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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

September, October, and Cinco de Mayo

Just in case no one told you, we are in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month. It will end October 15, a few days after we celebrate the Columbus fleet’s first sighting of the Western Hemisphere, which probably was Watling Island in the Bahamas, on October 12, 1492. Hispanic Heritage Month begins on September 15 because on that day in 1821, Spain granted independence to five Central American nations: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. On September 16, 1810, precedents for independence were set by Chile and Mexico.

This is confusing for most of us, because we think of Cinco de Mayo, which we celebrate in May, as Mexican Independence Day. In fact, Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexican victory over a French army on May 5, 1862. French, you say? Yes, there was a period when France, under Napoleon III, invaded Mexico and tried to establish the Napoleonic code of conservative government and strong Catholicism that had prevailed in Louisiana when Napoleon I sold it to the US in 1803. Nor did the wanna-be Bonapartes quit when they lost on Cinco de Mayo. Instead, with help from upper-class Mexicans, Austrian Archduke Maxmillian and his Belgian wife, Carlotta, were crowned emperor and empress of Mexico in 1864.

This made strategic sense because during the 1860s, the United States was busy with its own civil war. Had the liberal Mexicans not repulsed the French army, it is possible that the Napoleonic types would have allied with the Confederate States of America – and then who knows what? We do indeed live in a complex world, and globalism should be more thoroughly viewed as a valid part of American history.

And we should teach more diplomatic history, making the diplomats who prevent war equal to the generals who lead them. We don’t. Kids in the Northwest, for example, probably don’t understand that they could be Canadians, not Americans, if the “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight” hotheads of the 1840s had not given in to peaceful settlement of the border between the Oregon Territory and Canada. Ironically, a large part of the reason that diplomacy prevailed there was, sadly enough, because the US was getting ready to go to war with Mexico over Texas and California.

Which brings us back to Hispanic Heritage Month. I have tried to convince more than one publisher that history textbooks ought to begin with the fact that none of our currently largest states was originally English-speaking. The four most populous states (with almost a third of the total US population) are California, Texas, Florida, and New York. New York began as the Dutch-speaking colony of New Amsterdam, while Californians, Texans, and especially Floridians spoke Spanish for a very long time. We Florida historians are fond of pointing out that it will be 2055 before the US flag will have flown over Florida as long as the Spanish flag did.

And Women Were Always There

Christopher Columbus, that visionary sailor of 1492, used maps that he obtained from his mother-in-law. His historic journey, in fact, owed a great deal to women. Born Italian, he moved to Portugal and managed to marry an affluent, educated woman. They lived in the Madeira Islands – then the edge of the known world – but returned to Lisbon before her premature death in 1485. With his five-year-old son, Columbus (or more properly, Colombo) sought help in Huelva, on Spain’s southern shore, where his only contact was his late wife’s sister.

As everyone knows, he finally was able to make his risky scientific venture because of the financial support of Spanish Queen Isabella. She was a co-equal monarch with her husband Ferdinand, as would be their daughter, Juana. Everyone also knows that there were three ships on the first voyage – but the second, in 1493, had seventeen. Nevertheless, on both trips, he sailed into the “tiny port” of Gomera in the Canary Islands to pay court to Ines Peraza de Garcia, who was governor there, again seeking support from a woman.

Juan Ponce de Leon was a teenage sailor on the 1493 venture, and nine years later, he was fortunate enough to marry one of the few Spanish women in the Caribbean. Leonor Bint Pedro was a native of Sevilla, and their 1502 wedding took place in Santa Domingo, where her family recently had built an inn. She was constantly pregnant and/or nursing during the next six years, and they had four children when they moved to Puerto Rico in 1508. She would govern that island during his frequent absences, which included the first expedition to Florida in 1513. Beatrice and Juana Jimenez accompanied de Leon on that trip, and they explored from today’s Melbourne area down to the Keys and other southwestern islands.

After securing the marriages and dowries of his children, de Leon returned to Florida in 1521. This, too, was a multi-ship venture of some two hundred people, including women. They went as far as today’s Sanibel before the fiercest of Florida tribes, the Calusa, repelled them. De Leon took an arrow in his leg, infection set in, and he died in Cuba a few months later. Other Europeans briefly visited Florida, but no one attempted a major invasion until 1528, when Panfilo de Narvaez led three ships from Cuba. Women also sailed with him.

