I’m trying to push myself out of my comfort zone with this new Floridian Magazine beat I’m on, so I pitched a portrait project on the re-enactors that still make their living or livelihood off of 500-year-old history. And I had a blast shooting them. During the group shot for the cover, I joked that this looked like an album cover and asked what their band name would be. My favorite answer was Chain Mail, a close second was Ponce and the Conquistadors.
It is commonly believed that Spanish conquistadors first stepped foot on this continent in 1513 near what is now St. Augustine. Juan Ponce de Leon claimed possession for Spain and anointed this new land La Florida. Now on this same land, 500 years later, re-enactors — some paid, some volunteering — bring Spanish colonial history to life at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. The men (there were no women on Ponce de Leon’s ships, so seeing a female re-enactor at the park is rare) come from different backgrounds, not all of them Spanish. They might look fearsome, but they’re really teachers at heart.
Fernando Arango, 59, is a descendant of Spanish ancestors who made their way to Colombia in the 1600s. Arango is a potter and painter, who started doing reenactments because of his love of history. He has played Ponce de Leon for eight years and said he strives to “make people aware that the US has a common history with all backgrounds and ethnicities, not just the pilgrims.”
Chris Clark, 29, is a St. John’s County firefighter/EMT who started drumming at The Castillo de San Marcos, a fort in St. Augustine, when he was 16. His eighth grade history teacher got him into Civil War reenacting, and now focuses primarily on the Spanish Colonial periods of the 16th-18th centuries. With his sallet helmet and visor, the pauldron (shoulder pieces) with discs and gorget (neck piece), he is dressed like a Spanish Conquistador who would have accompanied Ponce De Leon in 1513. His gear weighs about 65 lbs. He thinks it may be heavier and more awkward than the gear he wears as a firefighter. “What blows my mind is how these men had to wear all of this armor for days on end. I only have to wear it for hours at a time.”
Marc Sala, 19, grew up in St. Augustine and joined the Men of Menendez reenactment group in the eight grade. “It was better than the Boy Scouts,” he said, “but other kids thought it was lame because sometimes you have to wear tights.” His mom sewed his clothes, and he got a gun and sword for this 16th birthday and now as a serious hobbyist spends hours reenacting. “The best part about reenacting is when the park closes at 5 pm and you get to live it, and sit around and talk shop and history and geek out about cod pieces and shoes with the other guys.” Sala works at an ice cream store to support his hobby is going to paramedic school and is planning on joining the Navy Reserves and would love to be a Search and Rescue Hospital Corpsman.
Two years ago, Bruce Harris, 58, retired from The Fort, otherwise known as The Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, where he ran their bookstore. His favorite period is the discovery period of founding history, “It’s a sickness, once you get into it you can’t stop,” but he notes the Spanish Colonial reenactors aren’t really that bad. “The guys in Civil War history are nuts,” he jokes. His favorite thing to tell tourists is that the first sight of St. Augustine the Spanish had was there in a a field at The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. This is what the Europeans saw when they landed here, and that’s pretty neat.”
Playing the part of a compañeros, who would have formed a defensive shield wall, Chad Light, 46, is a doctoral history student at the University of Florida who has been a full-time reenactor for the last 4 years. His earliest memory is going to events about colonial America with his dad, a history professor at The College of William & Mary. Light said one thing he loves stressing to people is that “Christopher Columbus did not discover America and Ponce de Leon did not discover America. There were already people living here. This was a military business enterprise given a license by the king. When Ponce landed here they knew they did not come to discover it, but to claim it for Spain.”