Last year my daughter asked “Mommy, what do we celebrate on April 25th?” I didn’t have a good answer for her then, but now I’ve had a year to think about it, and here’s my answer:
Portugal and Colonies in 1974
Many years ago, when your great-grandparents were young, there was a far-flung kingdom without a king. Why it didn’t have a king is another, longer, story, but the truth is, it needed one badly.
So a man came to power, calling himself Minister, and a protector of the realm. And at first people loved him. The far-flung kingdom didn’t prosper, exactly, but it became a nicer place to live. Except, as time went on, the Minister became cruel–a tyrant–and wouldn’t let people speak against the government, or go school beyond the 4th grade unless they were wealthy, or read or do what they wanted to, or, generally, be free. And the people became sad, and were afraid of the secret police, and there wasn’t enough to eat, and the jails were very full.
Soldiers on their way to war
The Lord Minister, whose name was Salazar, fought long, bloody wars in the farthest corners of the kingdom, sending many young men to their deaths. These parts of the kingdom were so far away, they thought they should be their own countries. Salazar wouldn’t allow it. He tried to teach that people from his part of the kingdom were special, chosen and somehow better than the people in the farther-away parts. That his people had a right to conquer and kill others. But not everyone was foolish enough to believe him.
Eventually Salazar died, but the men who ruled after him, the Salazaristas, were no different. And the people were still sad and hungry and afraid.
Salgueiro Maia, one of the leaders of the MFA
Then, around the time your parents were born, or just before, a group of soldiers came together. They had fought in the bloody, far-away wars. They knew these wars were wrong. They knew that the Salazaristas were wrong. They knew that people should be free.
And so they made a daring plan. Calling themselves the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas, or MFA), they decided they would overthrow the tyrants and let the people choose what kind of government they wanted to have, and who would run it, and what kind of laws they would make. They knew that this was called a democracy, and it sounded perfect.
Now, overthrowing a government isn’t easy, and to do it without hurting anyone is harder still. But the MFA believed enough people had been hurt, so they were going to try.
Warship on the Tejo, April 25th
Early on the morning of April 25th, 1974, the MFA marched into the offices of a radio station, and took it over. The MFA sent out a message over the radio and asked all the people to remain in their homes. Then they moved their tanks and soldiers into the heart of the city of Lisbon, where the government offices were. The government men in those offices ordered their warships on the Tejo river to shoot at the MFA, to fire at their fellow-soldiers, and the people and city of Lisbon itself. The commanders of the warships didn’t shoot. They wouldn’t obey an order they knew was wrong.
A woman handing out carnations
When the people saw the tanks and soldiers marching, and saw that there was no resistance. They left their houses and filled the streets. They placed red carnations in the muzzles of the soldiers’ rifles and the buttonholes of their jackets. They sang and chanted and marched for their freedom, right alongside the soldiers.
Civilians and soldiers on a tank in the Chiado area of Lisbon
The streets of Lisbon are narrow and winding. The tanks didn’t fit up them very well. But everyone did their best to make room, and somehow they got up to the Carmo square where the leader of the government, Marcelo Caetano, was hiding. Here there was danger, because there were so many people–singing and chanting–and so little space. Someone might be hurt by an accident, or a wild shot. The MFA tried to send the people away, but they wouldn’t go. The MFA tried to reason with the government men, but they wouldn’t listen. So for hours everyone yelled and threatened, but mostly sat and waited, until finally someone was found who the government men would listen to, and in the end Marcelo Caetano, along with all his ministers and secret police, surrendered. In the end the people sang and celebrated and threw flowers, and the soldiers were heroes.
The Largo do Carmo, April 25, 1974
Of course, that wasn’t really the end, because this is a true story. It was only the beginning. The far-flung kingdom became several countries, and each one tried to find a way to decide what kind of government it wanted, and who should run it, and what laws they should make.
The little country of Portugal, where all this took place, is now a democracy and–despite what the soldiers thought–it isn’t perfect. Sometimes people are still sad or hungry or afraid. But at least they are free.
And that freedom is what we celebrate on April 25th. We celebrate the fact that the people and the soldiers fought for their freedom, with flowers and singing and hope, instead of guns.