The Catalan-speaking area of Aragon (Franja d'Aragó or Franja de Ponent in Catalan) is a strip of land 15 to 30 kilometres wide and 5,077 km in area which runs along the border between eastern Aragon and western Catalonia. It belongs to the autonomous community of Aragon and straddles the provinces of Huesca, Saragosa and Teruel, featuring both mountainous areas and plains. Four of the five comarques (districts) it covers are entirely under the administration of Aragon, while the fifth is divided between Aragon and western Catalonia. Five local authorities which geographically belong to southern Catalonia are also under Aragon administration. Fraga is the main town of the region.
The population is currently estimated to be somewhere between 50,000 and 55,000 (52,751 according to the 1981 census). The steady decline in population since the beginning of this century seems to have slowed down over recent years and the population of the Fraga area actually seems to have increased.
The two main languages used in the region are Catalan (the dominant language for verbal and informal communication) and Castilian (written language and language used in formal situations). Amongst the natives, only a few aristocratic families routinely speak Castilian. The other users are civil servants and professionals who come from other regions. There are no recent official figures on the knowledge and use of Catalan in the region. According to the 1981 census, there are about 48,000 speakers (including 10,000 people who can understand the language but cannot speak it). More recent estimates indicate that Catalan is the first or habitual language for about 90% of the people, although they also suggest a quantitative and qualitative decline in the use of Catalan.
Population decline is attributable to several factors: emigration (mainly to Catalonia) due to the reduced importance of an outdated form of farming, coupled with little in the way of industry (except around Fraga); geographic isolation (too far from large towns, poor road network, inadequacy of higher education, etc.); and population ageing, resulting in falling birthrates. The few immigrants are mainly Castilian-speaking civil servants and professionals.
La Franja only has one relatively important town (Fraga, 11,444 inhabitants in 1986). In 1981 35% of the population still lived in villages with less than 1,000 inhabitants and 45% in villages and market towns with between 1,000 and 5,000 inhabitants. The Catalan town of Lleida exercises an important influence, notably in the north-east. Other parts of the region are within the catchment area of the Castilian-speaking Aragon towns of Alcañiz and Barbastro, or of Tortosa in southern Catalonia.
The economy is still dominated by agriculture. In 1981, 75% of the active population worked in this sector. Irrigation and more intensive methods of livestock farming have brought about a certain degree of modernization. Mining and forestry are generally in decline. The majority of industries are in the agrifood sector and are concentrated around Fraga. The mountain regions' tourism potential is still under-exploited. The construction of hydroelectric power stations attracted a large temporary labour force but created few stable jobs.
The territory was taken from the Muslims when conquered by the Crown of Catalonia and Aragon in the 12th Century and initially settled by Catalan speakers, although the frontier between Catalonia and Aragon has changed many times since then. Catalan was used almost exclusively in official circles until the unification of the Crowns of Castille and Catalonia-Aragon in the 15th Century. The first known documents in Catalan in the region go back to the 13th Century. The Catalan-speaking part of Aragon diminished as certain areas were resettled by Castilian speakers in the 17th Century, although the general imposition of Castilian did not begin until the 18th Century with the arrival of the Bourbon dynasty. When Spain was split into provinces (1833), La Franja was divided into three Aragon provinces (Huesca, Saragosa and Teruel). Catalan experienced a revival towards the turn of the century with the cultural and political renaissance of Catalonia, and the dialects specific to La Franja were taken into consideration in the codification work carried out in Catalonia. Under Franco, Catalan in Aragon and throughout Spain suffered severe repression, although this in turn generated a new awareness of the language during the 1970s.
The "statute of autonomy" granted to Aragon in 1982 contains no reference to Catalan, being providing merely for measures to protect the various arrangements for the use of language in the region, although it seems that these measures were not applied by the regional government until the mid-eighties. A manifesto (Declaració de Mequinensa) was signed in February 1984 calling for improved protection and standardization of Catalan. This manifesto was supported by 17 mayors in the region under the aegis of the Aragon Minister of Culture. With the exception of some progress in education, very little has been done to honour the commitments.
Using the name "Catalan" to describe the dialect spoken in La Franja has generated numerous arguments, as the term is sometimes seen as hinting at Catalonian colonial ambitions or the negation of people's Aragon identity. These considerations, added to a limited awareness of Catalan as such and an inferiority complex as far as language is concerned, have led the people of the area to use a whole series of names for Catalan taken from local place names (fragati, tamarità, llitera, etc.). The protagonists of Castilian apply an even more pejorative epithet: chapurreau (from the verb "chapurrear", to gabble).
