Viviana Díaz Balsera points out the map on the cover of her book, “La Florida: Five Hundred Years of Hispanic Presence.” The surprisingly accurate sketch is thought to be the first map of Florida’s coastline created by European explorers.
“When you think about the types of instruments they were using,” she said, “they did a pretty good job.”
Balsera, a Spanish professor at the University of Miami, and University of South Florida (USF) language professor Rachel A. May co-edited “La Florida,” a collection of essays about Florida’s history. It was published in November 2014 to commemorate the 2013 quincentennial of Juan Ponce de León’s landfall in the peninsula.
The book received the gold medal for Florida nonfiction in the 2015 Florida Book Awards. The awards reception was presented by the Florida State University Library on April 9 in Tallahassee.
“The gold medal was a surprise, but at first it didn’t seem like that big of a deal,” Balsera said. “The event went way beyond my expectations. It was an amazing get-together, meeting all these writers. I was really impressed by their creativity and intelligence.”
This year, more than 200 books competed in the nine different categories of the book awards. Balsera and May joined good company: past winners of the Florida Book Awards include “Hoot” author Carl Hiaasen and “Harry Potter” series illustrator Mary GrandPré.
Balsera emphasizes that the honor of the award is shared among the dedicated contributors to the essay collection.
“I was the director of the orchestra,” she said. “But they were the great players.”
A series of conferences on Florida history catalyzed the creation of the essay collection. In the years leading up to the quincentennial, USF and UM both received grants to host Florida scholars from around the state to discuss the historical event.
The exchanges that occurred during those conferences pushed Balsera to make her idea a reality.
“The synergy, the willingness of the stellar figures was incredible,” she said. “Immediately after the 2012 conference, I thought, ‘This is something that has to happen.’”
Balsera and May joined forces and immediately contacted the University of Florida Press, which quickly expressed interested in the idea.
Though Balsera is an author of several works, “La Florida” is the first book she has edited. The incredibly quick turnaround between conception and publication, a period of less than two years, was caused by the interest and passion of the contributors.
“They were very interested in participating in marking this historical event,” Balsera said.
Balsera describes the book’s approach to Florida’s history as both chronological and multidisciplinary, covering topics from architecture to politics. While other works in the field tend to focus on either early Spanish Period history or the modern era, “La Florida” provides a more holistic, continuous approach.
“I’m happy that our book was one that gave testimony to the memory of the quincentennial,” Balsera said. “It’s something that needs to be remembered, for both the good and the bad.”