Minorcans of Northeast Florida maintaining identity through generations
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Blackthorne
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Minorcans of Northeast Florida maintaining identity through generations
Mike Usina has been making fishing cast nets by hand for almost 65 years, and he knows it’s a dying art. As it should be, he says, in this day of inexpensive, quality mass-produced nets.

“Nobody does this. Why would you do this? There’s no point. This is an art — it’s become an art — it’s no longer something you’d do”

Still, Usina, who’s 75, keeps knitting his own nets, the way he learned by watching his father, Julian: It’s a way of keeping up the tradition of his Minorcan ancestors, people of the sea who settled in St. Augustine in 1777, in a time of great suffering.

Poor islanders from the Mediterranean, they came to Florida in 1768 as indentured servants on a plantation in New Smyrna. After nine grueling, deadly years, working as servants, those who survived found refuge 70 miles to the north, in British St. Augustine. They stayed as the Spanish took the city again, and they stayed when Florida joined the United States in 1821.

Many of their descendants have stayed the whole time, becoming interwoven with the city’s history, their names now on streets, bridges and businesses.

Their identity has stayed strong: Usina, for example, traces his ancestry back to Antonio Usina, who married Catalina Moll in Minorca and came to Florida 238 years ago. He and his wife, Theresa, who is also of Minorcan descent, say they feel the presence of their ancestors everywhere they go.

“You go by the places where their houses still are, or they’re gone, but you know where they were,” she says.

Glenda Frawley, vice president of the Menorcan Cultural Society in St. Augustine (the group takes the spelling of its name from the Spanish version), says 20,000 people in St. Johns County have links to the original Minorcans.

“It’s been the stability and the staying power of St. Augustine itself,” she says.

Still, within a generation or two of making it to the city, Minorcans were spreading through Northeast Florida, toward the farm country to the west, toward Vilano Beach and Mayport to the north.

Mayport’s Sam Floyd is a one-time commercial shrimper who traces his Minorcan roots back nine generations. He helps take care of a Mayport cemetery that has Minorcan names going way back.

He’s 69, and says younger people don’t seem to be as interested in the history. “It’s getting less and less as the years go by. The old-timers have died and the families moved away,” he said. “But there’s still quite a few of us.”

Janice Strickland of Mayport, who’s 63, says she’s proud of her ancestors’ long history in a transient world

“It’s is a badge of pride, the family tradition that people in the area share,” she says. “My Minorcan heritage, on the DNA scale, is probably just a smidge, but I remember my grandfather who talked about his grandmother, how she cooked this way, did things that way.”

For Floyd, there’s something special about having ancestral links to a time before Florida statehood — long before railroads, air-conditioning, golf courses and skyscrapers.

“We feel like we own the place,” he said, laughing.

SO WHO WERE THEY?

Who were the Minorcans of Florida?

In 1768, eight ships with 1,403 indentured servants aboard sailed from the Mediterranean for Florida, where Andrew Turnbull, a Scottish physician, had organized a giant indigo plantation in New Smyrna.

The majority of those servants from Minorca, a Mediterranean island off Spain, but there were also more than 500 Greeks and 110 Italians among them, said Dan Schafer, a professor emeritus of history at University of North Florida who’s working on a book about Turnbull.

They were hoping for land and a better life once their terms as indentured servants were up.

But plantation conditions were brutal and the Minorcans, many of them sick and hungry, were mistreated and exploited. Within a few years, more than half the population had died, Schafer said.

In 1777, most of the survivors — 600 people — found sanctuary in British St. Augustine, where they became farmers and fishermen and tradesmen. Some soon began moving a little north, to Vilano Beach and Mayport.

MULLET ON THE BEACH

So how were the Minorcans of Florida able to keep their identity for generations, even as centuries passed and families married outside that culture?

Religion was one strong reason.

Minorcans were Catholic, while the British of the early years — and the Americans of later days — came from a largely Protestant culture.

For early generations especially, there was a strong identification with the church. That unified the Minorcans, while keeping them apart, somewhat, from the larger society, says Susan Parker, executive director of the St. Augustine Historical Society.

“If you trace the family trees back, you find we’re all related,” Floyd says. “We say, be careful if you say something bad about anybody from Mayport, because it might be your cousin.”

Still, as Minorcan families intermarried, there remained a culture that found similarities in the food they ate and the work they did.

“They’re sort of a cohesive group that has remained since the colonial period,” Parker says. “On a very small scale it’s somewhat reminiscent of the Cajuns: Their food and religion are real focus points for their identify, even today.”

Take the blazing-hot datil pepper. Stories vary on how it became a Minorcan tradition — it’s not native to the island itself — but as Floyd says: “If you don’t eat datil pepper sauce, you ain’t a Minorcan.”

The Usinas have raised datil peppers for 50 years, and have made and sold sauces and jams. They still have a garden with many datil plants. For now.

“This is my last year messing with them,” Mike Usina says. “I’m just tired of messing with them. So many people are selling them now.”

Then there’s seafood. Many Minorcans, living on a small island, drew a living from the sea, and their descendants followed when they got the chance, becoming boat-builders, river pilots, fishermen and shrimpers.

The abundant mullet just offshore of Florida were a staple fish, and a common Minorcan story is how everybody dropped everything and grabbed their nets when the mullet ran.

Usina will tell you he was 12 before he knew there was any other fish than mullet, served any number of ways. “I’ve had boiled mullet, barbecued mullet, fried mullet, smoked mullet, you name it. Mullet cakes. Mullet chowder. You name it, we’ve had it.”

He confesses now that he’s sick of it. He prefers flounder.

In the Minorcans’ early years in Florida, they took to eating gopher tortoises, which “often made the difference between starvation and survival,” as Patricia C. Griffin wrote in “Mullet on the Beach,” a history of the Minorcan settlers. Until the tortoises were declared threatened, they remained a staple for centuries, often in a peppery stew: Usina remembers eating tortoises when he was a boy, along with sea turtle eggs.

FAMILY TIES

Over the years, descendants of the original settlers have spread out across the country. “We’ve got Minorcans on Facebook from North Carolina, Virginia. I’ve met some from Texas. We’ve got Minorcans in California,” Usina says. “But this is the homeland.”

Frawley, from the Menorcan Cultural Society, said the last couple of generations have become more interested in their roots, and extensive family trees going back to Minorca itself are common. “Family is very important to them,” she says. “Their heritage, their history, that’s what keeps everyone together.”

Sam Pacetti, 41, is a professional guitarist/singer from St. Augustine who says he was ambivalent, growing up, about embracing his Minorcan ancestry. It seemed a bit confining to him as a young man, and he had other worlds to explore. But he appreciates the community’s emphasis on family — something he’s seen repeatedly.

He remembers being 12 or 13, hunting in the woods with his father, who suddenly began having symptoms of heart attack. Young Sam went running back to the truck, and got on CB radio to put out a call for assistance: “Hey, this is Sammy, Dad thinks he’s having a heart attack. We need help.”

He ran back into the woods and found his father, walking out, feeling better already. A few minutes later, they reached their truck.

“I couldn’t count the number of trucks that were already there, waiting. This was family, right, that had come racing,” Pacetti says. “By God, when the chips were down, these were the people who were there to back you up.”

http://jacksonville.com/news/metro/2015-...nerations#
2016 Dec 05 20:52
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