Column: Florida and the world

Florida’s history can be deceiving.
More than 2,000 people are expected to hear from dozens of diplomats, professors, military professionals and journalists on 31 panels at this year’s St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. [File photo from 2018 conference by Denis Thuin]
More than 2,000 people are expected to hear from dozens of diplomats, professors, military professionals and journalists on 31 panels at this year’s St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs. [File photo from 2018 conference by Denis Thuin]
Published February 8

Editor’s note: The author will speak at the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which runs Tuesday night through Friday. Click for more details.

By Gary R. Mormino

Special to the Tampa Bay Times

Florida is a bellwether state. Consider some of the most significant events of the last twenty years: 9/11 conspirators, Elián Gonzales, Terri Schiavo, the housing boom, the Great Recession, the spike in homelessness and inequality, global warming with sea level rise, and gun violence. To quote Dan Rather on election night 2000, “Florida is the whole deal, the real deal, a big deal.”

Florida’s $1 trillion economy rivals Hong Kong and is greater than Switzerland or Argentina. Florida’s 21.6 million inhabitants surpasses Romania and approaches Niger’s population.

Florida’s identity with the world has always been complicated. Just where does Florida belong? Is it America’s southernmost continental state whose capital, Tallahassee, is a day’s walk to Georgia? Or is it the northern rim of the Caribbean? Key West, the Conch Republic, lies only 90 miles from Cuba but 832 miles from Pensacola.

Of course, one need not travel far in Florida to encounter foreign accents. More than 120 million tourists visit Florida annually, and those numbers include 3.5 million Canadians. So many Canadians huddle in the strip between Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale that Quebecoise can easily find newspapers published in French, as well as cafes serving poutine. A new term, Floribec, describes their French-Canadian/Florida identity.

Migration and immigration define the American character and underscore the American dream. Motoring across the Florida peninsula in 1940, visitors heard Greek accents in Tarpon Springs, Czech voices in Masaryktown, Slovak in Slavia, and Spanish and Italian among cigarmakers and peddlers in Ybor City and West Tampa.

In Florida, history repeats itself. Imagine a newspaper headline: “Cubans Flee Tyrannical Island, Seek Refuge across the Florida Straits.” The headline appeared thrice: first in Key West in the 1870s, then Tampa in the 1880s, and finally Miami in the 1960s.

When María Cristina García was searching for a title of her book on Cuban-Americans in South Florida, her choice was pitch perfect: Havana USA. For good reason, quipped a pundit, Miami is the only city in America with a foreign policy. If Miami were a speeded-up newsreel, it would pulsate with frames of Little Havana, the Bay of Pigs, Freedom Flights, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mariel, Elián, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) and his “little friend.” Arguably, Fidel Castro played a bigger role in shaping South Florida than Henry Flagler.

A million dreams later, the Cuban experience in South Florida constitutes one of the greatest immigrant success stories in American history. In the process, Cubans profoundly changed Florida as much as Florida changed them. On the eve of 1960, Cubans composed a mere 2 percent of Miami-Dade County. Today, an astonishing 54 percent of the county’s 2.8 million residents were born abroad. More than half speak a language other than English at home. Perhaps most remarkably, the Spanish accents heard today in Little Havana and Sweetwater are no longer exclusively Cuban or even Hispanic. An astute observer pointed out the most effective way of identifying the most recent ethnic group: Listen to the accent of the waitresses.

In Central Florida, surging numbers of Puerto Ricans have altered the region’s politics and demographics. Puerto Ricans are on a glide path to surpass Cubans by 2020. Hurricane Maria brought thousands of Puerto Ricans to seek refuge in Florida.

Events in Port-au-Prince, Caracas, Kingston and Washington reverberate in Florida. When President Donald Trump described Haiti as a “s---hole,” the insult deeply offended the 300,000 Haitians who have settled in places such as Golden Glades, Pinewood and Westgate. Political and economic chaos in Venezuela have sent so many residents to Doral that the community is known as “Dorazuela.” Miramar, Pembroke Pines and Kendall are home to the largest population of Jamaicans outside the capital, Kingston. Lauderhill is fondly nicknamed “Jamaica Hill.”

Florida history can be deceiving. When Tampa’s Bob Martínez took the oath of office in January 1987, journalists noted that he was Florida’s first Hispanic governor. Historians reminded the Fourth Estate that Martínez, the grandson of Spanish immigrants, was the 50th Hispanic governor of Florida! The late historian Michael Gannon enjoyed reminding us that not until 2056 will an American flag have flown over Florida longer than a Spanish pennant.

Florida has always been more global than provincial. Two and a half centuries ago, the Panton, Leslie & Co. more resembled a modern international corporation than the frontier trading outpost along the Florida borderlands. Wrote Russell D. James, “The firm was run by Scots, with British citizenship who spoke English, French, Spanish and in some cases, Portuguese, not to mention native languages.”

Gary R. Mormino is scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council and a participant in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs.