The last Pasiegos: The unique community living in the Cantabrian mountains of northern Spain

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Pasiegos are a small population group established in the 11th century that live isolated from society in the remote Cantabrian valleys of Miera, Pas and Pisueña, in the north of Spain. Living primarily from livestock, this unique community has its own dialect, way of life and traditions. However, the number of pasiegos has drastically decreased over the years and they are at risk of disappearing in the near future.

Porfirio Carral picks me up in his van in Esles, one of the villages where he delivers bread. This pasiego, born in the mountains of Selaya, between the valleys of Pas and Miera, talks during the 140 kilometres of the route he has been doing for 31 years about pasiegos’ way of life and identity as well as the population’s past, present and future.

“I am now 58 and I lived from livestock until I was 27, I liked it but I was offered a chance to work for the bakery and I decided to take it,” Carral says. He used to live with his family in a cabaña pasiega, a traditional stone cabin with slate roof and two floors, the bottom one used as a barn for the cows and the family living upstairs. “We did not even have a toilet inside,” he explains.

Porfirio Carral in front of Avin Bakery, where he works.  He has been delivering bread to the villages of Valley of Miera for 31 years. Photo by Alberto Lejarraga Molina

Carral says that before the winter, his family moved from a cabin near the top of the mountain to another one further down, where there would be less snow. This seasonal migration was done by most families of pasiegos and is known as muda. “We took our mare, the cows, the chickens, the pig and most of our belongings and walked for a whole day. We had a cat who followed us and she usually arrived a few days later. I remember being so happy when I saw her finally making it,” he remembers with a smile.

The Valley of Miera is full of cabañas pasiegas, traditional stone cabins where pasiegos live. They are spread across the mountains and many of them have been abandoned. Photos by Alberto Lejarraga Molina 

When he was a child, like all the other kids in the area, Carral had to walk long distances to go to school. “Every day, I walked a total of 12 kilometres to get there and come back,” he says. The lack of roads to get to the valleys meant that pasiegos did not have much contact with the rest of society. “This isolation led to a lot of marriages between cousins. This is one of the areas in Europe with more people with Parkinson’s disease, probably because of this fact,” Carral explains.

Carral stops the car and gives a baguette to a pasiego that was waiting for him in the middle of the mountain road. “Gracias lin,” (thanks lin) he says. Carral explains that lin is a word pasiegos use to greet each other. “We have our own dialect, all the words ending with an “o” in Spanish are said with an “u” instead. For example, burro (donkey) or perro (dog) become burru and perru.”

When people are not at home, Carral leaves the bread in different places such as bags or mailboxes. Photos by Alberto Lejarraga Molina 

After a few more deliveries, he explains how pasiegos manage money: “We are very thrifty and until not long ago, we never kept our money in the bank. We kept it under the mattress. The community was like a bank and if you needed money to buy a field or a house, a neighbour would lend it to you.”

We arrive at San Roque de Riomiera, Miera’s Valley main pasiego village, where most houses are traditional stone cabins. Outside one of the two bars of the village, we are greeted by the pasiego Antonio Fernández, San Roque’s mayor and cattle breeder. Fernández confirms Carral’s previous statement: “We were all very close in the community and we still are. We always help each other. I bought three land plots and four neighbours lent me the money,” he says.

Antonio Fernández, mayor of San Roque de Riomiera, outside one of the only two bars of the village. He is a pasiego that lives from livestock but will retire next year. In the other image, he is talking to two neighbours who were curious about the interview. Photos by Alberto Lejarraga Molina 

Fernández explains that while the cost of living is constantly rising, the price of milk has not changed in 40 years. “This is why many people have left the village or do not live from livestock anymore. We have 1,694 traditional stone cabins in the whole Valley, yet there are only 34 cattle breeders left. Besides, most of us are 58 or older, so pasiegos may disappear in the near future.” However, there seems to be some hope after all. “There are two new breeders who are both 25 years-old, so they have their whole life ahead of them,” the mayor says with a smile.

San Roque is the main pasiego village of the Valley of Miera. It is surrounded by beautiful mountains where many traditional stone cabins are seen. Photos by Alberto Lejarraga Molina

We resume our journey and just before driving back to the bakery, Carral stops the van between San Roque and Selaya, next to the only house that can be seen in miles. His last customer, José Miguel Marquín, greets us from the window and then leaves his traditional cabin to tell the story of his life: “I used to live from livestock and had eight cows. Many people have left but I have remained here since I was born in 1948.”

The pasiego José Miguel Marquín still lives in the traditional stone cabin where he was born in 1948. He used to live from livestock and is now retired. Photos by Alberto Lejarraga Molina 

The story of María Josefa Sainz: A childhood without running water or electricity

María Josefa Sainz is from a family of pasiegos from Valley of Pas village San Pedro del Romeral, where she lived until she was 30. “I was born and lived in a traditional cabin without electricity or running water,” she says.

She explains that “from the moment you learnt how to walk, you were suitable for working.” “We had 38 cows, 70 sheep and three mares, so there were always plenty of things to do,” she says. On top of this, she walked eight kilometres every day to go and come back from school.

María Josefa Sainz in the house where she now lives with her family. Photo by Jose S. 

What Sainz misses the most from those days are the neighbours. “We were a very close community. As soon as you finished your work, you would go to help the family living next to you straight away,” she says.

However, Sainz explains that like her, most pasiegos have left the valleys and do not live from livestock anymore. “It is a very hard job in which you need to work seven days a week, so people leave in search of a better lifestyle. Those who have left will never come back.”

About Post Author

Alberto Molina

Journalist who is passionate about culture, history, architecture, the environment and reporting everything that is happening
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