Saniya Pradhan: Miami as Text 2021

Saniya Pradhan/CC by 4.0

Hi, I’m Saniya! I am an Indian-American from Tallahassee, Florida, and I moved to Miami three years ago as a freshman at FIU. I’m currently a senior in the Honors program, majoring in International Relations as well as French & Francophone Studies. As it did for us all, the COVID-19 pandemic brought my life to a grinding halt. My plans to travel and study abroad were cancelled, and I was left scrambling to improvise a new plan – both academically and personally – for the next year or so. What I came up with, after months of isolated introspection, was to continue to reach for new and exciting experiences, just a little closer to home. After three years here, I feel as if I am still a stranger to Miami. My motivation for taking this class is directly related to my resolutions for 2021: to be present, to make the most of what I have, to learn, absorb, and grow as much as I can, and to gain a deeper understanding of Miami and the world around me. C’est parti !

The Unbearable Lightness and Heaviness of Being in Miami by Saniya Pradhan of FIU in Downtown Miami

Saniya Pradhan / CC by 4.0

Miami-Dade. Miami comes from the indigenous word “Mayami” meaning “big water”, and Dade comes from General Francis L. Dade, a major who was ambushed and killed by Native Americans during an attempt to move them from Florida. One honors the original settlers of this land, and the other honors the side responsible for their forcible removal and genocide. The dichotomous name of our city is representative of its history – rich and diverse, but also saddening and disappointing. Light, and heavy.

Flagler. Flagler college, Flagler county, or FIU’s very own West Flagler St? His name is everywhere, because he was one of those responsible for the early development of the state of Florida. On the suggestion of Julia Tuttle, he extended his railroad to South Florida, which led to the incorporation and founding of the City of Miami. While we celebrate him for his financial contributions to our state, we must also remember that he was responsible for first segregating Miami, thus starting the deep history of racial prejudice and systemic racism.

As we learned a little bit about the history of the Tequestas, now mostly lost to time, and the history of black people in Miami, used and put down, I found myself seeing Miami through their eyes. Today’s Miami is a special, diverse city which attracts people of all colors and backgrounds. Today, Miami is a place where anyone may feel that they belong. But our version of Miami is not the only one. The stories of the Tequestas, the black populations, and those who persecuted them, are now intertwined with our own. 

What happened in Miami is not unlike in the rest of the United States. It is tainted with death, exploitation, and injustice. In 2020 we had a reckoning against our country’s often wicked history, and people’s blindness to it. While the latter has had long-term effects on minorities in this country, the former is our biggest obstacle to meaningful change. So, how does one reckon with this dark past while appreciating Miami for all its beauty and diversity?

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being opens with the philosophical comparison of lightness and heaviness. Kundera cites Nietzsche’s argument of eternal recurrence, the idea that the universe works in a cyclical nature, thus giving our actions weight or “heaviness.” Kundera, on the other hand, argues that each person only has only one life to live, so they must live in freedom or “lightness”.

In this context, lightness means individuality while heaviness means community. Miami’s strength comes from our diversity and receptiveness to humanity. Our stories are interconnected, so we have a responsibility to pass along the messages and the lessons of our past. Heaviness and intentionality mean that we must consider those that came before us, and those who will come after, and recognize our role in finding the way forward.

3, 2, 1… by Saniya Pradhan of FIU in the Everglades

Saniya Pradhan / CC by 4.0

At first glance, the cypress trees of the Everglades National Park seem to stand independently — each one spaced out from its neighbors. It takes just a little bit of slough slogging; however, to realize that this is not the case. The roots of the cypress trees form a complex underground network and support system which provides structure and life to the entire ecosystem. They provide a home to a host of flora and fauna, from air plants to gators to lichen to warblers. The trees have been there since long before you were born, and there they will remain, long past your death. They teach us of our own nature, of the deep interconnectedness of man and the Earth.

Going to the Everglades is easily the closest I’ve come to having a spiritual experience during my time in Miami. Visiting with Bailly’s class was an incredible introduction, but it left me with a hunger to return to the national park and explore what it has to offer. After spending about nine hours there, I know I’ve only barely scratched the surface of what there is to be learned and experienced.

I truly enjoyed the opportunity to speak with Park Ranger Dylan. She was extremely knowledgeable, and she taught us all a lot about the biodiversity of the everglades, the opportunities offered through the park, and the deep respect we should all carry for our planet and its inhabitants. When I asked about the biggest problems facing the Everglades, she said there were more than she could name. The biggest issues, she said, were water usage, fish deaths, and red tide. You can see more from her on Instagram @theswampandthesea.

What the West lacks is a deep reverence and connection to nature. Unfortunately, with the exportation of Western values and norms across the globe, indigenous populations seem to be the only ones left who fully grasp the harmony of nature and our role in protecting it. As much as we have tried to convince ourselves otherwise, we are not separate from planet Earth. Man can fight against it all he wants, but he is of this planet, and his destiny is one small part of its greater story.

When you’re standing there among the trees, breathe it in, absorb, listen, and accept. Accept that life is here, now. It is happening all around us whether we notice it or not. The trees are bearers of an ancient wisdom, and if you listen, they will share it with you. Then you will learn that mankind and nature are not antithetical — we are one and the same.

The Significance of Miami Architecture by Saniya Pradhan of FIU in South Beach

Saniya Pradhan / CC by 4.0

In popular culture worldwide, the term South Beach is used interchangeably with Miami. It evokes images of beaches, nightclubs, pastel buildings, and flashing lights. In a sense, this is pretty accurate, and remains true even during COVID-19. Take a walk (or bike, or skateboard, or rollerblades) down Ocean Drive. People are still gathering from around the world to experience South Beach. Surrounded by pastel facades and whimsical designs, you feel almost transported to another time. At night, you see their neon lights, and although tempered a bit since the pandemic, South Beach is still lively and full of people.

