Florida Teacher Charts His Family’s Harrowing Arrival In America For National Hispanic Heritage Month
Cultural heritage celebration offers reflection, lessons from the past
LEE COUNTY, FL – National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed from September 15 to October 15. Hispanic Heritage Month originally began as Hispanic Heritage Week, established by legislation sponsored by Rep. Edward R. Roybal of Los Angeles and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. In 1988, the commemorative week was expanded into a month by President Ronald Reagan, who famously cited his own Hispanic heritage.
September 15 was chosen as the starting point for the commemorative month because it is the anniversary of independence for five Hispanic countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, who all declared their independence in 1821. Mexico, Chile and Belize celebrate their independence on September 16, September 18, and September 21 respectively.
Hispanic Heritage Month is especially notable time in Florida, where still-existing artifacts and influence remain from Spanish colonization of the state dating back to 1513. Spanish “La Florida” was the first major European land claim and attempted settlement in North America during the European Age of Discovery. The Florida peninsula remained in Spanish control for over 300 years after its claim by Juan Ponce de Leon, eventually becoming a U.S. state in 1845.
Dr. John F. “Jeff” McCullers, a native of Estero, Florida, and a retired high school teacher, used the occasion to trace his own heritage through the Fernandez-Alvarez family’s journey from Portugal and Spain to Florida. In 1898, McCullers’ great-great-grandparents, Antionio Fernandez and Maria Rosa Silva, sailed from Lisbon, with only a few meager possessions, and their three young daughters, Anna, Rosa and Dora in tow.
The family was initially bound for Tampa. However, a “friend” the young family paid to ferry them to America, instead robbed them. The family was left, stranded, with three weeping children, and only the clothes they were wearing, on the shores of Estero Island (now Fort Myers Beach) in Lee County, Florida. The couple was eventually taken in by homesteaders on the nearby barrier island of Mound Key.
There, the young, determined couple built a shack from palmettos, learned to fish, and how to plant potatoes. Despite the hardships of their arrival, the family thrived. Soon, they moved up the river to the tiny pioneer town of Estero, Florida. Estero offered the children a proper schoolhouse to attend, and the family built a tin-roofed home in the center of an orange grove. McCullers himself grew up in this same orange grove, where his mother, Kay Smith, was his very first teacher.
McCullers says, “Education and teaching has been the foundation of my entire life and career. It’s incredible to discover education was also important to generations of my ancestors, too. The history we all carry with us from those who came before us is remarkable. I marvel at the parallels between past and present.” He added, “I’m reminded of Dr. King’s timeless quote, ‘We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.’”
McCullers, who has authored several books on Florida history, and is a frequent guest speaker at historical museums and societies, created a video presentation documenting his family’s journey to America, which can be viewed here:https://youtu.be/heerRNFJdiY. McCullers hopes his family history will inspire others to trace their own heritage and look for prescient lessons our ancestors can teach us.
McCullers, who is currently running for a seat on the Lee County, Florida School Board said, “In their wildest dreams, I don’t think my great-great grandparents could’ve imagined they would not only be one of the founding families of a city in the United States, but that their grandson would have the privilege of running for elected office someday.” He adds, “I’m proud to be part of their American dream.”
More information about the Fernandez-Silva family’s American journey can be found at www.JeffMcCullers.com.
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