By Stephen Cripps | firstname.lastname@example.org
Mike Usina is a fisherman. He was born in St. Augustine, Florida, and he has spent most of his life in North Florida.
“When I was about six, I got bit by the fishin’ bug,” Usina said. “I never wanted to do anything else after that.”
Usina is a descendent of the Menorcans, a group of immigrants who came to New Smyrna in the late 1760s. Through difficult circumstances, they came to St. Augustine.
The Menorcans thrived in St. Augustine, where they passed down skills based around the ocean. Fishing, cooking, farming and in the case of the Usina family, net making.
“I remember watching my father sitting in his chair. He was always shirtless; I remember that,” he said. “I sat and watched him make nets.”
Usina made his first 4-foot net when he was 9 years old. Today, he uses the same size net to teach school-age children how to cast a net. He works closely with the St. Augustine Lighthouse, working with them to educate children on the rich history of St. Augustine.
There are over 10,000 descendants of the original group of immigrants in the St. Johns County area alone, according to the National Park Service.
“My father was a Menorcan, and my grandfather, all the way back to the first Usina who was on the boat with the others,” he said.
True to his heritage, Usina will be found sitting on a wooden chair in the center of his living room. A half-finished net stretches to a nearby doorknob as his aged hands weave knots with handmade tools.
“Net making — it’s my heritage. I do it because I want to do it and because I enjoy it. Not a lot of people do anymore, and why would you?” he said. “It’s harder this way. I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to do this.”
In addition to net making, Usina carries on other Menorcan traditions. His backyard is full of various trees and a wide assortment of cross-bred flowers. Indigo, a plant vital to St. Augustine’s development, dots the wide orchard he has built. Behind a shed are several carefully pruned and raised datil pepper plants. He carefully checks the plants as they come close to harvest.
“When I was growing up, me and the other kids believed for years that there was only one place a datil pepper could grow, and that was in the soil of St. Augustine,” he said.
Usina received the 2019 Florida Folk Heritage Award for his work preserving the tradition of net making. The award is annually presented to folklife advocates and folk artists who have made long-standing contributions to the preservation of Florida traditional arts and culture, according to the Florida Department of State.
Usina does not have an apprentice. When he passes, his craft will come ever closer to being only a record. To help preserve the art, he has posted how-to videos on his website, http://menorcanmagic.com.