Florida’s Hispanic Culture Speaks to the Past and the Future
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Florida learned to speak Spanish before it spoke English.
The state’s connection to the Hispanic world dates back centuries, even before the founding of the United States, but today its Latin ties can be traced to modern migrations by Cubans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Colombians and Puerto Ricans fleeing disasters, both natural and manmade.
Today, Florida is home to the third largest Latino population in the country. Nearly 5 million call the Sunshine State home, and their numbers are growing. Florida now has three counties — Miami-Dade, Osceola and Hendry — where Hispanics make up more than half of all residents.
Go to a park and the pick-up game is likely futbol. Twirl the radio dial on your rental car and, more often than not, salsa and merengue may stream out. Crave a croqueta? Even the bakery counter at Publix can offer you one.
TAMPA, ST. PETERSBURG, TALLAHASSEE, PENSACOLA
Where to go
Cigar king Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his factory from Key West to Tampa and began employing Cuban, Italian and Spanish immigrants more than 200 years ago, turning the neighborhood that still bears his name into the “cigar capital of the world.” Cuban revolutionary and intellectual Jose Marti used to walk Ybor City’s cobblestone streets trying to recruit factory workers to fight for his Caribbean island’s independence from Spain. Today, the neighborhood northeast of downtown Tampa is a thriving National Historic Landmark District where factory warehouses have been converted into restaurants, shops and nightclubs. Start at the Ybor City Visitor Information Center to grab a map, souvenirs and advice.
The Ybor City Museum State Park, housed in a 1923 Ferlita Bakery, provides a glimpse of what a typical cigar worker's family home looked like, with exhibits and tours. Follow the aroma of Cuban coffee and cigars to stroll the entertaining, 11-block strip between 26th Street and Nick Nuccio Parkway. Two of the country’s oldest cigar-making families can still be found here. Be sure to stop by Tampa Sweethearts Cigar Company and J.C. Newman Cigar Company to watch cigar rollers and peer through the glass-windowed humidors. Señor Ybor would be proud.
In Tallahassee, Hernando de Soto State Archaeological Site is the where the first North American Christmas celebration took place. Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto’s expedition camped here from 1539 to 1540 during its first winter in North America. Now the site of a former governor’s home, the best time to experience the property is each January, when a reenactment of de Soto's Winter Encampment takes place.
In Pensacola, one of Florida’s oldest cities, explore the region’s Spanish Colonial past at historical sites, such as Fort Barrancas, built by the Spanish around 1797 overlooking Pensacola Bay, and the 1698-era Presidio Santa Maria de Galve, a small Spanish frontier settlement that was the first in Northwest Florida. Find other places championing Hispanic heritage in Pensacola here.
What to do
Take salsa dancing lessons at the monthly Noches de Salsa Caliente gathering hosted by Salsa Caliente Dance Studio in Tampa’s Centro Asturiano, a historic building in Ybor City that was a social club for immigrants from Spain in the early 1900s.
In rural Colombia, a chiva is a customized, colorfully painted bus. In Tampa, La Chiva de Tampa is a party bus service that transports visitors around town with streaming lights and a DJ spinning funky Columbian beats.
Where to explore art
Two public murals in Ybor City tell the historic district’s story through street art. The 12,000-square-foot Adamo Drive Mural Project stretches across two blocks on the side of an industrial building at the south entrance of Ybor City. The Viva Ybor mural on 7th Avenue celebrates Ybor City’s colorful past.
The Dalí on the waterfront near downtown St. Petersburg is an architecturally stunning museum that houses one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of work by the late Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Anna in the Tropics,” by Nilo Cruz, is set in an Ybor City cigar factory. Catch it if you can at Tampa’s longest-running professional theatre company, Stageworks Theatre.
What to eat
Enjoy crusty, warm Cuban bread dipped in a creamy cup of café con leche at La Tropicana Café in Ybor City. Dig into traditional paella while enjoying a flamenco show at Columbia Restaurant, Florida’s oldest restaurant, opened since 1905. Track down where to find Tampa’s best Cuban sandwiches using this Visit Florida guide.
