Byline: Christopher F. Aguilar, Shorelines staff writer
The number of Hispanic residents at the Beaches from Mayport to Northeast St. Johns County slowly has been rising in the past decade.
The increase is evidenced by more Hispanic students attending Fletcher High School's English for Speakers of Other Languages program, the popularity of Jacksonville Beach's annual Fiesta Playera and the number of Hispanics joining Ponte Vedra Beach's Friends Across the Sea, which has established a sister city relationship with its namesake in Spain.
Hispanics are Florida's and the nation's largest minority group, accounting for 2.7 million people in the state and 38.8 million nationwide, according to the U.S. Census. Hispanic families can trace their roots to Central and South America, the Caribbean and Spain.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed National Hispanic Heritage Week, which was expanded 20 years later into a monthlong celebration beginning Sept. 15 and culminating Oct. 15. In most Latin American countries, Oct. 12 is recognized as the Dia de la Raza or Day of the Race, while in the United States it is well-known as Columbus Day. Hispanics commemorate the day, not for Christopher Columbus' voyage to the new world, but for the fusion of the European, Native American and African cultures, languages and people. This fusion forms the foundation for the Hispanic culture and its people.
According to 2000 Census figures, Jacksonville Beach's Hispanic population was 628, Atlantic Beach had 559 and there were 152 in Neptune Beach. Jacksonville had 30,594 Hispanics. The Census didn't have figures for Ponte Vedra Beach and Palm Valley's Hispanic populations.
Unlike other Census racial denominations, Hispanic is an ethnic group, not a race. Hispanics can be white, black or other races.
At the Beaches, Hispanic families have learned to assimilate to American society, but still keep their language and traditions alive to teach their children.
One of those traditions is the Fiesta Playera celebration each June in Jacksonville Beach. The one-day music, cultural and food celebration has become one of the leading Hispanic events in the Southeast.
In its seventh year, the festival celebrates St. John the Baptist, Puerto Rico's patron saint. Fiesta Playera culminates every year with a backwards walk and jump into the ocean. The backwards jump is a Puerto Rican tradition to cleanse the spirit for the next year.
Another tradition is the Quinceanera, a Hispanic celebration for a young woman's 15th birthday. The celebration mixes religious, family and social rituals and recognizes a young woman's transition from child to womanhood.
Ponte Vedra Beach resident Pegine Echevarria's daughter, Andrea Herbin, recently celebrated her Quinceanera. It was a first for the Herbin family, because Echevarria and her mother never celebrated their own Quinceaneras.
"The Quinceanera is rich with tradition," Echevarria said. "It was Andrea's idea, and it was a great one. …