Members of the cavalry escorted King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia to a platform where the royal couple watched more than 2,600 soldiers parading along the flag-lined Paseo de la Castellana. The parade included dozens of planes flying above us and a 21-gun salute.
A paratrooper with a giant red and yellow Spanish flag strapped to his ankle landed on the avenue, eliciting cheers from thousands of spectators.
The Día de la Fiesta Nacional, also known as Dia de la Hispanidad, is a public holiday in Spain. The 1987 law which made October 12 the national holiday declared that it commemorates “the linguistic and cultural projection of Spain outside its European limits”.
The date marks explorer Christopher Columbus’ sighting of the earth on October 12, 1492 as he traveled under royal Spanish sponsorship in search of what would become the Americas. This event heralded centuries of colonization of the Americas by European nations while bringing violence, disease and death to Indigenous peoples.
In Spain, the suffering of indigenous populations during this period has not received the same attention or elicited the type of historical reassessment that it has, for example, in the United States, where in many places Columbus Day was associated or replaced by indigenous peoples. Day to change the focus of annual vacation.
Near where Tuesday’s official National Day celebrations took place in Madrid is a statue of Columbus atop a pedestal. It is 17 meters (56 feet) high.
In the US city of Chicago, by contrast, three statues of Columbus are still in storage by order of the local government after protesters targeted them last summer.
The debate over the historical legacy of Columbus has raged for many years. But it became sharper in the United States after a campaign to remove monuments dedicated to Confederate generals escalated into deadly violence in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The protests organized to coincide with Spain’s National Day were mainly motivated by other grievances.
The king, for example, received taunts and whistles from people who wanted to abolish the Spanish monarchy. Regional officials fighting for the independence of the Spanish region of Catalonia have set to work normally to thumb their noses at the central authorities of the country.
Even the anti-establishment leftist party Unidas Podemos (United We Can) supported the official ceremonies in Madrid, although the fight against inequality is one of its flagship themes. The leftist party, which is part of the Spanish coalition government, sent its three government ministers to attend the parade.
Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez sought to focus the celebrations on a more modern appreciation of October 12.
He said the holiday was meant to celebrate “what unites us, what makes us bigger as a society, what makes Spain a friendly, open and diverse country”.
Groups protesting the tribute to Columbus and his legacy staged scattered protests, including in Madrid, although turnout was low.
Joan Felguera, a 17-year-old student participating in a protest in Barcelona against crimes committed by the Spanish colonizers, said people had to choose how to react to what was known of the period.
“History is history,” he said. “But the culture is changing and the ways of thinking have changed.”
But at another far-right rally in the northeastern Spanish city, attendees argued that the Spanish conquests were benign. “But now things are starting to twist,” said Ester Lopez, a 40-year-old office worker.
Paula Guerra, a Chilean anti-racism activist, said the celebrations should be replaced with “recognition of the damage caused by the horrors” committed by Spain in the Americas.
“It was a regime of terror. It was a barbaric regime, ”she declared.
Dora Turín, 35, who works in Spain’s audiovisual industry, said ahead of the parade that people should reflect positively on Spanish colonial rule.
“It was a contribution of cultures, in addition to our own,” she said. “It meant adding more knowledge and being able to blend cross-culturally and achieve what we are now.”
Barry Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal. Germán Martinez and Hernán Muñoz contributed from Barcelona, Spain.