Sana Arif: Miami as Text 2021

Photo by Aliza Ghaffar (CC by 4.0)

Sana Arif is a sophomore at the Honors College at Florida International University pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences degree with a minor in International Relations. Sana is slowly developing her interest about the world and the many cultures, religions, and deep history within it. In her free time, she likes to watch documentaries to learn about events such as various genocides and the effect of war and poverty on different groups of people. In addition to learning, she has an arsenal of adorable photos of her Green Cheek conure named Zuko, and would love to show anybody who asks (Warning: it might take a couple of hours before she lets you go). She hopes to learn more about Miami by engaging in this course, and is excited to have a refreshed, refined, and accurate perspective on South Florida.

Downtown Miami as Text

Photos and editing by Sana Arif (CC by 4.0)

“Miami’s Untold Truths,” by Sana Arif of FIU in Downtown Miami on January 30th, 2021

As soon as I stepped out of the car to walk to Government Center in Downtown Miami, I was in complete awe. Living in a suburban area filled with old people and nothing much to do, I am not used to walking in bustling areas of what is truly considered “city life.” While the streets were not nearly as crowded as they may have been pre-Covid, I still felt like the main lead in one of those coming-of-age movies. Although I was scared for my life at the thought of possibly having to cut off my feet (Professor Bailly had pointed out earlier how my flat boots were not compatible with the amount of walking we would have to do), I emerged from this journey with an abundance of more knowledge than I had originally expected.

As someone who has never walked around Miami to enjoy its immense culture, I was surprised to learn about the racial history behind many structures around the area. This may be because my history classes failed to mention anything about Florida except Ponce de León’s arrival, or because famous singers Pitbull Mr. Worldwide and Enrique Iglesias focused my attention on the livelier aspects of Miami.

I was able to experience a glimpse of the past when I rested my bare hands on one of the stones of Fort Dallas. Professor Bailly had instructed us to imagine having to be one of the enslaved African Americans building their own quarters in the 1840s, and I felt a wave of sadness and guilt at the thought of not having known about the history of slavery in Miami. I learned of how Julia Tuttle, the “Mother of Miami,” was the catalyst of forming Miami into the grand city it is today, but was swept aside for the more grand economic achievements of Henry Flagler. I learned of the hardships endured by the Native population in Miami, and about the safety and sanctuary the Freedom Tower brought to Cuban refugees seeking political asylum from Fidel Castro’s regime.

Professor Bailly brought us inside the Gesù Church, the oldest Catholic Church in all of South Florida, serving as a sanctuary to many since 1896. It was my first time stepping foot inside a Church, and I felt immensely calmed by the beautiful stained glass windows and silent atmosphere of reflecting worshippers. We were given the opportunity to observe more architecture via the Freedom Tower, which we learned was modeled after La Giralda in Seville, Spain, built as the minaret for the Great Mosque of Seville during the Almohad Dynasty. Although not of Cuban origin, I too was able to find a sense of comfort from the Freedom Tower, behind the inspiration for its architecture, and by stepping foot inside the building, which resembled a mosque atmosphere.

My trip in Downtown Miami was characterized by a profound sense of realization to pay respect to the brutal past of Miami by learning of its history. How can we become more educated on our history and reflect on the past, and bring awareness to the history of our standing structures? While this is a difficult question to answer, re-naming structures such as Fort Dallas to the William English Slave Plantation Longhouse so Miamians are no longer misguided to forget important history can be a great first step.

Everglades as Text

Photos and editing by Sana Arif (CC by 4.0)

“Finally Finding Florida,” by Sana Arif of FIU in the Everglades February 12th, 2021

The cold water rushing into my shoes as soon as I took a step in the water felt… unreal. As I walked further into the murky brown water, I took a look at all the trees around me, and was able to somewhat smell the clean air around me through my mask. It was a juxtaposed experience, both unnerving yet comfortable. My classmates surrounding me made me feel at ease, but I still felt as though I was on a separate planet. My feet kept getting tangled in the intricate roots of the cypress trees and other flora, and I kept losing my balance initially, but as we stood in silence to admire the atmosphere surrounding us, I began to appreciate where I was. I was simply a humble guest, nothing more, privileged to be able to hear the swift croaks and groans of the cypress trees swaying and dancing above me, an admirer of the beautiful warblers darting in them.

At one point, a cardinal appeared in the muted grey and green colors of the wetland ecosystem, beautifully contrasted with its bold red colors. Professor Bailly excitedly pointed out the handsome bird, and we watched as it hopped from branch to branch, occasionally disappearing from view, only to surprise us with its display in a fleeting moment. This is how the trip through the Everglades felt, like I was waiting for little surprises to show up along the trail. One moment that astounded me was when Professor Bailly asked us to turn around once we had walked far enough, and we were able to observe the dome-like structure that the cypress trees had formed. The trees were intertwined like an extensive community, and that is what I learned about the Everglades that day. This land was not a separate planet, but it was an ecosystem that even I was a part of. Park Ranger Dylan had addressed issues of pollution in different areas, and it is our job as Floridians to respect the Everglades and the species within it, and to take care of our home.

