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Hidden Hispanic Heritage

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The Great

Hispanic American

History Tour



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     I didn't ask for this. I was perfectly happy with my life as a journalist. And yet, little by little, in ways that are still hard to explain, my life turned me into a historian!

   I think it's all based on passion. I never thought anything could top my passion for writing news, and covering the U.S. Hispanic community, until I discovered my passion for writing history, especially the Hispanic events and contributions that have been whitewashed by American history.

    For me, there came a point when Hispanic history became more important than Hispanic news. But it was a slow process, and it was the news that led me to the history!

     Ironically, it was during Hispanic Heritage Month that I began to develop an interest in our hidden Hispanic heritage – not because of how much history we were all learning during that month, but because, as a reporter, I would discover how little Hispanic history we actually knew!

     In the late 1970s and the 1980s, I was a reporter and columnist for The New York Daily News, and my job was to cover the Hispanic community – the good, the bad and the ugly. Everything from a parade to a hostage standoff involving Latinos, writing about it was my job.

     And you would think that covering a parade would be fun, right? Interviewing parade marchers would be cool, right? 

     Wrong! Amazingly, parades were always a struggle!

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     As a reporter, you want a variety of comments. You don’t want everyone telling you the same thing, because you want to avoid repeating the same quotes in your story. But it was always difficult to get a variety of quotes to illustrate my parade stories. I would approach young Latinos who were marching in beautiful ethnic costumes, and I would ask them a simple question: "Why are you here?"

     And I would always get the same answer: “Because I’m very proud of being Hispanic,” they would say. Unfortunately, the next, and the next and the next person would tell me exactly the same thing. It was terribly frustrating.

     “So why are you proud of being Hispanic?” I would insist. And much to my amazement, they had nothing more to say. It was as if someone had zippered their lips! Zilch! Nada!

     So that’s when I knew we had a huge problem in our Hispanic community. That's when I began to write about how little we know. That’s when I began to notice that we throw a lot of Heritage Month fiestas, but we learn very few history lessons during that time. I began to see the difference between how Latinos and African Americans celebrate their months, and I soon realized that Black History Month is so much more about education than cocktail parties.

     But then something happened that would intensify my interest in U.S. Hispanic history. During one of those Hispanic Heritage Months, I was assigned to interview and write a feature story about a historian who had just received a huge grant to go around the country      


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researching Hispanic American history. His name was Joe Monserrat. I had already met Monserrat. He was a Puerto Rican educator and scholar who had led Hispanic community organizations and served on the New York City Board of Education.

     So, I set up an interview with Monserrat, and I met with him in his office, where he proceeded to embarrass the hell out of me!

    “Oh, so you cover the Hispanic community, right? he asked. “Let’s see how much you know!”

     Mind you, I was already in my late 20s and, since I grew up in Florida, I had some knowledge of the Ponce de Leon discovery and the establishment of St. Augustine. I thought I knew a moderate amount of the history of the Spanish presence in what is now the United States.

     And then Monserrat proceeded to ask me a series of rapid-fire questions, most of which I could not answer, making me feel exactly like the people who had zippered their lips at the parades. It was a revelation! I had so much more to learn!

     “So, you know about Ponce de Leon,” he said. “How about Hernando de Soto? Or Cabeza de Vaca? How about David Farragut? Or Bernardo de Galvez? Surely, you know Eusebio Kino, right? How about Junípero Serra? How much do you know about the Black Legend?”

     Joe Monserrat became my mentor. After that initial interview, I had him as a frequent guest on my radio and TV shows. On my live talk-radio program on Radio WADO is Spanish, we would have three-hour discussions with dozens of callers.

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     On television, when I hosted a half-hour show called Images/Imagenes on the New Jersey Network, the producers ran out of the control room after we had finished tapping, insisting that Monserrat had to stick around so we could record a second show. They were so impressed with our discussion that they wouldn’t let him leave! Of course, by that time, a decade after our first interview, I had become a Hispanic history buff and a Monserrat disciple. I knew what questions to ask. That interview is in Youtube.

     Monserrat died in 2005, before he finished writing a book he intended to publish. And as his disciple, I’ve carried the torch, to continue shining some light on our hidden Hispanic heritage.

     Since I was an opinion columnist, able to pick my own topics to write about, I decided that every so often -- instead of current events — I would write a history column. I would research a topic, like for example, The Black Legend, or the First Thanksgiving, and then write a column about it. Some of those columns were written for The Bergen Record in New Jersey, and some for the Creators Syndicate, and so they were distributed and published in newspapers around the country.

     Even after I left my full-time job as a journalist and became a full-time journalism professor at Lehman College, CUNY, in 2006, I continued writing my syndicated opinion column, including many more history columns, for several years. My series was already up to 27 parts when I gathered them all together and launched my website on Oct. 16, 2012.

     But I was teaching only journalism, both news writing  

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and TV production courses. I even became chairman of the department! And yet my passion for Hispanic history kept pulling me in a different direction.

   As a journalist, I felt it wasn’t enough to just read about historic places. I had to go and do some reporting, and then write my own history chapters. As I wrote in a column, “I want to see the relics left by our great-grand Spanish ancestors. I want to follow their trails. I want to visit the towns that have been named by them and the monuments built to recognize their great accomplishments. I want to pray in the churches they built.”

    So, in 2014, with the goal of expanding my series and creating a course based on my website, Lehman gave me a leave of absence so I could go on a cross-country road trip to visit dozens of Hispanic heritage sites. I called my journey “The Great Hispanic American History Tour.”

    By the time I finished reporting on my tour, my series was up to 76 parts! And then in 2015, I wrote four more columns from Washington, D.C., where Hispanic history was on display everywhere – except the museums!

   In the Spring of 2017, while still teaching journalism, I created and began to teach “U.S. Hispanic History,” a course based on my 80-part series. In the summer of 2018, I went back on the road for my California Road Trip, and expanded my series to 107 parts. In 2019, I retired from my full-time job as a journalism professor, but kept teaching my history class, which I then converted into an online course, so that I could continue traveling to historic places I have not yet visited ...  to be continued.

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A Tale of Two Cities:

Jamestown and St. Augustine                11


On Fiesta Month,

Can We Talk About Heritage?                 15

The Black Legend is Still Here!              21

Walt Whitman's Prophetic Letter            25

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A Tale of Two Cities                  Jamestown and St. Augustine

     Which came first: the Spanish conquistadors or the British colonists? Jamestown or St. Augustine? The Spanish language or the English language? Hernando De Soto or Lewis and Clark?