ST. AUGUSTINE, AMELIA ISLAND, JACKSONVILLE
Where to go
Florida’s Hispanic history can be traced back to the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, making it the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in the United States. The Spanish colony’s influence is still seen today in the city’s grand plaza, its narrow cobblestone streets, lamp-lit restaurants and the magnificent Castillo de San Marcos fort overlooking the harbor. The coquina fortress – a national monument that sprawls over 20 acres and took more than 20 years to build – is a good place to start. Built by the Spanish in 1672 to protect Spain’s treasure fleets from the English and pirates, it’s the only 17th century fort in North America. Ranger talks, exhibits, historical weapons demonstrations, living history reenactments and special events bring the grounds to life. Designed by Ignacio Daza, a Spanish engineer living in Cuba, there’s also a bilingual perk: Signs are printed in both English and Spanish. Another protective fortress, Fort Matanzas, is a Spanish watch tower built in 1740 where rangers in period attire lead tours.
St. Augustine’s Mission of Nombre de Dio, established in 1615 to bring the Christian faith to America, is the site of the first shrine to Mary in the United States. The site, marked by a 208-foot stainless steel cross and a chapel housing a detailed carved statue of Mary, is visited by people who travel here to pray for mothers and mothers-to-be.
Old Town Fernandina, a quaint waterfront neighborhood near the northern tip of Amelia Island, was platted by the Spanish in 1811 and is the only Spanish town in Florida with the original, 26-block site plat remaining. Plaza Fernandina, now a state park, occupies a full block of green space overlooking the Amelia River.
What to do
Take a sip from Ponce de Leon’s “Fountain of Youth,” a natural spring on a privately-owned, 15-acre park in St. Augustine where visitors can learn about the first Spanish settlers. There’s a working archaeological dig on the site, along with recreated Spanish and Timucuan Indian buildings, an old mission church, cannons and a watch tower.
Visit St. Augustine’s Colonial Quarter, a living history museum where interpreters in period clothing demonstrate what life was like for Spanish soldiers and their families in 1740, from blacksmithing and leather-working to candle-making and food preparation. Tour nine buildings, walk down Aviles Street to enjoy artisan stores and galleries, and hop over to St. George Street for ice cream, art, jewelry and tourism shops.
On nearby Amelia Island, the Amelia Island Museum of History shares local history about the Spanish influence on Florida, along with native tribes in the area and the civil war era, through interactive exhibits. The museum also offers walking, bus and van tours of the island’s historic sites.
Old Town Trolley Tours is the best way to see the city of St. Augustine, with tours that highlight more than 100 attractions and 23 stops. CB Hinson’s Southern Carriages offer horse-drawn carriage rides through historic downtown St. Augustine.
Where to explore art
St. Augustine hosts the Hispanic Culture Film Festival every fall to celebrate the Hispanic culture of the world’s 21 Spanish-speaking countries. Up to 70 independent short films, documentaries and full-length movies are showcased, as well as remastered classical Spanish film, art exhibits, and dance and musical performances.
The Villa Zorayda Museum, with its design inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain, showcases Moorish Spanish-revival architecture in an 1883 home that was the winter residence of Franklin Smith. The estate influenced the Moorish Spanish Revival style of architecture seen throughout the city, along with the use of concrete and coquina construction. Smith aspired to bring part of Spain to St. Augustine and to educate visitors about different cultures around the world. Self-guided audio tours in English and Spanish tell the building’s history, along with the art and antique collection housed there.
Flagler College in St. Augustine is a National Historic Landmark and former resort recognized for its outstanding Spanish Renaissance architecture. Public tours through the college showcase the dining hall’s stained glass windows and the 80-foot domed rotunda.
What to eat
Two restaurants in St. Augustine’s Colonial Quarter stand out for their Spanish offerings. The family-owned Spanish Bakery & Café offers empanadas, picadillo and Cuban sandwiches. Taberna del Caballo is a Spanish-themed restaurant where the menu includes sangria, tacos and empanadas.
