Skip to main content
Select Source:



ETHNONYMS: Galego, Gallego


Identification. The people of Galicia in Spain (o pobo galego in Galician) inhabit the northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula, directly north of Portugal. They speak Castilian Spanish and Galician, the latter a Romance language that is parent to modern Portuguese. They are predominantly Roman Catholic. The name "Galicia" is derived from the name for the people in the region when the Romans arrived in the second century b.c.e., the gallatae, but there is disagreement about the ethnic source of the people, with many celebrating a Celtic origin.

Location. Galicia lies between 42° and 44° N and 7° and 9° W. The 29,434 square kilometers in the region take the form of a rough square bounded by the Bay of Biscay (Sea of Cantabria) to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the River Miño separating Galicia from Portugal to the south, and the mountain ranges of León and Asturias to the east. The coasts of Galicia are indented with drowned estuaries (rías ). About 80 percent of the region lies above 300 meters, with the highest ranges (some with peaks over 1,800 meters) forming an effective eastern barrier between Galicia and the rest of Spain.

Galicia has a mild climate, averaging between 7.2° and 18.9° C through the year. Frequent rain, drizzle (calabobos ), and heavy mists (brétemas ) contribute to the 76 to 203 centimeters of rain that falls over an average of 150 days per year.

Galicia's isolation has led to the region's being one of the few in Europe where the original postglacial mammalian fauna remain virtually intact. Of the 500-600 wolves left in Iberia today, for example, most are in Galicia.

Demography. In 1980 the population of Galicia was estimated at approximately 3 million inhabitants (about 424 per square kilometer), with a growth rate of less than 1 percent per year. The urban areas account for about 30 percent of the total population. Galicia is the sixth most populated of the fourteen regions of Spain, with about 7.5 percent of the country's inhabitants.

Linguistic Affiliation. Nearly every Galician uses Castilian Spanish, but about 80 percent of the population also speaks Galician (galego ), which, along with Castilian, is taught in the grade schools and studied in the university. The use of Galician has rapidly expanded since the region became autonomous. Historically, Galician was one of the principal and mutually comprehensible Hispano-Romance dialects spoken in the northern third of the Iberian Peninsula. When the Christian reconquest of Spain began (by the tenth century), speakers of each of these dialects gradually moved south. The central Castilian-dominated swath gradually grew broader, cutting off the southward expansion of the dialects of Leonese, Navarro-Aragonese, and Catalan, with a substantial strip in the west populated by speakers of Galician. In the twelfth and thirteenth century, Portugal began to take shape and finally was separated from Galicia at the River Miño, leaving the two languages to develop independently.

History and Cultural Relations

The Iberians migrated to Spain in the third millennium b.c.e., probably from the eastern Mediterranean, likely encountering the Basques in the peninsula. They lived in small tribal groups, isolated from one another by geography, and each with a distinct regional and political identity. When the Celts crossed the Pyrenees into Spain (sixth century b.c.e.), their cultural influence, which included gender equality, ultimately triumphed. Augustus romanized the Iberians in 19 b.c.e., cutting up the peninsula into a series of provinces. Galicia as a kingdom was founded by the Germanic Suevi in 409 after the Visigoths drove them into the peninsula. The Visigoths defeated the Suevi in 585. Early in the eighth century armies from North Africa began their invasion of Spain, initiating the Moorish epoch, which lasted until 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabella triumphed over Boabdil at Granada. Early in this period, the shrine of Saint James was established at Santiago de Compostela (813), with Saint James subsequently becoming the symbolic commander and Spain's patron saint in the reconquest struggle after the battle of Clavijo (844). Pilgrims flocked to the shrine from throughout Europe, bringing the region into contact with the Christendom of France and Italy for the first time. In the fifteenth century Ferdinand and Isabella unified Spain, and Galicia began to be considered an underprivileged, conservative province, remote from the Castilian center to the south; even the fact that Francisco Franco was born in Galicia and returned for frequent visits did notably little to change this attitude. A strong sense of autonomy now pervades the region, however, and Galicia is developing considerable self-esteem through its language, industry, and rising tourist business.