     Figuring out the answer to all those questions is much easier than the old puzzle about whether the chicken or the egg came first. Nevertheless, if your education is based on U.S. history books and school curricula, perhaps finding those answers is not as easy as it should be.

     It all depends on when you begin counting American history. If you begin with the British, as most historians have chosen to do, you omit almost a century of Spanish exploration and colonization of North America.

   And perhaps that's why there is so much apprehension regarding Latinos and their language in this country nowadays. Many Americans simply don't know that Latinos have a very long history of planting language and cultural roots in what is now U.S. territory. Latinos also have a huge record of very positive and unappreciated contributions to American society.

    In the interest of reawakening perhaps-lost knowledge and reminding my fellow Americans that Latinos should not be assumed to be illegal immigrants or even foreigners, this column occasionally will rewind to the past to fill the gaps in the history books and the classrooms and to explain why Latinos have many reasons to be proud Americans.

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     American history books make us feel proud of the courage, determination and exploration feats of Lewis and Clark, who led the first American overland expedition from the East to the Pacific coast and back from 1804 to 1806. But those same books generally ignore the fact that 250 years earlier, Spanish conquistadors explored both U.S. coasts and most of the Southeast and Southwest.

     For example, in 1539 Hernando De Soto and his men sailed from Cuba and came north to explore the territory that later became Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. De Soto was buried in the Mississippi River in 1542, long before the British arrived in Jamestown, Va.

  When you go to Jamestown, you are struck immediately by the town's nickname. It's a blatant distortion of history, but they call it "America's Birthplace." While visiting the site of the first British fort, you are told tactfully that you are visiting the first permanent British settlement in the territory that later became the United States, but they neglect to tell you that there were other non-British settlements before Jamestown was born in 1607. Unless you go with your own education, you are misled into believing that you are walking through the grounds of America's oldest city.

     Of course, there is only one problem with that: St. Augustine, Fla., was established by Spanish explorers in 1565, almost 42 years earlier. In fact, the first Europeans to land on what is now U.S. territory were the men led by Juan Ponce de Leon, who sought the Fountain of Youth in Florida in 1513. Ponce de Leon didn't stay in Florida, but Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his men came back to settle St. Augustine in 1565.

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     It was the Menendez de Aviles delegation that held America's first Thanksgiving, an event cited recently in the first part of this occasional series on Latino-American history.

     I know; American history only tells us about the Thanksgiving celebrated in the Plymouth, Mass., colony in 1621. But in 1565, Spanish priests celebrated the first Mass on U.S. soil, and the conquistadors shared a Thanksgiving feast with the natives.

     In May, President Bush and the queen of England went to Jamestown to celebrate the settlement's 400th anniversary. It made a lot of headlines. But there were few headlines when St. Augustine celebrated its 442nd anniversary in September.

     When I visited St. Augustine this summer, I had a chance to interview Harry Metz, the official historian at the Fountain of Youth National Archaeological Park. "So what's with Jamestown claiming that it is America's birthplace?" I asked him.

     "We tell a joke around here," he chuckled. "When they were building Jamestown, we were going through urban renewal."


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On Hispanic Fiesta Month,                         Can We Talk About Heritage?

     It's an awkward month, covering the second half of September and the first half of October. But it's not as awkward as the way we celebrate it. We call it Hispanic Heritage Month, but it has little to do with heritage. Hispanic Fiesta Month would be a better name. To many Hispanics, this is mostly a time to party like there is no mañana.

     From Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, you hear little talk about the role Hispanics have played in making this nation great; you see little recognition of 500 years of Hispanic presence in North America. Instead, we go to concerts, parades, cocktail parties, banquets, street festivals and a variety of other fiestas where we wave flags and tell each other we are very proud of being Hispanic.

     And there is nothing wrong with that, as long as we know what we are celebrating.

   Unfortunately, because our American education has deprived us access to our own heritage, because American history so often fails to recognize the accomplishments of our Hispanic ancestors, because our role models were hidden, many of us don't have a clue of what the fiestas are really about.

     We were never told why so many U.S. cities, states, rivers and other landmarks have Spanish names, or that Spanish was spoken and taught in North America long before a word of English was uttered here. We learned more about Lewis and Clark than about Ponce de Leon, De Soto, Cabeza de Vaca, De Onate, Coronado and hundreds of other Spanish explorers who trekked across the North American wilderness several centuries earlier.

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    We were led to believe that Ponce de Leon discovered only the current state of Florida, when in fact he discovered what is now the U.S. mainland. We were told that the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth Rock in 1621, instead of Spanish conquistadors in St. Augustine, Fla. in 1565; that "America's Birthplace" was Jamestown, Va. instead of St. Augustine, Fla., and that this country was explored, settled and colonized from East to West, instead of South to North.

     Perhaps that's why, at our Hispanic Heritage Month events, sometimes we have too many fiestas and not enough substance, and why our rich Hispanic American history remains hidden, even during the month when we are expected to promote it.

    Hispanic Heritage Month was designated by Congress in 1988 to replace Hispanic Heritage Week, which had been observed starting on Sept. 15 since 1968. The month — from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 — has its awkward calendar designation because it was designed to coincide with the September independence days of several Latin American countries and the Oct. 12 anniversary of the discovery of America. It was designed that way because it was supposed to be about history, and because historical events were expected to be recognized at this time every year.

    So now, in spite of all the fiestas, can we take a minute to dig out the roots of our heritage? Can we take some time to recognize that Hispanics have been here since before this country was a nation, and that our Hispanic ancestors played a major role in shaping the course of North American history?

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     Since Hispanic American history has been left out of the textbooks and the classrooms in this country, isn't Hispanic Heritage Month the right time fill the gaps in the history books and to talk about our contributions throughout American history?

     Of course, it is also a great time to celebrate the beauty of our Spanish and Latin American music, language and culture, a month for wearing ethnic costumes, waving flags, marching in parades and attending cocktail parties. That's all great. But it should be much more than that.

     This is the time when Hispanics/Latinos should be arming ourselves with historical ammunition, to defend ourselves from those who would attack us with stereotypes and misconceptions. This is the time when we should be teaching our fellow Americans a little Hispanic American history.

     Yet, sometimes we Hispanics can be our own worst enemies. Instead of promoting lectures and other educational programs to share our history and culture with other Americans, to dispel those myth and stereotypes that are often used against us and to instill historical pride among young Hispanics/Latinos, event organizers often settle for feel-good fiestas and worthless proclamations from politicians.

