At the Borders of Culture: Florida Past and Present
By Tina Bucuvalas
Most people dont know what to make of Florida. Many outsiders regard it as a destination where reality is fantasy. For families who make annual pilgrimages to sun and sand, it is a semi-tropical paradise bathed in the fond light of many memories. For many in North Florida it is a slow-moving, rural part of the old South, while in South Florida it is a frenetic, café cubano-fueled Latin/Caribbean city. Florida encompasses all those identities and has melded their elements to its subtropical environment to produce a variety of unique cultural syntheses.
How has this happened? In comparison to many places, Florida is new and constantly changing. Though a few can trace family roots back hundreds of years, most Floridians arrived within the last 50 years, many from foreign countries. Even Floridas Native Americans are relatively new: todays Seminoles and Miccosukees did not coalesce as a distinct people until the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. Thus, in order to understand Floridas unique cultural blends, it is important to look at the peoples that settled the state.
Cultural Migrations to Post-Conquest Florida
Even in the Age of Exploration, Florida was a place of fantasy. In search of riches, mythic cities and even the Fountain of Youth, the Spanish were the first Europeans to explore and settle Florida. They ruled it from 1513 to 1763 and from 1783 to 1821, founding St. Augustine in 1565long before the English attempted settlement to the north. Although their tenure was long, there are few direct cultural remains except among Spanish descendants in St. Augustine and along the panhandles Gulf Coast.
Crackers are the rural white settlers of Celtic heritage who trickled into Florida from Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Cracker culture reflected many traits derived from rural life in Scotland and Ireland. For example, Crackers maintained an economy based on open-range herding; a leisurely lifestyle with an emphasis on hospitality, food and drink, and outdoor sports; strong sense of honor, self-reliance and tenacity; and a tendency to take the law into their own hands. In Florida, Crackers created special adaptations of their lifestyle and technology for the different regional environments from the panhandle to the southwest. In north, central and southeast Florida they developed unique ranching traditions, while those in the southwest survived by fishing, growing sugar cane and collecting bird plumes. In the north-central region they raised hogs, gardens and hunted wild game, while river dwellers hunted gator and catfished. Many Floridians still take pride in their Cracker heritage, though today this ethnic group predominates only in rural areas of the north.
African Americans first came to Florida as participants in Spanish explorations and settlements. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many African-born blacks fled to Florida where military service and conversion to Catholicism provided a release from slavery. Thus by the mid-seventeenth century, communities of free blacks lived in St. Augustine and in Fort Mose. The latter, a fortified town built by the Spanish for runaway slaves, was the first legally sanctioned black town in the U.S. Other blacks preferred to associate with the Seminole in a benign form of servitude. Called the Black Seminole, they maintained separate villages near Seminole settlements where they raised crops and cattlea third of which they gave to their hosts. They also worked as translators and advisors to the Seminole.
African Americans continued to flow into Florida throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1887, Eatonville became the first black incorporated municipality in Florida. Known as the home of famed African American folklorist, anthropologist, and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, it continues its legacy of proud self-government to this day. While most black Floridians trace their roots to Georgia, Alabama, or the Carolinas, a very significant portion have family ties to the Caribbean islands of the Bahamas, Jamaica, Trinidad-Tobago and other nations. Especially in South Florida, many black Hispanics hail from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica or Nicaragua.
From early European contact to the present, the peoples of Florida and Cuba have floated back and forth across the narrow passage with the tides of historyoften profoundly changing and influencing each other. Throughout the Spanish colonial period, Florida came under Cuba's governmental and religious jurisdiction. In addition, Cuba provided most settlers and supplies to the Florida frontier, resulting in a constant interchange of people and trade.
The first, unsuccessful struggle for Cuban independence from 1868-1878 led to a subsequent backlash by the Spanish. As a result, many Cubans emigrated to Key West and New York. At the same time, several cigar manufacturers relocated to Key West to avoid paying American tariffs. By the mid-1870s, 45 factories employed 1,400 workers who rolled about 15 million cigars each year. The cigar workers' custom of listening to lectores read from a variety of newspapers, essays, and political tracts while they worked created a highly educated and politically sophisticated society. In the mid-1880s, some cigar manufacturers relocated to Tampa or returned to Havana in order to avoid strikes by Key West workers. The transplanted industry flourished in Tampa/Ybor City, and by 1900 a Cuban population of over 3,500 worked there in the cigar factories or related industries.
