"Janie, come on, get up!" she said, shaking me roughly out of a lazy Saturday morning reverie. Blinking sleepy eyes, I groaned in short-lived protest and then rolled out of bed. The gruff intruder on this humid summer morning was not my mother or one of my siblings. It was the local park director, Mochine Fernandez (pronounced "Mo-cheen"), rousing my two sisters and me to play a softball game. Quickly getting ready, we hurried out to her waiting station wagon. There were three more stops, and after rounding up her softball team, we headed across town to play ball.
That scene was typical for my three siblings and me in the late 1950s and 1960s. My twin sister–Marilyn Ball Farber, sister–Janet Ball Stone (one year younger), and our little brother–Jim, and I lived with our parents in a small southeast community of Tampa called Palmetto Beach. Our lives revolved around DeSoto Park and Mochine, the legend who worked there.
Palmetto Beach is unique in the Tampa area. It is an isolated peninsula of land jutting out into McKay Bay, just a short distance south of Ybor City, with a total area of barely over one half square mile. The housing area was 20 blocks long and two to four blocks wide. My great Abuelo and Abuela Peralta were among the early immigrants from Cuba, Spain, and Italy who settled in this neighborhood. These working-class newcomers to Tampa made their livelihoods working in the cigar industry in Ybor City, the phosphate processing at Channelside, or fishing and crabbing in McKay Bay. Growing up as fourth-generation children, we felt safe yet isolated from Tampa.
DeSoto Park was and still is today a scenic tree-studded park on McKay Bay at Corrine and 26th Streets, boasting a brick pavilion for many community events. A pier of land behind the pavilion jutted out into the bay and had covered picnic tables for family gatherings. A seawall protected the entire south side of the park and pier. This idyllic setting was the focal point of community life for several generations.
Mochine lived in Palmetto Beach on Durham St. with her husband, John, and daughter, Genelle. She stood about 5'5" with a round face framed by curly, chin-length black hair. Catching a glimpse of her decked out in her park uniform of baggy, black Bermuda shorts with a white button-front shirt, Mochine appeared to be a comical character out of a novel. Displaying frenetic energy, she moved from one activity to another on a playground teaming with the children from hard-working families.
Her summer workday was from 9 A.M.–6 P.M., and she worked some evenings at the pavilion. During the school year, she worked after school hours until 6 P.M. and Friday evenings when the pavilion was open for teen dances. Summers found her challenging her charges to join activities and games. Fall through spring, she concentrated on sports and keeping the kids active with playground games like tether ball, four square, and checkers.
At the start of DeSoto's summer program, each child was expected to choose two or three playground activities to concentrate on to compete in the annual local and citywide playground contests held in August. These activities may have been leisurely pursuits at other playgrounds but not at DeSoto. We faced stiff competition among our peers to be the best at anything. Jacks, jump rope, checkers, ping-pong, paddle tennis, and hopscotch were among the games at which we played. We diligently practiced our chosen games for several weeks before our local playoff, held the week before the citywide Fun Day. The one who had honed their skills best over the summer won, earning the coveted right to represent DeSoto Park in that particular activity at Fun Day. This was a formidable challenge as Desoto had a reputation for winning the Fun Day competition by garnering the highest total points. DeSoto did indeed win the 23 consecutive years Mochine was park director.
In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, the city parks were the only outlet for girls wishing to play organized sports. Teaching the basics of team sports was Mochine's goal. She taught skills while simultaneously building the best team possible. Girls with limited natural talent were transformed into confident players–she wanted every girl to excel.
Yvonne (Weatherford–Peralta) Hewitt recalls playing girl's basketball in the late 1940s and early 50s as a guard for Desoto Park. "At 5 feet tall, no one expected me to be capable of guarding them," Yvonne said, adding, "Mochine would chuckle and say, 'We showed them, didn't we.'" Yvonne went on to play guard on her University of Tampa varsity basketball team.
Although standard sports equipment was given to each park, Mochine would solicit softball gloves for girls who could not afford to purchase their own. She'd personally make the rounds of businesses in Ybor City until every girl who wanted to play was equipped. In the 1960s, I played softball for Mochine. Many girls preferred to play barefoot and enjoyed using baseball bats instead of softball bats. We didn't win every game, but we were an intimidating crew.
In the summer of 1962, her supervisor informed Mochine that team players must wear shoes and use softball bats. Was there an advantage to running barefoot in the hot sands of summer? After almost two decades of viewing this indomitable coach rally her teams to their highest performance, they should have realized DeSoto's winning edge was the coach, not the equipment.
Mochine instilled many values in us that did not stem from "how-to" manuals. Instinctively, she taught us responsibility, competitiveness, sportsmanship, a sense of direction, and respect for others. Mochine was doing what came naturally to her. She was our "Pied Piper," as she had been to our parents before us. We eagerly followed her leadership. She was our mentor in life as well as sports.
As a shy child, I often accompanied Mochine on soliciting forays to various businesses. At the time, I was embarrassed, yet from these trips; I learned to be tenacious and to ask! This skill would serve me well later in life as a teacher and a successful youth group fundraiser.
Mochine's skills went beyond the competitive edge into the social realm. Each year many social activities were planned. Mochine, with her effusive enthusiasm, managed to involve much of the community. Themed parties were held at the playground throughout the summer. These were always spectacular, involving laborious preplanning. She readily enlisted every willing hand from the community to make a party production of grand proportions. Festive decorations, food, and entertainment provided by the children themselves made those themed parties memorable.
