The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

May 31, 2013

Imagining the foundations of La Florida

Posted by Anne Tschida

Replica of a Spanish galleon.

Take a break from contemporary art and head to the Freedom Tower downtown for a fascinating historical exhibit, “Imagining La Florida.”

But don’t expect at lot of gimmicky accoutrements, or even much in the way archeological items – this is the story of the early years of Spain in the Caribbean, and Florida, a story that may be revelatory to most, laid out in four creative chapters.

First off, step into the replica of a Spanish galleon, the famous ships that literally opened up the Age of Discovery, as it packs up for a trip from the port city of Sevilla, from where many of the galleons that sailed to the New World departed. These things were stuffed to the gills for the trans-Atlantic journey, including with live pigs and horses, weapons and tradesmen of all sorts.

Once on the other side of the ocean, it’s interesting to note how active the Spanish were. Not even 20 years after Columbus landed in Hispaniola, Juan Ponce de Leon pulled up in Southern Florida, which he thought was another Caribbean island, but without mountains.

Soon numerous other expeditions were exploring all parts of the peninsula, for various missions. One of the most intriguing: Ponce de Leon’s search for the Fountain of Youth, a legend that lives on – we don’t have any real facts, but who knows, he may have been looking for it in the middle of the Everglades.

What’s really important, however, is the documentation of who the early explorers were, and whom they encountered. We find out, for instance, that on the very first ships were African “conquistadors,” both free and enslaved, who made a home in Florida. Francisco Menendez was one, who escaped slavery in the Caribbean and lead the first free black community in what would become the United States. There’s also a woman – an Indian -- who is highlighted, one Doña Maria, who was called “one of the most powerful Indian chiefs in Florida.”

Who knew we were so diverse from the very moment the Spanish arrived? This is an exhibit presented by Acción Cultural Española, an arm of the Spanish government (along with MDC Museum of Art + Design), and its a necessary complement to the understanding of what turns out to be a more complex early history than we knew.


“Imagining La Florida” runs through Aug. 17 at the Freedom Tower, 600 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-237-7700.

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