Avilés, the restaurant inside the Hilton St. Augustine Bayfront, offers a Spanish charcuterie, seafood paella and tapas. The Columbia Restaurant has been an institution in St. Augustine since 1905. A hacienda-style indoor patio there serves tapas and paella.
In Jacksonville, Empanada’s Factory fuses Cuban, Argentinian, Peruvian and Colombian influences into a single Latin dining experience that reflects the city’s growing Hispanic population.
ORLANDO PARKS AND BEYOND
Where to go
Princess Elena of Avalor, the first Disney princess inspired by diverse Latin cultures, is ready to greet you alongside other royal friends at the Magic Kingdom’s Princess Fairytale Hall. From “Coco” toys throughout Walt Disney World Resort to SeaWorld’s Three Kings Celebration every January, Hispanic culture has come alive in Orlando’s theme parks.
Stop by the Mexico Pavilion in Epcot to say ¡Hola! to Miguel and catch the roaming mariachi group, Mariachi Cobre, joined by Folklorico dancers, as they share the “Story of Coco” through songs from the popular film. Design your own Dia de Muertos skeleton at the interactive video screen exhibit, “Remember Me! La Celebración Del Dia de Muertos.” The Epcot Mexico Pavilion starts with a boat ride – the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros – that takes you on a musical journey through Acapulco, Chichen Itza, Manzinillo, and Mexico City.
At Universal Orlando Resort, enjoy carnitas al pastor, choripapa and other Latin dishes during Hispanic Heritage Month at two different restaurants: CityWalk’s Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food and Strong Water Tavern at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort.
Learn about Florida’s Spanish-language roots starting with the arrival of conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon in the exhibit, “First Contact: La Florida,” at the Orange County Regional History Center. The Center also has a new exhibit, “Love Speaks/El Amor Habla,” sharing artwork from across the nation in response to the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub. The One Orlando Collection is a digital gallery of 5,000 artifacts recovered in tribute to the victims and survivors.
Casa Feliz is an Andalusian-style masonry farmhouse that sparked the Winter Park historic preservation movement. The historic home museum hosts weekly open houses, along with private tours and free concerts.
What to do
Orlando is considered the “best city in the nation for soccer,” according to WalletHub. Find out why by catching an Orlando City Soccer Club game at Exploria Stadium in downtown Orlando. Headed by Rio de Janeiro native Luiz Muzzi, the MLS team includes four-time Premier League Champion and Portuguese international Nani and the young Ecuadorian star Sebas Méndez, among other futbol notables. You can also watch international teams train and play at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Enjoy Vegas-style, dinner-and-a-show tributes to Selena, Jennifer Lopez, Celia Cruz and other musical icons at Mango’s Tropical Café, a massive Latin nightclub in Orlando that stays open until 2 a.m. every day. Prix fixe menus offer mojito chicken and churrasco steak. The nightclub has its own branded mango and coconut flavored vodka from Voli Vodkas, the vodka company that counts Pitbull as a shareholder and ambassador. “Rumba Latina Fridays” features a DJ spinning Latin hits in the main dance room and another DJ playing merengue, bachada, salsa and reggaeton on the patio.
Cuba Libre, a Cuban restaurant and rum bar in Orlando, hosts salsa dancing and late-night Latin music on Friday and Saturday nights.
Festival Calle Orange in October is Central Florida’s largest Hispanic festival. Ten downtown Orlando streets are closed to accommodate four stages, 40 performances and dancing, with one street dedicated to children’s fun. The Puerto Rican Parade and Festival in April is Orlando’s way to celebrate the contributions of Florida’s Puerto Rican population, which has exploded from 479,000 in 2000 to over 1 million today.
In July, join the Orlando Salsa Congress, a four-day event of dance, pool parties, workshops, show and live music.
Visit Orlando offers guidance and maps in English, Spanish and Portuguese on its website and its Visit Orlando App. Most theme parks also offer Spanish-language park maps, and Spanish-speaking guides to help guests, so be sure to ask for them when you arrive at the park if you have non-English speakers in your group or want to encourage your kids to use their Spanish.
Where to explore art
Downtown Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts produces more than 300 shows every year, including performances by Latin Grammy Award winners like Alejandro Sanz and all-Spanish productions like “EnParejaDos.”
