Spain has been marking its national day – the anniversary of the arrival of Cristóbal Colón (otherwise known as Christopher Columbus) in the Americas. But this year’s nationwide holiday comes at a moment of significant tension, amid questions about whether the nation will hold together for much longer.
The commemorative symbolism of October 12 has a long and conflicted history. It was established as an official holiday in Spain in 1918, after a campaign by civic institutions in Spain and America to commemorate pan-Hispanist sentiment. Back then it was known as the Día de la Raza (Day of the Race). It was a somewhat ahistorical idea aimed at celebrating economic ties between Spain and its former South American colonies at a time when the geopolitical rise of the United States was firmly underway.
The day had its critics from the start. These included the various indigenista movements forming across South American countries in the early 1920s and intellectuals in Spain such as Miguel de Unamuno, who denounced the celebration as imperialist. Under Franco, the day was reframed to be less tied to race and more about “Hispanidad” (Spanishness), a term that was championed by the intellectual Ramiro de Maeztu.
Still wallowing in post-Imperial nostagia, the Spanish dictatorship sanctioned the Día de la Hispanidad by decree in 1958 as the celebration of “a system of principles and norms created to better defend the Christian civilisation across the Hispanic community of nations”.
It is precisely because of its imperialist spirit that the commemoration of October 12 has proven a hard pill to swallow since the transition to democracy. However, in present-day Spain, the imperialist character of the festivity needs to be analysed both in its international and domestic dimension.
Between Franco’s death in 1975 and 1981, October 12 celebrations remained very much attached to Francoist and imperialist values. King Juan Carlos’s solemn speeches to mark the day repeatedly painted Spain as a civilising force in South America.
But by the 1980s, a redefinition of October 12 was needed. There was a push for it to be used to renovate the old idea of a “Spanish nation”, despite the fact that the nation was comprised of a multitude of culturally differentiated populations, blended uncomfortably into the new democratic consensus.
The different historical nations within Spain (Galicia, the Basque Country and Catalonia) had, by 1981, declared their own respective national days. Catalonia even declared October 12 a normal working day in its territory. What’s more, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) wanted to celebrate Spain’s national day on the December 6 instead of in October, as this was the day when the constitution of 1978 had been passed by referendum.
In this climate of national discomposure, the Spanish government – led at the time by the ad-hoc transitional party Union of the Democratic Centre – established October 12, by decree, as: “Spain’s National Festivity and the Day of Hispanidad”.
In 1987, during the PSOE’s second term in office, the neo-colonial term “Hispanidad” was dropped from the day’s official name. The official holiday was from then on “Día de la Fiesta Nacional de España”.
The numerous counter-celebrations, demonstrations and acts of civic protest held since 1987 show that people continue to see this day as being marred by imperialist spirit. That’s without even mentioning the many South American countries that boycott the day entirely.
In 2013, staff members of the Biblioteca Nacional de Catalunya refused to take the day off and turned up for work. Their aim was to protest against the celebration of Spanish colonisation in South America and the fact that the government continued to deny them a referendum vote on independence.
Anti-colonial and anti-facist protests are held every year in Bilbao and Barcelona, partly to counteract the rallies of Spanish ultra-right groups arriving from outside these cities on the national date.
In 2012, in order to prop up the visual presence of pro-Spanish sentiment in those areas where it is rarest, the neo-con newspaper, La Gaceta, gave out free Spanish flags to readers in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Navarre.
A difficult year
This year, Spain once again faces a turbulent National Day as the annual celebration comes just weeks after the pro-independence Junts pel Si coalition won the Catalan elections.
In a tacit acknowledgement that the celebration of “Spanishness” is going through a historical low, the government has announced a programme of activities to bring the day’s celebrations closer to the people (at least the people of Madrid) and away from the military ceremonies that had become its tired symbol.
There will be free entry to the Prado, Queen Sofía and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums, and the Spanish National Orchestra is giving a free concert “of clear Spanish inspiration” at the National Auditorium.
However, against this centralised (and centralist) institutional activity, collective and individual acts of protest are spreading. The “nothing to celebrate” hashtags (#nadaquecelebrar in Spanish or #resacelebrar in Catalan) are buzzing and the various anti-colonial demonstrations taking place across the country show once again (perhaps for the last time) that the fragmented celebration of Spanish unity has been the bane (if not the disproving feature) of Spanish democratic politics.