In rural Spain, an ancient ritual brings a community together

The enemy to kill in the hunting ritual of La Vijanera is the bear, an incarnation of everything old and perishable that has to die at the end of each year to make way for the young and new. Silio, 2020.
The enemy to kill in the hunting ritual of La Vijanera is the bear, an incarnation of everything old and perishable that has to die at the end of each year to make way for the young and new. Silio, 2020. (Adrian Cueto)

Alvaro takes a long, deep drag on his cigarette, almost consumed. He sits on a hillside to watch over his family’s cattle, a handful of “Tudancas,” the native bovine breed of Cantabria, a region in the northern part of Spain known for its bucolic, green landscapes. He doesn’t change his expression when he takes the cigarette from his lips and puts it out on the wet ground. He is young, barely 23, but he looks much older. Life in the countryside forces youths in rural Spain to grow up more quickly, although fewer and fewer young people are working the land like their ancestors have done.

“This is what life is about for me. Having my animals, taking care of them and living off the land,” says Alvaro, before starting to walk back down to the village. “I don’t care about the city. The air is good and clean here and it is quieter too.”

Alvaro is a rare exception in his village, Silio, where most of the young people have disappeared, leaving those who remain waiting for a generational relief that isn’t arriving, and condemning the village — along with its memory, its identity and its customs — to oblivion.

Rural depopulation has become one of the most pressing social crises in Spain over the past decade. According to a report published in early 2018 by the Spanish Social and Economic Counsel, more than 4,000 villages and towns in rural areas are facing extinction. This represents slightly more than 50 percent of the total number of municipalities in Spain. Today, Silio stands out as the very example of a Spain that is slowly fading away due to the rapidly aging population and the generational disconnection, with youths who grow more uprooted every year. However, in the wake of rural depopulation, how do those that remain survive, and how does life change and adapt? Silio seems to have found the key to fight against disappearance.

In an attempt to keep the community together, Silió makes use of La Vijanera, a winter solstice tradition whose origins date back to before the Roman invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, which is celebrated on the first Sunday in January. La Vijanera is a performance, a hunting ritual deeply rooted in naturalistic and pagan cults in which the prey to beat is the great white bear, embodiment of everything evil and old, which has to die at the end of each year to make way for the new.

La Vijanera has become a tool of resilience, a space where old and young generations build a sense of community and keep the collective memory of the village alive. Their struggle is none other than for the right to remain instead of being forced to abandon the land of their ancestors.

César, who runs the Association of La Vijanera, picked up the responsibility of conducting La Vijanera out of love for the tradition and the village. He comes from a line of “vijaneros.” His father was very active when the tradition was picked up again after Francisco Franco’s death (during the dictatorship, any carnival or display of costumes and traditions considered to be pagan in nature were forbidden).

Now César turns his attention to the younger generations, who will carry on with the tradition in the future. He says that, sometimes, when children play in the street, they do so as characters from La Vijanera.

“Even if the time comes when they leave town, we want to make sure they feel connected to this community, to their roots,” he said.

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