From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Spaniards/

The term Spaniard refers to people who originated from Spain, a country that historically has been characterized by strong regional and cultural diversity. The tensions between political unity and cultural diversity have been one of the principal themes of Spain’s history and were effectively resolved only with the 1978 constitution, which created a quasi-federal political system.

At first glance it might seem that a common religion would contribute to cultural and social homogeneity. After all, Spain has been and remains overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, the official religion of the country until the 1970s. For the vast majority of Spaniards, however, affiliation to Roman Catholicism is only nominal. Moreover, the power and influence of the Catholic Church in Spain’s political life has been a source of controversy and social divisiveness for at least the last two centuries. The Church, for instance, contributed to the political instability that resulted in Spain’s greatest upheaval of modern times, the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s.

Spain’s internal diversity is most apparent in the presence of various peoples and languages spoken in the country. The primary language is Castilian, which is generally known as Spanish. Castilian is only one of a number of Latin-based languages, however, which evolved in the Iberian peninsula over the centuries after its conquest by Rome. Some of these languages are recognized by Spain’s constitution as co-official with Castilian in their region. Gallego, very similar to Portuguese, is the official language of autonomous Galicia; Catalan is the official language of Catalonia. Two other autonomous regions, Valencia and the Balearic Islands, have official languages which resemble Catalan although there is some dispute as to whether these are dialects or distinct languages. Basque, an ancient language unrelated to any of the others, has official status in the Basque Provinces, now known as Euzkadi.

Speakers of some of Spain’s languages also consider themselves to be distinct peoples. This is particularly the case with the Catalans, Basques, and, most recently, the Galicians, whose leaders often argue that the present autonomy accorded their respective regions is derived from the fact that they are nationalities distinct from the Castilian Spanish. Thus, in this entry the term Spaniards refers to all immigrants and their descendants from the country of Spain, even though they may be of different ethnolinguistic origins. (See also BASQUES.)

Spain is one of the oldest states in Europe and was the first European power to have an empire in the Americas. When Columbus initiated the permanent European presence in the Western hemisphere, he did so for Spain, or, more precisely, for Castile, one of the two constituent parts of the Spanish monarchy. The conquest of a massive empire in the Americas transformed Spain into the leading European power, a position it held during the sixteenth century and somewhat beyond. For most of this time, the country was ruled by the Spanish line of the Habsburg dynasty, which used the wealth (gold and silver) from the New World colonies to help extend its political and military interests on the European continent. Spain’s dominance was viewed with great concern by other European states. Eventually, by the mid-seventeenth century, excessive spending, financial mismanagement, and challenges by other European powers for control of the sea and colonial expansion all contributed to Spain’s decline.

In the wake of the War of Spanish Succession (1700– 15), the French Bourbon dynasty came to power, and the country’s new rulers tried to rebuild Spain’s economy. Such efforts were hampered, however, by the continent-wide wars initiated by the French Revolution and especially by the invasion of French troops in 1808. These events also undermined the absolute monarchy and eventually led to the installation of a liberal, constitutional system by 1834. At the same time, all of Spain’s colonies on the American mainland succeeded in becoming independent. The once-great empire in the New World was to be reduced to the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico.

For much of the nineteenth century, Spain’s political history was marked by instability, repeated military coups, and civil wars. A stable constitutional system was created after 1875, but this was undermined by the loss of the remaining colonies (Cuba and Puerto Rico) during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the rise of political movements such as socialism and anarchism. Politics became increasingly polarized after World War I. The military dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923–30) was followed by a republic which attempted to initiate democratic and progressive reforms. These reformist policies antagonized most of the country’s existing elites, including the Catholic Church and in particular the armed forces. A military revolt in July 1936 initiated a brutal civil war that lasted until March 1939, when the Nationalist rebels, led by General Francisco Franco, won an unconditional victory.

Franco established a dictatorial regime that remained in power until 1975. Initially, his regime imitated the fascist systems of Germany and Italy, but, following their defeat in 1945 and the patent failure of the fascist-inspired economic policy of autarky by the 1950s, Franco’s regime adopted a more liberal-capitalist approach. Political stability, the encouragement of foreign investment, and a growth in the tourist industry all contributed to an improvement in Spain’s economy and general standard of living.

Following his death in November 1975, Franco was succeeded by a handpicked successor, King Juan Carlos. From the first moments of his reign, however, the king made it clear that he wanted to be the king of “all the Spaniards” and that this meant transforming the country into a democracy. The Spanish transition took place quickly and peacefully: the first elections were held in 1977 and a new constitution was proclaimed by the end of 1978. In 1986 Spain became a member of the European Community.