14 Oct Commentary: Once, an island cruise meant trip to Havana
Joy Wallace Dickinson-Florida Flashback —
We’re in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month, an annual celebration with roots that go back to 1968 — but of course, Florida’s ties to Hispanic history and culture go way, way back.
Indeed, some of Florida’s oldest families — perhaps the oldest European-based families in what’s now the United States — don’t have names like Winthrop or Adams. They have Spanish names such as Solana and Sanchez, the names of people who walked the streets of St. Augustine hundreds of years ago, even before the great Castillo de San Marcos began to take shape in 1672.
In those times, the histories of Florida and our close neighbor Cuba were closely connected, centuries before the 1959 Cuban revolution brought refugees to Florida’s shores.
In fact, native peoples traveled between the mainland and islands including Cuba in dugout canoes thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans and Africans, according to “The Cuban Experience in Florida,” an article on FloridaMemory.com.
These days, few tourists snapping photos in Key West, 90 miles from Cuba, realize how close Florida and Cuba once were in ways other than geographic distance. That closeness was true in 20th-century Central Florida, where Cuban students enrolled at Winter Park’s Rollins College and local folks enjoyed vacation getaways to Havana.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Cuban brothers Jacinto and Eulogio Gonzalez became Rollins’ first Latin American students, as alumnus Rob Humphreys writes in a 2015 article that’s online at 360.rollins.edu.
“When the Spanish-American War broke out, a good number of students from Cuba sought college education at Rollins, thus making our school one of the more international institutions of higher learning in the South,” Prof. Wenxian Zhang, head of Rollins Archives & Special Collections, told Humphreys. “In a way, more than a century ago, Rollins had begun to educate students for global citizenship” — still part of the college’s mission today.
By 1899, 22 students from Cuba were attending Rollins, more than any other American institution. The Tars also faced the University of Havana in football and basketball during the 1920s and on some later dates, including a Nov. 12, 1938, football matchup that Rollins won 7-6.
Judging from Orlando newspaper notes and ads in the 1920s through the 1950s, some Central Floridians thought of Havana more as a vacation playground than a sports opponent.
During the 1920s, the cosmopolitan Cuban city became a favorite destination for both rich Americans and bohemians. Luminaries such as New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker flocked to Cuba for “winter bouts of gambling, horse racing, golfing and country clubbing,” an article on Smithsonian.com notes.
Before long, steamship travel from Miami and Tampa put a Havana getaway within the reach of Floridians beyond the rich. A Jan. 3, 1930, Sentinel tidbit reported that P.W. Hodges, a manager for Mitchell’s Tours, had just returned from Havana after leading a group of Central Florida teachers. Touting improvements in visitor accommodations, Hodges declared that Havana’s National Casino was “now considered by many as superior to Monte Carlo itself.”
By April 1951, National Airlines advertised round-trip, all-expense fares from Orlando to Havana for as low as $46.40 — about $450 in today’s money. The travel time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
“Havana was then what Las Vegas has become,” historian Louis Perez told Smithsonian magazine, which meant not only gambling but glittering nightlife. Moreover, Havana had historic architecture and beaches.
But, beneath the gleaming nightlife was “a world of gambling, liquor trafficking and prostitution,” as FloridaMemory.com puts it. Many Cubans “blamed politicians for catering to the United States at the expense of Cuban sovereignty” — discontent that festered years before Fidel Castro seized control in Cuba in early 1959.
After that, the ties between Cuba and Florida continued but changed dramatically — a big subject that’s beyond our scope today. The centuries of easy travel back and forth between La Florida and its 90-mile neighbor ended — but the conclusion of that story remains to be written.