Miami’s Hispanic Heritage

Maximo Gomez Park in Miami's Little Havana

By: Frank De Varona

The Hispanic presence in Greater Miami precedes the founding of the first permanent British settlement in the United States at Jamestown, Virginia, by 94 years. In the spring of 1513, several weeks after Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León made landfall in the vicinity of Melbourne, Florida; he sailed into Biscayne Bay.

Another Hispanic, Hernando d’Escalante Fontaneda, arrived in the present-day area of Greater Miami when his ship was shipwrecked off the coast. D’Escalante, born in Colombia, was only 13 years old at the time, and he lived among the Tequesta Indians for almost two decades. He was “rescued” by the founder of Florida, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who, after founding St. Augustine in 1565, sailed into the present-day Miami River.

Menéndez established a fort and a mission among the Tequestas in 1567 and left Jesuit Brother Francisco Villareal with the task of converting the Indians to Christianity. Hernando d’Escalante

The first Spanish mission among the Tequestas lasted for a few years. The Spanish tried a century and a half later to establish another mission in the area. In 1743, Father Joseph Xavier de Alaña and a group of soldiers arrived at the old site among the Tequestas and founded a fort and a mission called Pueblo de Santa María de Loreto. This second effort to settle the Miami area also failed.

Apart from that early Hispanic presence in present-day Greater Miami, South Florida remained largely forgotten for several hundred years. Due to the efforts of pioneer Julia Tuttle, who persuaded Henry Flagler to extend his Florida East Coast Railway southward, the City of Miami was born on July 28, 1896. The new city had approximately 800 residents.

Some Hispanics began arriving in South Florida from the 1930s to the 1950s as Caribbean nations, including Cuba, began experiencing economic and political instability. It was, however, the coming to power of Fidel Castro and his establishment of a Communist dictatorship in Cuba that brought tens of thousands of Cuban refugees to Greater Miami.

During 1959 and the early 1960s, Cubans coming to South Florida were mostly from upper and middle socioeconomic classes. Because they were educated and received financial assistance from the federal government, they made a quick and successful adjustment to U.S. society. Subsequent Cuban influxes brought refugees from all social classes. The failure to overthrow Castro during the Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961 increased the exodus of Cuban immigrants as the dream of a free Cuba began to fade away for many.

Thousands more arrived in 1965 when Castro opened the port of Camarioca and allowed Cubans to leave freely. Between 1966 and 1973, the so-called Freedom Flights brought approximately 300,000 Cubans to the United States. Another wave of immigration began in 1980 when Castro opened up the port of Mariel and invited Cubans who wanted to go to the United States to leave. In a three-month  period, 125,000 Cubans joined the Mariel boatlift and arrived in Greater Miami.

During the 1990s, as economic conditions in Cuba began to deteriorate rapidly and repression by the dictatorial Castro regime increased, many Cubans began arriving in South Florida in small boats and rafts. The trickle of balseros, or rafters, grew into a torrent. The United States government radically changed its policy of allowing refugees of Communist Cuba to enter the United States. Cubans were no longer allowed to enter the United States from Cuba except through legal immigration.

The U.S. Coast Guard in 1994 began to pick up balseros in the Straits of Florida and return them to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba. Eventually, 30,000 Cubans who were housed in deplorable conditions in Guantanamo were allowed to come to South Florida. In January 1996, the last group of balseros at Guantanamo was allowed to enter.

Cuban-Americans in Greater Miami, now numbering more than 770,000, have transformed the community that welcomed them. The small vacation resort of the 1950s is now a booming, cosmopolitan trade city called the “capital” or “gateway” to the Caribbean and Latin America.

Greater Miami served as the site of the Summit of the Americas, a hemispheric summit attended by all the heads of nations from Latin America and the United States, except Cuba, in December 1994. President Bill Clinton clearly selected Greater Miami as the summit headquarters due to its strategic location and its ever-increasing trade with the Caribbean and Latin America.

Other Hispanics have joined Cubans in making South Florida their home. The Marxist Sandinista regime and the ensuing civil war in Nicaragua during the 1970s and 1980s brought thousands of Nicaraguans to Greater Miami. Like the Cubans, Nicaraguans began to establish businesses, such as restaurants, shops and grocery stores. In addition, Greater Miami has a large community of Puerto Ricans. South Miami-Dade has a large number of Mexican migrants who work in the fields, and there are Mexicans in all professions throughout South Florida. Greater Miami is home to large numbers of Dominicans and Colombians as well.

Practically all countries in Latin America and Spain have citizens living in South Florida. Some are here studying and staying temporarily, while others are permanent residents or trying to become legal residents. Some wealthy South Americans reside part of the year here and commute back and forth to their primary country of origin where they have their residence and business.

Miami-Dade County’s Hispanic population has increased dramatically over the years. Today 59 percent of Greater Miami’s population is of Hispanic origin, with numbers of more than one million.

Greater Miami is today one of the most culturally diverse cities in the nation. There are many Spanish daily and weekly newspapers written by Hispanics born in different countries and many Spanish-language radio and television stations that broadcast the news and music of Latin American countries such as Cuba, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. The two major Spanish-language national television networks tape programs in Greater Miami and broadcast them throughout the United States, Latin America and Europe.

Today many Cuban Americans, who make up 60 percent of the Hispanic population in the area, and Hispanics of other nationalities occupy positions of great responsibility in business, labor, government, science and technology, education, religion, the arts and entertainment. The large availability of Spanish-speaking employees has brought millions of Hispanics from Spain and Latin America each year to visit the area and to do business. Its multilingual and multicultural makeup, as well as its strategic location, gives Greater Miami a competitive advantage to participate in the global economy.

Greater Miami with its abundant sunshine, 84 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline with pristine beaches and beautiful national parks, is an exciting, vibrant, international city confident of its future and poised to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

About the Author:

Frank De Varona is a retired Regional Superintendent for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. He currently teaches in the College of Education at Florida International University. De Varona has published 14 books and has worked as an editor, reviewer and consultant on another 30 books. De Varona fought in the Bay of Pigs Invasion and spent two years in a Cuban prison as a political prisoner.

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