Florida’s Hispanic Celebs and Sites
By Carlos Harrison
Whether it’s conquistadors or the conga, artists, athletes or astronauts, Florida’s LatinX connections reach long and deep.
Here’s a quick list of some of the Sunshine State’s Hispanic cultural all-stars, both past and present, and where you can get up close and personal with them:
Juan Ponce de Leon
Florida’s first and, arguably, most famous Hispanic influencer — if for no other reason than, well, he was the first. And, probably just as important, he’s the guy who gave the state its name.
Popular legend has it that Ponce de Leon sailed north from Puerto Rico looking for the fabled Fountain of Youth in 1513. Spoiler alert: He didn’t find it. But he did find a place filled with flowery vegetation which he named, appropriately, La Florida, the flowery place.
Where, exactly, he first set foot on this “new” land is a history mystery. But we do know it was somewhere between present-day Cape Canaveral and the mouth of the St. John’s River.
And while Ponce de Leon may not have found the fountain he was looking for, you can, in St. Augustine, at the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. The water at the Spring House there may not make you any younger, but the exhibits will let you journey through time to the days when Ponce de Leon arrived, and after. There’s a replica of a native Timucuan village, a Spanish mission, a blacksmith’s exhibit, and, naturally, a memorial to Ponce de Leon’s landing.
More info: fountainofyouthflorida.com
A few miles and a few centuries from there you’ll find the place where the first Hispanic woman astronaut left Florida — and the planet — aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.
Ochoa served as a mission specialist on the nine-day flight, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral in April of 1993, almost exactly 480 years to the day after Ponce de Leon first spotted the place. She went up, up, and away three more times after that, logging a total of nearly 1,000 hours in space. (That’s like a month-and-a-half spent circling the planet in outer space. I did the math.)
She went on to become the first Hispanic director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston. And, in 2017, she became the first Hispanic woman inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center. That’s where you can see a tribute to her and the rest of the Hall of Famers. There’s lots of other cool space program stuff to see there, too — like the Rocket Garden, mission control, the actual Space Shuttle Atlantis (Fun fact: Ochoa flew on that one, too. Twice.), an Apollo spacecraft, the inside of the Vehicle Assembly Building, and a real-life launchpad.
When you get there, impress your friends or family with this tidbit of trivia: She’s also a classical flautist who played with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra.
More info: kennedyspacecenter.com
Once upon a time, Cuba’s last pre-Castro president called Florida home. Not after Fidel came to power, actually. Before. The president who famously fled the Caribbean island on New Year’s Day, 1959, lived in Daytona Beach. Batista called the beachfront community home from 1945, after his first presidency, until 1948, when he returned to Cuba.
He kept his home and neighboring properties on the Halifax River in Florida, however, and returned often. He liked Daytona Beach, and it liked him. In fact, the city declared March 24, 1956, “Batista Day” and honored him with toasts, speeches, dinner, and a parade.
He said thanks the following year by donating two of the riverfront properties to the city for a museum — to be maintained by an endowment he established and filled with exhibits “provided by the government of Cuba.”
The initial exhibits arrived the next summer, loaded on two Cuban Air Force C-46 cargo planes. They included ceramics, furniture, a bust of Jose Marti, photographs, glassware, and 39 paintings by some of Cuba’s most renowned artists depicting life on the island from the 18th through mid-20th centuries.
Batista never got to see it. The United States denied him entry after he was deposed. But the Cuban Foundation Museum he established still exists, housing, according to its website, “one of the most important collections of Cuban fine and folk art outside of Cuba.” The more than 200 objects on display include works by artists Miguel Melero, Leopoldo Romanach, and Jose Joaquin Tejada, as well as Armando Menocal, Amelia Pelaez, Mario Carreno, and Rene Portocarrero.
More info: moas.org/Cuban-Foundation-Museum
C’mon, everybody, wanna do the conga? The queen of Latin pop who set the world on fire and helped spark the “Latin Boom” of the ’80s with “Conga” still knows how to help you “Get On Your Feet.” Or, better yet, how to help you get off those tired dogs and onto a pool- or beachside lounger.
The singer, songwriter, actress, Presidential Medal of Freedom winner may have gotten her musical start with the Miami Sound Machine, but she and her producer, author, and entrepreneur husband, Emilio, have stamped their style on restaurants and hotels in their home state.
