Colombia won its independence as a nation in 1819, and today, it’s celebrated all over the world. The biggest celebrations do, of course, happen in Colombia and its capital, Bogota. Although the official day is held in July, Colombian festivities are known to carry on for a full month!
Colombia’s independence was hard won, and like much of Latin America, they were colonized for several centuries by Spain. It took several battles, the leadership of General Francisco de Paula Santander, and a surprisingly powerful series of events sparked by French general Napoleon Bonaparte himself to overthrow Spanish rule. Colombia’s independence happened en conjunto (together) with other neighboring territories—you may notice the date looks similar to other Latin American independence days.
History lovers, read on: this one’s for you. There’s a lot to chew on, and if you find yourself in Colombia, even more to celebrate.
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*Note: The country of Colombia is spelled with an “o,” not a “u,” despite what autocorrect might have you believe!
Why did Colombia gain its independence?
To think about Colombian independence we first have to ask the question: from what or whom did they gain independence? In this case, that would be Spain.
During the early part of the sixteenth century, Spain sent explorers to the territory we now call Colombia. They encountered a thriving, advanced civilization of indigenous peoples mostly located in the western mountains of the region. Of those peoples, the Chibcha were the most significant.
After conquering the land and its peoples, Spain established the New Kingdom of Granada, which later became the Virreinato de Nueva Granada (Viceroyalty of New Granada), covering areas beyond modern day Colombia. As colonization continued, several cities such as Cartagena and Santa Fe de Bogotá (now Bogota) were founded. These cities were prime examples of Spanish imperial expansion and the anchors that allowed it to flourish.
The success of such colonization relied on an ugly reality: the native peoples who survived the European diseases brought by the Spanish were exploited, and people from Africa were brought to the territory to work as slaves, often in the mines. Indigenous worker status was close to that of the slaves in many instances.
Over time, the Spanish Crown reigned in the power it had originally granted the colonizers, causing resentment and political alliances among the Criollos, Spaniards born in the region.
Once the Viceroyalty of New Granada was created in 1717, greater efforts were made by the Crown to control and organize the territory, resulting in increased trade. This in turn bolstered the economy, resulting in a strengthened middle class and the formation of educated men—and women! Some women did gain an education in the convents, even in the prior century.
When did Colombia gain independence?
In 1781, the Comunero Rebellion against taxation occurred among the lower classes at Socorro, but most of the other classes of the viceroyalty were relatively content with their improved status. However, the first decade of the nineteenth century brought increased tensions between Spaniards living in Colombia and the Criollos, who had fewer rights to work yet paid more taxes.
Here’s where Napoleon comes in. Back in Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte put his brother Joseph on the throne to rule Spain. In response, an ad hoc government was created: the Suprema Central Junta (Supreme Central Junta). Most of Spain’s colonies in what we now call Latin America agreed to align themselves with the Suprema, and each viceroyalty had an elected representative.
Camilo Torres, legal advisor to Bogota and future independista (independence supporter) called out Spain for these inequalities, although he did not go so far as to speak for the indigenous and Afro-Colombians. Meanwhile, independent juntas began being established in other parts of the Spanish colonies.
When the Suprema dissolved in 1810, Nueva Granada set up its own junta and confirmed its alliance with Spain’s former king, Ferdinand VII. After cities in Venezuela detached themselves from the viceroyalty, cities in Colombia, including Bogota where the audencia (royal court) had been established, followed suit. So Bonaparte, in an effort to exercise control in Europe, indirectly destabilized Spain’s power in the American colonies, paving the way toward independence.
How did Colombia win its independence?
Along with the destabilization and the mounting resentment of the Criollos, came the anger of the indigenous and those of African descent along with waves of smallpox and yellow fever. All this created an environment of unrest.
This turmoil set the stage for a pre-established plan to work: On July 20, 1810 a town council member went to the shop of Spaniard José González Llorente to ask to borrow a flower vase for a dinner in honor of Antonio Villavicencio, who was forming a local junta.
When the shopkeeper refused, the Criollos broke the vase and caused an uproar, which opened the doors to signing the Independence Act of Colombia. This unleashed other cities in the area to declare their own declarations of independence.
