The Demographic History of South Florida

Florida was settled long before European colonization, with evidence of human habitation dating to 12000 BCE, permanent settlements in place by 5000 BCE, and a complex trading culture developed by 1200 CE. By the late 1400s, when Spanish slave expeditions first raided islands off of the coast of Florida, southern Florida was home to the Calusa people and the smaller Tequesta, Jeaga, Jobe, and Mayaimi tribes, who spoke related languages and engaged in some cultural and material trading.

Conquistador Juan Ponce de León landed near present-day St. Augustine in 1513, named the land “La Florida,” and claimed it for the Spanish crown. His forces were confronted by members of the Calusa tribe, who refused to trade and drove off the Spanish ships, which retreated to Puerto Rico. León returned to settle the area in 1521 and was again driven away. By 1565, the Spanish had succeeded in establishing permanent missions, and Florida became a Spanish colony.

Thirteen-year-old Hernando D’Esclate Fontaneda was shipwrecked on the coast of southern Florida in the mid-1500s. The only survivor of the wreck, Fontaneda was enslaved by the Calusa tribe and lived with them for 17 years before returning to Spain, keeping a detailed memoir of all the Native American cultures he encountered. Sometime in his travels north, Fontenada met the Mayaimi tribe—a group that lived in the wetlands surrounding Lake Mayaimi (known today as Lake Okeechobee). In the languages of the Calusa, Mayaimi, and Tequesta tribes “Mayaimi” means “big water.” The names of several contemporary cities and natural landmarks derive from Native American tribe and place names that he recorded—like the city of Miami where Queen of Basel takes place.

In the 250 years that the Spanish (and briefly, the British) maintained colonial power over Florida, many of the native inhabitants fell victim to war, disease, and dislocation—by the 1540s, 90% of the American Indian tribes had died. In 1821, Spain sold Florida to the United States for five million dollars in damage claims sustained to the Spanish during the First Seminole War (1816-1819). In its next 150 years, Southern Florida’s population would wax and wane in response to war. The Second Seminole War (1835-1842) lead to the considerable depopulation of southeast Florida. The Spanish-American War (1898), World War I (1916-1918), and World War II (1941-1945), each brought a large population of military trainees to Miami who eventually made the city their home. Anglo-White Americans maintained the majority in these population shifts.

Fidel Castro’s ascent to power in 1959 was the catalyst for a significant shift in the demographics of Miami. Cuban immigration to the United States occurred in five waves: “Historical Exiles” (1959–1962); ”Freedom Flights” (1965–1973); the Mariel boatlift (1980); Balsero crisis (1994); and Post-Soviet Exodus (1995–2017). Each emigration wave was a response to post-revolutionary Cuba. High-powered supporters of the Batista regime and wealthier Cuban citizens were the first to leave. From there, the exodus expanded into members of the middle class and people living in poverty. The consistent influx of Cuban refugees radically increased the Hispanic/Latinx population in Miami from about 4% in 1950 to about 70% in 2010.

During the Cold War in the latter half of the twentieth century, the increase in communist-led countries and repressive regimes from various political ideologies (many backed by US or Soviet military training and aid) displaced people from several Central and South American countries. Similar to Cuban emigration, the first wave of Columbian emigration corresponded with the civil war, La Violencia (1948-1958). Later waves consisted of people across the socioeconomic spectrum attempting to escape violence and seeking economic opportunity.

Neighboring Venezuela has faced two recent waves of emigration. The so-called “first diaspora” corresponded to the beginning of the rule of Hugo Chávez, a socialist who vowed to nationalize its oil wealth and redistribute wealth from its economic elite to the poor. Many rich and middle-class Venezuelans left for the US, Columbia, and other South American countries. The “second diaspora”—and the one that brought Queen of Basel’s Christine to Miami—began in 2016 under Chávez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro. The global drop in oil prices and economic mismanagement led to the world’s highest inflation rate, food and medicine shortages, spiking indexes of poverty and malnutrition, and stories of extreme political repression, causing a sharp increase in the number of Venezuelans seeking political asylum. As in other South American crises, many of these political refugees relocated north to cities like Miami.

Today, 70% of Miami’s population identifies ethnically as Hispanic or Latinx, many of whom identify racially as white. With 59% of its population born in another country—the highest percentage by far in North America—the city and surrounding counties reflect the cultures of Hispanic/Latinx refugees and contemporary generations. Neighborhoods like Little Havana, Hileah, and Little Haiti are microcosms where generations intersect and continue to reckon with ethnic and national identity.

Manna-Symone Middlebrooks