El 2 de Mayo, or the 2nd day of May, is a very important day in Madrid, Spain, as well as in the surrounding towns and villages. The date marks the anniversary of an uprising against French troops in Madrid that occurred on May 2, 1808, an uprising which would eventually lead to Spain’s War of Independence. The day, which is a public holiday only in the Madrid region of Spain, is known as the “Day of the Autonomous Community of Madrid,” (or sometimes merely the “Day of Madrid”). It is the second of two public holidays in the Community of Madrid, the first being Labor Day, which is celebrated annually throughout Spain on May 1st.
“The population of Madrid, led astray, has given itself to revolt and murder. French blood has flowed. It demands vengeance. All those arrested in the uprising, arms in hand, will be shot.”
These were the frightful words spoken by the French General Joachim Murat, brother-in-law of Napoleon Bonaparte, on May 2nd 1808, following the uprising in Madrid against French troops, an act that would mark the beginning of the Peninsular War.
In March of 1808, French military forces began occupying the city of Madrid—an occupation that, at least at first, was seen by the citizens as more of a political inconvenience than brutal repression and control. However, on May 2nd of the same year, a skirmish occurred that brought about a bloody fight for Spanish independence. The altercation occurred in front of the Royal Palace. A crowd of Madrid residents had gathered outside the palace in an attempt to prevent the French forces from relocating the people whom Madrilènos considered to be their royal family. As the locals tried to hold the French soldiers back, they responded by firing their guns into the crowd. This sparked even more fighting, and by the time the day had ended, many lie dead and hundreds more wounded.
There emerged from the uprising two heroes and one heroine. The heroes were Spanish soldiers Luis Daoíz y Torres and Pedro Valarde y Santillán, who led their own detachments of Spanish troops against the French forces. Both men died in the fighting. Both have since been immortalized in Spanish art, and Valarde even has a street named after him in Madrid.
The heroine in this tragedy, 15-year old Manuela Malasaña Oñoro, also died in the plaza, although her story has two versions, both of which have been romanticized over time.
The first account tells of a dutiful daughter, assisting her parents with ammunition in their fourth floor apartment, and then continuing out into the plaza, where she becomes a victim of the crossfire between Spanish and French troops. Hearing the commotion, her father follows her out, and being fraught with despair upon finding his daughter dead, he reacts wildly to the violence, and he too is killed by the French. In the second version, Manuela is forbidden by her employer to go into the street where the uprising is raging. She was working as a seamstress in a local shop, and the owner of the business wanted to keep her safe inside. Near the end of the day, however, French troops enter the shop, and while she is resisting their attempts to rape her, she defends herself with a pair of scissors (the tools of her trade), and is later executed in accordance with General Murat’s order to kill all residents holding a weapon of any kind. Whatever adaptation you choose to believe, it is almost universally accepted that Manuela died in the plaza on May 2nd at the hands of the French, and like Daoíz and Valarde, she too has been immortalized in dramatic paintings and also has a street named after her.
To commemorate the Day of Madrid the citizens engage in a number of celebratory activities, both public and private. Most businesses are closed for the day, save for the bars, food stores and bakeries. Police and military parades roll through the streets of Madrid to applause, and in the other towns and villages in which the day is celebrated there are similar displays to mark and honor the brave men and women responsible for the uprising. Street parties rule the day throughout the Autonomous Community of Madrid, where communal meals are exchanged to the sound of laughter and goodwill. Some people take advantage of the extended holiday to travel to other cities in Spain and other European countries, particularly when the 1st and 2nd of May fall in the beginning or end of the work week, leading to a four-day weekend.