South Beach tells the story of how Miami became a city of cultural influence. This was probably due to a number of factors, such as its historically flashy reputation, and its being home to a vibrant LGBT community. Famous figures such as Gianni Versace, Andy Warhol, and Bruce Weber found inspiration among the warm weather, bright colors, and environment of political and personal liberation and self-expression. This history of cultural and artistic relevance remains true in Miami today and is most notably conveyed through the unique design and architecture of the city.

As is the case in popular tourist destinations around the world, Miami has struggled in promoting a lucrative tourism industry while maintaining the original beauty and culture of the city. South Beach is particularly vulnerable to losing its culture and history to commercialization of the area. In fact, the reason that we see the Art Deco buildings that we can is due to the efforts of Barbara Capitman, and others like her, who fought to preserve the architectural and cultural heritage of Miami.  

Saniya Pradhan of FIU at the Deering Estate

Saniya Pradhan / CC by 4.0

It’s like driving home, I think to myself as I drive my car down Old Cutler Road, on my way to the Deering Estate. By home, I mean my family’s home up in Tallahassee, a city with dense tree cover, towering live oaks, Spanish moss, and beautiful canopy roads. Normally, this is not how I experience driving in Miami, but while driving on Cutler I saw the daylight filter through the tall, leafy trees and felt a sensation of familiarity. I would come to realize throughout the day that the natural environment of the Deering Estate is magnificently varied, making it unlike the rest of Miami, or anywhere in the world for that matter. Deering is a celebration of South Florida’s wealth of natural beauty and multicultural legacy.

As we hiked along the paths of Deering, I got to see and experience many types of ecosystems, including a pine rock land, mangroves, and a tropical hardwood hammock. These ecosystems are home to many endangered and protected species, as well as host to a number of natural and archaeological treasures. As we walked, we saw how each ecosystem was different from the one before it, the role these ecosystems have played historically, and man’s role in the natural history of South Florida. One thing that marked me from our hike was the Tequesta Indian burial mound, left intact by the Deering Estate, upon which stood a massive oak tree. The oak tree, a symbol of strength, stands tall and proud above the rest of the trees. Attached to one of its branches is a beehive, buzzing with new life and energy. Life comes from the earth and life returns to the earth.

19 march 2021 by Saniya Pradhan of FIU at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens

JW Bailly / CC by 4.0

The first steps into Vizcaya tell us all we need to know. We look up at Bacchus, who returns our gaze, welcoming us to his playground. We step into a courtyard flushed with sunlight and a cool breeze (in reality from the AC, but we can imagine it’s from the ocean just a few steps away).

Standing in his courtyard, on his marble flooring, gazing at his stained glass and statues, it’s easy to believe that the blue sky and water also belong to him. As a first-time visitor to James Deering’s place of residence, one senses his presence all around. He created Vizcaya in the image of the European bourgeoisie. In a truly Miami fashion, Deering drew influence from all over the world, prioritizing prestige and luxury over all else. This becomes increasingly clear as we continue down the rooms of the museum, each more decorated and appalling than the last. The museum opens onto the prim and playful gardens, a view of the ocean, and endless tiny paths into the South Florida mangroves.

The decadent home of a Euro-American aristocrat turned into an important historical and natural South Florida landmark and a must-see place for tourists in Miami. The history of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is closely intertwined with that of Miami and different people and artists residing in South Florida. It attracts intellectuals for its large collection of European art, as well as tourists for its picture-worthy spots (like the one of me above!) Overall, I recommend Vizcaya for anyone who needs an escape from the busy city life of Miami and a step into the life of James Deering, whose legacy molded the city of Miami.

Interconnectivity by Saniya Pradhan of FIU at Margulies

Aleksandra Baryshnikova / CC by 4.0

The entrance room of the Margulies Warehouse has two large pieces on the left side wall. One of the first ones we looked at was the Asia-Pacific Ant Farm by Yukinori Yanagi. It is made up of a number of plexiglass rectangles filled with sand to make up many different flags. The squares were all connected with small tubes, and ants were placed into this “ant farm”. This piece was very interesting to me because I recognized some flags– USA, UK, Thailand, South Korea, etc – but there were many I didn’t know, and even some I had never seen before. After some research I learned that the flags belong to recognized nations, colonial powers, and indigenous people of the pacific region. Yanagi himself traveled often between Japan and the USA. The movement of the ants, which break down the flags, or boundaries we have created as humans, represents a slow process of travel and exchange which eventually leads to interconnectivity.

Our class was extremely lucky to be able to get a tour of the warehouse by Mr. Margulies himself. As we discussed the artwork and he shared anecdotes with our class, he showed us how a pastime soon made him one of the most prominent collectors of contemporary art in the nation. He shared with us his own experience in the field and in life, and how the different artists and movements all made their way into his gallery.

One thing he said which stuck with me was that in order for a piece to be considered art, it requires a human being to interact with it. He said that often people try to understand a piece of art by looking for some kind of clue in the work, when in reality “understanding” a piece of art is highly subjective and an individual experience, even one that can change over time. The pieces at Margulies are beautiful, varied, stimulating, and interactive. His works deal with various themes, including those things are society struggles with today.  

The Margulies Warehouse ( values accessibility to the art and promotes the educational and intellectual stimulation through its works. In fact, the warehouse is free to visit to any Florida student, $5 for non-Florida students, and $10 for normal admission!  

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