Jose Villavicencio: Miami as Text 2021-2022

My name is Jose Villavicencio, and I am a senior studying business analytics at FIU. I love to ride my bike around my community, whether it be to push myself past my limits to break my own pace record or to casually cruise down the street and let the sun soak through my skin. If you happen to see me on my bike, experiencing the outdoors with a sweat on my brow, I am probably having the time of my life!

Downtown as Text

Who Are We?

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU in Downtown Miami on 08 September, 2021

Ten minutes east, down 88th street from where I sit right now typing this, is the hospital where my two siblings and I were born. Miami is the city, the home, that we have known our entire lives. Despite the fact that it is all I have ever known, all I have ever had, I cannot help but think about all those who came before me, who were born here thousands of years before the hospital was even a twinkle in the land developer’s eye. Downtown Miami may seem like a sprawling mass of glass, concrete, and steel with little to be said about the city’s green space or its pedestrian infrastructure that leave much to be desired, but there is more to it than meets the eye. My own cynical outlook on urban development and an over-reliance on cars was quickly challenged as we scoured the corners of Downtown for these pockets of life that were undeniable proof that the echos of the past persist to be perceived by us, the descendants of this land.

12,000 years ago, before the Spaniards, English, or French began to even ponder colonizing the Earth, South Florida was home to culture, to religion, to industry; South Florida was a cradle to humanity. Walking alongside the ancient artery that is the Miami River proved as much to me. Just as thousands of people each day drive a collective millions of miles on the turnpike to travel to different parts of modern Miami, the Miami River served the same purpose to humans just like me all those thousands of years ago. If you aren’t actively looking for it, it is very easy to pass by the essence of humanity that pervades throughout the city as you get swept up in the break-neck pace of the tropical Miami nightlife. The reminders are there, however. No matter how you feel politically, you cannot deny the sheer holistic human value that comes from watching the U.S. and Cuban flags fly side by side atop the freedom tower. The inspiration that the anointed “Ellis Island of the South” is just another chapter in the history of displacement in South Florida. Despite what the reality of the situation is, that tower represents a new life for Cubans fleeing political strife just 90 miles to our south.

Symbols like the freedom tower, or the holy Tequesta site of the Miami circle remind us of the human strife that South Florida was unfortunately home too, but there are other more sinister symbols that may not appear that way at first. The Royal Palm hotel was opened by Henry Flagler, one of the most (in)famous figures in Miami’s history. Yes, Flagler brought the railroad which led to Miami’s incorporation as a city, but he also brought with him the atrocities of the imperial world. The arrival of Flagler signified that Miami was no longer a land for indigenous peoples to subsist off of. If Miami was going to “make it” as a modern city, it had to adopt some “modern” ideals. I speak, of course, of segregation. To this day, segregation shows itself as a scar across the map of demographics in Miami. The comfortable coastal lands were developed for hotels, businesses, and white people living in the city, while all black people who were living in the area before were now relocated and only allowed to live where Overtown is today. These unfortunate histories are what we must keep in mind every time we ride the metro rail, or enjoy a nice day at the beach. None of it would have been possible without the rich tapestry of human history that is Miami, a tapestry that is still being woven to this day.

Overtown as Text

The Historic Mount Zion Baptist Church as it is seemingly choked by the concrete cobra that is I-95.
Photo by Jose Villavicencio/CC by 4.0

“What Doesn’t Kill You Makes Us Stronger.”

