Derick Plazaola: Miami As Text

Photo by Eszter Erdei (CC by 4.0)

Good day to everyone! My name is Derick Plazaola and I am a junior at Florida International University currently pursuing a dual Bachelor of Science degree within the fields of Anthropology and Geography while also in the progress of completing a minor in History. My primary passions in life include traveling, exploring nature, and reading historical documents. While at FIU, I have been able to become involved in the betterment of residential life through Parkview Hall Council and have undergone academic opportunities presented to me through the Honors College at the university. I wish to further my academic future by going into graduate school for additional subfield studies of Anthropology, with a certain interest in Archaeology above all other subfields.

Having been born in Miami, I never truly got to experience or undergo an opportunity that has directly allowed me to gain a multi perspective view of the city which I was born in. When the Covid-19 pandemic first began, I truly believed that any chance to engage in an activity that would allow me to captivated by Miami’s history was absolutely diminished. However, this would quickly change with my personal decision to become apart of John Bailly‘s “Discover Miami” 2021 course. With that being said now, I truly thank Professor JW Bailly for being able to create an opportunity for like-minded students to be captivated by the enriched history which the city has to provide.

I now present my Miami as Texts.

Downtown Miami as Text

Photos and editing by Derick Plazaola (CC by 4.0)

“The Obscured Past of Miami”, by Derick Plazaola of FIU in Downtown Miami on February 7th, 2021

“What a day to explore Downtown Miami” was the initial thought that I had conceived as I was driving on a rather cold morning towards our meeting location at Government Center. Over the course of the drive, I would wonder what kind of history would be revealed to us by Professor Bailly and how it would impact my perspective of the city. Though I did not know it yet, this answer would soon arrive in the most eloquent of ways – through the process of firsthand exploration.

This process of exploration would lead me to develop one of the primary changes in my perspective of the city of Miami. The change in perspective was one of recognition regarding the importance which diversity yielded in establishing the foundation of Miami, as a whole. Our group’s visit of Fort Dallas in tangent with the Wagner Homestead and Mary Brickell’s grave would provide knowledgeable insight in allowing me to see the cultural foundations of Miami. Fort Dallas and the Wagner Homestead would directly showcase the cultural roots which Miami is founded upon with regard to the presence of blacks, Indians, and mixed populations. However, such foundations would not be limited to solely ethnicity as the importance of gender could be witnessed with the development of Miami. As professor Bailly explained within the class, the importance of women MUST be recognized in the foundation of the city as Julia Tuttle and Mary Brickell were two monumental figures that were responsible for the eventual development of the city.

I remember asking myself during the class: How is it that these greatly historical aspects of Miami aren’t being taught widely across educational systems in the city? That answer, too, would arrive with the exploration conducted. The visitation of the Dade County Court House and Henry Flagler’s statue ultimately revealed the widespread racism that had been instituted deeply within the history of Miami. I was able to learn firsthand that Henry Flagler’s action of constructing the railroad system in South Florida would grant him great amounts of power and wealth. As a result, Flagler would actively relocate non-white populations to poorer areas of Miami, establishing a precedent for racism and segregation – a precedent whose aftereffects can still be witnessed today. However, historical whitewashing would play an active role in concealing the dark truths behind the foundation of Miami while showcasing the achievements of white figures and, thus, the cultural roots upon which the city was established would become instantly obscured to the public eye. I quite actively, as a result of my partaking in the class, became highly aware of the untaught truths that lied in the history of Miami being publicly taught.

While I also had the opportunity to learn about additional key monuments that are present throughout Downtown Miami along with their cultural significance, I ultimately drove back home appalled, yet troubled, by the deeply rich past of Miami that has become widely obscured. As a result, I now believe that – in order to relieve the city of a whitewashed history – educational systems should not be afraid to shy away from teaching the true multi-cultural history of Miami. Without a doubt, however, I was grateful for the objective truths which this first class session was able to provide me with. I began my day telling myself “what a day to explore Downtown Miami” and ended the day telling myself “what a day to see the obscured past of Miami”.

