For this purpose I determined to keep an account of the voyage, and to write down punctually every thing we performed or saw from day to day, as will hereafter appear.”

Christopher Columbus,

Balboa Park is a must-see part of San Diego and attempts to be true to its Spanish origins with its splashy earth-tone colors, piazzas, and ceramic tiles. The gigantic outdoor Spreckels Organ is way cool, even if you’re not fond of organ music. The park is home to one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever come across, the Museum of Man, an eclectic assortment of collections from the Americas and Pacific Rim.

I spent the better part of a day there one summer in 1991, touring the museums and trying to figure out the historical importance of the park. There really isn’t one.

The park is named after Vasco Núñez de Balboa even though he never made it that far north after declaring the Pacific Ocean belonged to Spain; in 1519 Balboa came down on the wrong side of somebody high up and was publicly beheaded. Yet another example of how hard it was to live over in the Old World with all of those psycho kings and queens, dukes, popes, governors, whatever.

San Diego was actually founded by Joan Rodriquez Cabrillo in 1542.

A few years later and a whole continent across, I visited St. Augustine, Florida, in 1998, when the state of Florida was on fire. Literally. Soot, ash, and smoke clogged the air and signs of drought were everywhere. Tourism was down, the bars were empty, but the reenactment of the daily shooting of the “original” cannon went on with authentically-uniformed men demonstrating the tedious process of cleaning the one cannon, loading the cannon ball, stuffing it in tightly, lighting the fuse…and BAMMM!

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Even though you know it’s coming, you still jump when it goes off.

The fort is fairly intact but there’s little discussion about the early Spaniards landing on those shores and immediately slaughtering Florida’s Native Americans – and some ill-advised French who called themselves Huguenots, trying to make a stand for religious freedom about 75 years before the English Puritans showed up a thousand miles to the north.

St. Augustine markets itself as the oldest city in the United States – clarified a bit as the oldest continuously habituated city.

This is an important point. Santa Fe, New Mexico, for example, says it has the oldest community celebration – the Santa Fe Fiesta, going back to 1712.  The “oldest recognized” church in the U.S. is also in Santa Fe – the San Miguel Mission Church, built in the early 1600s – near the town square.

Santa Fe is a wonderful town, not really a big city, and so informal that tourists break out dancing to the Mariachi Bands that rove the square during the summer.

Santa Fe really celebrates its Spanish heritage – it has to, since it’s everywhere. I have been fortunate to spend a great deal of time in the area and yes, it’s very ‘touristy’ but Santa Fe and much of northern New Mexico are home to my husband’s family: on his father’s side, they are one of the original Spanish land grant families. Read more about that here.

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We the People for some reason really seem to believe that only about 7 minutes passed from the time Columbus set blood-shot eyes on a tropical island in the Caribbean, to the time our more familiar forefathers founded Jamestown in 1607. So how does that account for the historical presence of San Diego, Santa Fe, and St. Augustine?

Because it’s more than 110 years from 1492 to 1605. That’s right. Do the math.

So what the heck was going on during a whole century from sea to shining sea? Plenty, it turns out, and fortunately we don’t have to guess about it, at least much. Those Spaniards and their priests wrote everything down, remember? And from De Niza to de Ayllon (Huh? Who?), these guys were all over the place.

Between the Spanish explorers and exploiters and the Portuguese slave trade sallying to an fro in the infamous Middle Passage, it may be impossible to know how many ships made the eight to ten week (if weather was good) voyages between the Mediterranean or the “Slave Coast” of Africa to the Caribbean, North, Central, or South America. Hundreds, certainly. If you add them up, the better-known Spanish explorers account for more than 50 alone, from Columbus to Oñate. And that doesn’t count the French.

Spain had put out a sign, “Conquistadors R Us,” making the exploration game fun for all – except the natives. It was dangerous and while we trumpet the bravery of the early English and French colonists – rightfully so – the Spaniards and Portuguese who came before them were no less brave, especially since they really, really, had no idea what was in front of them. They left wives, girlfriends, mothers, children, brothers, sisters behind; many never saw them again, since the trip to the Americas was generally one-way. Cortes famously burned his ships upon landing on the coast of modern-day Mexico: of course that gesture was particularly self-serving since he faced some serious legal issues back in Cuba, serious as in execution for defying some orders.

Of course, there are various ways of explaining the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Where ever they landed, they found help from natives who had their own axes to grind against the powers that were at the time. Many tribes saw tremendous opportunity to gain some upper hands, and were awarded generously. Of course, Spanish rule was unpredictable, rife with religious piety, changing politics, and superstition. Particularly unpredictable was the onslaught of diseases that struck over the next 200 years – and continued when the English began to land in North America in the early 1600s.