Outside the major cities, most of Galicia's population is spread in some 29,000 hamlets and tiny settlements called aldeas with an average population of 80 people. The cultural focus of each village is the church, which draws upon perhaps a dozen family groups that work together and are often related. In the mountain villages, a small oval house with a thatched roof (choza or palloza gallega ) can still be seen occasionally. In the aldeas, the houses are generally single-family dwellings made up of slabs of gray granite hewn from Galician bedrock. The animals frequently live on the ground floor or in an adjoining enclosure. Almost all village houses have their own hórreo, a rodent-proof granary (built on stilts) for storing maize and potatoes. In the cities, the older buildings are constructed of granite, while the new multistoried apartment houses are typically constructed of poured concrete or bricks faced with stone or concrete.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Old shipbuilding, tanning, and sawmill industries have declined, leaving fishing and agricultural crops to dominate the Galician economy. The small farms (minifundios ) produce maize, potatoes, turnips, cabbages, small green peppers, apples, pears, and grapes. Although tractors are common, plowing on some farms is still done with a single blade or pointed prod pulled by oxen; heavy wooden-wheeled carts (carros chiriones, "screeching carts") are still seen. Harvesting is frequently by hand. A textile industry has produced income in the region, as have petrochemical and automobile factories. Tungsten, tin, zinc, and antimony are mined. Tourism is also growing, with the beaches of the various estuaries on the Atlantic coast (the Rías Atlas and Rías Bajas) being particularly attractive.

Emigration is the traditional way of alleviating land pressure and keeping the region's problems within manageable proportions; these days, however, greater prosperity is causing fewer than an estimated 10,000 per year to leave for Latin America and Europe, compared with the 230,000 who emigrated to Latin America between 1911 and 1915. In Buenos Aires, so many Galicians have immigrated that all people who have immigrated from Spain in the last century are called gallegos. There are Galician communities in all the big towns of Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. The Galicians' capacity for hard work is matched only by their ability to save. The strategy is to save as quickly as possible for a rapid return to Galicia. Some of the savings brought back by migrants go into land, but much more is invested in houses and in food and drink businesses.

Trade. Small stores, café-bars, street vendors, and open-air markets are found throughout Galicia. Homegrown produce or other homemade products are brought (usually by women and not infrequently on their heads) to the markets to sell or to supply other merchants.

Division of Labor. In 1980, 46 percent of the region's labor force (1,175,400 persons) was engaged in agriculture, 16.3 percent in industry, 8 percent in construction, and 27.1 percent in services; 2.6 percent of the available labor force was unemployed.

In Galicia, more than 75 percent of the women work for pay, generally sharing the same jobs as the men. Both women and men work the farms, tend the animals, sell fish, run cafébars and markets, and serve as heads of households. The traditional home tasks are also assigned to women, but men will tend babies and do housework.

Land Tenure. Nearly everyone owns land in Galicia, but it is precious little; most plots are from 1 to 2.5 hectares. There are few examples of large landholding such as in the south. "Galicians never use handkerchiefs; they till them" is a frequent assertion, reflecting the scarcity and dimensions of the landholdings.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. Galician descent is generally patrilineal, with children taking their father's family name and appending their mother's. The wife, however, does not add her husband's name to her own, retaining her own name throughout her life. She may choose to use her husband's name after his death so that she is known as "[her name], widow of [husband's name]."

Kinship Terminology. The Galician kinship system is much like that found in the United States. Cousins are distinguished from brothers and sisters, but all cousins are placed in the same category. Aunts and uncles are distinguished from parents and labeled separately according to gender. No other relatives are referred to by the same terms used for members of the nuclear family.

Marriage and Family. Galician marriages are monogamous, and there is considerable freedom in the choice of marriage partners, although social pressures function to keep the economic classes fairly rigid. The nuclear family is usual. Only 10 percent of households could be termed extended or joint. As long as both elderly parents are alive, they tend to stay in their homes. After a spouse dies, the widower may move to the home of a married child, but widows who are accustomed to the daily tasks of running a household generally try to reside alone rather than rely on their children. Also, among adults in Galicia with older children, it is rare to find a couple without most of their children residing either permanently or temporarily away from the village.

