The Cervantes prize, the most important Spanish literary award


Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616) attributed to Juan de Jáuregui (via Wikipedia).

The Premio Miguel de Cervantes is the highest recognition that a Spanish-language writer can achieve. It is an acknowledgement of those whose work has notably enriched Spanish literary heritage. Thus, this prize recognises the career of an outstanding writer. It was created in 1975 in honour of the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, the most universally known Spanish text and the first modern novel. This literary prize has been awarded annually by the Spanish Ministry of Culture since 1976.

Candidates are proposed by the Real Academia Española (founded in 1713) and all the National Academies of the Spanish language in the different Spanish speaking countries (23 in total). The jury is comprised of literary and academic authorities, in addition to the most recent awardees. Traditionally the prize is given one year to a Spanish author and the following to a Latin American, although this is not a rule.

The King of Spain awards the prize every April 23 (the anniversary of Cervantes death) in a solemn ceremony that takes place in the historical University of Alcalá (near Madrid), the birthplace of Cervantes. This prize has the following rules: it cannot be withheld (there must be a winner every year), shared or awarded posthumously. These rules were established after 1979 when the award was given ex aequo to the Spanish poet Gerardo Diego and the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges, the latter is considered one of the most important writers of 20th century.


Platform in the Paraninfo of the University of Alcalá (via Wikimedia, click to see enlarged).

During the ceremony the winner receives the prize and gives a speech related to the figure of Miguel de Cervantes and/or his works. For instance, Juan Carlos Onetti (Uruguay, 1980 award-winner) stated: “Don Quixote is, among other things, a supreme example of liberty and of desire for liberty”. The University Library holds books by every single winner of the prize, but unfortunately we cannot mention them all. The first prize winner was Jorge Guillén, a Spanish poet from the Generation of ’27. Interestingly, several poets from this literary movement won the prize: Dámaso Alonso (1978), Gerardo Diego (1979) and Rafael Alberti (1983). It is worth pointing out that the period between 1898 and 1936 is known as the Silver age of Spanish culture.

Three writers have received both the Nobel and the Cervantes prizes: Octavio Paz (Mexico, 1981), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru, 1994) and Camilo José Cela (Spain, 1995). The first and the second were professors in Cambridge, holding the Simón Bolívar chair in Latin American studies, in 1969-70 and 1977-78 respectively, and both being Overseas Fellows of Churchill College.

In addition, another Cervantes award-winner (1987) came to Cambridge: the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes was Simon Bolívar Professor in 1986-87. Ten years later, Guillermo Cabrera Infante received the prize. This Cuban writer was an exile in London and lived for almost forty years there. The Spanish philosopher María Zambrano was the first woman to receive the prize in 1988.


Eduardo Mendoza (via Wikipedia).

In 2015 the award-winner was the Mexican writer Fernando del Paso, receiving it in 2016: both the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes and the 40th year of the Cervantes prize. Last month Eduardo Mendoza received the 2016 award. The jury highlighted that Mendoza “is in the tradition of Cervantes, with a literary language full of subtlety and irony, something always valued by critics and the public, aside from his international recognition”. The author is well known for his humorous novels and detective stories. Eduardo Mendoza published his first novel in 1975, La verdad sobre el caso Savolta. Among his most recognised works are: La ciudad de los prodigios (1986), La aventura del tocador de señoras (2001) and Riña de gatos: Madrid 1936 (2010 Planeta prize winner).

Manuel del Campo

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