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Sofía: a queen who has grown stronger in the face of adversity

As she turns 80, the mother of King Felipe VI is enjoying huge popularity after incidents such as the “Corinna case” and a very public spat with her daughter-in-law Letizia

Queen Sofía, pictured last week in Madrid.
Queen Sofía, pictured last week in Madrid. GTRES

The notion of “winning through resistance” is a reality with Sofía of Greece. Resisting is what King Felipe VI’s mother has been doing for the better part of 80 years – her birthday is this Friday. Queen Sofía has been enduring life’s challenges, putting her own professional obligations ahead of any other option. And, with time, this attitude has earned her points, bringing her closer to the people.

The queen decided, once again, to act like a professional and to forge ahead for the sake of her son Felipe

The turning point came when a woman named Corinna Larsen entered the picture. It had long been a well-known secret that Juan Carlos and Sofía’s marriage was in tatters, but Doña Sofía earned popular sympathy from the fact that a specific name and face were suddenly attached to this “close friend” in Juan Carlos’s life. From that moment on, Sofía’s approval ratings – which the royal household regularly monitors – soared, while her husband’s sank.

Something similar happened following the leaked conversations between José Manuel Villarejo – a retired Spanish police chief, who is himself under criminal investigation – and Larsen, in which the Monaco-based businesswoman allegedly discusses the former king and his business dealings.

Sofía was not unaware of Corinna Larsen’s existence. But it was one thing to deal with this matter privately, and quite another to see it hit the headlines. Amid the general fuss, the queen decided, once again, to act like a professional and to forge ahead for the sake of her son Felipe.

It was a similar story last April in Palma de Mallorca. After an Easter Mass, Queen Letizia of Spain and her daughter Leonor reacted badly to Sofía’s request for a photograph with her grandchildren. The royal grandmother never once lost her smile despite the tensions of the moment, and several days later she took part in several staged scenes to try to debunk the notion that there was any friction between herself and the reigning queen. Again, Sofía earned kudos from society for acting that way.

But she was not always this well accepted.

Queen Letizia, King Felipe and Queen Sofía at the recent Princess of Asturias Awards.
Queen Letizia, King Felipe and Queen Sofía at the recent Princess of Asturias Awards. EFE

For years, Sofía was regarded with skepticism because she was a foreigner and because her spoken Spanish was a bit under par. True, she was born in Greece, but she has been living in Spain for more than half a century now. And even though she has not lost her accent and still likes to speak English with her family, her personal feelings have always taken second place to her queenly duties. And at this point in her life, as her 80th birthday approaches, Spain is seeing a groundswell of appreciation for Doña Sofía.

Last Wednesday at Madrid’s Royal Theater, Sofía presided the BMW Painting Awards. Shortly before the concert ended, actress Ángela Molina, who was acting as master of ceremonies, took to the stage to thank the queen for her work over the last 40 years, and to say happy birthday. The public then gave her a standing ovation. Backstage, Sofía seemed surprised, and said she knew nothing about her family’s plans for a birthday celebration.

For years, Sofía was regarded with skepticism because she was a foreigner and because her spoken Spanish was a bit under par

Don Juan Carlos turned 80 in January, and celebrated privately with his family. Doña Sofía will turn the same age on November 2, and she is planning to have a special lunch with close friends and relatives. One of the guests on the list is her daughter Cristina, who did not come to Juan Carlos’ birthday party because of her own husband’s problems with the law.

Iñaki Urdangarin is currently serving a prison sentence in connection with a graft case known as Nóos, making Cristina’s presence a sensitive issue at the Royal Palace. It has emerged that Cristina and her children travel regularly to Madrid on their way to the penitentiary in Ávila, and that they usually make a stop at La Zarzuela, the royal residence. And just this week Cristina and her two youngest children were seen in the company of her older sister Elena de Borbón and her own daughter Victoria Marichalar at a theater in Madrid.

Doña Sofía’s attitude was only questioned precisely on the subject of Urdangarin. When photographs emerged showing her on a visit to Washington, where Urdangarin and Cristina moved when the scandal broke, this was viewed as support by Sofía for her son-in-law in the middle of the Nóos inquiry. Her presence in the US was strongly criticized, and it was of little use that Sofía noted that besides a monarch, she was also a mother and a grandmother. With time, she has grown more cautious about this whole matter, in order to maintain a security cordon around her son, the king of Spain.

While Doña Sofía’s popularity continues to grow, there are still question marks surrounding her husband Juan Carlos. For many months now, his name has not shown up in the official agenda. He is only seen from time to time in Sanxenxo (Galicia), sailing with his faithful friend Pedro Campos and sometimes with his daughter Elena. Despite their differences, Juan Carlos and Sofía will attend a concert together on her birthday. Before that, there will be a family lunch. The question is whether Cristina will stand next to her brother, the king, at the photo op.

English version by Susana Urra.

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