Early in his career, Julio Iglesias sang about a Spanish region dear to him. His father came from there.
"Canto a Galicia" (Song to Galicia) reflects a longing for a northern Spanish province rich in a culture strikingly different from the country's Mediterranean image. Iglesias was inspired by this mountainous, agricultural region with a Celtic history filled with bagpipe music and folkloric dance. The region's music is not the flamenco style normally associated with Spain.
During a migration of European Celts traveling north in the 6th century, the same people who later populated Ireland and Scotland settled in Galicia.
It's this same longing and fondness for Galicia's people and heritage that inspired about 40 immigrants to Orange County in 1987 to preserve and promote their roots by forming a group based in Westminster.
In 1992, the group officially became known as Pena de Galicia de California and its efforts have included educating others by hosting visiting musical and dance troupes from the region and sending a total of 52 children to cultural camps in Galicia.
For the group's president, Jose Fernandez, Pena de Galicia is about more than promoting the province's culture. It is about developing a sense of identity. The group has 250 members across Orange County. About 40% of the people are Gallego, people of Galicia, he said.
"We work with young people that either are or are not of Gallego descent and help them develop a sense of identity," Fernandez said.
Fernandez, who has lived in the U.S. for 40 years, was born in Asturias, a neighboring province of Galicia. Still, his passion for Galicia drove him to join the group five years ago and participate in cultural exchanges, which include yearly trips to the region.
"There are a lot of Spaniard organizations in California, but [Pena de Galicia] was the only group that was promoting the northern part of Spain, which is very different," Fernandez said.
Apparently, Mayor Frank Fry Jr. was made aware of the differences recently when a musical group from Galicia, helping to celebrate St. James' Day, performed during a stop in Westminster. The bagpipes, Celtic attire and dance threw the mayor off, Fernandez said.
"He was really surprised" to find out that this type of music and dance comes from Spain, Fernandez said.
Pena de Galicia continues to have close ties to the Spanish province, keeping an open line of communication with government officials and fulfilling their interest in keeping in touch with its emigrants, he said.
Fernandez is drawn to the primarily Catholic faith of the region, and the group sponsors pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela, where the apostle St. James is buried.
Among the group's altruistic efforts, it donated a granite cross to a Catholic church in Lake Forest, believed to be the first of its kind installed in the U.S., Fernandez said.
The nonprofit group has sponsored chefs, writers and teachers from Galicia on trips to California for lecture tours--all this in an effort to "celebrate frequent cultural and recreational activities that emphasize the customs and folklore of Galicia," its mission statement reads.
Though Fernandez says he is "more American than anything else," the Galician culture is "something that stays in your bones."
Alex Murashko can be reached at (714) 966-5974.