Surrealism in St. Pete: Tour The Dalí (Salvador Dali Museum)

By Carlos Harrison

Whether it’s conquistadors or the conga, artists, athletes or astronauts, Florida’s Hispanic 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.

Juan Ponce de Leon statue in St. Augustine

Juan Ponce de Leon was Florida’s first and, arguably, most famous Hispanic influencer. This statue of him stands in St. Augustine.

- Chris Joy for VISIT FLORIDA

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.

Clever, huh?

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.

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Ellen Ochoa

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.

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Fulgencio Batista

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.

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Gloria Estefan’s Costa d’ Este hotel in Vero Beach, exterior

You’ll find Gloria Estefan’s Costa d’ Este hotel on the sands of the Treasure Coast.

- Taylor Fuller for VISIT FLORIDA

Gloria Estefan

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.

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Romero Britto

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.

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The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, inside the dome

The Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg holds more than 2,400 of the artist’s pieces, including oil paintings, drawings, books, prints, sculpture, and photos.

- Bill Serne for VISIT FLORIDA

Salvador Dali

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.”

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Jose Gaspar

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.

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More Latin Celebrities with Florida Connections

Check out these actors, singers, sports figures and politicians linked to the Sunshine State.

Marc Anthony
The top-selling tropical salsa artist of all time, this American singer, songwriter, and actor lives in Miami and became a minority owner of the Miami Dolphins in 2009. He was engaged to Miss Universe Paraguay, Nadia Ferreira, in 2022. In 2023, the couple was married at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami.

Andy Garcia
American actor, director and musician Andy Garcia was born in Cuba and moved to Miami when he was five years old. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Vincent Mancini in The Godfather Part III, he attended Miami Beach Senior High and graduated from Florida International University in Miami.

This iconic American rapper, singer, songwriter, businessman and actor was born in Miami, attended high school there; and his debut album was titled M.I.A.M.I.. He still owns a home in Florida.

Jennifer Lopez
American actress, dancer and singer Jennifer Lopez bought her first home in Miami in 2002, a Spanish-style mansion that she sold for $13.9 million in 2005. In 2020, when she was still in a relationship with Alex Rodriguez, the couple made headlines when they purchased a $32.5 million waterfront mansion on Miami's famed Star Island.

Ricky Martin
Heralded as the ‘king of Latin pop,’ this Puerta Rican singer, songwriter and actor received the key to the city of Miami Beach in 2007, and owned a Miami home for some time.

Perez Hilton
Born in Miami and raised in Little Havana, American blogger, columnist, and media personality Perez Hilton is nicknamed ‘the original celebrity social media influencer.’

DJ Laz
This Cuban-American rapper and DJ hosted his weekday radio show in Miami, "Power 96," on WPOW 96.5 FM for 22 years before leaving the company in April of 2012. In 2021, he united with Miami's new 90's station, Totally 93.9, hosting weekday afternoons.

Willy Chirino
Grammy-winning Cuban-American artist Willy Chirino composed and sang what became an international anthem for Cubans called “Nuestro día ya viene llegando” (“Our Day is Coming”). He quotes, “I always say that Cuba saw my birth, but Miami saw my growth.” He has an exhibit showcasing his life and music at the HistoryMiami Museum, Willy Chirino: 50 Years of Music.

Chris Núñez
A Miami native, this tattoo artist and entrepreneur formerly owned Handcrafted Tattoo and Art Gallery in Fort Lauderdale. After nearly 30 years in the trade, Núñez rose to fame after being featured on Miami Ink and becoming a judge on Ink Master. He currently owns Liberty City Tattoo in Wynwood-Miami.

Sofia Vergara
A Colombian-American actress and model, Sofia Vergara emigrated to Miami in 1998, and was married to True Blood star Joe Manganiello in Palm Beach in 2015.

Jon Secada
This Cuban-born American singer and songwriter was awarded two Grammys and has sold 15 million records. He emigrated to Miami in 1971, was raised in Hialeah, and currently lives in a not-so-humble 7,284 square-foot abode near the University of Miami, his alma mater, in Coral Gables.

Celia Cruz
With bragging right as the "Queen of Salsa," when Cuban-American Salsa singer Celia Cruz died in New Jersey in 2003, her mortal remains were transferred to Miami for two days to receive the tribute of her Cuban exile admirers. The late artist has a street named after her located in Calle Ocho; a monument dedicated to her in the Cuban Heritage Park in Hialeah; and numerous murals created in her honor throughout South Florida.

Paulina Rubio
Nicknamed "The Golden Girl" and "Queen of Latin Pop," this Mexican singer has sold more than 15 million records, catapulting her into the elite club of the top-selling Latin music artists. She lives in Miami in a waterfront mansion once featured on "MTV Cribs."

Bella Thorne
Born in Pembroke Pines, a suburb of Miami, to Cuban and Italian parents, this actress and pop star’s first language was Spanish. She started acting as a child to support her family after her father’s death. Her breakout roles were in HBO’s Big Love and the Disney Channel sitcom Shake It Up.

Wilmer Valderrama
Born in Miami, and best known for his role as Fez in That 70's Show, the acclaimed actor also tours as Global Ambassador for the United Service Organizations (USO), works with voting rights organization Voto Latino, and co-founded the non-profit Harness.