     Unlike Black History Month in February, which is devoted to seminars, exhibits and lectures to recognize the achievements and contributions of African-American historical figures who also have been unfairly left out of the history books, there are very few opportunities to discuss Hispanics in U.S. history during Hispanic Heritage Month.

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     Occasionally, you see some community activists and educators making an effort to put the heritage back into Hispanic Heritage Month by sponsoring events with less salsa and more substance. In fact, some progress has been made in schools offering multicultural education programs. But generally, teaching of the role of Hispanics in history is very limited.

     That's because American history has always been written as if this country began when the British arrived, as if the prior century of Spanish exploration and settlement in North America was irrelevant, as if we could pretend it never happened.

     Before the British settled in Jamestown in 1607, the Spanish had explored territory that now covers more than a dozen states. They had established the first settlement — St. Augustine — in 1565. They had discovered the Mississippi River, the Grand Canyon and many other North American landmarks.

     Since Ponce de Leon discovered North America in 1513, more than 500 years ago, Hispanics have been making huge contributions to what is now the United States of America.

     Their achievements have been mostly ignored by American historians, but they should not be forsaken by Hispanics on Hispanic Heritage Month.

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The Black Legend is Still Here!

   Don't blame it on talk radio and conservative politicians, as if they started something new. The anti-Hispanic rhetoric poisoning political discourse in the United States lately actually dates back to 16th-century Europe. That's when British and Dutch writers set out to deliberately spread negative propaganda about the Spanish colonies in the Americas.

     Fierce competition with Spain over control of the New World made England and Holland very interested in promoting a negative image of Spanish America. The way their writers depicted the Spanish conquistadors and their Latin American descendants — as depraved, cruel, corrupt, intolerant, authoritarian — caused prejudice that, unfortunately, has survived the test of time and still exists today.

   Nowadays they call it "hate speech," but its actual name is "La Leyenda Negra" — The Black Legend.

   That term was coined by Spanish writer Julián Juderías in his 1914 book, "La Leyenda Negra y la Verdad Histórica (The Black Legend and the Historical Truth)," where he described the unfair and biased way in which the people of Spain and Latin America had been depicted during the previous three centuries.

   Juderías described The Black Legend as "the environment created by the fantastic stories about our homeland that have seen the light of publicity in all countries, the grotesque descriptions that always have been made of the character of Spaniards as individuals and collectively, the denial — or at least the systematic ignorance — of all that is favorable and beautiful in the various manifestations of culture and art, the               

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accusations that in every era have been flung against Spain."

     In every era, indeed!

   Today's anti-Hispanic rhetoric — fueled by the U.S. debate over illegal immigration, the movement to make English the official language and other efforts to decelerate the growth and influence of U.S. Latinos — is rooted deeply in that well-orchestrated distortion of history that started in the 16th century.

    As described by many Spanish scholars and authors who backed Juderías' assertions, part of The Black Legend was the effort by Anglo-Saxon historians not only to denigrate the Spanish explorers and portray them as crueler than other European colonizers but also to minimize their accomplishments in North America.

    Unfortunately, that pattern was continued by American historians, who refused to recognize that the early history of North America was Spanish, not English. They mostly ignored the pre-British century of Spanish presence and accomplishments in North America. And when they alluded to the Spanish explorers, it was to describe them as people who did not settle and colonize, but merely explored, sought gold and killed natives — while the English were described as pious, industrious people, who came to build homes, establish settlements and raise families. While hiding or minimizing the Anglo-Saxon massacre of Native Americans, they hypocritically condemned the Spanish for doing the same thing to the natives of Latin America.

    In fact, both the British and the Spanish explorers did a lot of terrible things in the New World. The Black Legend easily could have been applied to all of them. But they also did a lot of wonderful things.

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     Yet because history is written by the winners — and because it is the British and their American descendents who ultimately took over this country — it was mostly the Spanish and their Latino descendents who got the blame for atrocities, while the Anglo-Americans got all the credit for building a new nation.

    It is that distortion of history that prevents many Americans from seeing that Latinos have very deep roots in the United States; that they have made many positive contributions to our society; that they, too, fought and died to build this nation; and that they should not be treated like foreigners, especially because many can trace their ancestries to a time before the British arrived and English was spoken here.

    As part of an occasional series on Latino contributions to American sociey, this column recently examined how distorted history has many Americans believing that (British) Jamestown, Va., established in 1607, is "America's Birthplace," when in fact, (Spanish) St. Augustine, Fla., was born in 1565, 42 years earlier.

     The column ignited feedback from some readers who either refused to accept historical facts or suggested that if the Spanish and Latinos didn't get credit, it must be for some good reason.

    "What's your view on why St. Augustine doesn't get the recognition Jamestown does?" one of my readers asked, as if daring me to come up with a logical response.

    The answer is simple: The Black Legend, a history written to depreciate the contributions and malign the image of Hispanic people.

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     Unfortunately, that's the image of Latinos that today's Anglo-Americans inherited from their ancestors — a distorted image that still prevails in American history textbooks, school curricula, radio programs, and political circles nowadays.

     When today's conservative radio jocks and politicians refer to illegal immigrants as "a scourge" responsible for additional crime, diseases and taxes; when they complain about a Latino "invasion" that threatens American values and culture; when they promote a ridiculous conspiracy theory that Latinos are trying to take back the part of the United States that once belonged to Mexico, they sound just like those who created "La Leyenda Negra."

     In fact, that's when you know that The Black Legend is still alive and well in the United States.


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"Thus far, impressed by New-England writers and schoolmasters, we tacitly abandon ourselves to the notion that our United States have been fashioned from the British Islands only, and essentially form a second England only — which is a very great mistake."

     The city of Santa Fe, N.M., was celebrating the 333rd anniversary of its founding by Spanish explorers, and the invited keynote speaker would have to trek there all the way from New Jersey. And so the great American poet Walt Whitman wrote a letter explaining that prior commitments would preclude him from attending.

     Yet given the message in his letter, one can only imagine the amazing speech he could have delivered. And one can only wish his words still would resonate today.

   "To that composite American identity of the future Spanish character will supply some of the most needed parts," Whitman wrote. "No stock shows a grander historic retrospect — grander in religiousness and loyalty, or for patriotism, courage, decorum, gravity, and honor."

