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Don Pedro Menendez de Avilés, portrayed by St. Augustine resident Andy Gessells, returns a toast offered to him on the occasion of his birthday celebration, the Noche de Gala. (Photo by R. G. Thompson)

Noche de Gala Commemorated 488th Birthday of Pedro Menéndez

16th Century Ball Celebrates City’s Spanish Cultural Heritage

To mark the 488th birthday of the St. Augustine’s founder, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the city hosted its annual formal Grand Masked Ball or Noche de Gala on Saturday, February 24 in the Lightner Museum’s ballroom.

The Noche de Gala, is hosted yearly by the City of St. Augustine’s Department of Heritage Tourism, and is a fundraiser for the St. Augustine Trust for Historic Preservation.  All proceeds are designated to support preservation of the city’s historic resources.

Truly a one-of-a-kind event, the Noche de Gala began when guests are whisked back in time by re-enactors in 16th century attire who escorts them upstairs and the Proclamador announces their arrival. After an hour of butler-passed hors d’oeuvres and an open bar in the splendor of the Lightner Ballroom, guests followed musicians and re-enactors in a procession that included Spanish and local dignitaries to a festive and elegant dinner on the Lightner Mezzanine. Pageantry and period entertainment continued throughout dinner followed by dancing until midnight to the contemporary tunes of the Royal Court Musicians. This is easily one of St. Augustine’s most magical evenings.

The attire was black tie or 16th century costume.

Getting to Know Pedro

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who led the expedition from Spain that founded the city of St. Augustine, was born in the city of Avilés, in the northern province of Asturias, in 1519. He rose from less than noble origins and through his mastery of sailing attracted the attention of King Phillip II, who promoted him to command the Spanish fleet.

When Phillip decided to strengthen Spain’s colonial presence in Florida and the Caribbean, he named Menéndez Governor of Cuba and Florida and assigned him responsibility to exterminate a French settlement on the St. Johns River, located on land claimed by Spain. Menéndez sailed from Cadiz, Spain on June 29, 1565, with eleven vessels and over 1,500 men. After some preliminary skirmishing with the French ships, Menéndez founded St. Augustine on September 8, 1565 thus completing his mission by carrying out the King’s orders.

In 1573, Menéndez returned to Spain to take command of a gigantic fleet that Phillip was preparing for a naval strike against England and the Netherlands. Menéndez died suddenly, however, at Santander on September 17, 1574, before he could accomplish his last mission for the King.

A statue of Menéndez stands prominently in front of the municipal offices of the City of St. Augustine. A gift of the people of Avilés in 1972, the sculpture is an exact replica of the statue that stands near the tomb of Menéndez in his ancestral home of Avilés.

 

Portrait of don Pedro Menendez de Avilés presented to the city by don Alvaro Armada Barcaiztegui on the occasion of the visit to St. Augustine by Their Majesties King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia in 2001. The portrait hangs in City Hall.

Celebrating the City’s Spanish Heritage

In addition to recognizing Menéndez’s birthday, the Noche de Gala has become the city’s annual celebration of its 16th century roots in Spanish culture. Alone among cities in the United States which date their founding to the 1500’s, St. Augustine recognizes the significant role that Spain played in the colonization and settlement of the nation. The Noche de Gala emphasizes St. Augustine’s unique claims upon American history and celebrates the contributions by the Spanish to our nation’s cultural heritage that the Spanish people have made.

The cultural ties to Spain are emphasized even more by official governmental representatives who regularly attend the event including the Consul General of Spain in Miami, representing the Government of Spain, and delegations from Menéndez’s home town of Avilés, Spain.

St. Augustine was the capital of the only colony in the United States settled by people who spoke Spanish and did not share English traditions. It is that distinction that sets St. Augustine apart from all other urban places in the nation.

 

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