Uncovering Patterns in the Iberian Peninsula — Why did Esperanto succeed?

When one starts looking at data collected in adresaroj, it becomes evident very quickly that Esperantists could be found all over the world. Putting their names in a map soon turns the world into a constellation of speakers with little in common but their love for the international language and their commitment to its success. At a glance, it is hard to discern much more. Yet zooming in in some regions, focusing on specific areas may shed some light into the more obscure aspects of this linguistic community.

The European map included in the previous Esperanto Atlas entry, ‘Esperanto is… failure? Success? Or “mojosa”? Welcome to Geneva OR Mapping the early congresses’, clearly highlights the early popularity Esperanto enjoyed in central Europe. Of course, that map only shows the attendance to the Congress celebrated in Geneva in 1906, that is the few people who could afford to travel to the Swiss city for the event. Those Esperantists who lived in areas poorly connected to Switzerland were therefore more unlikely to attend the congress. The lack of a substantial southern European public in Geneva does not by any means indicate a lack of interest in the auxiliary language.

Nonetheless and despite the scarce data coming from the South, the map reveals some interesting information concerning Esperantism in these peripheral areas. In the Iberian Peninsula, we can observe two lines formed by the dots that signal the place of origin of these individuals. One runs on the Mediterranean coast, from the Pyrenees to Murcia; the other one splits the peninsula in two perfect halves from the Basque Country to Cadiz (one lonely dot on the top indicate the existence of an Esperantist travelling from Asturias). These two lines match perfectly with the Spanish railway network (see this map from 1867), once again emphasizing the crucial role played by transportation in the spread and eventual success (or failure) of Esperanto across regions. Indeed, in Spain the expansion of railway networks in the second half of the 19th century brought with it favorable conditions for Esperanto. José Serafín Aldecoa Calvo’s work has already researched how railroads paved the way for Esperanto in Teruel and Albarracín, but the phenomenon was far from limited to Aragon.[1]

The Spanish network expanded to cover 24,188 kilometers more between 1855 and 1896, linking big cities like Murcia and Granada in the south with stops in smaller urban centers like Alcantarilla, Lorca, Barza, and Guadix.[2] Such innovation could have been the force behind the formation of a small Esperanto society in Guadix, a small town in Andalusia with less than 13,000 inhabitants by 1900, in 1922.

Yet there is more to uncover about the patterns left on maps by adresaroj and congresses. Access to a well-connected railroad network was not enough to guarantee Esperanto’s flourishment. As the records from the congress in Geneva show, Iberian congressmen only came from two of the main railway routes in Spain, but there were other interconnecting different parts of the peninsula, including Lisbon and several parts of Aragon, Castile, and Extremadura. If they had access to this means of transport, why did no one attend the Congress?

Of course, the economic implications of such a journey cannot be underestimated, as the financial struggles of the early 20th-century Esperantists were quite noticeable in the difficulties they experienced to keep their journals, courses, and other projects alive. But if we take a closer look at the areas where Esperanto was more successful in Spain, we can spot other significant patterns.

The following map presents the place of origin of the Spanish Esperantists that got involved in the Esperanto movement between 1905-1923. Here the two railway roads are still visible, but not as much as in the Geneva case. Instead, we can see how scattered the movement was. Small communities emerged in Galicia and near the Portuguese border, two regions that had previously appeared to be inactive. However, one cannot help but notice the limited repercussion Esperanto had on the westernmost part of the country when compared with the blooming activity easily discerned in the northeastern regions, mainly the Basque Country, Catalonia, and the Valencian Community.

Figure 1 Spanish Esperantists (1905-1923)

One could expect such nuclei of Esperanto activities in big urban centers like Bilbao, Barcelona, or Madrid, all of which figure predominantly in the map. The surprise comes with the numerous spots that surround Valencia, Bilbao, and Barcelona. Far from being a phenomenon confined to the bourgeoning intellectual atmosphere of these metropoles, in these three regions the international language infiltrated small towns and villages as well. The region of Madrid did not present the same particularity.

Always keeping in mind that records concerning Esperantists and their place of origin are mostly incomplete and/or inaccurate at best, especially because every association, group, journal, and society had their own data compilation methods, we can try to understand why Esperanto seemed to be more successful in these places by paying attention to the unique characteristics of this part of the Spanish state.

Two main particularities come to mind when considering the Basque Country, the Valencian Community, and Catalonia together. Firstly, they were in a privileged geographic position. Both the Basque Country and Catalonia share a border with France, where the Esperanto movement soon found its most fervent and productive supporters. Any intellectual content coming from the neighboring country had to go through these regions on its way to other parts of the peninsula, including Madrid. Additionally, the three of them had access to the sea. The Port of Bilbao in the Atlantic Ocean, and the Port of Barcelona and the Port of Valencia in the Mediterranean Sea were doors to foreign goods and ideas.

This also meant that the regions were lands of transit for workers and travelers alike, some of which might have decided to permanently stay. But even if they were only there for a short-term stay, these individuals were bound to have an impact on locals, as they contributed to the richness and heterogeneous culture of these regions. Such conditions were ideal for Esperanto for two main reasons. First, because the constant influx of travelers made it easier for news to reach these regions, including the creation of a new planned language on the other side of the European continent. Second, since locals were forced to interact with foreigners whose mother tongues they probably did not speak, they were more likely to appreciate and understand the value and usefulness of a language capable of bridging these communicational gaps.

The second particularity these three regions shared was bilingualism. Although by the second half of the 19th century, they were in a complete situation of diglossia, Catalonia, the Basque Country, and the Valencian Community all enjoyed their own regional languages in addition to Castilian. Linguistic diversity was therefore not a novelty for them, and their knowledge of two different languages might have made it easier for them to pick up a third one.

One way or another, when considering the popularity of Esperanto in one region, it is important to take into consideration all the factors that could have contributed to or hindered it. Geography, transportation, migration, languages… at least in Northeastern and Eastern Spain they seemed to have played a crucial role in the emergence of a significant number of Esperanto communities in the early 20th century. Whether this pattern can be found in other regions across the globe is yet to be determined.



[1] José Serafín Aldecoa Calvo, ‘La implantación del esperanto entre las élites culturales de Teruel’ (Paper, Herències/Legacies II Congrés Internacional, Barcelona, 20-22 June 2022).

[2] ‘The History of the GSSR’, The Great Southern of Spain Railway Company Limited; and ‘Evolución de la población desde 1900 hasta 2020’, Foro Ciudad (2021).

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