excursions and things about my life in Aragonese, and in between I share content about the Aragonese language. People love it.

M. M.: How do you see the future of Aragonese?

I am an optimistic person, and if I spend so much time spreading the language, it is because I truly believe it has a bright future. The situation has changed a lot since I started speaking it: nothing existed back then! I have also seen results in other languages: Catalan, Basque... I think Aragonese has its place and opportunity. We are “a little behind" in terms of its development. However, I have hope and confidence that Aragonese will not die out and that together we will do things to keep it alive.