A Columbus Conundrum: Experiencing el Día de la Hispanidad

Studying abroad in Spain, contributing writer Maddie Hahm ’24 reconsiders the complex legacy of colonialism in el Día de la Hispanidad, arguing that normative judgments on Spain’s National Day are always culturally situated.

A Columbus Conundrum: Experiencing el Día de la Hispanidad
Streaks left behind by the planes that flew by in celebration of el Día de la Hispanidad. Photo courtesy of Maddie Hahm '24.

I had never been so acutely aware of my “American-ness” until I went abroad.  More specifically, I never realized how many of my most intrinsic beliefs are culturally determined until I was introduced to one of Spain’s most important holidays.

A few weeks ago, the country celebrated its national day or, as they call it here, el Día de la Hispanidad.  Because it’s a national holiday, everyone gets the day off from school or work, and an enormous parade takes place throughout the streets of Madrid. I was thrilled to have a day to myself (in Spain, universities don’t have fall breaks, so I take what I can get), and the weather was so beautiful. I loved how much pride everyone had in their Spanish heritage and couldn’t wait to spend the morning walking around Madrid, sightseeing, and immersing myself in the festivities. It wasn’t until I was halfway through my Madrid city biking tour that I realized the true nature of this annual celebration. El Día de la Hispanidad, or “Spanishness” Day, is actually just a glorified version of Columbus Day. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s Columbus Day times 10.

Growing up in Oakland, California, I never celebrated Columbus Day. At my local elementary school, we always called the second Monday of every October Indigenous People’s Day, a date meant to honor the Indigenous communities of the Americas and all that they had endured during the Spanish usurpation of their lands. We were taught that we lived, worked, and breathed on Ohlone soil. (And, as I later learned, Muwekma and the Confederated Villages of Lisjan Territory as well.) We discussed their civilizations and took field trips to their tribal lands, speaking with members of the communities. We investigated the California missions and how they forcefully converted the native populations to Christianity. Most importantly, we learned about the horrors of Columbus’ actions and how his conquest led to the eradication of entire populations.

Long story short, I’ve never supported the existence of  Columbus Day, and I always assumed that my own rejection of the holiday was, at some level, universal (naive, I know).  Given my background, I think I was especially surprised to learn how large a role Columbus and el Día de la Hispanidad play in Spanish culture.

According to Spanish written law, the annual holiday of “October 12 … symbolizes the historical anniversary on which Spain … [began] a period of linguistic and cultural projection beyond the boundaries of Europe.” In other words, it marks the day on which Columbus reached the Americas and began his mass genocide of Indigenous populations and cultures around the world.

I couldn’t believe that this law nor this day actually existed. Here I was, a born-and-raised Californian, thinking that the U.S. was stuck in the past because some of us still referred to the second Monday in October as Columbus Day. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, there was an entire holiday dedicated to the memory of Columbus’ colonization (or so it seemed to me). It was also surprising to see how seriously the Spaniards took the holiday. There were bells ringing in the streets. A fleet of jet planes flew by, leaving clouds of celebratory smoke in their wake. I saw people wearing the Spanish flag (some had even painted it onto their faces). Nobody seemed even remotely disturbed by the underlying connotations of this holiday.

However, as I’ve gotten to know more Spaniards (specifically Madrileños) over the past couple of weeks, I’ve begun to learn that the national opinion regarding this holiday is more nuanced than I initially thought. While there are definitely many people who proudly celebrate and praise el Día de la Hispanidad, there are others (mainly in the younger generations) who find it distasteful and insensitive. One of my friends told me that she doesn’t agree with the idea behind the holiday because she doesn’t see anything worth celebrating.  According to her, although a lot of Spaniards still perceive the “descubrimiento [discovery]” of the Americas to be one of Spain’s proudest moments, there is an increasing number of people who find the “encubrimiento [concealment]” of the Americas (a name they coined) to be despicable.

Another group of Spanish students shared that they — along with many others — are staunchly against wearing the Spanish flag, partially out of principle and partially out of fear of being labeled a fascist, as the flag has evolved into a symbol of xenophobia and hatred over the years (similar to what happened to the American flag after Trump’s election).

I even emailed a Spanish professor at one of the local universities for some additional clarity. She explained that, in addition to its ties to Columbus and Spanish heritage, el Día de la Hispanidad has also historically been viewed as a religious holiday in Spain. For years, it has been a time when citizens pay homage to their Lady of the Pillar (aka la Virgen de Pilar, aka the Virgin Mary). Nevertheless, as one of my program directors pointed out, it’s unclear whether these underlying religious connotations existed before or after Columbus arrived in the Americas. It’s distinctly possible that the Spaniards decided to associate la Virgen de Pilar with el Día con la Hispanidad later on because they wanted to merge two important and seemingly “positive” historical Spanish events together.

What I didn’t realize during my first impression of the holiday is that many people don’t actually associate Oct. 12 with Christopher Columbus (or even religion) anymore; el Día de la Hispanidad has transitioned over the years into being primarily a day of patriotism and a celebration of Spanish culture, similar to what the Fourth of July is for many Americans. Since the Spanish Civil War, people have begun to view the holiday as a day on which to honor those who fought against the dictator Francisco Franco. For people with military ties (and for people without), el Día de la Hispanidad is still meaningful because it represents a love of Spanishness, not necessarily a love of Columbus.

This entire investigation has been an incredibly eye-opening experience for me. Before coming to Spain, I had never really considered how people’s ethical beliefs are shaped by their nationalities. Then, once I learned about the existence of el Día de la Hispanidad, I immediately made assumptions based on my own personal beliefs and experiences.  Now, a few weeks and several fascinating conversations later, I’m realizing that everything is so much more ambiguous (and that making assumptions is a dangerous game).

Ultimately, what I really want to emphasize with this article is the subjectiveness of Spain’s National Day and of what is deemed to be “right” or “wrong” within a culture. Although we might firmly believe that we should not commemorate Columbus or his day in Oakland, here in Madrid, the holiday is more complicated. Celebrating el Día de la Hispanidad, including its history, is a part of the culture, and many people will not blink twice if you choose to wear the Spanish flag. There are so many societal paradigms ingrained in our minds based on our places of origin that we cannot possibly comprehend the notion that anybody else might live differently. But they do. And we do. Thus, even though I will never celebrate Columbus Day nor look back fondly on Columbus’ legacy, I cannot speak for the rest of the world. At the end of the day, a lot of what we choose to celebrate is purely cultural, as are many of our beliefs, and that is not for me to decide, regardless of my personal preferences.

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