Cultural Overview

Spain is a geographically diverse country. A mountainous perimeter separates fairly narrow coastal plains from high central tablelands, or mesetas, which themselves are dissected by hills and mountains into climatically diverse zones. The most humid coasts are on Spain's Atlantic north, and these support most of Spain's cattle and dairy production, and some of the nation's significant garden and orchard crops, but little grain. The meseta lands support sheep and goat herding, dry cereal agriculture, and in favorable zones irrigated orchards and gardens yielding diverse crops. Olives, oranges, and almonds are the most important tree crops of the Mediterranean area, roughly the southern half of the Peninsula and its east coast. The humid north where cattle are raised is marked by more generally dispersed settlements than are found inland. Meseta populations are usually more nucleated, or clustered, but extensive agricultural estates in the south, in particular, also see some isolated settlement in the fields outside of towns.

Historically, Spain's population has been heavily rural and agricultural, with commerce important in the exchange of specialties between diverse localities and regions. Local economies and traditions of production have produced different traditional divisions of labor between the sexes and different status groups. Today Spain's agriculture is heavily mechanized, its transport systems modern, and its industrial, commercial and service sectors enlarged, while the population of rural food producers has declined. Spain is a member of the European Economic Community and, with the rest of Europe, enjoys global markets, but traditions of gendered activities are often rooted in older modes of local production and community life.

Spain's diverse geography has not stood in the way of her national formation. Spain is one of the West's oldest nations. Today Spain's 50 provinces are organized into 17 Autonomous Regions, each with a complex regional government, united under a constitutional monarchy. The current king, Juan Carlos I, has reigned since 1975. Spain's center has long been tested by a few movements for regional independence (especially from the Basque and Catalan regions), but the nation and its current form of monarchy have remained strong under a constitution which has yielded much to regional powers.

The Spanish family is a strong entity with significant command over its members' sentiments. Even though family size has shrunk drastically in recent decades—and thus also household size, as most of Spain's households are nuclear family units—kinship ties that bind family members in different households are generally strong. Kinship is everywhere reckoned bilaterally on the familiar European model. Household formation is more variable, however: the stem family household, in which a single heir and his or her spouse and children coreside with the heir's parents, is the most familiar form in the Pyreneean (Basque, Catalan, and Aragonese) regions.

Spain's religious culture is Roman Catholic. Catholicism has been not only the majority religion but the state religion through most of Spain's history as a nation. Although the Spanish state is now secular and other religions have an increasing presence, the vast majority of Spaniards still practice or profess Catholicism, and Catholic traditions, history, social institutions, and symbology are part of Spain's general culture. Catholicism's concrete monuments—churches, shrines— are everywhere stamped on the landscape and more intangible referents form part of Spaniards' daily experience, regardless of individuals' kind or degree of religious commitment. The Holy Family is the common model for family virtues, Fathers' Day and Mothers' Day are defined by the Catholic calendar (Fathers' Day is March 19, St Joseph's Day; Mothers' Day is December 8, the Immaculate Conception), and much of general social life is dominated by collective feast days and such personal and family observances as personal saints' days or sacramental events (baptisms, first communions). Family virtues include procreation; nurturant motherhood; supportive fatherhood; and devotion of spouses to one another, to the family enterprise, and to God. Nurturant motherhood implies a sexual division of labor which takes a husband into the public sphere in pursuit of his family's livelihood and political interests and places a mother in the home with their children.

Spain's Catholicism, energized by a struggle against the presence of Islam from 711 until 1492, and her resistance to the Protestant Reformation, have given her a conservative image in much of the rest of Europe. However, Spain's economic development and state secularization in the latter half of the 20th century, culminating in her integration into the European Community, have eroded the stereotype. Spain has long been a tourist destination for Europe and the Americas—tourism is modern Spain's largest and most pervasive industry—and Spain today is thoroughly connected, both economically and in social contacts, with the rest of Europe and the world.

Issues of sex and gender in Spanish culture must be understood in relation not only to regional cultures and economies but also to the social class structure, to Spaniards' sensitivity to behavioral models from beyond their daily experience, and to the importance given to collective action.

Spain's social class structure is generally European in nature. The population of peasants and petty tradesmen in countryside and towns was historically large, overlain by a small bourgeoisie or middle class of townspeople, and this in turn surmounted by aristocrats, nobles, and royalty. The clergy, drawn from all levels, had a significant presence.

In contemporary Spain, the countryside is worked by fewer and now modernized farmers connected to global markets and the society is dominated by blue- and white-collar employees and middle-class and professional urbanites. Nobles, aristocrats, and the royal family live, with the rest of the populace, under the constitution, and the nation's affairs are determined by the actions of democratically elected officials and government appointees. The Roman Catholic church, while the largest religious presence, is separate from the state and no longer enjoys the enormous economic power, particularly as a landlord, that it had in the past.

The elite or leisure class presents models to the general populace that working people might envy and try to emulate but not fully achieve. Likewise, the elite sometimes look to the popular folk culture of the peasantry for traditions to make fashionable. These exchanges emerge from the steady contacts between social strata brought about by travel, other forms of communications, and the juxtaposition of people of different levels through the employer-employee relationship—these are ancient as well as modern. Modes of gender behavior may differ for the different social classes as well as in different regions and traditional economies, but they are not inflexible and are open to creative manipulation. Spaniards have a deep and often playful sensitivity to variation in styles of behavior.

Creative emulation is part of Spanish cultural dynamics, but so is a deep concern for collective judgments. Collective life is very strong in Spanish communities, both rural and urban. In cities, neighborhoods (barrios) are important in social consciousness and social life and are part of people's local identities, just as villages and towns are in more rural settings. Thus, while behavioral styles, including gendered behavior, are subject to dynamic change, this is less a product of individual action than of group consensus. Changes promoted by individuals are subject to endorsement or censure by their fellows, so changes may be very tentative until they receive group approval; a would-be innovator can be ridiculed or ostracized if, for whatever reason, his or her fellows do not find a particular kind of changed behavior attractive. The adoption of changes can be quite rapid, but its collective aspect can make changed styles appear much more traditional than in fact they are. Thus gendered behavior is guided by deeply rooted traditions and cultural categories, but is also open to considerable stylistic play as Spaniards pursue new self-images derived from a variety of sources in a time-honored dynamic of change.

The changes which have most affected all Spaniards in the 20th century are those associated with the decline of peasant farming and the growth of a capitalist global economy. Heirs to farms find alternative occupations; men and women alike enter the labor market and family farms are taken over by entrepreneurial farmers, supplying national and global markets rather than household and local needs. The gender roles associated with traditional farming, fishing, and herding economies and the family organization that underlay production are altered as both men and women are freed from obligation principally to their parents' households and become wage-earners on their own, able to forge independent futures in new kinds of occupations and, increasingly, to live and raise their families in towns and cities. These shifts are not unique to Spain—they are common in Western nations—but their relative recency in Spain illuminates changes in the lives of men and women that show their past and future to be sharply different even while their environment remains distinctively Spanish.

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