Grassroots movements hope official status for Asturian approved soon, better future for language brought about

The demonstration of 16 October 2021.
The demonstration of 16 October 2021. Author: Xunta pola Defensa de la Llingua Asturiana
After four decades of demanding it, the Asturian language movement says official status is now closer than ever. Indeed, the Statute of Autonomy of Asturias is currently undergoing an amendment process that may lead to such a recognition —which, only 10 years ago, seemed unlikely. Last weekend’s demonstration in Oviedo, with tens of thousands demanding official status for Asturian, is proof of the popular support for the demand. But how sure is it that this has been the last demonstration for official status, as organising grassroots movement Xunta pola Defensa de la Llingua Asturiana claims? Which parties support it? What reactions —including virulent ones— is this provoking among opponents? We speak to Xunta spokesperson Xosé Candel and Inaciu Galán, spokesperson for another civil society group, Iniciativa pol Asturianu.

What change are demonstrators calling for?

They want the reform of the Statute of Autonomy to recognise Asturian and Galician-Asturian —we will refer to this second language later— as official languages of Asturias, together with Spanish. At present, the Statute merely states that Asturian will enjoy “protection” and, moreover, the language is mentioned under the non-academic name of “Bable”.

According to the Xunta, the Statute of neighbouring Galicia would be a suitable model for Asturias. The Galician charter makes Galician and Spanish official, grants citizens “the right to know and use them,” and provides that “the public authorities of Galicia” guarantee “their normal and official use.” In the working document on the Statute amendment that the Asturian government has distributed to the political groups, the Galician model is taken as a basis.

As for popular support, a 2017 study by the Basque Country’s Euskobarómetro team noted that 8 out of 10 Asturians wanted their language to be treated in the same way as Catalan, Basque, or Galician, all of which enjoy official status in most territories where they are spoken. When asked specifically about the notion of official status, 53% were for, 20% were indifferent, and 25% opposed.

A successful march

Candel and Galán agree that the 16 October demonstration was a great success. “And, this time, with many more young people attending,” says Candel. Both believe that the march will help influence political parties in favour of official status for Asturian. “More moderate parties should see that their voters are in the demand, like the socialists,” says the Xunta spokesperson. “The demonstration shows, moreover, that for the people it is an important issue, and that they feel there is a hurry to bring about change,” says Galán.

Demonstrations demanding official status for Asturian have been held since the 1980s. On occasion, only a thousand people have attended. This year’s figure (30,000 to 50,000, according to sources) is among the highest. “You should bear in mind that 30,000 people in Oviedo is equivalent to 1 million in Madrid or Barcelona,” compares Candel.

Why is it now possible to make Asturian official?

Because for the first time the required majority in the Xunta Xeneral, as the Asturian Parliament is known, is achievable. In order to amend the Statute, three-fifths of Xunta Xeneral members must vote in favour —that is, 27 out of 45. If a vote were now held, 27 deputies would support official status for Asturian: 20 from the Socialist Party (PSOE), four from Podemos, two from Izquierda Unida and one of two elected in the lists of Foro Asturias —the party’s secretary general Adrián Pumares. We will come back to him later. The right-wing bloc opposes granting Asturian official status —PP, Ciudadanos, Vox and the other MP elected in the Foro lists, Pedro Leal, who was expelled from the party more than a year ago.

The Asturian socialists had for decades opposed official status for Asturian, but they changed their mind in 2017, coinciding with the renewal of the party’s leadership. The Asturian Socialist Federation “was very belligerent against official status during the terms of presidents Vicente Álvarez Areces and Javier Fernández,” recalls Candel, “and even the PP had a more favourable stance then. But there has been a generation change.” The current Asturian president, socialist Adrián Barbón, “is one of the youngest members in parliament. He is from a generation that has grown up in democracy, with Asturian in schools, even if it was an optional subject. They are more cultured about what it means to know Asturian, and they bring a bit of normality to it.”

After its approval in Asturias, which could happen in the spring of 2022, the amended Statute will need to go through the Spanish Parliament. Candel and Galán point out that a majority now exists there allowing the amended Statute to pass, but both warn that this is where the greatest danger lies. Should the process be delayed —Galán recalls that a previous amendment of the Statute of Cantabria took two years to go ahead— or should the Spanish parliamentary term come to an end meanwhile, things could derail. “We don’t know what could happen next,” says the Iniciativa spokesperson, “and that is why we encourage the pro-official status parties —PSOE, Podemos, and IU— to speed up.” Opinion polls suggest that, were elections to the Spanish Parliament held now, the right-wing bloc could win an absolute majority.

Insults, harassment from the far-right

“We are under continuous harassment from the far-right on social networks, with all kinds of personal insults, as well as in the media and in Parliament.” This is how Galán sums up the climate that far-right supporters are trying to establish in Asturias against people, organisations and parties supporting official status for Asturian. “Since Vox made it to the Parliament they are on fire, also because they realise that the process is unstoppable,” Galán goes on. According to Candel, “this is a virus of intolerance created in far-right kitchens. We don’t know how it could spread.” Galán says he is “not afraid, because society is answering back and [the extremists] are getting the opposite of what they are looking for, as people who did not have a very clear stance on the issue are now turning in favour of official status for Asturian, seeing the techniques that the far-right is using, techniques that we already know from other historical moments.”

One of the targets of this far-right campaign is MP Adrián Pumares, to whom we referred earlier. “A person who has always shown his commitment to the Asturian language,” says the Iniciativa spokesperson. Perhaps for this reason, and because his vote is decisive, Vox has signed a billboard depicting the deputy’s face with a cross over his mouth and the accusation on him of seeking to “impose on 1 million Asturians a language that is not theirs.” Almost identical, but unsigned, stickers had been circulated previously. “It is a very virulent coercion, I think it is reportable,” says Candel. “An infamy,” Barbón has described it.

Asturian in schools

One of the main bones of contention, if official status goes ahead, will be the way in which the teaching of (or in) Asturian will be introduced in schools. The Xunta and Iniciativa rule out nothing —not even immersive methodologies— but are aware that opposers, with the far-right featuring prominently, will present any progress as an “imposition”. President Barbón says that the model of official status that the Socialists want is “friendly” and that Asturian will not be “vehicular” in schools. It is thus understood that Asturian would only become a core, compulsory subject: that would be “the minimum” to respect “the right of people to know it and use it,” says Candel. Currently, Asturian is an elective subject, and yet “every year we have to report the fact that there are schools where it cannot be learned even though demand exists for it,” regrets Galán.

Candel and Galán point out that the issue will need to be clarified in a future Law on normalisation, which will replace the 1998 Law on the Use and Promotion of Asturian. “Whether there will be a subject or immersion is a premature debate,” considers the Xunta spokesperson, “and in fact, different models could coexist, as it has been the case in Euskadi.” The two activists mention that five schools have implemented in recent years a pilot test of teaching through the medium of Asturian, which has yielded “very positive results, both in terms of knowledge of the language and in the rest of the subjects.”

What about Galician-Asturian?

The demonstration also called for the official status of Galician-Asturian. This is the name given to the language spoken in western Asturias. The name and affiliation of that language are a source of controversy. The Royal Galician Academy regards it a dialect of Galician, shared with a handful of municipalities in eastern Galicia. The Xunta promotes the denomination of “Galician-Asturian” and says that it should be considered on its own, although Candel —as most linguists point out— admits that it belongs to the “Galician-Portuguese” set of languages. In the Eo-Navia region, where it is spoken, the Xeira association uses the term “Galician-Asturian”, while the Abertal association refers to it as “Galician of Asturias”.

Whatever the case, the Xunta and Iniciativa are calling for the reform of the Statute to include the official status of this language, “like Aranese in Catalonia”, says Candel. “It seems that this makes some people uncomfortable, but for us it is a source of pride.” The Xeira association is regretting that, in the government’s first document, the official status of Galician-Asturian is geographically restricted. In their opinion, this is a “discrimination” that could open the door to Asturian institutions not using it at the same level as Asturian.

Hope for the future

For both the Xunta and Iniciativa, official status means opening doors to the future of Asturian. “We feel envy of the official status of Catalan, Galician, and Basque,” explains Candel, “and we think of the time we have lost over the last 40 years to try to ensure intergenerational transmission. But on the other hand, we also think that in these languages we have good mirrors where we can see which good things can be done for our language.” Candel and Galán hope that, in a few years’ time, Asturias can also become a reference for other territories where the language is spoken but is not official yet, such as neighbouring León.

“We have been calling for it for so many years,” Galán ponders, “that it almost seems now that official status will solve all the problems. And of course it won’t. The regression of Asturian began centuries ago. But we are optimistic, because society has nevertheless maintained the language. And if this has been possible under such hostile circumstances —even prohibiting companies from labelling their products in Asturian—, we believe that the new context can open up many opportunities.”

“Older people still have a certain self-hatred towards the language,” Candel explains, “perhaps as a defence mechanism for all the mockery they suffered when they were young. But with youths now, this has changed.” “It will be up to society to save the language,” Galán goes on, “and official status is not the end of the road, but just the beginning. Asturian still has some vitality, even in the cities. Thanks to the official status, it will be able to recover some lost ground, or it can take other places that have been denied to it.”