The influence of the Hispanic world began in 1565 with the establishment of the oldest continuous European community in the United States – Saint Augustine. The entire state was under Spanish rule for some 240 years before the final “purchase” by the USA in 1821. People of Hispanic background, particularly from Cuba, remained part of the development of the state up until today.
In 1822 Joseph Marion Hernandez of Florida became the first Hispanic American to serve in the United States Congress. 130 years later Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, born in Havana, became the first Hispanic women elected to Congress.
If you want to study the role of Hispanics in Florida’s long history, here is a list of some of the places where that story comes alive with buildings and events. Logically any tour on this topic begins in Saint Augustine. Here is was the first Hispanic population in the Florida settled and while most of St. George Street are reproductions, it is based upon drawings of the original street in the early 1700’s.
The Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest structure in Saint Augustine, protected the town folk from four invasions that destroyed most of the dwellings. Less visited but less crowded is Fort Matanzas, located on an island protecting the city from an attack from the South.
The first Catholic service in the United States was performed near where the Nombre de Dios chapel is located. It makes an interesting contrast photograph with the enormous modern cross monument in the background. The oldest Catholic diocese is centered in the downtown square at the 1797 Cathedral Basilica. Do go inside to see the interior. The statue in the courtyard is Father Felix Varela, born in Cuba, raised in Saint Augustine, and famous as a priest representing the early Irish Catholic immigrant in New York City. Father Varela has been nominated for sainthood by people in both Cuba and the United States.
The Tiny Chapel of Saint Augustine
Walking along St. George Street, you will discover that the majority of buildings are exact reproductions of Saint Augustine in the first decade of the eighteenth century. Besides being heavily damaged by four attacks on the city, many Spanish destroyed their properties when they left in 1821 since the Americans weren’t going to purchase a property unless it had something of value like a liquor license. The best property to visit is the Pena-Peck House (1750) at 143 St. George Street, for this was the Treasury Office where most of the town’s residents – soldiers, priests, and port workers were paid by the Spanish Government.
The Pena-Peck House
The other Spanish town in Florida was Pensacola, the capital of Spanish West Florida. Little property dates from the Spanish period excepting the Lavalle House and Fort San Carlos de Barrancas. The museums at the Square contain a great deal of Spanish artifacts and historical material.
The LaValle Cottage
The Panhandle had a lot of Catholic missions, long since gone, but outside Tallahassee is a wonderful reproduction of Mission San Luis, the center of a vast mission system centered in Apalachee Indian country. The location is not just a real archaeological dig site, the attraction has reproduced the mission, the church, and meeting center where priests and Indians preyed and worked together.
At Mission San Luis: A Tribal Meeting House
Down the Gulf Coast, west of Bradenton on the Manatee River is the DeSoto National Memorial, the most impressive of several historic sites honoring the Spanish conquistadors that explored La Florida. Scholars debate where DeSoto landed, but this site has a replica of a Spanish village and a great history museum describing the early visits to Florida by Europeans.
A Lecture On DeSoto and the Florida Tribes
Although Cuban fishermen operated villages in Tampa Bay in the 1600’s, Tampa’s rich Hispanic heritage originates mainly with the arrival of Vicente Martinez Ybor and the cigar industry in the 1880’s. Ybor City, the Latin Quarter just northeast of downtown, is the place to take in a large historic district with the Latin clubs, stores, restaurants, and even some cigar factories. Ybor City mixed Spanish, Cuban, Afro-Cuban, and Italian workers with German cigar box artists and American and British investors.
If you visit Ybor City walk down Seventh Avenue from 22nd Street where Florida’s oldest restaurant, The Columbia, is located, to 13th Street past the Italian Club and the Centro Espanol, now part of a huge entertainment complex. If you go north on 13th over the trolley tracks to 9th Avenue, you see the Ybor Square Factory, Ybor’s largest cigar factory in the United States. On the east steps Jose Marti summoned the Cuban workers to support the fight for Cuban Independence.
Opposite the south side of the factory is the Jose Marti Shrine and Park, donated to the people of Cuba by the people of Tampa. Here once stood the home of Afro-Cuban leader Paulina Pedrosa. The garden here represents both some of Marti’s poems and the spot where Marti forgave one of the Spanish agents who tried to poison him at a reception.
Miami has been the home of Cuban exiles in the earliest days of the town, but the gigantic influx of Cubans after the takeover by Fidel Castro in the 1950’s made Miami 54% Cuban and 70% Hispanic. The city is sprinkled with Hispanic attractions. The best tour is down Calle Ocho from downtown in Coral Gables with at stop at a restaurant and a bakery or quick service spot. The Domino Club at Maximo Gomez Park and the Bay of Pigs Museum at 1824 SW 9th Street are two key locations.
General Gomez Guards The Domino Games
Key West is filled with buildings showing its Hispanic past, but the most impressive ones developed after the failed Cuban Revolution in the 1860’s when hundreds of Cuban cigarmakers and many cigar manufacturers left Cuba for better economic and political security. Local guides do a good job of located the island areas of interest.
The Gato Factory in Key West
My favorite places in Key West related to Cuban-Hispanic history are the Cuban Club at 1108 DuVal Street, the Armas de Oro Cigar Factory, and the 1890 Cigar Workers Union Hall.