Walt Whitman's         Prophetic Letter

     March 31, 2009 - The letter was penned in 1883, but it could have been written today. Its message is still very current. Its words still need to be repeated.

     "We Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents," the letter noted.

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    While many European and American writers spent centuries demonizing the Spanish conquistadors and their Latino descendants — and sugarcoating the atrocities of other European settlers in the New World — there was one highly respected American poet who was a unique exception.

     "It is time to realize — for it is certainly true — that there will not be found any more cruelty, tyranny, superstition, &c., in the resumé of past Spanish history than in the corresponding resumé of Anglo-Norman history," Whitman wrote.

     Even before Spanish and Latin American historians began to complain about the centuries-old anti-Hispanic campaign, known as "The Black Legend," Whitman was writing about it.

     He didn't call it "The Black Legend." That name was coined by Spanish writer Julián Juderías in his 1914 book, "La Leyenda Negra y la Verdad Histórica (The Black Legend and the Historical Truth)." But in 1883, 31 years earlier, Whitman already had described it perfectly.

     He noted that "it is time to dismiss" the distortions of history "inherited from the English writers of the past 200 years."

     At a time when white Anglo-Saxon Americans had a very negative image of the Hispanic and Native Americans of the Southwest, Whitman took a courageous stand for not only Latinos but also Native Americans.

     "As to our aboriginal or Indian population — the Aztec in the South, and many a tribe in the North and West — I know it seems to be agreed that they must gradually

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dwindle as time rolls on, and in a few generations more leave only a reminiscence, a blank," Whitman wrote. "But I am not at all clear about that."

   He questioned how America could reject the only people who were "distinctively its own" while "cheerfully accepting and using all the contributions of foreign lands."

     Through his writings — especially the collection of poems he called "Leaves of Grass" — Whitman celebrated the life and culture of the United States. But in his willingness to recognize the country's diversity — and to be much more inclusive — he was way ahead of his time.

     In the late 19th century, Whitman was considered an idealistic champion of the common man. His words were often prophetic. And in the 21st century, at a time when prejudice against Latinos is still prevalent, prophetic he remains!

     When he said that "we Americans have yet to really learn our own antecedents," Whitman was talking about those who still refer to Hispanics with disparaging terms, those who still commit hate crimes against Latinos, those who erroneously assume that most Latinos came here illegally, and those who are too misinformed to recognize and respect the complete ethnology of the United States.


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Florida's Birthday Should Be                                      A National Holiday: American Discovery Day     29

The Fountain of Our Hispanic Heritage                35

The Re-Conquest Of American History                41

Marking America's Birthplace                               47

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Florida's Birthday Should Be a National Holiday: American Discovery Day

     When he discovered the huge landmass now known as the United States, Juan Ponce de Leon decided to call it Florida. It was April 2, 1513, during the "Pascua Florida" season — Spanish for "Flowery Easter" — and that name seemed appropriate as the conquistador and his 200 explorers contemplated the lush vegetation along the shoreline.

     They became the first Europeans to set foot on the mainland that later became the United States, landing somewhere on the east coast of the peninsula now known as the state of Florida.

     Yet their historic achievement is mostly ignored in the United States. April 2 is not an American holiday.

     When American history books tell us that Ponce de Leon discovered Florida, they usually fail to explain that the Florida territory of the 16th century covered a huge portion of today’s American mainland, and they undermine the importance of his great discovery.

   In the late 16th century, European scholars and mapmakers used the word "Florida" to describe our country. Yet nowadays, when we hear that Ponce de Leon discovered Florida, we give him credit only for one state. It's absurd! He discovered our country! And instead of recognizing his great accomplishment, we entertain ourselves with mythical stories about his alleged search for a fictitious “Fountain of Youth.” That’s even more absurd!     We know the main reason is The Black Legend, that infamous and insidious Anglo-Saxon campaign to demonize the Spanish explorers and minimize their

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accomplishments, a legend that has distorted American history and is still promoted by both anti-Hispanic zealots and Latinos who reject their Spanish heritage.

    But why are the rest of us Americans, of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, depriving ourselves of celebrating our national "American Discovery Day"? (That's what I would call it!) Why aren't we seeing huge nationwide celebrations to commemorate our birthday every April 2?

     Could it be simple confusion about the territory Ponce de Leon discovered? Consider this: Had this country been discovered by Anglo-Saxon explorers, instead of Spanish conquistadors, wouldn't we be watching fireworks all over the United State every April 2? Shouldn’t this day be even bigger than our entire Hispanic Heritage Month?

    That month is mostly dedicated to commemorating Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World on Oct. 12, 1492 – although he never set foot in North America. It’s a time for ethnic parades and other wonderful festivities, as well as for some conflict between those Latinos who celebrate the accomplishments of their Spanish ancestors and those who reject them as ruthless invaders.

     But unfortunately, even among those Latinos who do celebrate their Spanish heritage, the month's festivities seldom are used to recognize the great feats of those conquistadors who really did discover, explore and settle huge portions of North America long before other Europeans.

    Hernando de Soto, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and many other 16th-century Spanish explorers are the original American pioneers, the heroes who should be recognized during Hispanic Heritage Month.

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     But it all began with the one who arrived in the New World on Columbus’ second trip, became the first governor of Puerto Rico, sailed north from Puerto Rico on March 4, 1513, and almost one month later found the land that was to become our country.

   Yet even in 2013, on the momentous 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s journey, we missed a huge opportunity to teach our fellow Americans the complete history of the United States. 

     In 1976, when the U.S. celebrated the bicentennial of the American Revolution, and in 1992, when the entire Western Hemisphere celebrated the quincentennial of its discovery, there were wonderful re-enactments of historic moments, great history lessons, tall ship flotillas and plenty of fireworks.

     Yet April 2, 2013 – our American quincentennial – didn’t get similar attention. But why do we neglect our "American Discovery Day"? Is it because it would expose Hispanic roots that American history tends to keep hidden? Is it because it reminds us of nearly a century of Spanish exploration of North America before the British arrived?

     Mind you, in 2004, the Florida Legislature passed a law calling on the Florida Department of State to create a "Discovery of Florida Quincentennial Commemoration Commission," which was to "develop and lead a statewide master plan" for celebrations in 2013. Yet adequate funding for that project never was allocated by that same legislature; the commission never was fully established; and the law was repealed in 2008.

