Elda, Spain – Wearing a fake plastic animal skull and long black feathers in her headdress, Cristina Morcilla holds a spear and looks like she is going to war for an African tribe.
By day, she works in an import-export business, but tonight she is dressed up for the fiesta of the Moros y Cristianos, Spanish for Moors and Christians, which celebrates the reconquest of Iberia by Christian armies over Arab forces more than 500 years ago.
The streets of Elda, a city of about 50,000 people, best known for making women’s shoes, are transformed once a year into a cross between a drama from the Middle Ages and a huge fancy dress party.
Like scores of other towns in southeastern Spain, Elda marks the battles of the past with a very 21st century festival.
Arab rulers dominated nearly all of the Iberian Peninsula for about 700 years and the modern-day links with this historical chapter abound, from place names or words in modern Spanish.
The four-day pageant in Elda involves groups divided into Moors and Christians who march through the streets dressed in elaborate costumes to the sound of booming bands.
On the final day, there is a mock re-enactment of the reconquest when Christians win back Elda from its Arab rulers.
A huge plastic castle takes the place of Elda Castle, which lies in ruins.
The crowds dress up in yellow or red loon pants and colourful tunics.
Cristina Morcilla says it is just an excuse for a fiesta, something which Spaniards revel in.
“This is about a party. This has nothing to do with offending Muslim people or Moroccans. I don’t think people are offended by the fiesta,” she tells Al Jazeera, from behind her mask.
Brandishing a pistol and wearing a sprinkling of white and yellow make-up, Juanjo Verdu-Martinez is dressed in a flamboyant white corsair costume as he is supposed to be a pirate.
“This cost me about 600 euros [$643] to rent but we do this once a year and it is important for us. Thousands of people come for a night out or to take part. I don’t think it has much to do with history, but people just want to have fun,” Verdu-Martinez, 17, a school pupil, told Al Jazeera.
The Reconquista – or reconquest – is known in Spain as a period in history covering the military campaigns of Christian kingdoms against the Moors, a term applied to Arabs, North African Berbers and European Muslims, from the eighth century to 1492.
It started with the Battle of Covadonga in 718 or 722, in which an Asturian army achieved the first Christian victory in 1492 with the fall of the Nasrid kingdom in Granada to the Spanish Crown of Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Castile.
The festival is not without controversy as the word moro is seen by some of Spain’s sizeable Muslim population as an insult as it refers to someone from North Africa.
Moroccans are the largest group of foreign nationals, with more than 872,000 citizens, according to Spanish government figures for 2021.
In the vast parade, some of the troupes portray Moors wearing “blackface” make-up along with their exotic costumes.
Organisers deny this is racist and insist make-up is only used to portray Africans who lived within the Arab kingdom.
Pedro Serrano, president of the Moors and Christians organising festival in Elda, said despite the black face make-up, the festival was “inclusive”.
“We welcome all parts of the community. This make-up is only used to reflect Black people who were part of the Moors community,” he told Al Jazeera.
Younger members of the small Muslim community take part in the parades.
Aziz Masdour, who runs the Annor Halal butchers in Elda, said Muslims in the town were not offended by the use of the term moro.
“For us, it is a festival. Everyone enjoys themselves and comes into my shop and spends a lot of money. I am happy,” he told Al Jazeera.
Last year, the festival in the town of Orihuela near Alicante was criticised as racist, because Black people were pulling a carriage in which the Moorish ambassador – or leader – was white.
Marta Guillen, a former councillor, said on Twitter: “I cannot believe what I am seeing in Orihuela.”
No doy crédito a lo que acaba de pasar en Orihuela. El embajador moro ha desfilado en una carroza porteada por personas negras. pic.twitter.com/OMcGVjJwof
— Marta (@_marguillen) July 16, 2022
The Reconquista was seized on as a liberation war during the rise of Spanish nationalism in the 19th century and used during the long dictatorship of General Francisco Franco between 1939 and 1975 as a symbol of Spanish state-building.
Now, the far-right Vox party, the third largest in the Spanish parliament, is using it for political ends, calling on Spaniards to treasure the glories of the past.
Culture wars like this may become real for modern-day Spaniards because Vox is poised to play kingmaker in the July 23 snap general election.
The moderate conservative People’s Party is likely to win the most of the votes, according to a poll published by El Pais newspaper on Monday, but is also likely to need to form a pact with Vox to govern.
Back in Elda, each side is divided into troupes, including the Moors, Christians, Moroccans, Gypsies and Pirates.
Make-up artists like Rosanna Aroca spend two hours a day transforming 15 men into Moors with red, white and black faces.
Elda, like scores of other towns in southeastern Spain, spends an entire year planning this party, which organisers insist bears little resemblance to the bloody battles of the Middle Ages.
Pepe Blanes, a historian of the Moors and Christian festival in Elda, said the festival started in the Valencia, Alicante and Albacete area in the 19th century.
“In the age of Romanticism in the 19th, these fiestas began when people looked to the past. They looked at the Reconquista but the fiesta has little to do with what actually happened during those wars,” he said.
“Until the great error of expelling the Muslims after 1492, life in Spain was one of living together between Christians and Muslims.”
Blanes conceded that at times the fiesta has been controversial.
“The word moro can be disrespectful towards people from North Africa or Morocco but this is not the case in the fiesta of Moors and Christians,” he said.
After the 2015 attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in which 12 people were killed, organisers of the Moros y Cristianos festival in the Alicante area met with local imams to gauge their sentiments.
Muslim leaders said the festivities did not cause offence.
“This is not a religious or historical fiesta, this is about living together. It is a privilege to be part of the Moors group in the fiesta. It is a great celebration of getting on,” Blanes said.