It is estimated that over one million Cubans emigrated as a result of the profound social and political changes instituted by Castro's government in the mid-twentieth century. They fled to many countries, but the majority settled in Miami. While there is much diversity, Floridas Cubans are predominately white, educated, and upper- to middle-class. In establishing new homes and businesses, they have created a dynamic world financial center in Miami with powerful links to Latin American and Caribbean countries.
Cubans are not the only recent immigrants to make a lasting impact on Florida. In the last thirty years, there has been an unprecedented influx from other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America. Tens of thousands Nicaraguans, Colombians, Peruvians, Puerto Ricans, and others have arrived since the 1980s, bringing with them their varying blends of Spanish, Portuguese, African, and Native American cultures.
Florida supports a wide variety of ethnic European and Middle Eastern communities. By 1905, entrepreneurs in Tarpon Springs began bringing over experienced sponge divers from the Dodecanese Islands of Kalymnos, Halki and Symi in Greece to support the burgeoning commercial sponge business. Tarpon Springs has remained a sponge diving center with a strong Greek character. Since most descendants of the original divers and captains have turned to other occupations, recruitment of Greek divers continues today.
Throughout Florida, there has also been substantial immigration from a variety of European ethnic groupsprimarily from the north and mid-west parts of the U.S. Jewish Floridians comprise one of Floridas largest European-based ethnic groups. The largest Jewish communities are located in the southeast Florida region stretching from Palm Beach County to Dade County. Jewish settlement of Florida commenced early in its history, but most Jewish families have settled here since the 1920s, and especially in the era shortly after World War II. Near Tampa, St. Petersburg Beach is home to many Ukrainians and other East Europeans, while Masaryktown was settled by Slovaks and Czechs. In South Florida, European ethnic communities include a concentration of Finnish residents in West Palm Beach area, and a large community of French Canadians in Hollywood. In Jacksonville, there is a substantial Lebanese American community.
Extending from Florida south to Venezuela, the West Indian islands were the first land masses discovered by Europeans. They soon hosted colonies based largely on sugar cane cultivation by native workers. To compensate for the ultimate death of most indigenous peoples from disease and overwork, colonists brought millions of slaves from west and central Africa. When the slave trade slowed and eventually halted, landowners recruited thousands of indentured workers from Europe, Africa, China and India between 1836 and 1917. This truly international mix is the basis of the Caribbean's remarkable ethnic heritage.
Limited natural resources and centuries of careless agricultural practices have made it difficult for many Caribbean islands to support large populations. As a result, West Indians have undertaken migrant labor to sustain themselves for generations. Many have settled in nearby Florida, where they are referred to as "the Islanders." English-speakers, primarily from the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Trinidad/Tobago, share many cultural elements and often live in contiguous neighborhoods. The other major group is the French and Creole-speaking Haitians.
With the Bahamas a scant fifty miles from Miami, Bahamians fished and scavenged wrecks on Florida's lower east coast and the Keys by the early nineteenth century. Indeed, there were even earlier connections: many blacks arrived in the Bahamas as slaves of British Loyalists who emigrated from Florida after the American Revolution and Black Seminoles settled on Andros Island in the early nineteenth century. Many Bahamians permanently left for better paying jobs fishing, turtling, or sponging in the Keys by the mid-nineteenth century, and by 1892 they comprised a third of Key Wests population. From the late 1890s, Bahamians flocked to the burgeoning South Florida mainland to work in agriculture, construction, railroad services, docks, lumberyards, gravel pits, and later in tourist resorts and restaurants. By 1920, Bahamians constituted over 16% of Miamis population and a majority of agricultural labor from Ft. Pierce to Florida City. Bahamians not only created their own buildings, churches, fraternal organizations, and artistic societies, but also have maintained their heritage through the constant flow between Florida and the Bahamas.