Inheritance. The surviving spouse is the automatic heir to the deceased spouse's property, and all children regardless of gender, age, or place of residence divide the property of both parents equally. Because longevity is a feature of Galician society, late inheritance of property forces most children, even those with wealthy parents, to be on their own for long periods. Young women may remain at home to care for their aged parents in return for some advantage when the property is divided.

Sociopolitical Organization

After forty years under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1936-1975), Spain is now a parliamentary monarchy with a king as the head of state and a president as head of the government.

Political Organization. Galicia is an autonomous region of Spain and is governed by the Xunta de Galicia (the Galician Assembly). The region is divided into four provinces (La Coruña, Lugo, Orense, and Pontevedra), each with its own governing body. There are further administrative divisions for the municipalities and the hamlets. In 1992, Spain will be admitted to full partnership in the European Community (EC).

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Roman Catholicism is overwhelmingly the central religious force in Galician society, although men tend to be less obviously religious than women. Catholic churches, cathedrals, monasteries, and various types of shrines, including distinctive high stone crosses (cruceiros ), dot the landscape. Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are actively proselytizing in the region, but they are gaining only a smattering of converts.

The beliefs of most Galicians are infused with a vigorous strain of supernaturalism. Ceremonies connected with these beliefs are frequently celebrated simultaneously with traditional Catholic ceremonies. Fig-symbol amulets, scapulars, and objects to ward off the evil eye, for example, are often sold close to the church where a religious rite is being celebrated. Various types of people are commonly believed to have supernatural powers: meigas (who provide love and curing potions), barajeras (who cast out evil and foretell the future), and brujas (who are believed to cause harm). A common saying is Eu non creo nas bruxas, ¡pero habel-as hainas!, or "I don't believe in brujas, but they exist!"

A considerable number of sites in Galicia have profound religious significance. For example, the Galicians, other Spaniards, and a vast number of Europeans consider Santiago de Compostela, in the La Coruña Province, to be one of the great spiritual centers of the world, ranking equally with Jerusalem and Rome. Early in the Christian reconquest, the bones of Saint James were believed to be uncovered in the area (in 813). Saint James (Santiago) subsequently was ensconced as the rallying figure in the ultimately successful wars against the Moors. A vast number of faith-promoting Saint James stories permeate the beliefs of Galicia, and the symbols of Saint James (cockle shells and the distinctive cross of Saint James) are ubiquitous.

Ceremonies. Saint's day celebrations, popular religious excursions (romerías ), night festivals on the eve of a religious festival (verbenas ), and the whole traditional calendar of Catholic observances provide rhythm to the lives of Galicians. A considerable number of nonreligious observances are threaded through the calendar of observancesfor example, the "Disembarking of the Vikings" at Catoira, which vigorously reenacts the attack of a marauding Viking fleet in the tenth century.

Throughout Galicia a great number of varying charms, incantations, rites, and sympathetic actions are performed at each step in the life cycle.

Medicine. In case of illness, the usual Galician pattern is to consult a medical doctor first. If the illness does not subside, then the person doubts that the illness is medical and may consult a healer (curandero or curandera ) who can cure with herbs or other nonmedical remedies.

Arts and Crafts. Galicia is famous for its folk dance groups, which are accompanied by the skirl of Galician bagpipes (gaitas ). Various vocal and instrumental groups (some even cranking medieval hurdy-gurdies) sing and play popular Galician music. Thriving groups of artisans produce works in silver and gold, ceramics, fine porcelain, jet (azabache ), lace, wood, and stone.

Galician literature today maintains characteristics developed during the Middle Ages; it is largely a literature of lyrical poetry. Notable Galician writers include Rosalía de Castro, who expressed the deep nostalgia (morriña ) of nineteenth-century emigrants; Manuel Curros Enríquez, whose poems exalt the regionalist spirit of Galicia; and Valle-Inclán, noted for his elegant poetic prose.