That means you can get off your feet and onto one of their beds at the Cardozo Hotel on Miami Beach, or at the Costa d’ Este in Vero Beach.
The Cardozo, a luxury boutique hotel built in 1939 and completely remodeled in 2019, sits right on Ocean Drive in the heart of Miami Beach’s Art Deco District, overlooking South Beach. You’ve seen it, if you’ve seen the films “Any Given Sunday” or “Something About Mary.”
The Costa d’ Este sits a couple of hours north up the highway, right on the sand of the Treasure Coast. Grab a towel, grab a kayak, or grab a snorkel and swim out to the wreck of the S.S. Breconshire, an iron-screw steamer that sank a quarter-mile offshore in 1894. The rooms are contemporary cushy, with custom teak furniture, and limestone tiled showers. The hotel’s signature Wave Kitchen and Wine Bar menu offers a diverse menu of seafood, steak and short ribs, as well as a select Cuban dishes from the “Estefan Kitchen.”
And, who knows, you might just spot “Miss Little Havana” herself while you’re there.
You know his work: those exuberant, vibrant, cartoonishly colorful and joyful images of kids and clowns, cats and kissing couples, and much, much more — on buildings, and suitcases, and everything in between. There are chairs and vases, puzzles and posters, pitchers and gargantuan statues. It’s hard not to smile when you see one, and it’s easy to see how Absolut vodka turned to the Brazilian-born artist for a highly distinctive and phenomenally successful ad campaign.
His other corporate collaborations span the gamut. They include Audi, Bentley, Coca-Cola, Walt Disney, Evian, and Mattel, among others.
His work has become synonymous with Miami, which is where he makes his home, and makes his art. And, while his creations have been exhibited around the world, he has one main gallery in the area, on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. That’s the best place to soak up some color and walk out with a grin.
More info: britto.com
From melting clocks and spindly-legged elephants to a face formed of floating spheres and a cubist crucifixion, the Spanish painter stood as the master of the surreal. He created otherworldly visions to challenge our own, to perplex perceptions, to counter — and expand — our concept of art. And he succeeded.
The largest collection of his work outside of Europe is right here in Florida — in St. Petersburg, housed in a building that’s a work of art in itself. It’s got 18-inch-thick concrete walls designed to withstand the worst a hurricane can hurl, and bulges into a swirling, 75-foot-tall freeform geodesic dome made of more than a thousand triangular pieces of glass. There’s a helical staircase connecting the floors and — their pun clearly intended — a waterfront “Avant-garden” that lives up to its name. Its adorned with weirdly distorted bench seats and dangling decorations, and a labyrinth with a limestone path winding between hedges.
In all, the Salvador Dali Museum holds more than 2,400 of the artist’s pieces, including oil paintings, drawings, books, prints, sculpture, and photos. Among them, some of his most famous and most iconic: “The Hallucinogenic Toreador,” “Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man,” and “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory.”
More info: thedali.org
Arggh, mateys! Who doesn’t love a pirate’s tale? Especially one about the one who lent his name to one of the biggest two-week-long fiestas in the state. The “Last of the Buccaneers,” Jose Gaspar, may or may not have been real, but he’s real enough to put his nickname on Tampa’s version of Mardi Gras, Gasparilla Days.
As the stories go (yes, there’s more than one), Gaspar was either a common sailor, nobleman-turned-naval officer, or a brilliant admiral in the Spanish Royal Navy. No matter which version you subscribe to, Gaspar, aka Gasparilla, eventually set up his base of piratey operations on Florida’s Gulf Coast, plundering passing vessels along the Spanish Main.
There are ghastly tales of dastardly deeds, men put to death and women enslaved, but somehow this possibly mythical marauder’s reputation got cleaned up some. He’s been re-imagined as a mere scalawag and enshrined as the eponym for a week or more of mirth and festivities. That started way back in 1904, and Ye mystic Krewe of Gasparilla has celebrated with annual parades and parties ever since.
Gasparilla-related events now include a children’s parade, a “pirate invasion” and fest, and a Sant’Yago Knight Parade, among other things somewhere near the end of January through the beginning of February.
More info: visittampabay.com/gasparilla