Scattered throughout South Florida, several neighborhoods support a plethora of restaurants, churches, record stores and other shops which supply the needs of the Jamaican and Trinidadian communities. Jamaicans have had a particular influence on local music and dance, Trinidadians have contributed their popular steel drum ensembles and carnival traditions, and both have contributed their foodways to the Florida mix. In addition, sizable communities of Chinese Jamaicans and Indo-Trinidadians have brought their spicy synthesis of Caribbean and Asian traditions.
Colonized by the Spanish and then the French, Haiti supported a rich plantation economy based on the labor of large numbers of enslaved Africans. Since its early independence, Haiti has suffered a long succession of oppressive dictatorships which have impelled many of its people to seek better conditions elsewhere. During the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of Haitians escaped the harsh political and economic circumstances in their country by fleeing to Florida, and today there is continued immigration. While Haitians live throughout the state, Miamis vibrant Little Haiti district bustles with Haitian shops, restaurants, nightclubs, and events.
A diverse array of Asian and Pacific Island peoples call Florida home. The Census Bureau estimates that by 2000 there will be over a quarter million Asian and Pacific Islanders. In the 1990s, increasing numbers of immigrants from China, India, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Hawaii, Tonga and Samoa have sought greater economic stability, jobs with international corporations or Florida attractions, abundant farmland, better educational opportunities, to escape from political unrest, or to be near family members in Florida. Although far from their homelands, Asians and Pacific Islanders maintain a strong desire to express their native cultures, adapt them to their current circumstances, and pass them on to future generations.
Regional Blendings: The Transformation and Adaptation of Cultures in Florida
Despite many shared characteristics, there are significant differences between Floridas regions. In addition, pockets of distinctive cultural blendings exist in several of the states urban areas.
Many residents of St. Augustine can trace their ancestry to either the Spanish colonists or the Minorcan, Greek, and Italian colonists from the New Smyrna colony. During the British period (1763-1783), Scottish physician Andrew Turnbull received a government grant of land seventy-five miles south of St. Augustine to grow agricultural products for export. Turnbulls wife was Greek, and his knowledge of the culture convinced him that Mediterranean peoples would be well-suited to Floridas climate. However, when he arrived in Greece to recruit indentured servants, Turnbull found the country in the midst of political upheaval. After enlisting some Greeks, he also recruited Minorcans, Corsicans and Italians. Although 1,403 sailed from Minorca, many colonists died from the rigors of the voyage and the poor conditions in New Smyrna. By 1774, they had completed their contracts but were not provided their promised freedom or land. As a result, some seven hundred fled to sanctuary in St. Augustine in 1777.
In their new home, the Minorcans settled empty buildings or vacant lots north of the plaza, which became known as the "The Quarter." They created an enduring economic niche for themselves by employing skills learned in their Mediterranean homelands. Minorcan farmers supplied fruits and vegetables from their lands, and fishermen and sailors provided seafood and transportation. Some practiced masonry or carpentry, while others became shopkeepers. Although time and intermarriage have obscured many aspects of their heritage, some traditions persistespecially those involving occupations such as fishing, masonry and ranching, domestic arts such as needlework and foodways, and religious life.
As part of a larger culture area stretching along the Gulf of Mexico from east Texas, Floridas Gulf Coast shares with the Caribbean islands a semitropical physical environment and a history of colonial development by the Spanish and French. Moreover, Caribbean settlers entered the region through Savannah, Mobile, Pensacola, and New Orleans, bringing with them a blend of African and Latin cultures. There are reminders of this heritage in the distinctive Gulf Coastal vernacular houses with low pitched roofs, central dog-trot hallways, tall foundation pillars and detached kitchens that survive in old Pensacola. A few panhandle boatbuilders still make bateaux that derive their name and shape from their French heritage. And, in places such as Pensacola where settlers came from the Caribbean, Catholic communities maintain traditions such as Mardi Gras.