Regional Foods. Galician restaurateurs command considerable respect in Spain. The estuaries produce shellfish of all kinds, from the famous cockleshells of Saint James to lobsters, mussels, shrimps, oysters, clams, and crabs. Caldo gallego is a broth of turnips, cabbage or greens, and white beans. At most bars and at all sorts of outdoor celebrations, there are roast sardines, octopus, squid, little green peppers (the famous pimientos de Padrón ), and chunos (doughnutlike tubes of fried pastry). Many of the cheeses are traditionally in the shape of breasts (called tetillas ). A strong liquor called aguardiente or orujo is served burned (queimada ) with lemon peel and sugar.


Buechler, Hans, and J.-M. Buechler (1981). Carmen: The Autobiography of a Spanish Galician Woman. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman.

Fraguas, Antonio (1988). Romarías e Santuarios. Vigo: Galaxia.

Lisón Tolosana, Carmelo (1971). Antropología cultural de Galicia. Madrid: Akal/Universitaria.

Marino Ferro, Xosé Ramón (1985). Cultura popular. Santiago de Compostela: Museo do Pobo Galego.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Galicians." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Galicians." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (December 13, 2017).

"Galicians." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from





LOCATION: Northern Spain

POPULATION: 2.7 million

LANGUAGE: Gallego; Castilian Spanish

RELIGION: Roman Catholicism


Galicia is one of three autonomous regions in Spain that have their own official languages in addition to Castilian Spanish, the national language. The language of the Galicians is called Gallego, and the Galicians themselves are often referred to as Gallegos. The Galicians are descended from Spain's second wave of Celtic invaders (from the British Isles and western Europe) who came across the Pyrenees mountains in about 400 bc. The Romans, arriving in the second century bc, gave the Galicians their name, derived from the Latin gallaeci.

Galicia was first unified as a kingdom by the Germanic Suevi tribe in the fifth century ad. The shrine of St. James (Santiago) was established at Compostela in 813. Christians throughout Europe began flocking to the site, which has remained one of the world's major pilgrim shrines. After the unification of the Spanish provinces under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the fifteenth century, Galicia existed as a poor region geographically isolated from the political center in Castile to the south. Their poverty was worsened by frequent famines. With the discovery of the New World in 1492, large numbers emigrated from the region. Today, there are more Galicians in Argentina than in Galicia itself.

Although Francisco Franco was a Galician himself, his dictatorial regime (1939-75) suppressed the region's moves toward political and cultural autonomy. Since his death, and the installation of a democratic regime (parliamentary monarchy) in Spain, however, a revival of Galician language and culture has taken place. A growing tourism industry has improved the region's economic outlook.


Galicia is located in the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula. The region is bounded by the Bay of Biscay to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the River Mió to the south (marking the border with Portugal), and León and Asturias to the east. Galicia's coastline contains a number of scenic estuaries (rías), which are drawing increasing numbers of tourists to the region. The area's mild, rainy, maritime climate is in sharp contrast to the dry, sunny lands of southern Spain. About one-third of Galicia's population live in urban areas.


Most Galicians speak both Castilian Spanish, the national language of Spain, and Gallego, their own official language. Gallego has come into much wider use since Galicia attained the status of an autonomous region after the end of Franco's dictatorial rule. Like Catalan and Castilian, Gallego is a Romance language (one with Latin roots). Gallego and Portuguese were a single language until the fourteenth century, when they began to diverge. Today, they are still similar to each other.


Galician folklore includes many charms and rituals related to the different stages and events of the life cycle. Popular superstitions sometimes merge with Catholicism. For example, amulets (charms) and ritual objects thought to ward off the evil eye are often available near the site of a religious rite. Supernatural powers are attributed to a variety of beings. These include meigas, providers of potions for health and romance; clairvoyants, called barajeras ; and the evil brujas, or witches. A popular saying goes: Eu non creo nas bruxas, pero habel-as hainas! (I don't believe in witches, but they exist!).