     Mind you, also in 2004, the two U.S. senators from Florida, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, both Democrats, introduced federal legislation to establish a "National Commission on the Quincentennial of the discovery of Florida by Ponce de Leon -- with offices in St. Augustine

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— to "encourage, coordinate and conduct" celebrations that would "enhance public understanding of the impact of the discovery of Florida on the history of the United States." However, although it was passed by the U.S. Senate, the bill never cleared the House and never became law. And so, plans for a national celebration never went anywhere.

     Yes, under a statewide "Viva Florida 500" campaign, there were history lectures, art exhibits, tall ship flotillas, parades, fireworks and wonderful reenactments of historic moments. But unfortunately, these events were so small and so local that the rest of us the nation was not even aware of them.

    Since I started raising this issue in 2009, suggesting in several columns that Florida’s birthday should be a national holiday, many readers have reacted very positively. They tell me to go ahead and “make it happen” — as if one columnist had the power to do it all alone.

     The discovery of our homeland surely deserves a huge national celebration. But it’s up to all of us to make it happen. If you want to join me in this quest, send this essay to everyone you know. Ask your elected officials to issue proclamations recognizing April 2 as our American Discovery Day.I only have planted a seed, and this is a garden that belongs to all of us.

     By the way, I was in St. Augustine for "Pascua Florida" on April 2, 2013. Will you join me? We will go there in the next three chapters.

Parts of this article draw from three columns written for the Creators Syndicate: “American Discovery Day, on Sept. 15, 2009, “What a Birthday to Forget,” on April 19, 2011 and “Florida’s 500th Birthday Should be a National Holiday,” on Feb. 12, 2013.

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The Fountain of Our Hispanic Heritage

     People were shouting "Viva España" and celebrating the great achievements of the Spanish conquistadors in Florida last week. They were dressing up as Spanish explorers, firing muskets and even cannons, listening to history lectures and attending Catholic masses in recognition that Christianity came to America with much more compassion than history tells us.

     In two days and two cities, they celebrated the 500th anniversary of the discovery and landing by Juan Ponce de Leon on the flowery land he called "La Florida."

     They were showcasing our normally hidden Hispanic heritage, and there I was, in the middle of it all, thanking the Lord for giving me the opportunity to see it with my own eyes. Borrowing a line from baseball, I kept telling myself, "I live for this."

     I heard non-Latino politicians, historians and clergy recognizing the contributions of our Spanish ancestors. I heard Spanish government officials expressing gratitude for Florida's "dedication to commemorate and remember the importance of the Spanish contribution to the history of Florida and the United States."

     I heard them speaking about the assets of diversity, the importance of history and the unfair and negative effects of the Black Legend, that centuries old campaign by English, French and American writers to minimize the accomplishments of the Spanish explorers and their Latino descendants.

     "We celebrate First America, the genesis of the American culture, where Hispanics and African-Americans and Native American mingled together in this area," said Dana Ste. Claire, one of the celebration organizers in St. Augustine. "We are talking about the birth of the American culture. It happened right here."

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St. Augustine Reenactment

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Instead of the fountain of youth in the nation's oldest city, I had reached the fountain of our Hispanic heritage.

     Frankly, I must have looked like a total nerd, trying to take notes, photos and videos at the same time. Trying to interview people who were often walking in different directions and trying two speak to them in two different languages. But I wanted so much to share what the rest of America was missing. I wanted all my fellow Americans to see Ponce de Leon get the recognition he deserves. I wanted everyone to hear what I was hearing.

     "First of all, he was most likely the official European discoverer and founder of America," Ste. Claire told a crowd of several hundred people who had gathered Wednesday around the Ponce de Leon Statue in St. Augustine's downtown bay front. "Yes, we celebrate the founding of Florida — La Florida — by Juan Ponce, but keep in mind, too, that he was the first official European to touch the shores of mainland America."

     I couldn't help myself. I was the one who shouted, "Bravo!"

     For several years in this column, I have been arguing that the Quincentennial of our discovery should have been a national celebration because Ponce de Leon didn't just discover the peninsula that is now the State of Florida, but the mainland that is now the United States.

    You may have missed it in the news last week because the national media didn't pay much attention. But in Florida, we celebrated our country's discovery day, our 500th birthday!

     Because two cities are competing over the right to claim they are closer to the spot where Ponce the Leon actually landed in 1513, I covered numerous events in 

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Melbourne Beach Reenactment

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Melbourne Beach on April 2 and in St. Augustine on April 3. Both cities hosted commemorative ceremonies, celebrated Catholic masses and held wonderful reenactments of the Ponce de Leon landing.

"But why wasn't this Quincentennial of our discovery a national celebration?" I kept asking everyone. "Why is this happening only in two Florida towns?"

     And while I got mostly evasive answers from both Spanish and American politicians — all unwilling to deal with controversy during a festive occasion — I got a very realistic response from one of the Melbourne Beach re-enactors:

     "In my experience, what I have discovered from many of the people I have met is that people still don't have a good understanding of our history," said Jose Gueits Romero, who, meticulously dressed as conquistador, spoke in Spanish with a heavy Spanish accent. "Particularly the people in city hall and in the state and federal governments, they still have a lot to learn."

     Mind you, in both cities, well-informed historians, politicians and clergy recognized that there were indigenous people living in Florida before the Spanish arrived, and that the collision of the Spanish and Native American cultures had some negative consequences, especially diseases that wiped out native populations.

     But they also recognized the many good things that resulted from that encounter, and sometimes they had do it over the screams of a handful of protesters who, in both cities, tried to disrupt the celebrations with blatant displays of ignorance and attacks against our Spanish heritage that bordered on racism.

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     Amazingly, while historical evidence shows that it was the Spanish who were under constant attacks from the Florida natives during Ponce de Leon's first voyage, and while it was the natives who killed Ponce de Leon shortly after arriving on his second voyage, those who still promote the Black Legend held picket signs proclaiming that, "Juan Ponce de Leon and his men are guilty of mass murder, rape and genocide."

     Although they think of themselves as progressive human rights activists, they were there to showcase their Black Legend-influenced bigotry against our Spanish heritage. Let's face it: It requires a certain degree of stubborn ignorance to accuse Ponce de Leon of committing genocide in Florida, especially while some of the state's most prominent historians were asserting that Ponce de Leon "did not wish to do the natives harm, but was forced to fight in order to save his men's lives." And especially when Catholic bishops were reminding us that Spain's Franciscan missionaries were "the first civil rights leaders of the New World."