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU in Overtown, Miami on 22 September, 2021

Love, loss, and even more love is a consistent theme you will find when you put your feet to the ground and connect with the community of Overtown. Marred by decades of racism and segregation, Overtown is one of the most unique places not just in Miami, or even Florida, but on all of planet Earth. The sheer spirit needed to endure these decades of desecration was something that shone through with each spoken word of the wonderful women who took the time out of their days to pass on these histories to us. What stood out to me the most is also referenced in the photo above, where you can see the chalky, grey asphalt of US Interstate Highway 95, the infamous highway that killed the city in it’s proverbial crib. The Mount Zion Baptist Church is ground zero for this cultural reckoning, as the building of the new highway in it’s vicinity seemed almost like a targeted attack. Entire communities that once stood where the sprawling concrete now dominates were forced to, in some instances, simply abandon their homes and their entire lives. No help was offered, no sympathy extended, they simply told them that they were to begin construction in 30 days, and that they had to find somewhere else to go. As you can imagine, this devastated a community that already had to fight so hard just to get permission to exist in a segregated city. The church that was once home to a congregation of 2,000 now sits at about 100 members. The communal services and facilities offered by the church before I-95 existed no longer had a consistent population of neighbors to utilize them. There was even a parsonage that would undoubtedly be a historically registered building for the city of Miami, had it not been destroyed to make way for I-95. Truly this highway acted as a constrictor upon the trachea that breathed life into this community.

Still, the story of Overtown is one of resilience, like a singular flower that defies all odds and manages to grow out of a crack in the concrete, Overtown survived. It was much harder to do so with the core community seemingly scattered to the winds. To this day, Overtown remains a largely Black city, and the effects of racism imposed upon the city are still felt to this day. Even now, high rise apartment buildings and land developments seek to squeeze every last dollar out of the community while forcing those who were born there, out. History doesn’t repeat itself in a mirrored fashion, but it often does rhyme. That is why I believe that no matter what comes their way, the city of Overtown has got what it takes to endure just about anything, because they’ve already had to go through almost everything. 

Vizcaya as Text

A statue Dionysus, the Greek God of wine and earthly pleasures and the “patron saint” of Vizcaya is the first thing that greets you when you enter through the back garden. Photo by Jose Villavicencio/CC by 4.0

J’ai Dit What Now?

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU at Vizcaya, 20 October, 2021

During the conception and birth of Miami, there was but one underlying theme that pervaded throughout the very soul of a city on the rise – Decadence. Industrious cities loomed to the north, while vast fields of agriculture kept America fed to the west, but what of that little swamp all the way down south, near the southernmost point in the country? What would that place be used for? James Deering knew exactly what it should be used for. For better or worse, this eccentric elite in the estuaries of the Everglades envisioned an everlasting estate that would excellently encapsulate the essence of Miami. 

James Deering was a man of conviction, and what he said, he got. Each room of the opulent mansion has a different theme with a different purpose, mirroring different time periods and styles of art and architecture as you snake through the halls. Oftentimes James Deering would even hire master artisans directly trained in these disciplines, other times he just simply bought an already historic piece that lent itself to the particular period of the room. An in-home phone booth and a built-in vacuum cleaner are just some of the technologies that James Deering had installed just because he could, and for no other reason. In a way, this attitude is a reflection of the American zeitgeist. Overindulgence and consumption of the arts and pleasures on an almost hedonistic level are what fueled Vizcaya and Miami at the time, despite the untold human loss and suffering that took place in order to fuel their whimsical desires. 

Like all sources of shining light, however, Vizcaya casts a deep and dark shadow on the psyche of Miami. Racism, inequality, and rigid class structure was business as usual during the construction and occupation of Vizcaya. You cannot help but feel a small pit in your stomach as you meander through the halls, wondering how something so ornate and beautiful can have such a dark and twisted past. Yes, James Deering had his eccentricities and flaws like any human does, but that does not excuse the part he played in perpetuating these horrible systems that we as a humanity are still recoiling from to this day.  This is not an uncommon thread throughout the development of the United States, and Miami especially. This is an unfortunate truth that we must all confront. Vizcaya may be an architectural marvel in the salty swamps of South Florida, but it’s history cannot, must not be ignored.

South Beach as Text

The iconic art deco Crescent Resort stands almost defiantly against the elements and modern Miami architecture that seem to want to spread to every corner of the island. Photo by Jose Villavicencio/CC by 4.0

History Does Not Repeat, But Oft Does It Rhyme.