For the annual luau, Mochine would take a couple of us kids over to West Tampa to cut down tall bamboo on the banks of the Hillsborough River. The bamboo was taken back to the park and stripped of leaves, becoming the instruments for bamboo stick dancing. Four kids were enlisted to keep cadence with them. They were laid crosswise on the ground in pairs, meeting at the midpoint. Two dancers, complete with homemade costumes, danced between the poles keeping beat with bare feet in the soft gray sand of the performance area.
Although my parents cooked copious amounts of food for the festivities, I recall going with Mochine to the farmers market and watching in awe as she asked for donations of fresh fruit. She was great at convincing the vendors to give us more than they were initially willing to part with. We hauled pineapples, papaya, and myriad other fruits into her station wagon and triumphantly returned to the park.
An annual kite contest was held in March at the Ben T. Davis Causeway Beach. Prior preparations took several weeks for the kids at Desoto Park. True to form, Mochine worked her magic with donations of thin, flexible balsa wood sticks donated from a cigar box factory and colorful paper of the perfect weight from a paper company. This was an activity involving many skilled hands of both children and adults. Men and women in their 20s, who had participated in the kite contest as children, came to the pavilion to help the new generation make the most incredible kites.
Saturday morning at the citywide Kite Contest, we enjoyed the soft beach sand at our feet while we marveled at our collective creations flying high in the gentle sea breeze. Predictably, kids from DeSoto took many ribbons each year. There were also pet contests, twin contests, swimming at Cuscaden Pool in Ybor City, and roller-skating at an open-air rink in West Tampa.
Adult involvement in park activities was part of her legacy. Enlisting the community with her unfettered enthusiasm created a symbiotic relationship. Seasonal carnival folk who lived in a trailer park bordering the east side of DeSoto Park, married couples, or single adults in the community were all enlisted for their various talents and skills. Uneducated men could teach kids how to build exotic kites or build deftly painted scenery. Housewives drove carpools, cheered for the kids, sewed exotic costumes, and were great ethnic chefs! Young adults taught younger children to do the rhumba and other Latin dances. Sports were not everything.
There was always something at which every child and adolescent could excel. This community working together as a large family formed beautiful relationships. Fear of inadequacy was laid aside as each individual gladly performed the small yet essential task at which they were skilled. The end product–whether a parade, party, or contest - became a beautiful whole from which the entire community benefited.
While attending Jefferson High School in the mid-1960s, my sisters and I were very busy with clubs and cheerleading, yet we continued playing sports for Mochine and entered playground contests until the weaning age of 18. In a sense, we were drawn by our years with Mochine as a surrogate mother and, perhaps, felt a reluctance to divest ourselves of an exceedingly wonderful childhood. She was a force that shaped our adulthood.
Her gift was building skills, self-confidence, and competitiveness in every aspect of life. As Barbara Lombardi Sharp said, "She made you feel you could do anything." This was long before parents knew self-confidence was essential to raising a child. Barbara echoed the sentiments of many DeSoto alumni when she said, "I grew up in a time and place where the community was a real community. Parents, schoolteachers, and park directors were involved in our lives." Barbara mentions Senator Hillary Clinton's book titled; It Takes a Village to Raise a Child. As Barbara expressed, "Palmetto Beach was our village."
As with their mothers before them, Mochine coached girls in life and sports. Two generations and 25 years of devotion to children manifested themselves in the self-reliant and successful women who came out of this community. Amid much fanfare, Mochine Fernandez was named Sportswoman of the Year in 1963.
In 1969 Mochine Fernandez retired after 25 years as a park director. Twenty-three of those years were at DeSoto Park. An appropriate covered dish retirement party was held at the park, using the grassy area behind the pavilion near the breezy bay. It was a huge success attended by several hundred people. In the midst of the energetic commotion of games and contests was Mochine. Not as the guest of honor, which she certainly was, but as the captain of her ship - just one more time. Yes, she was coordinating bubble gum-blowing contests and 3-legged races. Everyone understood and chuckled under whispers of admiration and bemusement. Only Mochine could throw her own retirement party. She had always excelled, and this event was no exception!
DeSoto Park alums have held a spring reunion at DeSoto Park's pavilion for the past three years as a tribute to one woman's effect on the Palmetto Beach community. Hundreds of current and past residents have attended. I have gone every year hoping that Mochine would show up, but she has yet to do so. After our reunion this past April, I decided to find out what happened to my old park director.
After numerous inquiries, I secured a telephone number for Mochine's daughter Genelle Fernandez Garverick. When we spoke, Genelle advised me that her mother resided in her Palmetto Beach home long after the passing of her husband, John, in 1980. Living an active retirement life, she spent many wonderful days at her beach condo with Genelle, her only daughter, her three grown grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren. Mochine sadly passed away in 1991. Genelle agreed that her mother's positive attitude was present in her life. She said her mother motivated the extended family, and each family member fondly recalls endearing memories.
The years have passed, but I have always remembered Mochine and all she taught me. During the challenging times in my life when I have felt beaten down, I would think of my old park director and the words of encouragement she would be offering if she could–"Come on, Janie – get up!"
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2006
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
JANE BALL WATTS
Jane Ball Watts is a native of Palmetto Beach from the Peralta family. Her abuelo and abuela were immigrants from Cuba and Spain. Jane was educated in local schools graduating from USF with a B.A. in 1970. After teaching in Tampa for ten years, she pursued her dream of becoming a full-time artist, marketing her works all over the U.S. She resides in Tallahassee and is a mural artist.
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