Cultural Encounters in Florida

By: Chelle Koster Walton

Spanish influence is abundant in St. Augustine; Native American culture still thrives in the southern portion of the state.

Right here in Florida is a world's worth of cultural encounters, places that feel like, well, other places. Places that make you feel like a globetrotter without the hassles of airport check-in and customs back-ups.

The Spanish Mediterranean

As we duck the mid-day heat in a simple taberna, my Minorcan companion, Michelle Reyna, immediately strikes up a conversation with the Spanish bar maid about her corset vest and their lacings, which she calls "morals." (A less upstanding woman might not have her lacings as tightly cinched - thus the origin of the phrase "loose morals," she explains.) I listen intently while devouring a datil pepper-spiced empanada and reading a bill announcing the forthcoming appearance of a sea chantey group called The Bilge Rats.

Sea chanteys? Bilge rats? In a Spanish bar? Well, remember that St. Augustine was briefly occupied by the British after the Spanish traded it to Britain for Cuba in 1763. During that time, the Spaniards, who first settled here in 1565, fled to the island. Soon after, their compatriots from the Spanish isle of Minorca escaped the inhumane indigo plantations of New Smyrna, Florida, for asylum in St. Augustine, a once-Catholic town.

It's all history now, but history is never in the past tense in St. Augustine, especially when Michelle from Tour St. Augustine is your guide. She spouts history in a Spanish accent, sometimes to the tune of the old fromajardis serenades sung by her Minorcan ancestors.

As Michelle tells it, they chanted the fromajardis serenades before Easter, when Minorcans baked their cheese pastries spiced with datil peppers grown in Florida soil. Here in the Ancient City, the cross-scored fromajardis pastries still pop up at Easter time and datil peppers have become a signature crop. The Minorcans' stamp fades through the centuries, however. A poignant sculpture outside the Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine depicts the Minorcans' escape and bears the engraved names of the old families - 48 in all. But, according to a seventh-generation St. Augustine Minorcan I met on my visit, his people assimilated too well into British society. Unlike Cajuns in New Orleans and other such ethnic groups, they exert only a subtle presence here today.

Michael talks about his family's history to interested passengers on his St. Augustine Scenic Cruise tours - a remnant, he says, of the Minorcan connection to the sea.

Other remnants lie, literally, inside the cathedral in the tomb of Father Pedro Camps, champion of the Minorcan people. A mural depicts the Minorcans' painful exodus to St. Augustine, but not very realistically, according to tour guide Michelle. "When my ancestors came, they didn't wear pretty mantillas," she says. "They were in rags. They were peasants!"

The little-known St. Photios Greek Orthodox National Shrine, devoted to the Greeks who came with the Minorcans to work the New Smyrna fields, portrays the hardships and culture of the indentured servants. In Tolomato Cemetery lie the remains of those who did not survive the journey.

The rest of the town belongs to the more conspicuous history of the original Spaniards, the British and Henry Flagler. Colonial Spanish Quarter, of which Taberna del Gallo (the watering hole where Michelle and I met the corseted bar maid) is part, recreates the time, circa 1740, when Spanish soldiers, their families and entrepreneurs occupied the walled city. Costumed re-enactors demonstrate colonial cooking techniques, blacksmithing, candle making and other crafts.

Bona fide examples of historic architecture survive in the Castillo de San Marcos fort that the Spanish finished in 1695 and where soldierly re-enactors shoot off cannons today. At Ponce de Leon's Fountain of Youth, you can see the excavation of a stone cross Ponce de Leon and his men laid out in the sand upon reaching Florida shores. Nearby, Mission of Nombre de Dios is the site of the first Catholic mass and mission on American soil.

Although several Old City restaurants serve Spanish and Cuban cuisine, Minorcan food is not available at local restaurants or bakeries, save fromajardis around Easter. But if you're lucky enough to befriend the locals, as I did, you may be invited home to sample a Minorcan version of pilau, a spicy rice stew.

Native Rhythms

Johnny makes a sound - half-oink, half-bark - and slaps the water. A gnarled and ancient crocodilian profile rises from the river of grass and swims straight for him, stopping inches from his hand. Just then his cell phone rings and he sits on the edge of his boat, booted feet dangling within easy chomping distance, oblivious to the death machine that eyes him like a dog given an order to stay. Johnny Tigertail knows this 'gator and she knows him. They trust each other with an understanding built of years and mutual respect.

There is a time and place in Florida where people communicate with animals and heal themselves by embracing the earth. They worship the Breathmaker and celebrate the Green Corn. That place is the edge of the Everglades, a strip of land 11 miles by 600 feet where the Miccosukee rule sovereign and have since the Seminole Wars chased them from their Tallahassee homeland in the 1850s. The time is today, as it has been for hundreds of years.

Like Johnny, who communicates simultaneously by 'gator bellow and cellular phone, the Miccosukee have found a way to exist in modern times while adhering to their heritage, their spirituality, their allegiance to clan.

To appease the demands of both worlds, the Miccosukee, like their Seminole brethren, work through cultural tourism. Tribal spokesman Lee Tiger learned the value of cultural curiosity during what he calls "the living-on-display era," when his family became part of a Miami garden tourist attraction. Today, visitors can experience the tribe's way of life and learn about their beliefs at the Miccosukee Indian Village on Tamiami Trail, west of Miami. Miccosukee Restaurant serves Indian fry bread, frog legs, catfish, pumpkin bread and other native dishes. At the gift shop, you can buy the colorful patchwork skirts and jackets that the people wear for special occasions. Guided and self-guided tours explore the history of the Miccosukee, who survived by building open-sided, thatched chickee huts with elevated floors on the hammocks that rise from the Everglades- slow-moving river.

Today the clans have moved to houses in the village, but they still maintain their camps, where they once farmed corn, tomatoes, guava, sugarcane and other crops. Airboats, once used by the Miccosukee for frogging, zip visitors away from civilization to a clan camp. It is at one such camp, far from any vestiges of modern civilization (save cell phone reception), where I meet Johnny, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, happy to talk about his alligator allies and their latest offspring.

Once I stop holding my breath, stunned by the interaction of man and beast, I remember a lesson portrayed in the museum's film, a moral taught by an uncle to his nephew: "When your heart grows away from nature, you become hard." So live the Miccosukee, still guided by the mysticism of what grows and breathes.

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