They disembarked at Tampa Bay, where Narvaez decided to march north with some three hundred soldiers, while ordering a hundred men and “ten married women” back onboard. He told the ship’s captain to sail along the coast and meet the army further north. It was a thoughtless plan: no one knew what lay ahead or even if Florida was an island or a peninsula, and the two groups never found each other.

One of the women had the temerity to warn Narvaez that he was heading to doom. She apparently had a reputation for wisdom, as “Narvaez had consulted with the soothsaying woman at other times.” This time, however, he ignored her, and in a saga of disaster on all sides for both natives and Spanish, eventually Narvaez and all but four of his men perished.

Back at Tampa Bay, when the groups separated in May 1528, the clairvoyant told the other women to assume that they were widows. They sailed for nearly a year, vainly searching the coastline. Narvaez’s wife, Maria de Valenzuela, also vainly sent search parties. She brought a significant amount of money to their marriage and already had spent a fortune rescuing her husband from misadventures in Mexico. This time, however, years would pass before she knew she was a widow.

Narvaez’s cruelty to natives made them wary of Hernando de Soto, who repeated the pattern of terrorism in 1539. At least a dozen Spanish women – perhaps more – traveled with de Soto’s expedition north from Tampa Bay. They included Francisca Hinestrosa, who was pregnant when she was killed in battle with natives near today’s Memphis, Tennessee. De Soto died, too, and his body dumped into the Mississippi River. Meanwhile, his wife, Isabella Bobadilla, governed Cuba; her father had been governor of both Panama and Nicaragua. Her servant, Ana Mendez, went with her husband, perhaps as a concubine. Mendez was one of the few survivors, and she testified on her experience before a Spanish court in 1560.

A Tampa Bay Mystery

With both Narvaez and de Soto launching their disasters from Tampa Bay, that should not have been the landing choice for Father Luis Cancer in 1549 – but he presumed heavenly protection when he came here from Vera Cruz, Mexico. He had gone there from Cuba specifically to recruit a woman called Magdalena, who was known to be a native Floridian. How she had gotten to Mexico from Florida is unknown, and whether or not she deceived him also is unknown. I’ve wondered from time to time if I could find the answer in Cuba, now that its archives may be open to researchers.

So, Magdalena could have followed Father Luis’ intent to go to Tampa Bay to convert its natives to Catholicism, or she may have led the sailors to its deep-water harbor because she knew it best – or she may have slyly taken this opportunity to return home, while repaying the Spanish for the harm they had caused her people. In any case, when Father Luis disembarked, “he was cruelly murdered by the Indians in plain view.” The ship quickly set sail for Havana, leaving “Magdalena among the barbarians.” But she herself could not possibly be deemed a barbarian, as her experience reveals much ability in navigation, language, and perhaps sabotage.

Spanish colonists made one more major attempt to settle Florida before final success, and that was at Pensacola Bay. Tristan de Luna, a nobleman from Aragon, led as many as a thousand people from Vera Cruz, Mexico. They landed on August 14, 1559 – and on August 20, a hurricane struck. Their supplies destroyed, they rather stupidly moved inland and away from seafood. They ended up eating “leaves and twigs,” and some were poisoned by unfamiliar plants. Like Massachusetts natives and English colonists later, “Indians…brought maize, vegetables, and fruits,” keeping most of the newcomers alive until a ship arrived late the next year. Disappointed by La Florida, all survivors eventually returned to Havana.

French Protestants were the only non-Spanish to try to colonize Florida. Catherine de Medici, who effectively ruled France, wanted them out of her Catholic country, and in an alliance of two enemies for a common cause, England’s Queen Elizabeth helped fund these Huguenots. At least four women were among the 300 men who departed in 1564. They settled on the St. Johns River near modern Jacksonville, and some 500 men and seventy women would join their settlement, called Fort Caroline, the next year. Spanish spies were keeping an eye on them, however, and attacked just days after the second arrivals came, on September 20, 1565. Most of the French men were chained together and hacked to death with axes and swords, while about fifty women became prisoners of war. You may know the site as Matanzas, “place of slaughter.”

Spanish troops did not have far to go to Fort Caroline, for they had quickly established a base at St. Augustine. Unlike other expeditions, this one came directly from Spain, with Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his wife, Ana Maria de Solis, leading some 2,600 people, including women and children. With blacks and whites, they built a lasting colony. Please never forget that we Floridians have America’s oldest city, begun with a Catholic mass of thanksgiving on September 10, 1565. And remember, too, that none of these were lone male adventurers: instead, America was settled by planned expeditions funded by governments.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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