By Jose Villavicencio of FIU at South Beach. 3 November, 2021

The ebb and flow of our planet Earth is a complex and delicate dance between forces so prevalent and ancient, we humans are only just now beginning to understand their awesome power. The ecosystems of Miami Beach are one such example of this, as the Miamians of yesteryear, namely Carl Fisher,  “employed” Black Bahamian labor in order to masacre the meticulous mangrove marshes that held the barrier island of sand and stone together. A common theme throughout the development of Miami, Fisher had no foresight to stop and ponder the purpose of these plants. He simply saw an unsightly mass of wood and leaves in the way of his grand vision to turn Miami Beach into a tropical paradisiacal playground for the wealthy elites of the United States. A few years later, a Major Hurricane would barrel through the Miami metro area, leaving destruction in its wake. The mangroves on Miami Beach served the purpose of shielding the mainland somewhat from a weather event like this, but there were no more mangroves to speak of thanks to Fisher. 

The alteration of entire essential ecosystems at the whim of an individual, rich, white man is having cascading effects to this day. During high enough tides, the ocean itself rises up from beneath Miami Beach. This is because there is no limestone layer beneath the soil like on the mainland. As a barrier island, the sand and stone that we walk on today was once only packed and held together by the tendril roots of the mighty mangrove. Removing these plants posed a very ill-advised mistake for the inhabitants of Miami Beach at the time. Still, while history does not repeat itself, it often does rhyme. Denizens of the city face a similar dilemma today – develop Miami Beach further, thus bolstering its already high tourism draw? Or work to maintain and even nourish the factors that help the island become resilient to the elements, as it once was before it was sullied by man? As the existential threat of climate change looms overhead, Miami Beach as a city is poised to be ground zero in the United States. Other coastal cities do not have the disadvantage of being built upon what is essentially non-solid ground. Already this year, the Surfside condo collapse that tragically claimed 98 souls serves as a harrowing harbinger of what is to come if the spirit of preservation is not pervading all the way up and down Ocean Drive. 

Curiously enough, Art Deco may have been the catalyst that transformed the identity of Miami Beach from one of consumption to one of conservation. Today, Miami Beach is home to the largest Art Deco neighborhood in the world, but it wouldn’t be here for us to appreciate had it not been for Barbara Capitman, who valiantly fought to preserve the Art Deco architecture as cultural heritage. Who knows how overdeveloped and even further unprepared Miami Beach would be if towering condos replaced the comparatively quaint Art Deco neighborhoods that draw so many to the sandy beaches and glitzy lights? One thing is for certain, the disruption of the barrier island’s protective attributes were done haphazardly in the past, and we must be extremely diligent moving forward if we are to not only salvage, but bolster and increase Miami Beach’s climate resilience in the future. 

Deering as Text

The Tropical Hardwood Hammock beckons you to walk through and take a step back in time at the Deering Estate. Photo by Jose Villavicencio/CC by 4.0

They Were Here First.

By Jose Villavicencio of FIU at The Deering Estate. 17, November, 2021

Miami is a city of sun, sensations, and seduction. It didn’t always used to be this way, though. 10,000 years ago, before Flagler, Deering, and Capitman, the Tequesta inhabited this land. They lived and breathed the air and soil around them, using shells as shucking tools, or perhaps as a means to scale the fish they caught. The ancient Tequesta of Miami are even believed to have used conch shells as primitive drills. Not much is known about the Tequesta in today’s day and age, but the Deering Estate is one of the best troves of knowledge we have regarding their way of life as it was 10,000 years ago. For example, a pristine Tequesta Midden exists onsite at the Deering Estate. The midden served as a trash site for the Tequesta, leaving discarded shell tools for us to discover thousands of years later. It is difficult to feel ancestrally connected to a group of people who no longer exist, but grasping the shell tools in your hand and seeing how perfectly they fit, it’s hard not to feel sorrow for the ancient humans who lived here. What would they think if they saw Miami as it stands today? With its suburban sprawl and massive highways systems. One can only help but wonder if they would feel a tinge of sorrow in their hearts for the concrete construct that now stands where pristine Earth once inhabited.

