MADRID – Spain’s Queen Letizia turned 50 on Thursday.
It’s only a birthday but Spain is taking the opportunity to assess its scarred monarchy and ponder how the arrival of a middle-class commoner may help shake up one of Europe’s most storied royal dynasties into a modern and more palatable institution.
Divorced and a seasoned national television journalist, Letizia Ortíz became princess on marrying then Prince Felipe — now King Felipe VI — in 2004. When King Juan Carlos abdicated 10 years later, she became the first woman without blue blood to reach the throne of Spain.
After initially been questioned by many, these days the media is full of articles and books abound about her, with most giving her the thumbs-up approval.
On Thursday, daily El Mundo ran a front-page headline, “Queen Letizia's Revolution to Modernize the Crown” with its royal correspondent writing, "She turns 50 in a sweet moment. Even the less pro-monarchy media praise her and exalt her as the savior of the monarchy.”
But Letizia has had to battle to get there.
From the beginning of her royal life, the spotlight has been on her. Alongside possibly Penélope Cruz, no other woman in Spain is more talked about, whether it be about how she looks and dresses, her commitment to social causes or any perceived transgression from tradition.
“Letizia has always been talked about since she arrived in the monarchy because she is such an interesting and complex person who eclipses all others, including the King Emeritus Juan Carlos, when he was king,” said Alberto Lardiés, journalist and author of several books on the Spanish royals.
Letizia became queen consort at a time when the Spanish monarchy was on a downward roll following successive scandals involving Juan Carlos and her brother-in-law, Inaki Urdangarín.
She is known not to have had an easy time fitting in. Juan Carlos is known to have had little time for her because of her background. Letizia soon also distanced herself from Sofía, her predecessor and a model of conformity, as well as many of the rest of the what has always been known as a very conservative family.
In one of the most commented-on occasions, Letizia, now queen, was seen having words and stepping in the way to prevent Sofía, from posing with Letizia’s children at Palma de Mallorca cathedral in 2018. The reason why wasn't clear, but her insistence was.
Earlier this year, she stood out by not blessing herself like the rest of her immediate family and nearby priests during a televised religious ceremony.
All eyes will now be on Felipe, Letizia, Juan Carlos and Sofía when they turn up for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II on Monday, the first time they will be seen together in a long time.
It was Juan Carlos, once Spain’s most popular figure, who came close to shattering the monarchy’s reputation on many occasions, most recently when he was mentioned in 2020 in financial investigations along with a one-time lover.
He subsequently left the country and has since been residing in Abu Dhabi.
And although better known as a progressive feminist rather than a fervent monarchist, Letizia is now accredited with playing a major role in Felipe’s decision to forge a new path and break ties with the palace’s corruption-linked past so as to save the monarchy.
Lardiés says royal watchers now say Letizia is “turning out to be the good one and Juan Carlos was not that good after all.”
Mábel Galaz, El Pais palace correspondent for three decades and author of “Royal Letizia,” told her paper in an interview that a key attribute of Letizia’s is that people can identify with her.
“She has traveled in the subway, she has paid a mortgage, she has had problems making it to the end of the month, like the rest of us,” Galaz said. “She knows the monarchy has to reinvent itself and be more ordinary.”
As princess she was obliged to fulfill many official functions and by the looks on her face, it didn’t seem to always suit her. But once she became queen she freed herself up to dedicate time to things that genuinely interest her, such as organizations dealing with cancer and rare diseases, education, culture and Spain’s international cooperation projects for developing countries.
“She has become an icon,” Lardiés said. “Not on the level of the late Lady Di, but she is considered unique and very different from anyone else in the Spanish royalty.”
One of the rare moments when she talked about herself candidly since becoming queen occurred when she revisited her alma mater, Madrid’s Complutense University, for the 50th anniversary of the journalism faculty last year.
In a speech, she recounted how once one of her professors, a bit fed up with her, interrupted a class shouting, “Ortíz, look, I obviously don’t know what is going to come of your life, but when it comes to being annoying, you have no rival.”
Letizia said he was referring to her questions and curiosity. She said she continues to question but now doesn’t reveal the answers they give her.
Commenting on her age, she said:
“The faculty is 50 years old and I am about to be too, as all of Spain knows¨....... I think that 50 years is a nice figure to continue trying to do things well in the place that corresponds to each of us.”