How Should Spain Address its Colonial Past in a National Parade?

By Wilf Butler

London, United Kingdom

Man waves Spanish flag at military parade. (Photo Credit: Wilf Butler)

An ocean of Spanish flags fills Madrid’s Paseo de la Castellana.


¡Viva España!,” one man shouts. “¡Viva!” the crowd roars in reply.


October 12 marks Spain’s Día de la Hispanidad: The National Day of Spain. On the same day in 1492, Columbus “discovered” the Americas. In modern Spain, the day celebrates the country’s impact on the world since then.


In Madrid, a military parade takes place. The Royal Family and political leaders all take part. But most importantly, thousands of Spaniards line the streets to cheer them on.


The first vehicle that appears in the procession is that of the King and Queen. The crowd responds with cheers of “¡Viva el rey!” - “Long live the King!” One man lifts his young son in the air, who’s grasping a flag tightly in his hands. The toddler chants with the crowd. His parents laugh approvingly.


Behind the Royal car is Pedro Sánchez—Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister. He gets a far more mixed reception. A few whistles and cheers, but the overwhelming noise is booing. In fact, some appear visibly angry at his presence at the national parade—in the summer of this year, his government pardoned nine Catalan independence leaders imprisoned for an illegal independence referendum. 61% of voters opposed the move. “Leave the country!” one woman even shouts. “¡Hijo de puta!” another exclaims.


The biggest cheers of all start when the loudspeaker announces the arrival of Isabel Díaz Ayuso—the controversial President of the Community of Madrid. She scored a resounding win in Madrid’s 2021 elections, describing the vote as a choice between “Communism and freedom.” She has rapidly become the darling of the Spanish right.


For a country that transitioned from fascism to democracy less than half a century ago, Spain houses many people who partake in its national military parade. Amongst the crowd one man waves a Spanish flag that has ‘Vox’—the name of Spain’s far-right party that’s been criticised for inciting homophobia and xenophobia—written on it in bold green letters.


The most striking aspect of this year’s national parade is the presence of so many young people. One might expect an event with such patriotism and flag-waving to be filled with older members of the public. But so many teenagers and young adults can be seen, dressed in red and yellow, cheering with the crowd. Two 18-year-olds, Íñigo and Cris, are among them. They love the parade—and it’s not their first. “We’ve been loads of times,” they say, both grinning and clutching onto their flags.


But is celebrating the anniversary of the arrival of Columbus and the Conquistadores appropriate in the 21st century? Is a military parade, watched with joy by the public, not just a glorification of colonialism—a campaign which brought genocide and suffering to millions?


Cris doesn’t see it this way. “Nowadays, in the 21st century, it’s celebrated in another way, it’s more a vision of honor among the people who have given everything for Spain and the army. I think it has a completely different purpose,” she explains.


A married couple, both aged 59, stand a few metres away from Cris and Íñigo, and they agree. “It’s just a historic fact that you can’t change. It’s a reality that existed, this is commemorating it,” the man says.


“History, history,” his wife tries to add.


Celebrating La hispanidad—the idea of a shared Spanish identity—can feel slightly hollow in a country whose union appears to be crumbling: a once all-powerful empire, its economic future now relies on the EU’s post-pandemic recovery funds and the return of tourists. And there are communities across Spain that simply don’t identify as Spanish, so one might ask: doesn’t a parade like this just exclude and push these groups further away?


“No,” the 59-year-old man disagrees. “They exclude themselves. The parade does the complete opposite. The intention here is to come together and unify.”


A Bolivian family—made up of a man, woman and their young son—sit on a bench after the procession ends. “It's my first time watching it, but I really like it,” the mother says. “In some ways because I can feel like a Spaniard.”


But doesn’t it represent the oppression of her ancestors?


“I think it represents liberty,” she responds.


Amongst the public, there are also those who are less excited. In the closest metro station to the parade’s starting point, an elderly man wearing a jacket covered with the Spanish flag walks down the platform. Two women, chatting, see him pass. They both look at each other and roll their eyes.


The man waving the ‘Vox’ flag was accompanied by two small children. They likely do not understand the full magnitude of their father’s beliefs: a doctrine arguably based on division and nationalism. In this context, does the Spanish national parade genuinely promote unity?