Hispanic Day, a celebration of what?

Celebrations in Granada.
Celebrations in Granada. / EFE
  • October 12th is a national holiday in Spain, though some critics want the celebration banned

12 October, Día de la Hispanidad or Hispanic Day, is a national holiday in Spain that commemorates the exact date when Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Americas in 1492.

Also known as Columbus Day or Día del Descubrimiento, Hispanic Day symbolises the union between Spanish and Spanish-speaking Latin America, but the celebration has received considerable condemnation by certain sectors, both in Spain and in Latin and North America.

The name has been modified in some places to take the emphasis off the “discovery” that some see as a genocide. While 12 October is known as Discovery Day in the Bahamas, it has been turned into the Day of the Cultures in Costa Rica, Day of the Race in Argentina, Chile and Mexico, and the Day of Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela.

Remains of an empire

“Hispanic” refers to the descendants of nations that emerged from the Spanish Empire, a family comprising 400 million people who are united by the common bonds of culture, language and history.

Hispanic Day is one of Spain's biggest national holidays and events are broadcast on national television and radio.

The King of Spain supervises the raising of the national flag in Madrid and presides over the massive military parade - a key part of the celebrations each year. It is a ceremony in which the prime minister also plays a key role, along with representatives from all of Spain's military units, and a wide array of authorities, from foreign diplomats deployed in Spain to members of the autonomous governments.

One of the highlights is a spectacular aerobatics display performed by the Spanish Air Force. In a similar manner to Britain's Red Arrows, the jets leave streams of red and yellow smoke to represent the Spanish flag.

There are also other celebrations that take place throughout the rest of the country.

The holiday is also known as the Día del Pilar, as Roman Catholics commemorate the day of Our Lady of the Pillar, who is the patron of the Spanish Guardia Civil and of the Hispanic world. However she is most revered in the region of Aragón, where the basilica in Zaragoza bears her name.

The holiday is not widely or enthusiastically celebrated in Spain; there are no other large-scale patriotic parades, marches, or other events, except for in regional capitals.

There are those, though, who see Columbus as nothing more than a remorseless tyrant and they feel that it is an insult to celebrate on 12 October; they believe that Spain should not be marking 'genocide' with a military parade that costs the country around 800,000 euros each year.

During the nineteenth century, many anti-immigrant groups in America rejected the holiday due to its association with Catholicism. The USA celebrates Columbus Day on the second Monday of October, but several US states do not recognise the day at all. Others have replaced Columbus Day, which became a public holiday in the US in 1937, with Indigenous Peoples Day, a counter-celebration commemorating the history of Native American peoples.

Francoist connotations

Activists in Barcelona want the holiday cancelled and a statue of Columbus removed from La Rambla, but both ideas have so far been rejected. Badalona city council, which has long supported the idea of the region breaking away from Spain, has banned the celebration, saying the holiday celebrated the genocide of the Americas. They also claim it has Francoist connotations.

Critics of Hispanic Day have argued that the holiday should be banned across Spain on the grounds that former dictator, General Francisco Franco, favoured the day as a way to extol the values of his dictatorship.

The celebration of the anniversary in Spain dates to 1935, when the first festival was held in Madrid. In 1981, a royal decree established Día de la Hispanidad as a national holiday, but in 1987, the name was changed to Fiesta Nacional. The date of National Day changed several times during the 20th century; establishing it on the day of the international Columbus celebration was part of a compromise between conservatives, who wanted to emphasise the status of the monarchy and Spain's history, and Republicans, who wanted to commemorate Spain's burgeoning democracy with an official holiday. The change in name had the effect of removing all reference to Spain's historical colonialism, and even its ties to Latin America. October 12th became one of two national celebrations, along with Constitution Day on December 6th.

Hispanic Day has caused a cascade of reactions from all political parties and institutions over the last few years, but the majority of the country respects the day as one of the most important in Spanish history.

Malaga celebrates Hispanic Day with a military procession and a programme of performances and cultural activities held in the Parque Huelin in Malaga. In Seville, an extensive programme of activities takes place in the Plaza de la Pescadería, while in Granada, military parades and activities are dedicated to Isabella la Católica and Columbus. Huelva obviously celebrates in style, as it was from Palos de la Frontera in Huelva that Columbus set sail on his first voyage to the new world.

The recent problems following the illegal referendum in Catalonia will mar this year's events in Barcelona, if indeed, they happen at all.