Some of the most important groups and associations devoted to the defence of Catalan in Aragon are: Consells Populars de Cultura, l'Associació Cultural del Matarranya, l'Institut d'Estudis del Baix Cinca, and l'Associació de Consells Locals de la Franja. There have been various campaigns calling for official status for Catalan, teaching of Catalan and in Catalan, changes of place names, the use of Catalan for official business, etc.
Aragon has been an autonomous community of Spain since 1982. The statute of autonomy does not provide for any official status either for Catalan or for Aragon but grants protection to the various "arrangements for the use of language" in Aragon as integral elements of its cultural and historic heritage. Culture is the responsibility of regional government, there being an obligation to conserve and study Aragon's cultural heritage and the way language is used there.
This absence of official recognition has been widely criticized, with the regional government being blamed for not applying Article 3.2 of the Spanish Constitution under which languages other than Castilian "shall also be official in the respective autonomous communities, in accordance with their statutes of autonomy". Given that this is a statutory article, it is felt that this situation is discriminatory compared with that of languages in other autonomous communities.
The Spanish Ministry of Education is responsible for education overall, but the Aragon government exercises certain powers by virtue of the Statute of Autonomy and the Spanish Constitution. Various agreements and conventions on the teaching of Catalan have been signed between the Education Ministry and the Aragon government since 1984. Under these agreements, schools who wish to do so can offer courses in Catalan to children whose parents have put in a written application. These courses, which began in 1983-84, take place during normal school hours. It is thought that 80% of children had access to them in 1990.
Catalan is taught optionally in certain nursery schools but the normal teaching language is Castilian. In the absence of an official regulation, the choice of language depends on the teacher.
The teaching of Catalan at primary and secondary levels has increased considerably since its introduction in 1984-85. The number of schools offering courses in Catalan has risen from 12 to 26 (in 1991-92), that of pupils from 791 to 2,593, and that of teachers of Catalan from 6 to 26. Catalan courses in primary school run for two (occasionally three) hours per week (one or two hours in secondary school). However, Catalan is not used at all in the teaching of other subjects (only 10 to 20% of teachers are thought to have any mastery of it). A limited number of text books are published in Aragon (either by the regional government or with its support), while a wide range of materials is available in Catalonia.
In the absence of higher education establishments in the region, most students go to Catalonian universities or to the universities of Aragon. For several years it has been possible to study Catalan at the Faculty of Arts and the Teacher Training Department of the University of Saragosa.
Some local authorities offer adult education courses in Catalan but their impact does not seem to be significant.
The use of Catalan in the legal system is to all intents and purposes non-existent. This sector seems to be one of the most hostile to the introduction of languages other than Castilian. Only people who do not know Castilian (such cases hardly ever occur) have theoretically the right to speak a different language in court and use an interpreter. In theory, Aragon civil law allows the introduction of a clause specifying the language of communication or interpretation in actions between individuals, and the Commercial Code establishes the validity of contracts, whatever language they are in. However any public use of documents in another language requires translation into Castilian.
The use of Catalan in dealings between citizens and national government departments is virtually nil. As regards regional government, the official use of Catalan is non-existent (with the exception of the Public Defender's Office, which admits documents in Catalan), although it is sometimes possible to hold conversations in Catalan with regional officials. The verbal use of Catalan is fairly widespread in communications at municipal level, but its written use remains exceptional.
The fact that Catalan has not been declared official by the Aragon government, and the rather ethnological definition of "arrangements for the use of language" granted to it in the Statute of Autonomy, are perceived by Catalan-speakers as major obstacles. Apart from the allegedly "timid" measures taken in the area of education, it is felt that the government is so afraid of the reactions of Castilian speakers that it has not even granted Catalan the minimum protection provided for in the Statute. It is also accused of hindering reception of Catalan programmes broadcast from the neighbouring autonomous communities (Catalonia and Valencia).
Almost all the documents issued by the public services are in Castilian, although on occasion it is possible to get a verbal answer in Catalan.
As Catalan is not official in Aragon, only Castilian place names are allowed under a central government law dating from 1985. Current legislation authorizes the use of Catalan forenames, although it is not always easy to assert this right in the face of official reluctance. Regardless of the legislation, the use of Castilian forenames is quite widespread amongst Catalan speakers. Castilian is dominant on road signs and signs within towns, although in exceptional cases place names and road names also appear in Catalan. On commercial signs Castilian is virtually always used.