Like their neighbors in other parts of Spain, the vast majority of Galicians are Roman Catholic. Women tend to be more religious than the men are. Galicia contains numerous churches, shrines, monasteries, and other sites of religious significance. The most notable is the famous cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in La Coruña province. Santiago has been one of the world's great pilgrimage shrines since the Middle Ages (AD476c.1450). It is surpassed only by Rome and Jerusalem as spiritual centers of the Catholic Church. According to local legend, a shepherd discovered the remains of St. James here in the year ad 813. The central role that Catholicism plays in Galician culture is also evident in the tall stone crosses called cruceiros found throughout the region.


Galicians celebrate the major holidays of the Christian calendar. In addition, they celebrate the festivals of a variety of saints. Nighttime festivities called verbenas are held on the eve of religious holidays. Many Galicians also participate in pilgrimages, called romer'as. Secular (nonreligious) holidays include the "Disembarking of the Vikings" at Catoira. This holiday commemorates and reenacts an attack by a Viking fleet in the tenth century.


Besides baptism, first communion, and marriage, military service can be considered a rite of passage for Galicians, as it is for most Spaniards. The first three of these events are the occasion, in most cases, for big and expensive social gatherings in which the family shows its generosity and economic status. Quintos are the young men from the same town or village going into the military in the same year. They form a closely knit group that collects money from their neighbors to organize parties and serenade girls. In the mid-1990s, the period of required military service had been greatly reduced. The government planned to replace required military service with an all-voluntary army.


Galicia is a mountainous land of ever-present rain and mists and lush greenery. The mood associated with the area is one of Celtic dreaminess, melancholy, and belief in the supernatural. There is a special termmorriña associated with the nostalgia that the many Galician emigrants have felt for their distant homeland. Galicians are fond of describing the four main towns of their region with the following saying: Coruña se divierte, Pontevedra duerme, Vigo trabaja, Santiago reza (Coruña has fun, Pontevedra sleeps, Vigo works, and Santiago prays).


City dwellers typically live either in old granite houses or newer brick or concrete multistory apartment buildings. Outside of the largest cities, most Galicians own their own homes. They live in some 31,000 tiny settlements called aldeas. Each aldea numbers between 80 and 200 people. The aldeas are usually made up of single-family homes of granite. Animals are kept either on the ground floor or in a separate structure nearby. Hemmed in by Portugal, Galicia was historically unable to expand its territory. Consequently, its inhabitants were forced to continually divide up their land into ever smaller holdings as the population grew. Village farmhouses are distinguished by the presence of granite granaries, called hórreos. Turnips, peppers, corn, potatoes, and other crops are grown. Crosses on roofs call for spiritual as well as physical protection for the harvest.


The nuclear family (parents and children) is the basic domestic unit in Galicia. Elderly grandparents generally live independently as long as both are alive. Widows tend to remain on their own as long as they can, although widowers tend to move in with their children's families. However, this is less often the case since Galicians often relocate from their native villages or leave the region altogether. Married women retain their own last names throughout their lives. Children take their father's family name but attach their mother's after it. Galician women have a relatively high degree of independence and responsibility. They often perform the same kinds of work as men in either agriculture or trade. Over three-fourths of Galician women have paid jobs. Women also shoulder the bulk of responsibility for household chores and child-rearing, although men do help in these areas.


Like people elsewhere in Spain, Galicians wear modern Western-style clothing. Their mild, rainy, maritime climate requires somewhat heavier dress than that worn by their neighbors to the south, especially in the wintertime. Wooden shoes are an item of traditional dress among rural dwellers in the interior of the region.


Galician cuisine is highly regarded throughout Spain. Its most striking ingredient is seafood, including scallops, lobster, mussels, large and small shrimp, oysters, clams, squid, many types of crab, and goose barnacles (a visually unappealing Galician delicacy known as percebes). Octopus is also a favorite, seasoned with salt, paprika, and olive oil. Empanadas, a popular specialty, are large, flaky pies with meat, fish, or vegetable fillings. Favorite empanada fillings include eels, lamprey (a type of fish), sardines, pork, and veal. Caldo gallego, a broth made with turnips, cabbage or greens, and white beans, is eaten throughout the region. Tapas (appetizer) bars are popular in Galicia as they are elsewhere in Spain. Galicia is famous for its tetilla cheese. Popular desserts include almond tarts (tarta de Santiago), a regional specialty.