Slough slogging in the Everglades is definitely an experience I will never forget. I can still remember the feel of rushing through the water, seeing mosquito fish dashing around my legs. I had even observed a mutated form of the fish, a blotchy black and white mosquito fish, stand out amongst its translucent friends. I am glad I was able to hear the story about the Everglades from the wise trees and many species within. If you listen closely, you might be able to hear it too.

South Beach as Text

Photos and editing by Sana Arif (CC by 4.0)

“You’re So Art Deco…” by Sana Arif of FIU in South Beach February 26th, 2021.

The first thing I noticed was the remarkably blue water triumphantly glistening as the hot rays of the sun burned into it. As we walked down the Pier, breathing in the salty air and observing others jogging with their dog(s), rollerblading, and simply enjoying the sunny day, it was clear that South Beach has long been serving as a hotspot for those wanting to enjoy the warm weather South Florida has to offer. As pleasant as this image can be, it serves as a stark contrast to the harsh reality of how this Beach came to be. The area was designed for whites, and in its early days, the only blacks allowed were employed in occupations to serve wealthier white individuals. It was difficult to envision the initial environment of twisted mangroves reserved for wealthy white Northerners, rather than the clear waters filled with assortments of individuals from different races today. It brought further insight onto the difficulties faced by black individuals in early Miami days, in addition to the information learned from my first class in Downtown Miami.

As we walked down the Art Deco Historic District, I observed a flurry of social activity that only created a more unique addition to the old-fashioned take on neoclassical architecture known as Art Deco. Each building had a different display and take on fauna and flora motifs, with geometric curves to highlight the aesthetic of water, and other features such as porthole windows. Towards nighttime, I was able to observe how neon lights further accentuated the retro and funky style. As we ended our tour on Lincoln Road, I understand why preservationist Barbara Capitman fought to protect the Art Deco style in Miami. It brought out a sense of community and inspiration for other designers to match other buildings to the flow of pastel-hued architecture with nuances unique to Art Deco.

While South Beach has woven its history into the growing hotspot for tourists it is today, it has maintained a rich preservation of how it became the neighborhood of diversity it is today. With prominent destinations such as the mansion where Gianni Versace famously lived (and was assassinated), a rainbow crosswalk, The Palace drag club, and other spots on Ocean Drive, I saw many of my firsts while strolling down the street with the class. I was able to observe and learn about how a vibrant LGBT community was able to flourish after facing harsh difficulties in the past. I learned about the segregationist policies and Jim Crow laws that were in place in Miami’s earlier days, deed restrictions forcing Jews to live south of Fifth Street, and other realities of the difficulties different groups of people had to endure. It was intriguing to put into perspective how that era transformed into the thriving and vibrant community that South Beach is today.

Deering Estate as Text

Photos and editing by Sana Arif (CC by 4.0)

“Walking Back in Time…” by Sana Arif of FIU at the Deering Estate March 12th, 2021.

The air was… different. There was a hint of salt, but overall, it was more crisp. As someone who lives outside of Miami, the visit at the Deering Estate transformed my perspective to understand Miami is filled with more nature and history than expected. At one spot in the nature preserve, I even stood on the highest point in Miami (not very high, but I felt quite invigorated in the moment). As we trekked along the preserve, we encountered many different ecosystems, all with certain histories within them. As we entered a wetland brimming with intricate mangroves, I was able to hold smoothed out shells that were used by the Tequestas to complete various tasks in daily life. I held a conch shell in my palm, felt the weight of it, and tried to imagine how it had been used years ago. I found myself placing it back gently in the exact same spot it had been left, as if one of the Tequesta peoples would return the same day to use the shell to drill into the ground. The moment felt quite serene and calming to me, as I tried to reconnect with humans from the past, while observing the fish darting in the water next to me. As I ventured along the trail, I tried to envision what it would have been like to wander these paths thousands of years ago. I was able to hear the sound of the wind swirl through the rustling leaves, notice spider webs glistening in the sun when we visited different terrestrial caves, and the stream of cool water in a creek under the bridges we walked upon.

The hardest image to visualize was when we visited the Cutler Burial Mound. It was described to have 12-18 Indians buried in a circle, but all I saw was a giant mound barely visible due to a vast arrangement of trees circling it as a sort of tribute. It felt silent, as if the animals and trees knew that humans were sleeping forever in this mound. An oak tree stood magnificently over, an extension of the life underneath. This moment touched me deeply, because it was where I was struck with the realization that the Tequesta peoples were just that, people. They were individuals who walked these paths and endured hardships just like present day civilizations. What those hardships were, I could never understand or attempt to realize what it meant to overcome them.