Tampa and Ybor City still owe much to Latin American and Caribbean influences. From the mid-1880s, the transplanted cigar industry flourished in there, with thousands of white and black Cubans working in the cigar factories or related businesses by the turn of the century. They were joined by large Spanish and Italian communities. These three communities existed in harmony for decades, establishing a wide range of social institutions, many of which persist today.
South Floridas population is the most diverse of any region. Although lightly settled by pre-contact Native Americans and then by the Spanish, the modern settlement of South Florida did not begin until the Seminoles were pushed south in the early nineteenth century. They were soon joined by a trickle of hardy American settlers, as well as Bahamians, Cubans, and Europeans who eked out a living from the land and sea. In the latter nineteenth century, many Bahamians and southern blacks came to trade or work on the railroad. The railroad in turn facilitated tremendous population growth, as demonstrated by the 1920s land boom which attracted both permanent settlers and seasonal tourists from the north. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of soldiers were trained in Florida military stations, and many returned to settle after the war. In addition, large numbers of retirees, many of them Jewish, moved to south Florida in the post-war period.
From the early 1960s through the present there has been substantial immigration from northern states, as well as from Latin America and the Caribbean. Hispanics, who currently account for over one-half of Dade County's population, have contributed to Miami's emergence as a major Latin American commercial and cultural center. As a result, Floridas largest city contains a majority Latin American population, a large black minority with a significant Caribbean island element, and a large Jewish population. The result is the gradual development of a unique local culture which synthesizes aspects of all cultures. For example, Miamians are likely to share a café cubano on their way to a bar mitzvah, where they may kiss each other on the cheek in greeting and dance to reggae.
The Florida Keys curve more than 100 miles south and west from the mainland to Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United Sates. In the eighteenth century, the Spanish used the Keys as a base for fishing, pirates hid in the coves and channels, and Bahamian wreckers salvaged cargoes from ships destroyed on the coral reefs. Claimed at times by Spain, England, private American citizens, and the United States, by the mid-nineteenth century the Keys were inhabited by a mixture of Americans, Cubans, Bahamians, and Spaniards. The wrecking, sponge, and cigar industries employed most of the population in Key West, while fishing and agricultural activities dominated the Upper Keys. Long periods of isolation had a formative effect on the people of the Keys, or "Conchs"many of whom never left the islands until the railroad was completed in 1912. All these elements produced a traditional life unique to the Keys.
Maritime Florida: a study in regional diversity
Florida's many cultural groups find a common bond in the environment. The abundant natural resources of land and have generated a wide variety of traditional skills and occupations distinctive to the state. Water, in particular, is an important element of life in Florida. Traditional culture associated with both marine and inland waters is extensive.
Several aspects of Floridas fishing industry are unique in the United States. For example, our warm coastal waters are the only place in the country where sponges grow. By the 1890s, hundreds of sponge boats operated by Americans, Conchs, and Bahamians were active from Miami south through the Keys, while Greeks harvested sponges on Floridas west coast. After the hiatus caused by the sponge blight in the mid-twentieth century, Cubans in Miami rebuilt the South Florida industry by providing equipment and boats to sponge fishermen through the Keys. Greeks in Tarpon Springs similarly revived the industry in the 1980s.
Sponges are collected by two methods: in the shallower waters of the east coast they are hooked with a four-pronged rake attached to pole up to forty feet long. In deeper waters off the west coast, they are cut by divers who wear an airhose and diving suit or scuba gear. After harvesting the sponges, fishermen dump them into crawls, or wooden enclosures at the water's edge. Two or three days later, they beat the sponges with a piece of wood to remove the black outer skins, then dry them for sale to a processor.
In the Everglades, Anglo "glademen," Seminoles and Miccosukees, and African Americans still travel the regions interior glades and mangrove fringes to hunt alligator, deer, turtles, and frogs, or to fish. The people who settled the Everglades developed unique modes of transportation to navigate the wilderness in search of fish and game. Seminoles and Miccosukees built dug-out canoes and Anglo glademen created the glade skiff. These modes of transportation and the skills necessary to make them have all but vanished, now largely replaced by the airboatanother South Florida invention used in wetlands worldwide.