     But that's fodder for at least another column. In this space next week, I'll tell you much more of what I learned from some of Florida's most renowned historians, and from prominent Catholic clergy, who gave me a new fountain of information from which to drink, and much more impetus to keep uprooting America's hidden Hispanic heritage.


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The Reconquest of American History

April 16, 2013 - As if he was a field commander rallying his troops, "the dean of Florida historians" was distributing ammunition among those who fight to correct American history, especially those who try to dispel the misconceptions about the Spanish explorers who discovered a land they called "La Florida" in 1513.

     While others were preparing picket signs that would accuse the conquistadors of genocide, Dr. Michael Gannon was opening the April 2 celebrations to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de Leon's discovery of North America.

     "We are all honored to be alive on an anniversary of this magnitude," Gannon told a crowd of history buffs who had filled the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Melbourne Beach, Fla.

     Of course, he was literately preaching to the choir. In the audience, there were people who take their history so seriously that they were dressed as Spanish conquistadors, people who have spent years on a crusade to get Ponce de Leon and his men the recognition they deserve.

     Led by Samuel Lopez, a New York Puerto Rican who relocated in Melbourne, these 21st century crusaders — "the Royal Order of Juan Ponce de Leon" - still are valiantly combatting that anti-Hispanic "Black Legend" propaganda that began in the 16th century.

     And on the morning of April 2, it was as if they were getting a pep talk from the ultimate authority on Florida's Spanish history — the Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Florida. As if he was anticipating the ignorance that would be displayed by a handful of protesters who picketed another celebration event later that day, Gannon spoke of the myths and misconceptions about Ponce de Leon.

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Dr. Michael Gannon University of Florida

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     He explained that there is no clear evidence that Ponce de Leon was searching for the mythical Fountain of Youth, that historical records show he "did not wish to do the natives harm," and that he had noble intentions of establishing Spanish settlements and bringing Christianity to North America. He explained that it was Ponce de Leon and his men who were under constant attacks from the Florida natives, that Ponce de Leon "was forced to fight in order to save his men's lives and their boats, oars and weapons," and that upon returning to Florida eight years after his 1513 voyage, Ponce de Leon was driven back into the sea and mortally wounded by the Calusa natives.

     Of course, in the audience, listening to such vindicating words from such an authority made people like John Ayés burst with pride. After all, Ayés, 67, has traced his genealogical roots and Gannon was talking about his multiple-great-granddaddy.

     "It's just a wonderful day," Ayés whispered when I asked him to share his sentiments. But he didn't have to say much. He was wearing an impressive Spanish armor that illustrated his "huge pride."

     Even before protesters could begin to promote the Black Legend, with picket signs demonizing the Spanish explorers, Gannon had made it clear that the violence came from the natives.

     "No cause for the natives' violence is given in the record (of Ponce de Leon's voyage). Whether it was provoked by earlier mission of slaving expeditions, or by the natives' own long tradition of intertribal warfare, or by simple fear of these strange creatures from another world."

     Even before protesters could question why the Spanish are credited with "discovering" a land that

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already was occupied by natives, Gannon was giving his troops a new Spanish Armada with which to defend our Hispanic heritage.

     "I would suggest that we say that Juan Ponce's voyage constituted the first known, or documented, discovery of Florida," Gannon said.

     All over Northeast Florida last week, those who still promote the Black Legend were grossly outnumbered by those insisted that they were indeed commemorating a great discovery.

     "It was the first time that the Old World European cultures met the New World indigenous folks," said Dana Ste. Claire as he opened the April 3 ceremonies in St. Augustine. "Neither one of them knew the other one was on the other side of the planet."

     In both Melbourne Beach and St. Augustine, many of the celebrants acknowledged that the clash of Spanish and Native American cultures had many negative consequences, especially diseases that decimated native nations. But they also recognized the many positive results of the encounter between Europe and North America. And they refuse to judge the people of the 16th century by the moral and human rights standards of the 21st century.

     "We are not here to celebrate the unfortunate consequences of that meeting," added Ste. Claire. "Because, yes it did, it led to the decimation of Native Americans, many sophisticated cultures and societies that lived here. But it also represented — in a moment and a day — a time when the world changed forever, when Old World and New World came together, and it's never been the same since. So we are here to commemorate this very important day in world history."

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     Sometimes having to shout over the interventions of protesters, Ste. Claire noted, "while it is the case that some may not want to participate in our ceremony, or understand it, there are a number of things that we do want to celebrate."

     To hear white folks speaking this way, and many more white folks applauding, well, sometimes I thought I was dreaming. Does this only happen every 500 years? While others were mispronouncing "Viva Florida," I was happy to see them trying to put two Spanish words together.

     At the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Augustine, the oldest church in Florida, where a special mass was celebrated a short while later, parishioners were reminded that Franciscan missionaries were the first civil rights leaders of the New World and that among Spain's unique gifts to America was Christianity.

     "Spain brought many gifts in the aftermath of Juan Ponce de Leon's landing in this territory," said homilist Rev. Robert J. Baker, Bishop of Birmingham. Ala. "But from the church's standpoint, its greatest gift was the faith."

     Everywhere I turned, America's hidden Hispanic heritage was being exposed in Florida last week. I was surrounded by people who think as I do. Sometimes it was if I was listening to myself speak, especially when I met historian and navigator Douglas T. Peck.

     "Ponce de Leon was the most important explorer after Columbus," Peck told me. "But you wouldn't get that from your history books. They report him as just another conquistador who was only interested in gathering slaves and finding gold. He wasn't interested in either one. He was an immensely wealthy man ... He didn't need slaves or gold, and yet that's what is taught in our schools today. It's sad."

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     Of course for Lopez, his United Third Bridge organization and the Royal Order of Juan Ponce de Leon, getting both Gannon and Peck to speak at their April 2 events was a huge coup, especially since these two top historians now agree that Ponce de Leon landed in Melbourne Beach instead of St. Augustine. But that's fodder for yet another column, coming soon.

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Marking America’s Birthplace

January 31, 2014 - The dream of marking the spot where Juan Ponce de Leon actually landed — after discovering and naming Florida 500 years ago — finally was realized Saturday as more than 100 people gathered in Melbourne Beach, Fla., for the unveiling of an impressive 10-foot, bronze statue of the Spanish conquistador holding a cross and facing the Atlantic Ocean.The statue officially marks Melbourne Beach's claim that de Leon first landed there instead of St. Augustine some 125 miles north, where it was long believed the first landing took place.