In addition, knowledge of Catalan is not taken into account in the appointment of officials posted to La Franja. On the other hand, some local authorities are demonstrating greater openness. The use of written Catalan may be non existent, but its verbal use in local councils is quite extensive.
The regional government has created an Aragon Radio and Television Corporation (1987) which does not broadcast a single programme in Catalan. However the Catalonian and Valencian media help to make Catalan speakers more familiar with standard Catalan.
There is no daily paper wholly or partly in Catalan. It is possible to buy papers published in Catalonia in some places (especially in Lleida).
Some local magazines mainly or entirely in Catalan are published by local cultural organizations, notably Desperta Ferro, Batecs, Sorolla't. In certain areas Catalan publications from other Catalan-speaking regions can be found.
The only radio stations in La Franja broadcasting even very partially in Catalan are local stations. The larger stations which used to put out some programmes in Catalan no longer do so. However overall access to Catalan broadcasts has increased over the last few years thanks to programmes from Catalonia and Valencia. The same is true of television.
Few works in Catalan are published in La Franja. For the most part these are collections of poetry, stories and novels. Two collections devoted to literary and language themes peculiar to the area have been published with some aid from the regional government. A literary prize created in 1987 by the regional government has fallen into disuse, while another, intended for children (Desperta Ferro Prize) and created by a private association, is still awarded. Musical activity is still largely restricted to choirs and performances of traditional music.
There are no professional theatre companies performing in Catalan, although some local groups present plays in Catalan, often in dialect. Some performances for children are in Catalan. Cinema production is non existent and films made in Catalonia are shown only very sporadically.
Although Catalan appears to receive very little support, the situation did improve slightly in the second half of the 1980s with the publication of a Catalan grammar, recognition that La Franja belongs to the Catalan language community, creation of a literary prize, and participation in the International Catalan Congress.
The verbal use of Catalan is quite widespread, particularly in agriculture and in jobs involving contact with the public. But it is rare for Catalan to be considered an advantage in terms of getting a job.
Catalan is virtually absent from advertising, except in campaigns to promote Catalan, advertising for special feast days, advertisements by (mainly Catalonian) companies, etc. Labels and instructions are almost always in Castilian, except for certain products made in Catalonia.
It would appear that the vast majority of parents, especially outside the urban environment, still speak Catalan to their children and fewer and fewer speak to them in Castilian, a practice which was encouraged by the schools under Franco. Young couples also talk to each other in Catalan, unless one of them is a Castilian speaker. About 70-75% of marriages are between Catalonian speakers. However, there are some indications of a decline in the use and quality of Catalan amongst young people, especially in the towns. A survey carried out in 1991 in a relatively urbanized area shows that while young people mainly use Catalan with family and friends, Castilian remains the language of school, despite the introduction of Catalan courses. Nevertheless, young people are well disposed towards Catalan and play an important role in pro-Catalan activities. Most of the young non-speakers acquire some knowledge of Catalan in school.
The fact that Castilian is mainly used by people of some standing (e.g. clergy, professionals, civil servants, native aristocratic families) has conferred greater prestige on it than Catalan, but the negative social connotations are disappearing, especially in the north of the region.
Be that as it may, Catalan speakers have the feeling they are witnessing a slow numerical and qualitative decline in the use of their language. The bilingual habits of the majority of the population seem firmly rooted. The subjective relationship between language and identity is ambiguous. Many people fear there may be a contradiction between their attachment to Catalan and their sense of being from Aragon. However, some researchers sense a stronger feeling of belonging to a wider language community, under the influence of Catalonian and Valencian radio and television programmes.
Despite the proximity of Catalonia and Valencia, exchanges are rare and the people of La Franja sometimes feel they have been abandoned by the other Catalan-speaking communities.
A mainly rural area, with poorly defined frontiers, still suffering the effects of a prolonged population drain, La Franja is ill-equipped to defend its language. The social prestige of Castilian, a deep-rooted bilingualism and the confused relationship between geographic and linguistic identity, have led the majority of inhabitants to accept the predominance of Castilian and to perceive their own language as a purely local and family tool of communication. The fact that Catalan is not official in Aragon precludes its use in numerous fields where such use is accepted in other autonomous communities. Its optional status in the educational system is not enough to give young people the language skills they need in a modern society. Because of this, there seems to be some doubt as to whether the language, though alive today, will be passed on to future generations. Access to radio and TV programmes from other Catalan-speaking communities has had a certain impact but the hostility of certain sectors of public opinion to possible Catalonian interference makes closer links more of a problem.