In Florida, you are immediately struck by the numbers of people pursuing marine creatures. Traditional practices range from hobbyists angling off bridges to commercial operations with fleets of boats, fish packing plants, and markets for distribution. Commercial fishermen undoubtedly haul in the largest catch, but the legions of private anglers provide fierce competition. Fishermen come from all ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic levels, but for the most part they share similar methods in pursuit of their catch.
Although fish, shrimp, oysters, and other seafood were an important food source for early settlers, they were not commercially important until the railroads brought fast transportation and improved handling methods in the late nineteenth century. Before that time, commercial fishermen supplied the local populace and developed trade in salted mullets and fresh groupers with Cuba. In the early twentieth century they continued to net mullet, sea trout, and other fish, as well as lobster and crabs. Some fishermen also turtled on the capes near Flamingo, the southernmost mainland reach.
Today, commercial fishermen catch large quantities of fish and sell them to fish houses on shore. Many belong to families that have fished for generations. Fishermen acquire extensive traditional knowledge concerning weather, sea beds, fish behavior, and equipment through years of experience and apprenticeship, which they share with their colleagues
Floridians use many fishing techniques. Many fish from the numerous bridges that span the canals, rivers, and intracoastal waterways for relaxation and enjoyment. Some commercial fishermen still seine net in the bays of south Florida. They bring their boats close to the shoreline, holding one end of the net and while another fisherman walks along the surf with the other end. In this way, they scoop up the abundant schools of pompano and permit that feed near the shore.
For decades, commercial shrimpers followed a seasonal run from Texas down the Gulf Coast to the Keys, then up the Atlantic Coast. In the last few decades the number of non-commercial shrimpers has increased dramatically. Many use dipnets – large nets with fine mesh attached to a ten to fifteen foot pole, in places with particularly strong tidal movements. Thousands crowd bays on cool winter nights during the full moon, when tradition tells them that the shrimp will rise from the grass beds at the bottom and move out to the sea in the strong tidal flows.
One of the most sought-after denizens of Florida waters is the delicious Caribbean spiny lobster. Although technically a crawfish because it lacks claws, the creature is universally referred to as a lobster. Many Floridians make lobster traps of cypress, a water-resistant wood, for personal or commercial fishing. Traps measure about three feet long by two feet wide by two feet high, with the bottom divided into three sections and the two end sections filled with cement to keep them on the ocean floor.
Stone crabs are unique to Florida, and many residents adamantly insist that they are the most delicious of all crabs. The majority of stone crabs are caught on the southwest coast, especially near Everglades City and Chokoloskee. During the season from October 15 to May 15, fishermen set strings of between 20 and 800 traps resembling small lobster traps. Stone crabs possess large, meaty claws, which are the only part eaten. Crabbers usually break off one claw from each crab, then throw the crabs back to allow their claws to grow back. At the end of a day, crabbers deliver their catch to fish houses where workers pile the claws into baskets, boil them, then chill them in cold water so the meat will not stick to the shells. Finally, they sort claws into different sizes before sale, packing, and shipment.
Along the Gulf Coast, generations of oystermen have used traditional methods and equipment to pursue their occupation. Oystermen work on special outboard-powered, flat-bottom oyster skiffs with upturned bows and wide rails. They stand on the rails to collect the oysters with locally made oyster tongs. Oystermen pluck oysters from the bottom with tongsand an experienced fisherman can feel with the tongs whether the oysters at the end are of marketable quality.
Innumerable Florida craftspeople create maritime equipment ranging from the largest boats to the smallest fishing flies. With the immediate proximity of the ocean, rivers, canals, lakes, and marshes, Florida ranks fourth in the nation in the number of boats. Each year, Floridians build thousands of boats ranging from rowboats to large commercial vessels and yachts. Although most vessels are made commercially, many individuals use their skills to create their personal craft in backyards or garages. Many Florida boats are adapted to specific environments such as Eastpoints Lolley oyster skiff, Lake Okeechobees Gillis skipjack, the panhandles bateaux, Tarpon Springs Greek sponging boats, Steinhatchees bird dog boats, or Cedar Keys seine skiffs.