After civil wars and some gains by the Spanish, the Colombians won their fight with the help of General Francisco de Paula Santander. His forces later joined with those of the famous Simón Bolívar in Venezuela, culminating in the triumphant Batalla de Boyacá (Battle of Boyacá) and the formation of the first republic, el Gran Colombia (Greater Colombia), which also included Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama. This was subsequently dissolved, thus forming the individual countries we know today.
How do Colombia and US cities celebrate Colombia’s Independence Day?
Like many other countries do on their independence day, Colombia has military parades in many towns and cities, which are held on July 20 to commemorate the initial movement toward independence. Private parties and public festivities with traditional food (described below) and folkloric music and dance are just a few of the other ways this day, often ending with fireworks, is celebrated.
Visiting Llorente’s house
Known as the Casa del Florero (House of the Flower Vase), the Museo de la Independencia (Independence Museum) is a popular place to visit on Independence Day. There, you can see part of the famous flower vase, which has been restored, along with temporary expositions related to Colombia’s recent and past history.
Traditional festivals and dance
- Festival Mono Núñez: Held in Ginebra in June, this is the most important contest of Andean music in the country. Some of the winners have gone on to become Grammy award nominees.
- Festival de Música del Pacífico Petronio Álvarez: Featuring music of the Pacific, this festival has been declared part of the cultural heritage of Colombia. More than 150 folkloric groups participate in the festival that attracts 120,000 people each night.
- Festival de Cumbia José Barros: Also part of Colombia’s cultural heritage, this festival, held in June and July, features the very danceable cumbia.
- Encuentro Nacional de Torbellino y las Danzas Tradicionales: This National Festival of Torbellino and Traditional Dances is held in Tabio. With folkloric dance and torbellino, an important mestizo dance of Colombia, the festival lasts four days.
>> Get our guide to Colombian Spanish with regional slang, popular phrases, and more!
Traditional Colombian food and drink
Oh, the comida (food)! Colombia has lots of scrumptious and unique food. Below are just a few examples of what you might find at an Independence Day celebration or even your local Colombian restaurant.
- Ajiaco: It seems that every culture has its version of chicken soup, and ajiaco is Colombia’s. Made with chicken, three types of potatoes, and corn on the cob, it’s served with heavy cream and capers. The secret ingredient is an herb called guascas (Galinsoga parviflora).
- Bandeja paisa: A bandeja is a platter and paisa is short for paisano, meaning compatriot, the way people refer to each other in the Andes, but paisa also refers to a specific northwest part of Colombia. Essentially a display of different types of food, bandeja paisa features fried eggs, sausages, shredded beef, chicharrón (fried pork rind), rice, beans, avocado and arepas, which we describe below. There’s no protein missing from this traditional mountain breakfast!
- Arepas: These are a kind of thick flatbread made of cornmeal (or other plant-based flours) and toasted on a grill. They may be stuffed or topped off with anything from meat to fruit, but cheese is one of the most popular ingredients.
- Aguapanela: Served warm or cold, this traditional drink is made with unrefined sugar cane blocks and may be mixed with coffee or lime juice.
Festivals in the United States
About 1.4 million people of Colombian origin live in the United States, so it’s no wonder that there are major celebrations of Colombia’s Independence Day in July.
- Chicago: Chicago holds El Gran Festival Colombiano in July, which above all features music. Grammy award winners and NFL players have been part of the show in the past.
- Los Angeles: LA holds El Festival Colombiano in late July. With three music stages–tropical, electronic and reggaeton–there’s something for everyone.
- New York: The Festival Independencia Orgullo Colombiano has occurred every year since 2012. It all happens on Long Island with great music, delicious food and other creative events.
>> Learn these 100+ Spanish words and phrases before you head out to your next Colombian festival!
Build deeper connections with Colombian culture and beyond
Colombia’s Independence Day celebrates the brave acts of all those who contributed to Colombia’s freedom, including intellectuals, soldiers, indigenous peoples, those of African descent and Colombia-born Spaniards. The annual celebration gives the world the opportunity to honor them with the culture that they built and protected.
Inspired to learn Spanish? There’s so much to discover beyond this single celebration, and knowing Spanish will get you closer to understanding Colombian holidays, food, music, and the people who bring it all to life in a meaningful way.
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Written by Rowena Galavitz
Rowena Galavitz is a Spanish translator, bilingual copy editor, and language and literature instructor with three master’s degrees who loves Spanish and all things Mexico.