Schooling in Galicia, as in other parts of Spain, is free and required between the ages of six and fourteen. At that time, many students begin the three-year bachillerato (baccalaureate) course of study. They may then opt for either one year of college preparatory study or vocational training. The Galician language, Gallego, is taught at all levels, from grade school through university. About a third of Spain's children are educated at private schools, many of them run by the Catholic Church.


The Galician literary and musical heritage stretches back to the Middle Ages (AD 476c.1450). The Gallegan songs of a thirteenth-century minstrel named Martin Codax are among the oldest Spanish songs that have been preserved. In the same period, Alphonso X, king of Castile and León, wrote the Cántigas de Santa María in Gallego. This work consists of 427 poems to the Virgin Mary, each set to its own music. It is a masterpiece of European medieval music that has been preserved in performances and recordings up to the present day. Galician lyric and courtly poetry flourished until the middle of the fourteenth century.

More recently, Galicia's best-known literary figure has been the nineteenth-century poet Rosal'a de Castro. Her poetry has been compared to that of the American poet Emily Dickinson, who lived and wrote at approximately the same time. Twentieth-century Galician writers who have achieved fame include poets Manuel Curros Enríquez and Ramón María del Valle-Inclán.


The Galician economy is dominated by agriculture and fishing. The region's small farms, called minifundios, produce corn, turnips, cabbages, small green peppers called pimientas de Padrón, potatoes said to be the best in Spain, and fruits including apples, pears, and grapes. While tractors are common, ox-drawn plows and heavy carts with wooden wheels can still be seen in the region. Much of the harvesting is still done by hand. Traditionally, Galicians have often emigrated in search of work, many saving for their eventual return. Those who do return often go into business, especially as market or restaurant owners. Galicia also supports tungsten, tin, zinc, and antimony mining, as well as textile, petrochemical, and automobile production. There is also a growing tourism industry, especially along the picturesque Atlantic coast.


As in other parts of Spain, the most popular sport is soccer (fútbol). Basketball and tennis are also gaining popularity as spectator sports. Participant sports include hunting and fishing, sailing, cycling, golf, horseback riding, and skiing.


Like people in other parts of Spain, Galicians enjoy socializing at the region's many tapas (appetizer) bars, where they can buy a light meal and a drink. The mountains, estuaries, and beaches of their beautiful countryside provide abundant resources for outdoor recreation.


Galician craftspeople work in ceramics, fine porcelain, jet (azabache a hard, black form of coal that can be polished and used in jewelry), lace, wood, stone, silver, and gold. The region's folk music is enjoyed in vocal and instrumental performances. Folk dancing is popular as well. Accompaniment is provided by the bagpipe-like Galician national instrument, the gaita, which reflects the Celtic origins of the Galician people.


Galicia is one of the poorest regions in Spain. Historically, many of its inhabitants have emigrated in search of a better life. In the years between 1911 and 1915 alone, an estimated 230,000 Galicians moved to Latin America. Galicians have found new homes in all of Spain's major cities, as well as in France, Germany, and Switzerland. So many emigrated to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the twentieth century that the Argentines call all immigrants from Spain gallegos (Galicians). In recent years, a period of relative prosperity has caused emigration to decline to less than 10,000 people per year.


Facaros, Dana, and Michael Pauls. Northern Spain. London, England: Cadogan Books, 1996.

Lye, Keith. Passport to Spain. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994.

Schubert, Adrian. The Land and People of Spain. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Valentine, Eugene, and Kristin B. Valentine. "Galicians." Encyclopedia of World Cultures (Europe ). Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.


Spanish Foreign Ministry. [Online] Available, 1998.

Tourist Office of Spain. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. Spain. [Online] Available, 1998.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Galicians." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

"Galicians." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . (December 13, 2017).

"Galicians." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from