Top photo: Mark Menedez portrays Pedro Menendez at St. Augustine, Fla.’s, Founder’s Day celebration in September.
By Kat Walsh
Are you fed up with your choices for president?
We propose Pedro Menendez, who founded the colonial capital of Santa Elena in 1566 on the site of what is now Parris Island. He was courageous, honest and a true leader of men.
Ah, if we could only truly vote for him.
But we can dream through Mark Menendez, who, like his ancestor, is refreshingly candid, admitting that while his candidacy is an act, it’s all part of the Pedro Menendez Re-election Campaign to bring attention to the museum.
Menendez made campaign stops at homes and businesses around downtown Beaufort recently, portraying his ancestor.
We caught up with him recently on a break from the campaign trail to ask a few questions:
Can you tell us about Pedro’s campaign initiatives?
I have a threefold campaign: telling the untold story of America’s “lost century” through the history of Santa Elena; investing in archaeology and research to uncover truths about early settlers and their way of life; and ensuring a “can’t miss” experience for visitors to the Santa Elena History Center.
What is Pedro’s story?
From very humble beginnings, he rose to serve as royal governor, defender of his country’s interests in the New World, admiral of the Armadas and explorer. His greatest lasting achievement was to establish Spain’s successful colonies in the present-day United States, including Santa Elena in 1566.
When did you learn about your relationship to Pedro Menendez?
I learned about him as a fourth-grader in Tampa, learning about Florida history and the Spanish explorers, Ponce de Leon and so on. I turned the page in my textbook and discovered that Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded St. Augustine, Fla., the first permanent European colony in the United States. I returned home that afternoon and asked my father if he knew about this.
He replied, “Of course, and we are related to him.”
I asked, “You’re joking. How do you know?”
He replied, “Because my father told me we were, as did my grandmother.”
Isn’t it true that Pedro Menendez has no direct descendants?
That’s correct. His line dies out with his great-granddaughter, but there are numerous individuals who are collateral descents, as my family is. In 2012, I hired a genealogist to study our family. He traced us back to Menendez’s mother’s family, whose surname was Arango, my great-great grandmother’s surname. Her lineage goes all the way back to Menendez grandparents.
When did you begin campaigning as Pedro Menendez?
Megan Meyer and Dr. Andrew Beall approached me about portraying Menendez for the grand opening of the Santa Elena History Center in May. Since then, I filmed a commercial for the “Re-Elect Pedro” campaign, and recently I portrayed him for the First Thanksgiving Celebration on Founder’s Day Saturday.
How did the community respond to Pedro?
I’ve been told that there’s been a very positive response from the community, including remarks that many people may select Pedro as a write-in in the presidential election this November.
What do you enjoy most about appearing as Pedro?
Telling people about such an important figure in U.S. history who is often neglected, or even ignored, due to the fact that the victors dominate history.
Did you encounter anything surprising on the campaign trail?
Nothing has surprised me, but for a funny story. I had a wardrobe malfunction at Santa Elena, but fortunately, there were few who witnessed it and none who photographed it.
Aside from your appearances as Pedro, what do you do for a living?
I have enjoyed being a full-time traveling art instructor for over 20 years. As an artist, my commissioned portraits grace the walls of corporate and private collections. I’ve been honored to paint portraits of royal knights, top executives, bishops and most recently the Abbot Isaac Camacho of St. Leo’s Abbey.
Isn’t there one portrait that you’re rather famous for?
In September 2010, in St. Augustine, an oil portrait I painted of my ancestor Pedro Menéndez, the oldest city’s founder, was permanently installed at the Mission Nobre de Dios Museum. The portrait hangs above my ancestor’s empty casket – the centerpiece of the museum. That was the greatest day of my dad’s life. For the five more years he lived, every time we got together we would talk about it.
But isn’t there a backstory to this painting?
Originally, I painted it as a gift for my dad Jose on the occasion of my wedding in 1975. Twenty-five years later, when my dad was downsizing, we contacted the mission about donating the painting. I introduced myself as Menendez to the mission director, which immediately caught his attention. When I explained that dad wanted to give them the painting, the director told me this was an answer to a prayer. Turns out, they had been searching Europe for a portrait and came up with nothing.
What led you to you choose art as a career?
Since my earliest memories, I’ve been an artist. When I was 2 years old, my older brother Richard placed a pencil in my hand, and offered me a few basic drawing instructions. From that day forward, I drew constantly.
What is your teaching philosophy?
Anyone can learn to draw and paint. The act of drawing fascinates most individuals, but believing that one must be born with talent to be an artist, many never try, sadly missing one of life’s greatest joyful pursuits.
For more information about the Santa Elena Museum, visit santa-elena.org.