     It took many years of work and sacrifice by a small group of very passionate history buffs, but they were able to prove that distorted history could be corrected and made relevant once again.

     They marked the site where Florida began and this country was born, and they created a huge source of pride for Latinos! The effort was led by Samuel Lopez, a New York Puerto Rican who relocated to Melbourne Beach and spent a dozen years making sure his childhood idol de Leon finally got the recognition he deserves — at the spot where he actually landed.

  "We thank God that it happened," Lopez told reporters. "It's a national treasure. It's our history."

     Lopez is a devout follower of the theory established by historian and navigator Douglas T. Peck, who retraced de Leon's 1513 journey in the spring of 1990 and found that landfall on Florida's east coast occurred much farther south than what historians had been telling us.

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     Although the de Leon expedition's original log has never been recovered, and historians can only go by a 1601 copy transcribed by Spanish historian Antonio de Herrera, Peck set sail from Puerto Rico, piloting a 33-foot cutter with the same specs as a Spanish caravel, and determined that instead of the "celestial navigation" historians had assumed was used in 1513, the expedition was guided by "dead reckoning," a process of calculating a ship's position based on its course, speed and time from its point of origin. Anton de Alaminos, the pilot of de Leon's expedition, had learned "dead reckoning" from Christopher Columbus, Peck argued, and had stuck with it when he guided de Leon to Florida.

     This process, combined with adjustments for flaws in 16th century compasses, led Peck to conclude that the latitudes reported for the 1513 landing were off by two degrees to the north. Even with modern navigational technology, Peck found that the speed of de Leon's three ships did not have the time to reach as far north as St. Augustine.

     His controversial findings, published in the Florida Historical Quarterly in 1992, ignited a debate among historians and created a rivalry between two cities that culminated on April 2 and 3 of 2013, when both Melbourne Beach and St. Augustine hosted 500th anniversary reenactments of de Leon's landing.

     Surely, some people feel that a Melbourne Beach landing site threatens the tourism industry in St. Augustine, which has not only benefited from being the nation's oldest city (established in 1565), but from claiming to be the location of de Leon's landfall in 1513. One of its main attractions is the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, where tourists are still told de Leon landed.

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     Yet Peck's findings have become much more widely accepted in recent years, thanks to the tireless persistence of Lopez and a few other Central Florida Hispanic community activists who have sought support from other historians and insisted on correcting distorted American history in their part of the country.

     Using the lobbying and fundraising resources of three Hispanic organizations — the Florida Puerto Rican/Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the United Third Bridge civil rights group and the reenactors of the Royal Order of Juan Ponce de Leon — Lopez has been trying to put Melbourne Beach on the history maps for many years.

     In 2005, he got the county to designate a small strip of public beach — on State Road A1A, just south of the Melbourne Beach city limits — as Juan Ponce de Leon Landing Park. Then he raised the funds, mostly through private donations, to hire Spanish sculptor Rafael Picon to begin building the statue.

     But when only a black granite pedestal was revealed at the statue's originally scheduled unveiling on April 2, some people began to question whether Lopez's dream would ever be realized. He was still $67,000 short of the amount needed to finish the project.

     Yet Lopez persisted. On this same day when he had no statue to show the public, Lopez hosted Dr. Michael Gannon as the keynote speaker at a special Melbourne Beach mass to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon's great discovery. And Gannon, the retired University of Florida professor considered the dean of Florida historians, threw his immense reputation behind Peck and the Melbourne Beach landing theory.

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     He said Peck's voyage represents "the latest and best evidentiary statement we have on the Juan Ponce landing," and his embrace of the Melbourne Beach theory may have served as the leverage Lopez needed to finally convince county officials to help him pay for the statue.

     Only a couple of weeks ago, the Brevard County Tourism Development Council unanimously agreed to use hotel room tax funds to pay the $67,000 needed to complete the statue project. Lopez was finally able to convince county leaders that the park and its statue can become a significant tourist attraction.

     And so when the new de Leon statue finally was unveiled Saturday, and a group of Central Florida Hispanic community activists realized their shared dream, we learned how people can make a difference, how history can be corrected and how America's hidden Hispanic heritage can be rediscovered. Bravo!

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The Great Hispanic American History Tour

On the Trail of Conquistadors

Beyond St. Augustine

David G. Farragut: A Hidden Hispanic Role Model

The Hispanic Flank of the American Revolution

New Orleans Has a Spanish ‘Ne Sais Quoi’

Cabeza de Vaca's Journey

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The Great Hispanic American History Tour

     June 17, 2014 - The time has come for me to take a long drive. My pilgrimage in search for America's hidden Hispanic heritage requires reporting from dozens of historical sites I'm determined to visit this year.

   To get the most out of my journey, I have been mapping a route for months. But it hasn't been easy. After all, I'm planning a 21st-century road trip using 16th-century maps!

    I want to see the relics left by our great-grand Spanish ancestors. I want to follow their trails. I want to visit the towns that have been named after them and the monuments built to recognize their great accomplishments. I want to pray in the churches they built.

     I want to see the markers that document the history of Spanish interaction with Native Americans, African-Americans and other white Americans. I want to show how even some of our state borders were drawn with Hispanic intervention. I want people to understand that Hispanic roots are firmly planted all over this country.

    It sounds like fun, right? Well, buckle up: I'm taking you on my journey!

     Through this column, the Internet and social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and especially my website — I intend share my "Hispanic American history tour" with all who share my belief that the time has come to re-conquer American history so the contributions of our Hispanic ancestors are properly recognized.

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     I will be writing weekly columns, making daily blog entries and sharing photos and short videos from all the historical sites I visit.

     But which way do I go? What are the must-see stops on my bucket list? Do I try to follow the trail of one of the Spanish conquistadors who explored North America — perhaps Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca or Hernando de Soto or Francisco Vasquez de Coronado — or do I create my own route, covering portions of each of their trails?

     On a cross-country road trip, what is the route that would cover the most significant Hispanic heritage sites?

     Seeking an answer to that question has me looking at ancient maps while plotting a route with the Google Maps technology of the 21st century. It's exciting!

     Until last year, I ran the multimedia journalism program at Lehman College, in the Bronx, New York. Now on sabbatical from my position as a professor there, this is my opportunity to show my students how to apply our latest technology to the craft of storytelling.

     My co-pilot will be my childhood buddy Gustavo Villageliu, who is just as big a history buff as I am and has been helping me plot our route. Gustavo is a recently retired Justice Department official and former immigration judge who lives in Virginia. We are planning to spend more than a month on the road, and we'll be sharing a map of our route so everyone can track our progress.

