Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Canarian Culture

Having lived in a few of the Canary Islands for the last few years, I can confirm that not only do the islands look different, the people from each island are all also distinct, and vehemently consider themselves so.

For a start, they are not Spanish. Oh no, don’t make that mistake! In fact my favourite bit of graffiti is written on a wall in the port of Arrecife, in Lanzarote. It says…


I love it because it makes me stop and wonder who the bloody hell is it written for? If it is directed at the mainland Spanish ‘occupiers’… why is it written in English? Why is it spelt wrong? The mind boggles.

And to underline this, in common with other regions, the Canarians are lobbying for greater autonomy from central government. But let’s not get bogged down in such politics, because in my experience, there’s not really much of an actual ‘Canarian’ identity anyway (except when arguing with the Spanish). Why? Well the islands themselves are split into two administrative areas… governed by Santa Cruz (Tenerife, La Gomera, El Hierro, La Palma), and Las Palmas (Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote). And oh boy, can these two squabble. From the basic “My one’s bigger than yours”, the annual carnival argument, to the disbursement of funds… basically anything they can argue about, they will. Local politics is quite a laugh.

But if you think that a grasp of this dualistic Canarian identity will stand you in good stead to understand local culture, think again! Each of those seven islands I mentioned is populated by people with their own identities. A bit of history now (my oh my, this is an educational post, I hope you’re taking notes). Before the Spanish colonised the islands, each island had their own indigenous tribes. The Guanches were originally the inhabitants of Tenerife. The inhabitants of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote were referred to as Maxos, Gran Canaria was inhabited by the Canarii… and the islanders still have their own names: Tinerfeños (Tenerife), Majoreros (Fuerteventura), Conejeros (Lanzarote… which is a bit of an odd one, because it means ‘rabbit breeder’), Grancanarios, Gomeros, Palmeros and Herreños.


And since the early 15th Century, with the Spanish ruling, you would have thought these identities would have become diluted. But no, on the contrary, in recent years they have become even more prevalent. The most obvious reason for this is probably the newer waves of immigration from the mainland, islanders want to remain distinct from the newcomers. But along with the influx of mainlanders has come mass settlement of other foreigners from Africa, South America and Europe. As a group, we foreigners are called ‘Guiris’ – yet another tribe! And as the islands become increasingly cosmopolitan, those who claim an indigenous lineage become increasingly concerned to maintain their identity. And so they should. The same threat of homogeny is a global epidemic. These islanders are not alone in this struggle.

But working against this is the economic impetus to develop markets, trade and develop one of the most successful tourist industries in the world, with over 10 million tourists a year visiting the islands. The ability to compete globally requires the very homogeny that erodes the culture. Steering this convoy of small islands is no easy task and will always be one of compromise between islands, cultures and economic growth. And so far, they have done exceedingly well at plotting their way through the minefield.

As an expatriate resident, it is easy to forget or ignore the grand design, the big issues. But occasionally it’s worth a reminder. And having done so, I can now go back to sitting in the sun drinking my beer (Dorada in Tenerife, but Tropical in Gran Canaria… and don’t even think of asking which one’s better!), gazing out at the blue ocean and thanking god I’m not freezing my balls off in England.


Anonymous Heimy said...

Well. Local politics is not quite a laugh. There are not local politics. There are local suckers that are supposed to be doing politics. All this Canary Islands politics is just a matter of money. The more power you have, more money you can gravitate to your pockets or you relative's. But you already knew that.

Oh, about the guiris. I distinctly think about red skins, white/red/yellow socks within sandals and neck-hanging towel/camera when I talk about guiris :). And that seems to be consistent with my co-workers (non Spaniards most of them) use of the term :D

3:36 pm  
Blogger Tenerife Scribbler said...

Woaaa... Heimy! You should go into politics! Obviously the local scene needs some forthright thinkers like yourself ;-)

But in my humble experience, politics is always a matter of money and lining your own pocket. I've forgotten who said the old adage, "Anybody who wants to go into politics should be immediately disqulaified from doing so." Or something like that anyway.

And as far as your comment about guiris goes... I am sure it is meant in humour, but it gets to close to the potentially racist bone for me I'm afraid.

10:28 am  
Anonymous Heimy said...

About the "guiri" thing (my last comment about it, or mentioning it, promise): I know that some/most people can/will use it as a racist term. I suppose it's just as with many other things.

I don't. I just didn't know that you feel like this about it (that's why I -friendly- used it in my first comment at the other post).

Now, back to politics. No, I shouldn't go into politics (not because the whould power-and-money thing, but I'm not even going to start speaking about that). And I know that most of the time politics involve money and power. It's just that I haven't _ever_ seen something like we see here. Probably because I haven't travelled too much, but I just find it disgusting.

I don't know... At least they should try to _hide_ it. Making "deals" so publicly, as if they were saying: "look, we know that you know that we're corrupt dorks; we even know that you know that we know, but we're still doing this because we CAN".

And then the there's the fact that NOBODY gets punished (well, in 20- years of Canary self-government there is ONE case of someone going into jail for his deals... but it was a minor thing if you compare it with some of the major corruption cases in the Islands).

5:33 pm  
Blogger Tenerife Scribbler said...

No worrys about the guiri thing, but this is a publicly read space, so we must always tread carefully lest we offend.

Politics... they will only get punished when the media is not dependent on their favours, as they are here. Politicians will always push as far as they can get away with it. That's who they are. It is the responsibility of the media, and by extension the electorate, to define those limits. However it is difficult for the media. Their access to local news is, to a great extent, at the whim of those in power. If they are always reporting scandals, then the will find their news sources cut off, and they will be unable to compete in the market place. No news = no readers = no advertisers = no money. Which bring me to the next factor: advertisers. Advertisers look for exposure to their target market. They don't necessarily want to associate with scandal. And their companies probably somehow benefit from the very fatcat that the 'scandal story' is all about. So they may not be so keen on sponsoring such a publication. That's how it works! You'll only hear about small fry scandals in the local press, unless a big publication from the mainland has reported it first. They will nust stick to the news they have been 'fed'.

When an economy is big enough, there are lots more competitive fatcats. No single one is powerful enough to 'cut off news' (actually that's not strictly true, because it always happens in the UK, the US... and I'm sure in Madrid, too! But it's a more complicated symbiosis). Advertisers are less likely to directly or indirectly benefit from the fatcat. Journalists are encouraged to seek scandal, because it sells papers. Advertisers are less concerned about negative associations, the greed inspired by high circulation outweighs any such concern. Thus a newspaper has greater economic autonomy. And that's the power of the free press.

So, Heimy, it's not all the politicians fault. You leave children unattented, they'll run riot. Politicians are the same. It's the nature of the beast. I feel that the problem is in gutless and greedy media bosses.

10:47 pm  

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