Eva Mendes
Born in Miami to Cuban parents, American actress, model and fashion designer Eva Mendes got her start in B horror movies in the late 90s prior to breakout roles in Training Day and 2 Fast 2 Furious. She’s worked as a spokesmodel with brands that include Revlon, Pantene, and Calvon Klein; made appearances in music videos; and designed for New York & Company.

Carlos Arroyo
A Puerto Rican former professional basketball player and reggaeton singer, Arroyo played in National Basketball Association teams that include the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat. He studied at Florida International University and recently sold his Pinecrest, Florida home for $5.05 million.

Amy Dumas
Of Puerto Rican and Mexican-American descent, pro wrestler and four-time WWE champion Amy Dumas is best known by her ring name of ‘Lita.’ She was born in Fort Lauderdale but launched her wrestling career in Mexico in the late 90s with the Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre before going independent.

Moises Alou
A Dominican-American former outfielder in Major League Baseball who played for 17 seasons, Alou signed as a free agent with the Florida Marlins and proved to be a powerhouse, leading them to a win in the 1997 World Series. He currently lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Jose Canseco
Dubbed El Cañonero Cubano (The Cuban Cannon), this former Major League Baseball player attended Miami Coral Park High School and was part of the 1982 graduating class. He made his professional baseball debut with the Miami Marlins of the Florida State League; was the first player in Major League Baseball history to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in one season; and had a home in Weston, Florida until 2002.

Kiko Alonso
A former American football linebacker, Alonso played three seasons with the Miami Dolphins, from 2016-2018, and bought a home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2017.

Luis Castillo
Born in Dominican Republic, this former Major League Baseball second baseman played nine seasons with the Florida Marlins.

Miguel Cabrera
A third baseman for the Florida Marlins for five seasons, this 12-time MLB All-Star helped the team win the 2003 World Series Championship in his rookie season.

Al Avila
In 1992, this Cuban baseball executive teamed up with the Florida Marlins as the assistant director of Latin American operations. He steadily moved up the ranks, with roles that included director of scouting for the Marlins in 1998; interim general manager for the Marlins during the 2001 off-season; and Marlins vice president and assistant general manager in July 2001.

Jorge Mas
With an estimated worth of 1 billion U.S. dollars as of early 2022, this American businessman graduated from the University of Miami and the University of Miami School of Business. He’s the chairman and largest shareholder of MasTec, a Miami-based construction and engineering company; chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation; managing owner of Inter Miami CF, a Miami-based Major League Soccer team; and president of Real Zaragoza, a Spanish football club.

Fredi Gonzalez
This Cuban-born American baseball coach and manager grew up in Miami and attended Southridge High School. He managed the Florida Marlins from 2007 to 2010.

Alex Rodriguez
Nicknamed “A-Rod,” former Major League Baseball player Alex Rodriguez helped the Yankees win the 2009 World Series, was named an All-Star 14 times, and won three American League MVP Awards. He used to live in Miami Beach with ex-fiancé Jennifer Lopez and currently resides in a mind-blowing Coral Gables mansion.

Ellen Ochoa
In 1993, NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman to fly to space, serving on a nine-day mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Born in Cuba in 1952, this politician represented Florida's 27th congressional district from 1989 to 2019. She was the first Cuban-American elected to Congress and the first Republican woman elected to the House from Florida.

Xavier Suarez
Suarez was the first Cuban-born mayor of the City of Miami, serving three terms. He’s the father of the current mayor, Francis Suarez.

Maria Elvira Salazar
Born in Little Havana in Miami, this American journalist, author and politician serves as the U.S. representative for Florida's 27th congressional district. Before entering the political arena, she worked as a news anchor for Miami-based WSBS TV, followed by three decades with the Spanish-language network Telemundo.

Carlos Gimenez
A retired career firefighter, this Cuban-born American politician served as mayor of Miami-Dade County from 2011 to 2020. He now serves as the U.S. representative for Florida's 28th congressional district.

Mel Martinez
Cuban-American lobbyist and former politician Mel Martinez served as a United States Senator from Florida from 2005 to 2009; as general chairman of the Republican Party from 2006 until 2007; and was a former HUD Secretary.

Carlos Alvarez
This Cuban-American politician served as Miami’s mayor from 2004 to 2011.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart
A Cuban-American attorney and politician, Lincoln Diaz-Balart served as a U.S. Representative for Florida's 21st congressional district from 1993 to 2011. His younger brother, Mario Diaz-Balart, who had previously represented Florida's 25th congressional district, succeeded him. Mario Diaz-Balart currently serves as the U.S. representative for Florida's 26th congressional district.

Manny Diaz
Cuban-American politician Manny Diaz was Miami’s mayor from 2001 to 2009, and served as the chair of the Florida Democratic Party from 2021 to 2023.

Maurice Ferre
This late American politician (1935 –2019) served six terms as the Mayor of Miami, making him the first Puerto Rican-born United States mayor and the first Latino mayor of Miami.

Miguel Diaz De La Portilla
Born in Miami, Miguel Díaz de la Portilla is a Cuban-American attorney and politician who was a member of the Miami-Dade County Commission from 1993 to 2000. He served in the Florida Senate from 2010 to 2016, representing parts of Miami, Coral Gables, and the surrounding areas.

Jeanette Nunez
Miami native Jeanette Marie Nuñez is an American businesswoman and politician. She’s served as the 20th lieutenant governor of Florida since 2019.

Places to remember