By Miguel Pérez
September 15, 2009 - 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 American mainland, 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 the entire American mainland, and they undermine the importance of his great discovery.
We know the main reason is The Black Legend, that infamous Anglo-Saxon campaign to demonize the Spanish explorers and minimize their accomplishments, a legend that has distorted American history and that still is 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 planning a huge series of celebrations to commemorate our quincentennial in April 2013?
This is Hispanic Heritage Month, mostly dedicated to commemorating Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World on Oct. 12, 1492. It is 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.
Unfortunately, because Columbus never set foot in North America, 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 any other Europeans.
Hernando de Soto, Francisco Coronado, Pedro Menendez de Aviles and many other 16th-century Spanish explorers are the original American pioneers, the heroes who should be recognized during Hispanic Heritage Month.
But it all began with the one who sailed north from Puerto Rico on March 4, 1513, and almost one month later found the land that was to become our country. As this column proclaimed last week, our quincentennial is coming!
In 1976, when the U.S. celebrated its bicentennial, and in 1992, when the entire Western Hemisphere celebrated its quincentennial, there were wonderful re-enactments of historic moments, great history lessons, tall ship flotillas and plenty of fireworks.
Doesn't April 2, 2013, deserve similar attention?
When Jamestown, Va., celebrated its 400th anniversary as the "first permanent British settlement" in the United States, in May 2007, both President George W. Bush and the queen of England attended the festivities. St. Augustine, Fla., the country's first settlement of any kind, doesn't get as much attention when it celebrates its anniversary 42 years ahead of Jamestown, every Sept. 8.
Of course, what St. Augustine celebrates is the anniversary of its 1565 foundation by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who came to settle there 52 years after Ponce de Leon discovered our country. In fact, on the Internet, there is already a group planning a special celebration for St. Augustine's 450th birthday, in 2015!
But what about April 2, 2013, the 500th anniversary of our country's discovery? Shouldn't we be planning our 500th birthday party? Seeing as St. Augustine also claims to be the site of Ponce de Leon's first landing (and of his discovery of the legendary and totally mythical Fountain of Youth), in 1513, shouldn't that be the site of our biggest quincentennial celebration? Will there be fireworks and flotillas? Will the president of the United States go to St. Augustine to greet the king of Spain?
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.
And mind you, also in 2004, the two U.S. senators from Florida, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, both Democrats, introduced federal legislation that would have established a "National Commission on the Quincentennial of the discovery of Florida by Ponce de Leon" — with offices in St. Augustine — 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.
So the clock keeps ticking toward 2013, and perhaps I'm just not looking in the right places, but I see "nada" — no plans at all!
Since this column started raising these questions three weeks ago, some readers have reacted very positively, urging me to go ahead and "make it happen" — as if one columnist could have the power to do it all alone.
The 500th anniversary of our homeland's discovery surely deserves a huge national celebration. But it would be up to all of us to make it happen. If you want to join me in this quest, send my recent columns to everyone you know. Ask your elected officials to issue proclamations recognizing April 2 as our American Discovery Day and to start planning for our 2013 quincentennial celebrations. If you have other ideas on how to achieve this goal, send me your comments at email@example.com, and they may be quoted in this column in the near future.
I only have planted a seed, and this is a garden that belongs to all of us. By the way, I plan to be in St. Augustine for "Pascua Florida" April 2, 2013. Will you join me?
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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Published at Creators.com - American Discovery Day - on September 15, 2009.