• projectneighbours

Galician, not Spanish

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

project neighbours maria martinez flowers

I’m from Galicia, from a small fishing town on the coast, called Portonovo. My dad and my uncles were fishermen and my mum used to sell fish.

I would go to the harbour with my friends and climb the little mounds of fishing nets as a game. I used to go fishing, too, catching prawns and sea snails at the beach. Once, my sister and I went to a small island where we caught clams and then brought them to a little local restaurant to have them cooked.

Portonovo, Galicia, Spain

I feel more Galician than Spanish (although in reality I don’t give a damn about nationalities or borders!). We have our own art and customs and our own language, which is a sort of cross between Portuguese and Spanish.

Speak Galician contest

I grew up bilingual, but when I was little, many families only spoke Spanish to the children; there was a bit of stigma associated with Galician back then.

I’ve always been into it; when I was fifteen, I challenged a friend to a duel over which one of us could speak Galician the longest. I was the proud winner.

When I came to the UK, Galician became even more important and I’m now part of a Galician folk group.

A love of mine

We do the kind of music that used to be played by women at the end of a day of chores. I play the tambourine. We’ve been learning a lot of songs and doing gigs during open sessions at pubs and in different venues. We even appeared at a folk festival.

This group is a love of mine.

We do rehearsals most weeks and when we're in the room together, they just fill me with energy - even when we're not that great technically!

Last year, together, we celebrated St. John’s night and it was everything life should be. We went to a meadow with a couple of barbecues, some food and drinks and games; it was meant as a small Galician get-together, but it was open to everyone; in the end, 70 or 80 people turned up. There was music and a mini bonfire and we ended up swimming in the river. It was just wicked.

St John's night

St John’s night is really important in Galician custom.

When I was little we’d have bonfires that people would chip into; we’d collect wood and old furniture to burn on the night; it didn't matter what day of the week it was, everyone was in.

I would also collect flowers and herbs with my nan to make St John’s water to use for a couple of days to cleanse your face (and soul).

The kids had to go to this natural fountain to collect the water and we weren’t allowed to talk on the way there and back.

It was really far and, in hindsight, I wonder whether this not talking was genuinely some sort of superstition or if it was just a very clever way to keep kids quiet.

Decades of change

When I think about Galicia, it hits me how much the region has changed.

Once, I told some good friends from Ireland about my childhood, when we used to have picnics or let the pigs out in the fields before being chased by their owner with a cane!

And they said 'you sound like a an old lady telling tales from a long-gone era'!

Parents' generation

My mum and dad left school at the age of 10 and went to work the land.

They didn't have running water at home and had to go out and collect it form the fountain and then bring it over.

That certainly wasn't the reality I was growing up with; I was spoilt in comparison, with all the commodities.

Further back, my grandparents made their own wine, they had an allotment, they produced all of their own stuff; it was all very natural. Very hard work, of course, but it was all theirs.

Nowadays we have supermarkets with fruits and vegetables, all individually packed, and a selection of sweets we couldn’t dream of when we were little.

This makes me a little sad because nothing is local or 'ours' anymore. We went from one extreme to another and I like things to be more balanced.

I think a lot has improved with modern life, of course, but now it seems it's far easier to isolate yourself than it used to be.

Modern life

People think they don't have to make an effort to live together because they don't feel like they depend on each other.

We’re naturally loving and caring as a species, but then shit happens and we don’t know what to do.

We need to be more conscientious about our relationships. There is so much judgement and alienation, but we're all the same; we build these personas, but underneath it all, we're just the same.

We lack the tools to see what we bring to the equation and how we can take more responsibility for our relationships.

What has helped me was learning to separate what’s really happening from my interpretation of what’s happening. We make instantaneous judgments about situations drawing on the past, which has nothing to do with now.

To take a few seconds and consider, this is half the battle.

Maria Martinez is the youngest of four. She grew up in Portonovo, Galicia, and moved to Oxford at 18 to learn English. She planned to stay for a year, but she's still in Oxford, where she works as a lab animal welfare officer, making a difference to science and animal welfare. She just got married to her best friend and she loves nature, people and life.