The Plaza Mayor, where tourists gather to drink steep beers and feast on overpriced paella, may be better known. So may Puerta del Sol, where locals ring in the new year by eating a grape on each of the 12 chimes.
But Madrid’s Plaza de Colón, a 25-minute walk from these spaces, has come to play its own special part in the social, political and historical life of the capital – and the rest of Spain.
It is here, beneath the statue of Columbus – after whom the square is named – and in the shadow of the enormous Spanish flag that measures 294 sq metres and weighs more than 30kg, that the country’s right likes to congregate to defend the glories of the past and bemoan the humiliations of the present.
In February 2019, the leaders of the rightwing People’s party (PP), the centre-right Citizens party, and the far-right Vox party, joined tens of thousands of protesters who were furious over what they saw as prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s capitulation to Catalan separatists. This June, the three parties returned to Colón with supporters to demonstrate against Sánchez’s controversial decision to pardon the 12 Catalan independence leaders convicted over the failed secession attempt almost four years earlier.
The lure and symbolism of Colón are not hard to fathom, especially at a time when Spain’s right and far-right parties are embarking on another voyage of historical revisionism and imperial nostalgia. Not for them the toppling of statues, offers of apology, or bouts of national introspection.
In August, Vox marked the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Mexico by claiming Spain had “succeeded in liberating millions of people from the bloody regime and terror of the Aztecs”. A few weeks later, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the rightwing president of the Madrid region, took the Pope to task for having the temerity to apologiseing for the church’s behaviour in Mexico, arguing that Spain and Roman Catholicism had brought “civilisation and freedom to the American continent”.
Not wanting to be left out, Pablo Casado, the leader of the PP, boasted that the process begun by Spain’s conquest of the Americas had resulted in “the most important historical event since the Roman empire”.
Less than a fortnight before Spain’s national day – which is celebrated on 12 October, the date when Columbus arrived in the Americas – one of PP leader Pablo Casado’s predecessors mocked calls for a colonial apology from Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. It was a bit rich of the Mexican premier to moan about Spain given his names, said José María Aznar. “So Andrés came from the Aztecs, Manuel from the Mayans?”
Casado, who was sitting next to Aznar, joined in by suggesting López must be an Inca name – apparently forgetting, or unaware that that empire rose and was toppled by Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadors on an entirely different continent.
López Obrador’s party hit back, saying it wasn’t wholly surprised that the former leader of a party that emerged from the Franco regime “should deny the indigenous genocide on our continent”. It also referred to Aznar as a “bellicose instigator” over his support for the 2003 Iraq war.
Whatever emotions the Spanish right’s proclamations stir in many Latin Americans, shock doesn’t seem to be one of them. “You just feel embarrassed for them and all their imperial ravings,” says Gabriela Wiener, a Peruvian writer who has lived in Spain for the past 18 years. “They’re still in the grip of a Francoist daydream and can’t see what’s right in front of them.”
Wiener points to the most obvious signs of Spain’s fetishisation of its colonial glories, from the country’s national day to the Plaza de Colón.
“You’ve got to have a really fucked-up fatherland complex to need a flag that big and all this pomp and ceremony,” she says.
Wiener’s latest book, Huaco Retrato, is an unflinchingly personal reflection on racism, identity, desire, bereavement, polyamory, jealousy, betrayal and abandonment. But it also explores what it means to bear a European surname and to be a Latin American woman in 21st-century Spain.
The book – which takes its title from the ceramic portrait vessels of the pre-Columbian Moche culture – begins with the narrator visiting the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. There she peers through the display cases and contemplates some of the many figurines brought to Europe by the Austrian-French adventurer Charles Wiener – who also happens to have been the author’s great-great-grandfather.
In their brown skin, their noses, cheekbones and “their eyes like small, shining wounds” the protagonist sees echo after echo of her own face. The encounter gives rise to an inevitable question: how she can reconcile those features with that surname?
As the narrator searches for answers, she decides to confront the figure of Charles Wiener and to dig beneath the family pride – and the internalised racism – long stirred by the European interloper who is now best known as the man who almost rediscovered Machu Picchu.
While she sees some evidence of a slow and overdue process of decolonisation in the US, the UK and France, Wiener isn’t holding her breath for similar efforts in her adopted home.
“I don’t think Spain has really started its process of historical memory – even when it comes to the bodies of those who died in its own territory and lie buried in ditches. How can we expect this country, which is still so wrapped up in an imperial, Francoist vision, to look into how to make amends to other people elsewhere?”
What’s more, she adds, while much of Spain’s wealth still derives from its colonial relationships, the country, like many others, is still loath to own up to its sins. Look at the treatment of migrants on, and within, its borders.
“Everything that’s happening in the world today is a consequence of colonial policies. You go to the global south, plunder, kill and sell people, turn communities against one another, sell them arms and leave a terrible mess. And then, when they come knocking on your door, they get a rubber bullet to the face.”
The revisionism, however, isn’t confined to Spain. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right president, was pictured wearing a Spanish football strip and beaming at the camera when Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, travelled to meet him earlier this week.
Meanwhile, the Cross of Burgundy – a banner associated with Spain’s monarchy and the country’s imperial exploits – has been cropping up at demonstrations in Peru and is popular among those who embrace its colonial, Catholic history.
As Wiener notes, there is an enduring paternalistic narrative over the conquest of the Americas – “all the talk about how we did so much for these people because they were a blank page, or were savages who ate each other”.
The Nobel-prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa – by some margin Peru’s best-known living writer – recently caused a stir when he said that voting the right way in elections was more important than having free elections.
Vargas Llosa, who staged an unsuccessful bid to become president of Peru in 1990 – and whose fiction has repeatedly dissected the uses and abuses of power in his homeland and beyond – has drifted further to the right with age and found himself addressing the PP’s national convention in October.
“Latin America will undoubtedly emerge from [a very difficult situation] when Latin Americans discover that they’ve voted badly,” he said. “The important thing in elections isn’t that there’s freedom in those elections; it’s voting well – and voting well is something that’s very important because countries that vote badly, as has happened in some Latin American countries, pay dearly for it.”
For Wiener and for many other Latin Americans – especially women – the denial of the past continues to poison the present. The poem that comes towards the end of Huaco Retrato offers a vivid and bitter articulation of life in Spain for so many Latin American female migrants: of being told that the Spanish you speak is wrong; of being complimented on how well you can make fried chicken and on how pretty your dark little hands are; of having your history and culture denigrated; and of being seen as suited to nothing but cleaning, or changing the nappies of Spain’s babies and its elderly people.
“The relationship Spain has with these migrant people is totally temporary,” says Wiener. “They’re treated like children and patronised. They’re thanked but no one’s signed the deal to improve their rights.”
Wiener hopes Huaco Retrato, to be published in English in 2023, will serve to counter the prevailing paternalistic and revisionist narrative. But she says Spain would do equally well to stop reimagining the past, and to acknowledge, respect and listen to the Latin American migrants on whom it has come to depend. “Spain lives under a self-delusion. What can it resolve if it won’t even look at all the violence it caused and continues to cause? We’re here to remind them a bit of all that.”