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Capturing Florida’s Historic Hispanic Presence and a Gold Medal

This year’s Florida Book Award honors USF professor’s compilation of essays by some of the nation’s leading historians, covering 500 years of Spanish influence.


ISLAC Director Rachel May is now hard at work finishing her next book, a collaborative effort which deals with Caribbean revolutions.      Photos by: Aimee Blodgett | USF News

By Barbara Melendez
      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (April 14, 2015) – It’s rare for an edited volume to win a prize like the Florida Book Award for Non-Fiction. Such recognition – “honoring the best work by Florida authors” – typically goes to individual writers.

If the Florida Book Award Gold Medal is any indication, “La Florida: Five Hundred Years of Hispanic Presence” shows that a compilation of scholarly essays can win hearts and minds.

The book’s co-editor, USF Associate Professor Rachel May, who directs the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC), set out to gather “some of the best people in the world to write about Florida’s Spanish heritage, from early exploration and colonization to the modern era,” she said. And May was determined to truly engage readers.

The Florida Book Award Gold medal suggests May and fellow editor, University of Miami Professor of Spanish Viviana Diaz- Balsera, have succeeded

Describing the essays by some of the nation’s leading historians as “very readable,” May, said, “In fact, in parts it reads like a page-turner novel as intrigues of all kinds propel events. There is not another book like this, not with this scope, largely because no one person could do it.”

The book came about as part of an ISLAC conference, “Florida’s Hispanic Heritage: Commemorating Florida’s Quincentenary in Tampa Bay,” funded by the Florida Humanities Council (FHC) in 2012. May’s colleague, Diaz-Balsera held a similar conference at the University of Miami that year and the two came together to produce the book as the final component of the FHC grant.

Fascinating Facts Abound

Various well-known and little-known facts fill the pages along with information that sets the record straight regarding a host of misconceptions. For example, the very name of the state had nothing to do with flowers.

Readers will be amused to learn how Scottish filibuster Gregor MacGregor declared Amelia Island to be the “Republic of Florida” in 1817. His experiment lasted just over six months.

The story of how after World War II – but well before the 1959 Cuban Revolution – more than 20,000 Cubans left the island for Florida, is a fascinating one. Other Latino groups call Florida home as well.

“Puerto Ricans now represent the second largest Latino population in Florida and the largest in central Florida and Tampa Bay.This newer wave of Puerto Rican immigrants to central Florida has been humorously referred to as ‘Mickey Ricans’ because of their growing influence in the I-4 corridor,” May explains.

In the history of slavery, Florida has a unique story.

“Ft. Mose, founded in 1738, was the first free community of former slaves, more than a century before abolition and they were recognized by the Spanish as free subjects in exchange for their recognition of the Spanish King.

“‘La Florida’ would work well in a class on U.S. history or in a course about Latinos. There are very few sources which explore the role of Hispanic peoples in North America before the 20th Century. This book will allow teachers to give a much broader account of this history. And it’s a book that is very accessible. It can definitely be read for pleasure,” said May.

A Stellar List of Contributors

Two USF luminaries – May and the retired historian and author, USF SP Emeritus Professor Gary Mormino – helped produce this award-winning addition to the list of outstanding scholarship on Florida.May was particularly thrilled to be able to use his sweeping essay for the introduction. He was able totie everything together as no one else could.


USF SP Professor Emeritus Gary Mormino  Courtesy USF SP

“He is really the best historian of modern Florida, and the historian you think of first when it comes to Florida,” May said and added, “I think he is the only scholar who can really makes sense of the entire 500-year sweep of this complex and somewhat fragmented history.”

In addition to being an important part of this project, Mormino also was presented with the Florida Humanities Council’s 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing.

While admitting that she is not a Florida historian herself, May notes that her interdisciplinary background and broad training equipped her for the scholarly reading of the material. Her interest and curiosity helped drive the project forward as well.

“I learned so much reading these essays about Hispanic Florida, and it has enriched my understanding of how to imagine Florida today,” she said.

May knew up front that she wanted that experience for herself and for readers so she did her best to find the right authors.

“I sought out someone who was truly familiar with this territory – (Vice Provost) Paul Dosal. He is a very fine historian himself, and he was very generous with me, despite the extreme demands on his time,” she said. “He helped me identify many of the 12 authors in the volume who are all brilliant, as well as being really wonderful people.”

The list is impressive. In the first half of the book one finds anthropologist Jerald T. Milanich, University of Florida; early Florida historian Paul E. Hoffman, Louisiana State University; Hispanic literature scholar Raquel Chang-Rodriguez, City University of New York; colonial historian Amy Turner Bushnell; Florida and Latin American historian Jane Landers, Vanderbilt University; and literature scholar, Carmen de la Guardia Herrero, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid.

In the second half of the book there are Latin American and Atlantic World historian Karen Racine, University of Guelph; the eminent Atlantic World historian, Richard L. Kagan, Johns Hopkins University; Latin American and cultural historian Darién J. Davis, Middlebury College; cultural anthropologist Jorge Duany, Florida International University; sociologists Alex Stepick, FIU and Marcos Feldman, Northeastern Illinois University; and the sociologist Susan Eckstein, Boston University.

“These are the most eminent scholars of Hispanic Florida in the world. We weretruly fortunate to be able to get them all for this project,” May said. “Every contributor to this volume is widely recognized as a star in his or her field.”

May points out that the book is not a pure narrative history, although the interdisciplinary collection does position the essays chronologically.

“The book includes the sweeping introduction by Professor Mormino, and then a section on Spanish colonial period, and a final section on the post-colonial ‘modern’ period,” she said.

Meeting Fellow Medalists


Prof. May with Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner at the March awards ceremony.

All Florida Book Award recipients, including gold, silver and bronze winners for works in non-fiction, fiction, children’s literature, poetry, young adult literature, Spanish language book, visual arts as well as general and popular fiction, were honored at the annual Florida Book Awards banquet – the Abitz Family Dinner – April 9 at Mission San Luis in Tallahassee. They are also being hosted by Florida first lady Ann Scott at a luncheon at the Governor’s Mansion April 10.

The nine gold medalists were recognized separately in March at the 12th annual Florida Heritage Month Awards ceremony sponsored by the Florida Department of State’s Division of Cultural Affairs. Getting to meet the other Gold Medal winners, May also found herself surrounded by an array of other Florida Heritage awardees who have made contributions to folk culture resources and historic preservation.

“These were some really cool people,” May said. “There was a Cracker whip-maker, Calvin ‘Buddy’ Mills, and a woman, Ruby Shaw, who was honored for her traditional North Florida cooking, as well as a posthumous award to Lorene Gopher for her work advocating for Seminole language and culture. I learned a lot about Florida from this ceremony.”

The next stop for May will be to participate on a Florida Book Awards panel at the inaugural Word of the South literary and music festival in Tallahassee April 11. She will be joined by co-editor Diaz-Balsera and fellow award winners Madeleine Kuderick, Ward Larsen and Kerry Cerra with moderator Kati Schardl for a conversation about Florida.

In October look for a special Florida Conversations event at the Tampa Bay History Center featuring “La Florida” with some of the authors, co-sponsored by the USF Libraries Special Collections. May hopes to see the book out in paperback by then.

“I am certain ‘La Florida’ can become a ‘must read’ on and off campus by making it more accessible to more people.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

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