Tracing Florida's Spanish Heritage

By: Laura Spinale

From Pensacola to Key West, Spanish history is alive and preserved in Florida.

Some people call Pensacola the City of Five Flags, an homage to the nations that have, at one time or another, controlled this region: Spain, France, Great Britain, the Confederate States of America and the United States. Of all the old governments to have ruled here, none left a mark quite as deep as Spain’s.

You can still see Spain’s influence in Florida, notably in Pensacola’s Fort Barrancas and in other sites ranging from Mission San Luis de Apalachee in Tallahassee to the Colonial Spanish Quarter in St. Augustine, which is reopening in 2013. Today, Florida continues to draw Spanish-speaking people from across the Americas who have forged vibrant communities, including a thriving Cuban enclave in Miami and a burgeoning Puerto Rican society in Orlando.

The Spanish Trail

Let’s start our tour with a little history. In 1513, Ponce de Leon claimed Florida. (In St. Augustine, you can see the spring he believed to be the Fountain of Youth.) He was the first of a long line of Spanish explorers and soldiers (now known collectively as Conquistadors) to mark the region’s cultural landscape.

As the word Conquistador suggests, these were hostile invaders, bent on securing la Florida from indigenous people. At their most gentle, they employed the mission system. At worst, they committed mass murders. Countless Native Americans died from European diseases, against which they had no immunity.

In a series of battles, Spain, France and Great Britain duked it out over this land until, in 1821, Spain finally ceded the region to the fledgling United States.

During the battles preceding the sale, Spain needed a way to protect its interests in Pensacola – and Fort Barrancas was born. Spain viewed this site, situated on a bluff high over Pensacola Bay, as a strategic place to build a fort in the late 1700s.

More fortifications later were built and controlled by the British, French and the United States. (During the Civil War, Fort Barrancas alternately housed both Northern and Confederate troops.) The fort was deactivated by the U.S. military in 1947, underwent a significant restoration project in the late 1970s and today is open to visitors.

David Ogden, park ranger and historian, says that visitors are often most impressed by the Spanish water battery on site. Completed in 1797, it enjoys an impressive architectural sweep overlooking the bay.

Ogden notes that the battery is one of only three Spanish masonry fortifications remaining east of the Mississippi. “Its stucco, its decorative embellishments, speak to the Spanish style,” he says. “It just looks unique.” While there, check out the walls of the fort itself, which soar 20 feet high and measure 4 feet thick; a dry moat; a drawbridge; a parade; and other architectural elements.

Forts are constructed to wage war. The Spanish constructed missions to convert native people to Christianity, while at the same time securing military and political control over the area. Expanding from northern Florida into Southern Georgia, the missions divided the region into three provinces: Apalachee, Guale and Timucua – each named for a Native American tribe.

For a great view of the Spanish mission system, drive east from Pensacola to Tallahassee, to Mission San Luis de Apalachee. Situated on a hill overlooking the city, this mission houses a variety of reconstructed buildings from Spain’s 1600s heyday. These included a fort, a Franciscan church, Apalachee council house (capable of seating 3,000 people), blacksmith and Spanish home.

Spanish city life is better exemplified still farther east, in St. Augustine. Visit Castillo De San Marcos or the Colonial Spanish Quarter, a living history museum built on the foundation of 1740s Spanish life. Here, you can explore a blacksmith shop; the workplaces of carpenters, leatherworkers and scribes; and other businesses and homes. Costumed re-enactors add life to your tour.

Finally, see all that glittered during the Spanish occupation of Florida at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West. On view are treasures, including smelted metals, gold and silver coins, artifacts and gemstones recovered by Fisher in 1985 from two Spanish galleons that sank in 1622.

Spanish Influences Today

The days of the Conquistadors are long past, but Florida continues to lure Spanish-speaking people from around the Americas. You can taste their cultures in several Sunshine State cities.

Ybor City, a national historic landmark district of Tampa, began drawing Cuban immigrants (along with some Spanish immigrants) in the late 19th century. These new citizens moved to Ybor to take advantage of jobs in the cigar factories constructed by Vicente Martinez-Ybor and other cigar manufacturers.

While today Ybor City is better known as Tampa’s nightclub spot, the region’s Cuba-inspired architecture (and Spanish) and overall Latin flair remain. Also worth a look is the Ybor City Museum State Park. Here, you can visit restored casitas, small cottages originally built for cigar workers and their families.

The Little Havana section of Miami begin around 11th Street. Little Havana’s heart is on Calle Ocho, or Eighth Street. Here, Cuban bakeries and cafés serve up tastes of the island. (Remember, Cuban coffee is strong and syrupy: Drink it quickly, as you would a shot.) You also can visit Cuba-themed art galleries, cigar stores and clothing shops.

Those preferring Puerto Rican culture may want to visit the Orlando area. With a concentration of more than 30,000 Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area (according to the 2007 census), the area is fast becoming a cultural hub. This is most evident during the Puerto Rican Parade held each year. You also can enjoy traditional Puerto Rican fare at eateries such as Puerto Rico’s Café in Kissimmee. Their mofongo (a dish made from fried green plantains or fried yucca) is just one of the many ways to get a taste of the Spanish-speaking world in Florida.

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