     Followers of my Hidden Hispanic Heritage Facebook blog, ( already have been getting hints on where our journey will begin

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and how far we intend to travel — from southwest Florida to southern Arizona and back via a different route.

     A bucket list trip for two old buddies? You bet! But we want this to be a rediscovery journey for many Latinos who may have lost track of their deep ancestral roots in this country. And we need you not only to join us through social media, but also to invite your friends to come along.

    Although we already have a wish list of places we want to visit — in about a dozen states — we will be seeking your suggestions, starting immediately, on our Facebook blog page or on Twitter @ColumnistPerez. I'm looking forward to your comments. I'll be checking all my social media accounts from the road.

   Obviously, this is not a typical column. It's really an invitation to a multimedia, virtual road trip across the country.

    So when you think of me in the next few weeks, think of 70 mph with Willie Nelson blasting on the radio, "On the Road Again ... " And think of yourself as another passenger on the Great Hispanic American History Tour.

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On the Trail of Conquistadors

June 24, 2014 -- From the water, you still can see small sections of unspoiled shoreline that allow you to imagine what the conquistadors must have seen when they landed on the west coast of Florida almost 500 years ago.

   Seeking that vantage point, from the intercostal waterways near St. Petersburg, Florida, I discovered last week that you still can land on the same spot where Panfilo de Narvaez began his exploration of North America in 1528.

     A small waterfront park, flanked by beautiful homes, still marks the spot that "launched the first exploration by white man of the North American continent," according to the sign posted there.

     It's called Jungle Prada de Narvaez Park, and it's in St. Petersburg. You can drive there, but reaching it by water, realizing that Tampa Bay is extremely shallow and difficult for large vessels to navigate, and seeing the dense, swampy mangroves along the shoreline, helps you visualize the difficulties the Spanish explorers encountered.

     On a speedy 22-foot deck boat, with technology much more advanced than that of 16th-century Spanish carabelas, my friend Steve Rater led our expedition on this part of my Great Hispanic American History Tour in search of our often-hidden Hispanic heritage. It was an unusual way to begin a cross-country road trip, but it gave us a more complete perspective of what the conquistadors encountered.

     During this trip, my quest is to expose the parks, monuments, exhibits, street markers and many other landmarks where our Hispanic heritage is deeply rooted and yet often hidden right before our eyes.

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     On Florida's west coast, as tourists bask in the beauty of the bone-white beaches and beautiful sunsets, they seldom take the time to dig into the area's rich history. Yet this is where several Spanish expeditions first made contact with North America and launched major explorations.

     We hear so much about Juan Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine and what happened on the Florida's east coast that we tend to neglect the huge historic events on the other side of the peninsula and the landmarks that are still there.

     So, moving forward with my own expedition — and taking notes and photos for many future columns — the next logical stop had to be Bradenton, Florida, where the National Parks Service recognizes the spot where the 1539 Hernando de Soto expedition first made camp. At the De Soto National Memorial park, visitors are met by fascinating exhibits, a video history lesson and opportunities to wear a Spanish soldier's helmet and chainmail armor.

     And after getting an education from all the exhibits, you can go on part of the De Soto Expedition Trail, a three-quarter-mile path that takes you through a pristine mangrove forest and out to the shores of the Manatee River. According to the sign posted there, "The lush mangrove and upland forest once covered much of the Tampa Bay coastline and presented an almost impenetrable obstacle for the De Soto expedition. These same forests also provided shelter, food and a protective barrier for the Florida Indians."

 Cutting through the mangroves, de Soto and his 600 men took about three months to reach Anhaica, the main village of the Apalachee where they fought with the natives and settled for the winter. But it took my friend Gustavo and I less than five hours — mostly on

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highways that now follow de Soto's path — to the marker in present-day Tallahassee, where archaeologists found Anhaica in 1987 and where community activists now are working to create an attraction to commemorate the site of "America's First Christmas," undoubtedly celebrated there in 1539.

     While Florida travel has improved considerably over the past 500 years, Gustavo and I are constantly in awe of the vast land these men covered mostly on foot while herding pigs, horses, war dogs and fighting natives who stood in their way.

     But you can get a much better feel for their journey when you visit Tallahassee's Museum of Florida History and its wonderful exhibit "Forever Changed," showing how Spanish exploration changed the world. As part of this exhibit, you get to walk into a carabela, and you get to stand next to the lifelike wax figures of conquistadors who played vital roles in the exploration of North America, including Juan Ortiz and Estevanico, two survivors of the Narvaez expedition.

     Ortiz was captured by Florida natives and lived with them for 11 years until he hooked up with the 1539 de Soto expedition and served as de Soto's interpreter. Estevanico was an enslaved black man, born in Morocco, who traveled across North America with Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and managed to hook up with Spanish forces in present-day Mexico. He was killed by Zuni Indians when he served as a guide for the 1539 Fray Marcos de Niza expedition into present-day New Mexico.

     There are no photos or images of these two men. We know they existed, but no one knows what they really looked like. And yet they have been so imaginatively and impressively recreated for this exhibit that you want to have your photo taken next to them.

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     And the same thing happens at Mission San Luis, another impressive attraction in Tallahassee where visitors get a good feel for what life was like in a North American Spanish mission at the start of the 17th century. However, at San Luis, the historic figures are represented by real people, or "living history interpreters," who recreate life as it existed there from 1656 to 1704. During that time, Mission San Luis served as Spain's western capital in La Florida, with the largest number of European settlers outside of St. Augustine.

     "At San Luis, Spaniards and Apalachees (who converted to Catholicism) came together and formed a community unlike any other in 17th-century Florida," according to literature displayed there.

     "We research and study these people who really existed here and then we personify them," said Arnold Roman Laboy, a living history interpreter who plays the role of a merchant mariner, Don Diego de Florencia. And it was Don Diego who taught me the proper way to pose for photographs next to a Spanish cannon. It was great!

     Laboy said that while many of the Mission visitors are Hispanic, most express shock in having discovered such a place. "They tell me, 'I've lived in Tallahassee my whole life, and I never knew this was here.'"

     As I keep saying, sometimes our Hispanic heritage is hidden right before our eyes!

     In next week's chapter: We go rowing on the same creek where many of Narvaez's men were massacred, where Ortiz was captured by the natives, and where Cabeza de Vaca and Estevanico escaped death.