Everglades as Text

Photos and editing by Derick Plazaola (CC by 4.0)

“River of Grass”, by Derick Plazaola of FIU in the Everglades on February 21st, 2021

To be frank, I began the day with a rather overwhelming sense of uncertainty and – undoubtedly – nervousness as to what exactly could happen in my first-ever trek into the Everglades. I recall the exact moment being shown in the class group-chat exactly what we would be doing throughout the duration of our class session and was, least to say, appalled. I simply could not believe that I had to actually trudge through the heart of the Everglades with a stick, without any worries of what could lurk in the water and tall grass alike. Then the hypotheticals came. “What if an alligator was to approach us?” and “What would I do if I were to fall into the water?” were among the main questions I pondered as I prepared to drive an hour down south. However, I thought back to my session of the class in Downtown Miami and reminded myself of one of the primary lessons I learned: living in the moment is crucial for the best experiences. Thus, with this notion in mind, I made my way towards the National Park.

The “Slough Slog”. Walking through the Everglades water through an unofficial trail with a hiking stick in one hand and camera phone in the other. The first and, perhaps, most immersive component of this class session. The time to undergo this experience was approaching rapidly as we drove down the singular strip of road connecting all of the different areas of the Everglades. All of my previous concerns started to then resurface, but it was then when I had gained awareness of the very nature of this opportunity: it was nothing short of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Like Professor Bailly would come to mention later in the class, the whole experience would become unforgettable.

Upon first stepping onto the trail, I could see nothing but cypress trees as far as the eye can see. Cypress trees, as our lead park ranger explained to us, served as being among the most distinct of trees present in the Everglades due to their ability of being able to grow in water-filled areas. This was only made possible due to the oligotrophic, or low-nutrient, nature of the surrounding environment. The area in which we were specifically walking through was known as the “dome” of the Everglades due to the shape in which the culmination of the cypress trees created, with the tallest trees gathering near the center (see center photograph). Going back to the Slog, I became quite entranced in the moment of having to simultaneously walk through the water while also scouting to see opportunities for photographs. However, as I kept trudging along through the water with the rest of the class, I gradually gained more recognition of the interconnection which this very land provided. It was a distinct sense of interconnectedness between man and the natural land as, with each step, I could hear all the many things associated with the true experience of the Everglades. The ripples in the water caused by our walking, the sounds of various different animals from a distance, the wind blowing back and forth. All of these different sounds amounted to the sensation of the overall experience. It was a strange feeling to be able to experience a moment in which one truly feels connected with the land at their feet. It was a feeling I only had experienced on a recent trip to Arizona and yet, it was an amazing feeling to have been reproduced. I was certain that this same feeling could be felt by the Tequesta -as Professor Bailly previously indicated to us that the Tequesta had moved towards the Everglades – and utilized the bark of cypress trees to construct boats.

After our journey through the Slough Slog, we proceeded to then continue our journey at two key locations. The first, the Royal Palm Visitor Center, would allow us to gain more of a closer look at the animals residing within the Everglades. This small, yet detail-oriented, trail would truly serve as another fulfilling experience during the trip. However, Professor Bailly’s teachings at this trail provided us with a viewpoint into the rich history of the Everglades, with one of the key points being the fact that Henry Flagler actually attempted to build a railroad through the Everglades. It was at this point during the class that I recognized that what I had learned of Flagler, during the previous first class, had become applicable yet again in the context of the Everglades. In addition to this fact, Bailly provided us with a statement that, even today as I recall the entire experience, changed my perspective on how I entirely viewed the Everglades: “The Everglades is not a swamp. It is a river of grass”. To me, this statement would serve as the backbone of the lessons learned during the entirety of the trip. In concluding with the class session, we visited the “Hole in the Donut” restoration area which allowed us to view the current state of the solution hole present there. It was during this conclusive visit that I had truly taken an appreciation for the connection felt during the entirety of the visit to the Everglades. Would I repeat it, given the opportunity? The experience as a whole now allowed me to respond to that question with an undoubtable “yes”.

