Do you know the name of a small stateless nation in Western Europe with a vibrant and distinct old culture and language (which predates later languages like English, French, and Spanish), has a flag composed of the colors red, white, and green, and from where people left in the nineteenth century to settle an inhospitable landscape in the Americas, while today their descendants celebrate their cultural heritage by maintaining many of the customs and the language of their forbears? Got it? Yes… it’s Wales!
We’ve posted before on the cultural and historical links between the Basque Country and Wales, and we think this is yet another great story that will resonate with people with Basque connections. In 1865, a group of Welsh people settled in Patagonia, Argentina, developing the inhospitable landscape to forge what is today Chubut Province. The capital of Chubut is Rawson (from the Welsh ‘Trerawson’) and other Welsh place names include Puerto Madryn (‘Porth Madryn’ in Welsh), Trelew, and Trevelin. Interestingly, these were all Welsh-speakers, and the settlement was a planned effort to try and establish a new Welsh-speaking community 7,000 miles away from home. Its founders were worried that, with the growing emphasis placed on English, the Welsh language would die out in Wales and thus embarked on this extraordinary journey. To this day, and despite many ups and downs, Welsh exists as a language of everyday use in this part of Argentina, in the area known as Y Wladfa (the Colony), and is strongest in the coastal towns of Gaiman and Trelew, and the Andean settlement of Trevelin. Today, estimates vary on there being anywhere between 5,000 and 12,000 native Welsh-speakers in this area, with a further 25,000 speaking it as their second language. After a number of years through the twentieth century when official Argentinian government policy sought to establish a Spanish-only society, in the last few decades Argentina has embraced what it sees as the general benefits of a multicultural and multilingual society. This has led to a flourishing of the Welsh language, with schools full of learners and newspapers like Y Drafod (established in 1891) and the newer Clecs Camwy (2011).
If you have a spare hour, check out this amazing documentary, in English, Welsh, and Spanish (with subtitles!), made by the BBC Cymru/Wales, about this community.
So what of the Basque connection? Well, apart from the obvious similarities in the immigrant experience as a whole, as we all know, Basques also settled in Argentina. There is a Basque community in Chubut as well, represented by the Centro Vasco Etorritakoengatk in Puerto Madryn and the Centro Vasco del Noreste del Chubut in Trelew. And we know that both the Welsh- and Basque-Argentinians have taken part together in many multicultural events.
While such stories may be somewhat anecdotal to the great “narrative” of the history we are taught more generally, footnotes at best within larger, supposedly more important stories, I do think they are valid examples of the triumph and endurance of the human spirit; of how we as groups cherish our cultures, our minority (and minoritized) languages, and the lengths we go to in order to maintain and extend our community ties via these cultures and languages. And there are many lessons to be learned here for Basque-Americans. Cautionary tales do abound, of course, such as that of the Scottish Gaelic-speaking community in Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, which numbered around 200,000 people in 1850–helping make Gaelic, in both its Scottish and Irish varieties (the latter found principally in Newfoundland) the third most spoken language in Canada after English and French at the time–but today stands at around 7,000. That said, the Government of Nova Scotia did establish an Office of Gaelic Affairs to support and promote the Gaelic language there and current efforts to revitalize the language include literature and even movies in Gaelic. Check out the following short documentary movie about the Gaels (Gaelic-speakers) in this regard:
If you’re interested in this topic, you may like our multi-authored work, Language Rights and Cultural Diversity, edited by Xabier Irujo and Viola Miglio. This work addresses the themes of language rights and language protection, and how minority languages contribute to enriching the lives of all those around them (something that is explicitly made clear toward the end of the BBC Cymru/Wales documentary).