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The Emptying of Spain

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.

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Disappearing Villages of Spain

The Spanish National Institute for Statistics lists a grand total of 8,125 villages, towns, and cities in Spain. Of these, it calculates that 3,938 are in danger of disappearing. That's almost 50%.

This process of depopulation has two popular names in Spanish: España vacia or España vaciada. The difference is important because vacia simply translates as "empty," whereas vaciada means "emptied." People who talk of an emptied Spain are—consciously or not—suggesting that someone or something is responsible for emptying the heart of the country.

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Pull and Push

Madrid, the elegant and vibrant capital of Spain, sits at the center of a web of fast, modern transport links that whisk the traveler to other important cities and resorts. However, once you drive beyond commuting distance of the city, you notice that towns and villages become scarcer. Turn off one of the highways and drive for a few miles and you might well find yourself in the middle of nowhere.

Madrid is an artificial city. Originally an insignificant village, it was officially named the capital of Spain by Philip III in 1561. Its central location made it a logical choice, but Madrid sits in a harsh land with very hot summers and cold winters. The high, arid plains around the city are poor farming land.

Madrid, and other big centers, became magnets for investment, drawing in companies that offered jobs to people who sought opportunities in a wider world than their local farms.

People of working age moved to the resorts and cities, taking their young families with them. On holidays and weekends, they might return to their village to visit relatives and get away from the stress of the big city. Many still do.

The urban centers and tourist resorts became a "pull" for many in rural Spain as they looked for a different, richer life. The "push" to the cities came from the harsh realities and limited opportunities in the rural areas.

After the Second World War, General Franco's victorious dictatorship became a pariah state with little access to international aid or credit. These were years of hunger in Spain but those who stayed in the countryside might at least be able to feed themselves.

Gradually, Spain was accepted back into the community of nations, and investment flooded into Spain, attracted by cheap labor and government help. Tourists flooded into the new resorts, businesses moved to locations with good transport links. This had the effect of emptying the villages of their residents.

This was a deliberate policy of modernization that drew labor from rural communities. Unintentionally, this was a mortal blow to many places in rural Spain.

Unlike many Spanish villages, Madrid is a bustling metropolitan hub.

Unlike many Spanish villages, Madrid is a bustling metropolitan hub.

Villalgordo del Marquesado

This village in the province of Cuenca has almost as many letters in its name as it does inhabitants. Lying about 50 miles from the provincial capital, it is a place that can represent many more similar places. Its population in 1991 was 187 people, now it is less than half that.

The mayor's office is offering the village bar free of charge to anyone who wants to take it on. The new owner will pay no rent or repair bills and will be given a nearby house to live in—also at no cost. All the new owner has to do is cover the running costs and register as self-employed.

The mayor, interviewed by La Sexta news, admitted that the business was not robust as the remaining inhabitants were all over 80 years of age. The mayor did say that it could get quite busy on weekends and during holidays, with casual visitors and people returning from the city to spend time in their home village.

But Villalgordo does not boast many obvious attractions to entice a holidaymaker in search of rural peace and quiet. When the existing permanent residents die off, there will be less reason for relatives to come back and maintain a house in a dying village.

As populations in these places shrink, a positive feedback loop begins. The village shop can't make a profit and closes, the school has no students and closes, there is no bank, no pharmacy, and no doctor.

Francés Boya, general secretary of the group Demographic Challenge said:

"When a village dies, it is a black hole in our history that can never be filled again."

He is right. However humble, a community is a tangled history of lives—a web that stretches back through time, but when the center of the web disappears, the tendrils flutter away.

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Inertia and Initiatives

Villalgordo is not alone in offering to let someone have the local bar for free. These communities know that the bar is the social center of the village. But just like Villalgordo, they are not usually profitable. The old will come in to chat, have a coffee, and play dominoes. What they won't do is spend a lot of money.

There are local, regional, and national initiatives that seek to help these dying communities. A doctor might visit weekly, a non-resident priest might visit to say mass, and a bank might open once a week. But many of these villages are isolated and it is difficult to maintain services.

Some places rely on local tourism—fine if your village is in an attractive area that will attract walkers and nature-lovers. Some villages have become alternative New Age communities; some try to attract people who can work online and prefer a rural setting.

These solutions mean that the village will change, new residents bring new ideas, and they will demand a certain level of essential infrastructure.

What is needed is a clear, national plan with agreed objectives that can maintain at least some of these communities as viable concerns. The government can't force people to live in an area where they don't want to live. Is it impractical and romantic to try to keep these places going? Should we let them die a natural death?

I don't know. I suspect that some, perhaps most, will be lost forever. A shame, for with them will go a way of life.

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This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.