News Column

Hispanics Beat the Mayflower to America by 107 Years

Jan. 24, 2013

Daniel Shoer Roth

Juan Ponce de Leon meets Agueybana (Agustin Anavitate, U.S. Dept. of Defense)
Juan Ponce de Leon meets Agueybana (Agustin Anavitate, U.S. Dept. of Defense)

The delicate, fresh breeze coming from Washington caresses softly the face of Hispanic identity in the United States.

Hispanics, the country's largest minority, feel for the first time vindicated, appreciated and represented in government. Words like Dios and the polite greeting of buenos dias leaked into optimistic speeches, blessings and poetry at President Barack Obama's inauguration, in which three Hispanics -- two Cuban Americans with roots in Miami -- found their way into the contemporary history of the nation that covered them or their ancestors in a warm mantle of freedom and in the pursuit of happiness.

The Hispanic boom, their contribution to U.S. society in multiple levels and their growing political influence have been defined and celebrated as a recent phenomenon reflected in Monday's inauguration. The ethnic diversity and the election of the first African-American president have also been heralded as evidence that the U.S. has finally overcome the racial barrier.

While all of this is true and plausible, it's not exactly new. There is a connection to the past that goes back to 1513, when Hispanic presence in North America began with the landing of intrepid Spanish explorers and missionaries in Florida 107 years before the English vessel Mayflower anchored in New England.

This year we mark half a millennium since the first official European conquistador in the U.S., Juan Ponce de Leon, spotted unknown territory in the distance on March 27, 1513, while searching for an island of reputed wealth called Bimini. He named it Florida in honor of the Pascua Florida, as Easter Sunday is called in Spanish.

Miami has planned a long list of cultural events to highlight the historic landmark. Activities will be honored with the presence of the King and Queen of Spain, Juan Carlos and Sofia, who, according to the Royal Palace's preliminary plans, will visit the city during the first week of May.

The organizers of the commemoration aim to expose a larger audience to a poorly understood chapter of colonial history, because traditional narratives tend to focus on the English colonization of the U.S., while overlooking almost three centuries of Spanish presence -- a longer period than the time between the Declaration of Independence and the present.

Much of the discussion about the 500 years has focused on questioning where exactly in the peninsula Ponce de Leon landed. Yet it would be much more relevant to understand how his journey helped shape U.S. history, as well as the role of Hispanics in its development. Logically, the colonization of any place has a bloody side, from both violence and contagious diseases, and the one left behind by the Spanish conquistadors was no exception.

However, little is said about the aid they provided, with money and weapons, to the patriots of the 13 Colonies in their independence war against Great Britain. Hispanic missionaries taught indigenous communities innovative methods of planting, irrigating and harvesting fruits and vegetables. It was under Spanish rule that in 1738 Fort Mose, north of St. Augustine, was established as the first free black settlement in what would become the U.S., while in many of the British colonies blacks were still enslaved.

With the Cross of Burgundy as a national emblem, the Spaniards extended their colony through a vast region that went as far west as California. It was not until 1819 that the U.S. secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, signed the Adams-Onis Treaty that ceded Florida to the U.S. Three years later, Florida became a U.S. territory, then a state in 1845.

During the previous Spanish colonial mandate, the diversity of Florida communities was remarkable. There were Spanish and Portuguese residents, Germans, Flemish and French, mixed with natives and blacks. Even the first Irish priest registered in North America, Richard Arthur, was a pastor in St. Augustine.

Beginning particularly in 1848, after the peace Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the U.S. and Mexico, Hispanics came to have second-class status in a second chapter of the Hispanic presence in North America, a time when the Spanish imprint begins to fade away.

Only a few years ago, a new chapter was opened in which Hispanic culture has reemerged and the influence of the descendants of those first explorers was pivotal in Obama's reelection.

If demographic projections come true, everything indicates that the future will bear a closer resemblance to a distant past, and that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, poet Richard Blanco and Episcopal pastor Luis Leon are the present.

Source: (c) 2013 The Miami Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services

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