Practically hugging the world-famous La Concha beach, lies the town of Donostia-San Sebastian, a favourite destination for kings and celebrities during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. It’s also a bridge between the Spanish and French Basque Country – and always “accused” by Bilbao residents of being “too French” for their own good.
The old centre of Donostia is the pride of the town, with its narrow streets, churches and many bars where you can eat traditional pintxos and enjoy world-famous Basque cuisine.
A bastion of Basque culture and where Euskera, the ancestral language of the Basques, is most strongly spoken among the largest cities in the region, Donostia hosts the annual Zinemaldia, or San Sebastian Film Festival, one of the most important film festivals in the world.
Also every year the city is the stage for the Tamborrada, a festivity where over 20 thousand people sing, dance and play the drums in 19th-century costumes and walk all over the Alde Zaharra, or the old city, on 20 January.
Historically, Donostia and culture have been closely linked.
Culture is at the heart of Donostia
Culture is of the utmost importance for the city and Donostia Kultura is the city body behind not only major cultural activities, but libraries and local community centres, theatre and dance, art and exhibitions, audiovisual, music festivals, and so on, since 1990.
“Historically, Donostia and culture have been closely linked. The city has a very powerful cultural policy, it is not a peripheral or marginal department. Apart from the municipal police, Donostia Kultura is the largest department in terms of human resources,” says, with undisguised pride, Imanol Galdos, Donostia Kultura’s Assistant Manager for Foreign Affairs.
The institution tries to bring culture to all parts of the city and change the focus from elite events to a broader project of social integration also focusing on minorities and immigrants.
“Donostia had a more festival culture, more elite because it was a city with a history of receiving rich, bourgeois, many wealthy tourists. 30 years ago, Donostia decided to adopt a new model – yes, we have festivals, but culture has to be rooted in other social profiles,” says Galdos, adding that “the concept we have of culture is closely related to the integration of minorities, new communities, the youth.”
“We are not only concerned with organising music, dance, ballet, but we take into account the cultural needs of the various social groups living in the city – workers, Chinese migrants, Latino migrants, etc,” he further adds.
At the beginning of the 20th century, there were important casinos in the city, as well as a Formula 1 racing circuit and a racetrack that attracted the elite tourist. This began to change with the city’s attempt, through Donostia Kultura.
The concept we have of culture is closely related to the integration of minorities, new communities, the youth.
Integrating the city
Donostia Kultura is more than a city institution. In a city of 186 thousand people, at least 112 thousand are members of the institution, meaning that they have full access to all of its installations —14 culture centres and over 20 libraries in several different neighbourhoods.
The first three cultural centres were opened between 1987 and 1988, and little by little they gained prestige and other neighbourhoods asked for their own cultural centres.
Galdos explains that “Donostia had more of a ‘festival culture’, more of an elite-focused culture because it was a city with a history of welcoming the rich, the bourgeois, many wealthy tourists, then 30 years ago Donostia decided to adopt a new model – yes, we have festivals, but culture has to be rooted in other social profiles.”
One of the city’s positive points, explains Galdos, is that it is also inward-looking. There is a very strong interdependent relationship between Donostia and neighbouring towns, the countryside.
Integrating those arriving at the city
The Basque Country has a differential, it has towns with a face turned towards the world.
The Basque Country received a large wave of immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s thanks to the industrialisation of the region. Donostia and its surroundings received a considerable contingent of this population from other parts of Spain and from other parts of the world.
Migration to the Basque Country is a relatively recent phenomenon. Historically waves of Basques have emigrated to other parts of the world, in particular to the Americas, especially during the colonial period, but also during the Civil War and the years of the Francisco Franco dictatorship.
With an extremely homogenous population, with millenary roots, their own culture and language, one would imagine that the process of integration of newly arrived migrants would be difficult. However, because of their experience as migrants and gratitude in being welcomed in other parts of the world, the Basques have been able to adapt and create the tools to make everyone feel comfortable in their small region.
“Twenty years ago in the Basque Country, meeting someone from Ecuador was something of an anecdotic event. The first people to arrive in the Basque Country were women doing domestic work, and from then on, the regrouping began. Given the socio-economic conditions in the Basque Country, a large part of the migration is divided between people who do social work (carers, domestic work), and people in construction (Romanians, Bulgarians, etc),” explains Galdos.
Donostia Kultura, together with the Department of Euskera, the Department of Social Action and the Service for Social Promotion and Education, work to integrate newcomers through culture as well as to reach out to Basque diaspora communities.
Culture as a bridge
“In general, things are the way they are,” says Galdos. “In the Basque Country, in general, integration is satisfactory. It is not a country where there have been major clashes or problems in integration.”
In the Basque Country, in general, integration is satisfactory. It is not a country where there have been major clashes or problems in integration.
This is not to say that the whole integration process has been without some issues. Galdos notes that there have been some problems with the most recent arrival of people from the Mahgreb region, but the city is doing its best to mitigate the problems.
“The Basque Country has a differential, it has towns with a face turned towards the world. We create wealth here, but we need the world. There is an international vision and not just for the inside. And the role of the province of Bizkaia for Donostia is very important, there is a very strong relationship of interdependence.”
“There is no gap between Donostia and the towns. It is a small country. Donostia is a city of services, and the towns contribute a lot in terms of GDP, with their industries that are oriented towards the world,” he explains.
Galdos also notes that while Bilbao always had its eyes turned to the Atlantic – being an important port for migrants going back and forth the Americas, Donostia focused on Europe and creating also a European network with its festivals and activities.
“We cannot become complacent. We have travelled a successful path, in the Basque Country and in Donostia, but like everything in life, we all have to rethink, and society has also changed, and we are in a process of rethinking how to continue listening to society, to young people, to immigrants,” says Galdos.