In Deering’s mansion, we were met with historical artifacts, like the beautiful pre-17th century stained glass panels which depicted the Holy Family’s Flight Into Egypt, various paintings, and an impressive book collection. In my walk back in time, I was able to admire an extensive collection of original alcohol bottles (all empty, but it wasn’t me who drank them) in a cellar that flourished during the Prohibition Era. This only added on to the feeling of admiring history, the good and bad, and attempting to understand different human experiences. The Deering Estate certainly has a lot to offer, and is a visit that captivated me beyond understanding from start to finish.

Vizcaya as Text

Photos and editing by Sana Arif (CC by 4.0), except top left photo of Sana Arif, taken by Jena Nassar.

“Am I Still in Miami?” by Sana Arif of FIU at Vizcaya March 26th, 2021.

Upon reading the estate’s “Bel Vizcaya” on its grand gates at the entrance, I felt as if I were entering the wrong area. Was I trespassing? As we drove along even further, I noticed multiple Italian Baroque sculptures amidst the trees, serving as a sort of trailer to what was to come. It was certainly very un-Miami like. The sun certainly favored this estate as it did the rest of Florida, but in a more unique way. The rays filtered through the branches to land upon and illuminate the sculptures, as if they were alive in the very moment I was looking up at them. Upon walking into the entrance, I was able to admire the Islamic inspired fountains that were symmetrically lined up on either side of me, with trees perfectly framing the buildings, a taste of the intricate details inside.

Once inside, I stared up at Bacchus, who I felt was taunting the class with a lost invitation of the parties and lavish occasions experienced at Vizcaya at the height of its years. As we continued along inside, we were met with a grand courtyard, in line so you could see a magnificent fountain and the glistening blue water outside. We continued along the estate, and were met with rooms of different vibes. One being a dark and dimly lit study, the next an extravagant and playful seating room, another to display somewhat ludicrous art, onto more that held placement for entertainment with music, a room for staff to prepare meals and cater to visitors and residents of Vizcaya. While there was no common theme in all the rooms, there were attributes that could be assigned to all. It was evident that James Deering was a man who appreciated and admired the arts, but for his own personal use and enjoyment. For example, arches were placed for aesthetic purposes for entrance into the gardens that resembled the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but clearly held no motivational purpose for any troops to march through.

The gardens themselves were filled with fun surprises all throughout. Placed near the deep blue waters was a magnificent and relaxing pool, but if you stumbled further down, an outdoor stage for performers to entertain, but down the path was a miniature maze. Even more different than the minute changes of scenery were mangroves in a shaded area, where an unseen crocodile resided. In addition, much like his brother, hidden in a cellar by a camouflaged stone door, was an area for alcohol during the Prohibition Era. My visit through Vizcaya was insightful, almost humorous, as James Deering resembled a playful-like persona, with a home of riddles and fun surprises. I felt as though I would see Cupid darting about at any second, floating on the clouds and streaming down with the sun’s rays. As we left the estate, I left imagining what it would have been to walk the marble floors alongside James Deering, as one of his guests to enjoy an evening at a wonderful place.

Margulies as Text

Photos and editing by Sana Arif (CC by 4.0)

Walking through this collection was a unique experience I have not had before. As we walked through the gallery, it felt as though time had slowed. It was eerily quiet, but also full of life, because of the intriguing pieces that surrounded you. The pieces were set up in a way to foreshadow what comes next, with the audio of multiple pieces echoing throughout the warehouse in the background, or a small glimpse of what was offered in the next room.

After observing this collection, I learned about what contemporary art truly entails. Initially, I presumed contemporary art was simply untraditional, modern art. While this is true, I’ve realized this discipline entails much more and is extremely intricate in what can be classified under it. Rather, contemporary art is the art of our time, and can offer an alternative way for viewers to learn about the world and different issues. For example, the stills from Kota Ezawa, National Anthem, which is a video revisiting the protests of Colin Kaepernick, where players took a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against Black men. The video offered a firm perspective, showing the protest as an American standpoint of unity. Another art piece by Peter Coffin, showcased various playful videos of a variety of animals in 30 different monitors, which enabled viewers to form a more personal connection with animals in realizing their personalities. These pieces, along with others, are unique in that they are open to interpretation, but allow for you to generalize what the message may be. After experiencing this gallery, I found myself much more drawn to art in the way I was before. Professor Bailly’s tour allowed me to realize that I walk through museums and various galleries by just observation, and no interpretation. I am intrigued to see how my perspective changes in the next art gallery I encounter.

The Margulies Collection offered me an opportunity for art education, but also the realization that it supports Miami’s homeless population. Clearly, the Margulies Collection is not just a building or a gallery, but its impact extends beyond its walls.

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