In reflecting upon the experience as a whole now, the memorability of this whole trip would only be heightened by the bonding moments shared between our class as this experience truly allowed us to become more along the lines of friends rather than just mere classmates. It’ll be quite hard to forget the feeling of authenticity associated with walking through the different areas of the “River of Grass”. And to think that there is still so much more to explore. Perhaps for next time then.

South Beach as Text

Photos and editing by Derick Plazaola (CC by 4.0)

“At the Ocean’s Side” by Derick Plazaola of FIU in South Beach on March 7th, 2021

Prior to this class session, I identified the city of South Beach as being one of the many components of Miami that projects it on a global level, attracting millions each year. However, Bailly’s teachings and our class exploration of South Beach revealed to me something different; South Beach is not a component of Miami, but rather its own entity existing within Miami. I would come to learn very quickly that the city of South Beach is vastly different to Downtown Miami and Miami as a whole, with many key characteristics setting apart this one stretch of land from the whole city.

The introduction to this class was certainly breathtaking to say the least. Taking the time to stand at the end of South Pointe Pier and take in the scenery of South Beach, the Miami River, and the Atlantic Ocean all under one singular culmination point was something that I could only describe as extraordinary. With that being said however, Bailly would soon reveal to us the true nature of South Beach which, not surprisingly, held elements of a dark past. One of the aspects of South Beach’s foundations that I found to be more troubling was how the city seemed to almost be setting itself up for failure against the volatile weather conditions associated with the oceanside. In addition to noting the foundation of South Miami on shells and sand rather than limestone, we were also shown images of when South Beach was essentially a mangrove and coconut forest – its original state as a barrier island. However, as Bailly kept repeating during the class, we cannot doubt the ability of humans to keep innovating to keep up with our planet’s current conditions.

Another secondary troubling aspect of the history of South Beach and its foundation that I found disgusting, yet essential to my overall perspective of the city, was the institutionalized racism that was adopted by the city officials and influential figures ingrained in the establishment of the city. Yet again, as seen previously with the heavily racist actions by Flagler in the construction of Miami, I was taken aback by the implementation of the actions of Carl Graham Fisher – the entrepreneur responsible for the development of South Beach. Albeit his self-labelling of himself as a “pioneer” to the “wasteland” of Miami, Fisher would soon prove his true character through the re-location of blacks who aided in the construction of South Beach. This would only be bolstered by the re-location of Jewish communities to only a limited section of neighborhood under Fifth street. Learning the details of this corrupt past was most certainly disturbing but upon reflection, I took an appreciation for the eye-opening details which this adventure enlightened me with.

Crazy to think that I would also become somewhat of a master of identifying the primary architectural styles utilized in the many establishments on South Beach. It was almost as if we were being quizzed as we passed each building on Ocean Drive. “Mediterranean revival! No wait, Art Deco! Or is it actually MIMO?”. Statements like these filled a great portion of our walk but at the same time, I already took on such an appreciation for the culmination of artistic, culture-filled architectural styles that were brought to the streets of South Beach as even the smallest details contained such large remnants of ancient history. Without a doubt, by this point, we were fully ingrained in one of the greatest – if not the greatest – Art Deco location in the world. Even the conclusion of our class yielded a surprise as the H&M at the Lincoln Mall was originally a theatre and still had its original architectural style. How crazy indeed!

With no doubts in mind, this class session had such a great impact in allowing me to establish an objective viewpoint of the city which I live in. I can only imagine how long I would’ve kept on walking across Ocean Drive in my life without knowing the negative history associated with its foundation. However, I also took a deep appreciation for the interconnection which this excursion provided to our previous adventures. To think that the Spanish and Tequesta Indians still held such a heavy presence in South Beach before the name was even brought into existence. In fact, you could say they were truly the first to be at the “Ocean’s side”. Not Fisher or Flagler, but them instead.

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