The Orlando Museum of Art houses more than 900 works of art from ancient America, including Mayan, Peruvian and Incan art and crafts, and 160 Mexican Chupicuaro figurines – the most comprehensive collection of its kind among museums in the Southeast United States.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, was built as a worship house for Catholic tourists and Disney workers, but the Latin Rite basilica has become a tourist attraction, too. It still holds services, but many visitors come for the modern architecture and the eight-foot sculpture of Mary.
What to eat
José Andrés, the inventive Spanish chef who brought the small plates dining concept to America, delivers modern Spanish cuisine in Disney Springs with Jaleo. Go for authentic tapas, Spanish cheeses and wines, and classic Valencia paella. “Sangria Hour” is 3 p.m.-6 p.m.
In the nearby Mills 50 District, an influx of newcomers from Mexico, Puerto Rico and other countries have created an affordable dining hub that boasts global eats. Go to the hip Black Bean Deli for papas rellenas, pan con lechon and signature Cuban sandwiches. Black Rooster Taqueria offers tacos and achiote bowls, and Tako Cheena fuses Korean and Latin flavors to make tasty treats like the Korean beef burrito.
Sitting atop the new, 15-story Gran Destino Tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, is Toledo – Tapas, Steak and Seafood restaurant, a dramatic rooftop dining experience inspired by surrealist art and the 1930s avant-garde movement. A hand-cut Spanish chuletón for two, along with Spanish olive oil-braised octopus, tapas dishes, and Spanish cheeses and wines, are featured on the menu.
The Epcot Mexico Pavilion has a great tequila bar, La Cava Del Tequila, a small, cool retreat for grown-ups with over 150 options that cover the gamut of blancos, reposados, añejos, and mezcals. One of the best restaurants in Epcot’s World Showcase, Cantina de San Angel is based on a historic Mexico City monastery that has been turned into one of the top restaurants in Mexico. Its menu boasts authentic dishes like cochinita pibil, camarones al Ajillo, tortilla soup, rice pudding and flan.
Where to go
The historic heart of Latin life in Miami is Little Havana. Although Nicaraguans, Hondurans and other newcomers from Central and South America now populate this Miami neighborhood, earning it the nickname “Little Managua,” it’s still widely regarded as the most famous neighborhood for Cuban exiles in the world. More than 60% of the people who live in Greater Miami speak Spanish, but in this enclave you can bet it’s more like 100%. Cuban coffee stands, fruit stands, cigar rollers, monuments and shops line the district just west of downtown Miami. Start at the Little Havana Visitor Center for maps, tours and must-see sights, such as the Walk of Fame along Southwest 8th Street, which pays tribute to Cuban and Latin cultural figures with stars bearing the names of Willy Chirino, Sammy Sosa and Gloria Estefan, among others. Cuban Memorial Plaza marks the pain of exiles in a string of seven monuments that includes a 16-foot raised map of Cuba. In Maximo Gomez Park, aka Domino Park, Cuban old-timers still gather to slap down dominoes.
The Freedom Tower is Miami’s version of Ellis Island. Now a contemporary art museum, the National Historic Landmark was built in 1925 as a home for The Miami News newspaper, but the tower became an immigration processing center for Cubans seeking refuge in Miami from 1962 to 1974. Salsa legend Celia Cruz was laid in state here upon her death, with more than 200,000 turning out to pay last respects.
Key Biscayne – Florida’s most Latin island, with a 67% Hispanic population – is an affluent enclave just south of downtown Miami. Two of its parks – Crandon Park and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park – are consistently ranked among the best beaches in the world. Join early-morning cyclists for a shot of Cuban coffee in the morning at Oasis Café then stop for a post-beach bite of tostones or croquetas at Novecento Argentinian restaurant.
The Ancient Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach was first constructed in A.D. 1133 in northern Spain and inhabited by monks for nearly 700 years. In 1925, William Randolph Hearst purchased and shipped the cloisters to the United States, where it was eventually rebuilt and reopened as a tourist attraction in 1964. It’s now an active church that welcomes visitors with tours and concerts.