Sailmaking is an ancient art. Prehistoric sailmakers used skins to catch the sea breeze, colonial craftspeople fashioned sails from linen, and nineteenth century sailmakers made cotton sails. Although some contemporary sailmakers still use cotton, most prefer synthetics such as Dacron, mylar, or laminated materials because of qualities such as low price, strength, durability, lightness and rigidity. Today most sails are designed by computer and executed entirely by machine, but only a few Florida companies make custom sails by hand.
Most contemporary fishing rods are mass-produced, but Florida supports a number of fine custom rod making establishments that build only a few dozen rods per day. Custom rods are based on customers specifications as to size, usage, and materials. Although the building process is not complicated, it requires a great deal of knowledge about rods, fishing, and temperatures to calculate the number and placement of the guides and determine the best materials. Workers then wrap threads in decorative patterns to hold the guides in place and apply coats of polymer epoxy. The method of building rods has not changed much in the last few decades, but the parts and quality of materials have changed drastically with the advent of featherweight synthetic materials such as fiberglass or graphite glass.
Fishing sometimes involves traditional artifacts designed to imitate or seduce nature, such as hand-tied fishing flies, carved wooden duck decoys, or elaborate bird traps. Saltwater fly fishing is a relatively new recreational activity that grew up in post-war Florida. Today many creative individuals design and hand-tie the tiny, complex files needed for this sport. Among other types of activities or equipment unique to Florida are frog gigs used in the wetlands or Spanish cast nets from the St. Augustine area.
Florida ranching traditions
Florida preserves extensive rural areas where people raise crops and animals. Indeed, Florida is the second largest cattle producing state east of the Mississippi. Floridas unique ranching traditions are not only derived from British cattle-raising practices rather than the Mexican/Spanish traditions dominant in the West, but also have also been adapted to the tropical climate. For example, Florida cowmen annually burned off the old growth to encourage new palmetto and grass, while allowing their cattle to range freely up until 1949. Cow hunters or cowmen still crack their whips near the cows ear, nose or leg in order to move the cow in the required direction. They also train cow dogs, or "catch dogs" to herd cattle that stray into the scrub. Floridas original tough scrub cattle were a blend of Spanish Andalusian cattle brought in the sixteenth century and British breeds from the Carolinas. In this century, Indian Brahman cattle have been introduced and crossed with other breeds to improve resistance to the tropical climate.
Many objects used by cowmen for their work are imbued with a high level of aesthetic excellence. For instance, craftsmen still provide cowmen with functional and beautifully decorated saddles, superlative woven leather cow whips, branding irons, and spurs for their boots.
Florida at the Millennium
Floridas environment and cultures have combined to create distinctive complexes of traditional life unlike those of any other American region. Florida's geographical location and history bring it as much into the Caribbean sphere as the American. Many endeavors brought from other American regions, such ranching or fishing, have developed characteristics quite unlike the parent traditions.
Like many parts of our nation, Florida is becoming less European and more diverse. South Florida in particular is developing a culture that synthesizes elements from Latin American and the Caribbean. While this mirrors developments that took place from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries in locations such as Key West, Tampa, St. Augustine, Pensacola, todays synthesis has intensified with large-scale immigration from Cuba, South and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. Although South Florida is leading other regions in the development of a cultural synthesis, all parts of Florida are affected. Orlando and Tampa are rapidly evolving as they receive a constant influx of newcomers pursuing jobs in tourist and high tech industries. Even sleepy north Florida is experiencing a significant change as residents drift north in search of educational opportunities and less crowded conditions.
While Florida is not unique in the decreasing emphasis on European-derived culture, our cultural blend is unusual. Our predominant European, Cuban, Caribbean, and Jewish cultural elements seem to be coalescing into an overall culture focused on achievements in business and education, while retaining a firm emphasis on arts, relaxation and enjoyment of the environmenta blend perhaps more European in mind but Caribbean in heart.
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