In 2013, Florida commemorates the five centuries since Juan Ponce de León landed on an Atlantic coast beach and proclaimed our peninsula "La Florida."
This first recorded European arrival in the Western Hemisphere marked the beginning of a remarkable era of colonizing and conflicts, cultural exchange, and the long, dynamic process that has created the American melting pot.
The anniversary of 1513 offers an invaluable opportunity for Floridians to learn in essential and varied ways:
• History is a gateway to learning and success today. The foundational skills of reading, analyzing, comprehending and communicating are at the heart of any learning about the past. When we tell our stories, read a history, or visit a place associated with the past, we exercise the capacities of observing, researching, differentiating fact from conjecture, employing context, and organizing complex events and ideas. Technologies, languages, lifestyles and job types will continue to change in our fast-moving world, but the cognitive skills of thinking, analyzing and communicating remain essential and enduring.
• Knowing the past increases civic connections today. Contemporary, heterogeneous Florida offers a wonderful yet challenging diversity of language and culture. Uniting us are our personal and group stories — our journeys here, our families, our successes and failures, the places we have in common. A dedication to these personal "histories" is the seed of active citizenship today. When we know our neighbors and the places that we have in common (a city block, suburb, ranch, or beach), we care more and become more involved. Show me someone with a sense of history, and I'll show you a committed voter or a community leader.
• The Native American past is part of our heritage. Indigenous people — such as the Apalachee, Calusa and Timucua — lived in Florida for at least 13,000 years before the Europeans arrived. For today's American Indians, 1513 is a detestable, painful date because of the conquest, relocation, disease and death that resulted from the Europeans' presence. But marking the five centuries since Ponce's landing has the power to expand our knowledge and appreciation of these earlier civilizations. Today the centuries before 1513 are also more accessible than ever. Authors like Florida archaeologist Jerald T. Milanich (Florida Indians and the Invasion from Europe) and journalist/public historian Charles C. Mann (1491 and 1493), online resources (such as www.TeachingFlorida.org), and archeological finds across Florida are adding to our knowledge of the Native American experience before and after colonization.
• Florida is a product of the modernizing Western world. Ponce de León's venture to "La Florida" was part of the most important wave of curiosity and exploration in European history, the Renaissance. The Portuguese and Spanish (soon followed by the French, English and Dutch) sailed beyond Europe, searching the coasts of Africa and the Americas for minerals, slaves, converts and knowledge. Just months after Ponce's landing, Vasco Nunez de Balboa "discovered" the ocean later proclaimed "pacific," and within a decade Ferdinand Magellan would be the first to circumnavigate the globe. The essential era that created Florida — captured in entertaining fashion by journalist/public historian Tony Horwitz in A Voyage Long and Strange — set the stage for the modern world.
• Florida shares a culture with Latin America. Florida historian Gary Mormino has called Florida "the northernmost Caribbean province." The 1494 treaty that granted Florida to Madrid also made Spain and the Catholic Church masters of most of Central and South America. The trading ships that relied on the outpost of Florida as they returned to Spain came from Cartagena, Havana and Vera Cruz. If one reads works like Mormino's The Immigrant World of Ybor City, or City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami by sociologist Alejandro Portes and Florida anthropologist/sociologist Alex Stepick, it is clear that to know Florida today is to embrace our state's Latin history.
• Florida is an invaluable lens for America's story. When we learn Florida's legacies, we are educating ourselves about the United States. Our national themes — migration, bondage and freedom, disunion and reconstruction, progress — are clarified when seen through the Florida experience. What more meaningful way to learn the central cause of the Civil War than reading historian Larry Rivers' sobering Slavery in Florida? How better to understand a quintessential American family story than to read writer Patrick Smith's A Land Remembered, a novel of Florida from early cattle ranching to the tumultuous 1960s?
President Harry Truman, once a regular visitor to the "Little White House" in Key West, observed, "The only thing new in this world is the history that you don't know."
In 2013, our challenge is to take this thought to heart, to locate and learn the "new" — and the challenging, important and fascinating — in the long history of Florida. If we succeed in this, the 500-year commemoration of "La Florida" will change our state and ourselves for the ages.
John Belohlavek, professor of history at the University of South Florida, is chair of the Florida Humanities Council. Andy McLeod is a former member of the Florida Humanities Council Board. The Florida Humanities Council, a private nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities, develops and sponsors public programs and resources that explore Florida history, literary and artistic traditions, cultural values, and ethics. Learn more at FloridaHumanities.org.