HistoryMiami is a Smithsonian-affiliated museum in downtown Miami that regularly explores the Latin roots of the city through Miami hip-hop culture, 20th century Afro-Cuban folk art, Afro-Cuban Orisha religion (Santería) artifacts and other exhibits.
What to do
On the third Friday of every month, Viernes Culturales is an outdoor street party and gallery walk showcasing Little Havana’s arts scene.
Carnaval Miami is a week-long showcase of Cuban culture in March, culminating with the Calle Ocho Festival, the nation’s largest Hispanic street festival. More than 1 million people flock to 12 stages spread out over 19 blocks, with live music and Latin food kiosks filling Southwest 8th Street.
Jai-alai, the fastest sport in the world, is a rowdy social event weekly at The Casino at Dania Beach, where spectators bet on players hurling balls almost 200 miles per hour.
Miami International Film Festival is the preeminent film festival showcasing Ibero-American cinema. It’s held every October in theaters throughout Miami.
The Florida Day of the Dead Celebration in Fort Lauderdale is one of the largest Día de Muertos celebrations in the United States. The city, along with the Consulate General of Mexico, hosts the early November parade of 1,000 skeletons and more than 40 puppets, followed by Mariachi musicians. Other South Florida festivals celebrating Latin music, food and culture include the Hollywood Salsa Festival in April and Miramar’s Latin Music Festival in September.
Where to explore art
In downtown Miami, Pérez Art Museum Miami is a contemporary art museum that highlights Miami’s diverse community and pivotal geographic location at the crossroads of the Americas. Its Latin American and Latinx Art Fund supports exhibits by such artists as Peru’s José Carlos Martinat, Portuguese-born Pedro Neves Marques and Bogotá-based Beatriz González. The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County regularly presents Latin artists and hosts one of the largest flamenco festivals outside of Spain every March. Microtheatre Miami stages one-act English and Spanish plays in shipping containers in a courtyard that includes a bar and food trucks for stops between the 15-minute, 15-seat plays. CCEMiami regularly hosts art exhibits and films by Spanish and Latin America artists.
In Little Havana, historic Ball & Chain bar and music hall features Latin house DJs, salsa and live jazz. At CubaOcho, the story of Cuba is told via rotating art, music performances and a bar specializing in rum.
In Key West, the San Carlos Institute was founded in 1871 by Cuban exiles as a museum, art gallery, theater and school. Jose Marti united the exile community here to launch the final phase of his campaign for Cuba’s independence.
What to eat
Café La Trova is a retro Cuban hot spot in Little Havana. It’s the result of a partnership between influential Cuban-American cantinero Julio Cabrera and his friend, James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein. Order 1950s-inspired Cuban drinks like the El Presidente, Hotel Nacional or a classic daiquiri to sip alongside paella croquetas, calabaza-and-black-garlic empanadas and vaca frita.
If Café La Trova represents nuevo Miami then Versailles Restaurant & Bakery is the old-fashioned gold standard of Cuban food. The landmark Little Havana restaurant and coffee window has been ground zero for Cuban exiles since it opened in 1971. It serves palomilla steaks, maduros, croquetas and other classic Cuban fare.
For a frita, or Cuban hamburger, topped with fried shoestring potatoes head to El Rey de las Fritas or El Mago de las Fritas on Calle Ocho. Fresh tropical fruit juice – mamey, papaya, mango, guava, soursop, tamarind, passionfruit and more – from one of the nine El Palacio de los Jugos around town is a must. End a Little Havana visit at Azucar Ice Cream Co. for artisanal Latin scoops like ruby red mamey or creamy avocado with condensed milk.
In Midtown Miami, Enriqueta’s Sandwich Shop is a popular Cuban breakfast and lunch spot for working stiffs and Wynwood hipsters. La Camaronera Seafood Joint and Fish Market is an iconic seafood spot founded by a family of Cuban fishermen that sells stellar snapper sandwiches and fried shrimp.
Based in Broward County, the Vilariño family operates 15 Las Vegas restaurants throughout South Florida that sell hearty portions of affordable Cuban fare.