A hike through the over 400 acres of the Deering Estate is all one needs to put these thoughts to rest. With eight different ecosystems intersecting, the Deering Estate natural preserve is the closest thing we have to the habitat of Miami all those thousands of years ago. While the grounds are maintained, they are not planned or manicured by any stretch of the imagination. The transition from damp, shaded hardwood hammock to a dry and clear pine rockland that can be found at the Deering Estate is how such an ecosystem border would occur in nature. While the flora and fauna of ancient Miami are topics of supreme interest when visiting the Deering Estate, what lies beneath the foliage is even more encapsulating. At one point in the hike, there is a bridge that leads to a little wooded area covered with trees. In the center a mighty, 450-year old oak tree stands triumphantly upon the top of a small mound. Beneath the soil and the roots of this ancient tree are the undisturbed remains of the Tequesta who once lived there. The fact that Charles Deering wanted to leave the burial mound as it stood was a great relief to hear, as something of that caliber deserves to stay, as a reminder of those who lived in harmony with the land before us. 

On the other end of the spectrum, Deering Estate is also home to some of the finest archeological work that has been carried out in Miami, and much of what we know about the Tequesta and their relation to the land comes from this site. Deep in the woods of the Tropical Hardwood Hammock, behind curtains of poison wood and poison ivy, there is a simple hole carved into the rock underneath your feet. What seems unsightly and mundane on the surface becomes much more important when one realizes where they are standing – the oldest fossil site in South Florida. Ancient megafauna from the Pleistocene have been unearthed at this spot. Dire wolves who once grew up to six feet tall, as well as sabre-tooth tigers and even an American lion were all discovered here. Even more incredible, however, is that our ancestors were discovered there. While the Tequesta as a people no longer exist, they live vicariously through all Miamians in the present day. It is our duty to uphold and respect their contributions and existence as the first Floridians. We may never be able to trace our family trees back directly to the Tequesta, but they are our geographical ancestors. The same sense of awe one feels when watching the sun rise over the mirrored surface of Biscayne Bay was felt by Tequesta individuals 10,000 years ago. Life is exponentially more complex compared to back then, but in other ways it’s a lot simpler. The only constant that has remained for 10,000 years is that no matter who you are, you are sustained by the land you live on. One must take the time to be grateful for what the land provides, and respect it as if it were our own bodies.

Untitled Art as Text

“Na dress I dress, I no kill person!” A piece at Untitled Art. Photo by Jose Villavicencio/CC by 4.0

For The People? Bye, “The People!”

By Jose Villavicencio of FIU at Untitled Art, 1 December 2021

Oftentimes when people express their displeasure regarding art, they are very critical of modern art and tend to give classical art a pass on criticisms. In the eyes of many people, contemporary art is invalid because it is perceived as being less technically sound compared to the masterpieces that have survived throughout the ages. In reality, this disparity between classical and contemporary art is a matter of perspective. Contemporary art is perceived to be pretentious and classist due to the preformative art stunts that gain traction nowadays. Think back to the taped banana that sold for over $100,000 at Art Basel a few years back, or to Banksy’s canvas that shredded itself. These highly lucrative performative art sets seem absolutely absurd when you have canvases surviving hundreds of years, painted by great historical figures still around for enjoyment today. The simple fact of the matter is that, while contemporary art incorporates more diversity when it comes to issues of racism, homophobia, income inequality, and gender disparities in our societies, the medium in which it’s translated is just as inaccessible as ever. The culture surrounding buying and selling modern art is highly restrictive, and it’s no surprise to think that many casual consumers of art are put off by this perceived standoffish behavior.

Visiting the satellite fair titled, ironically, Untitled really puts these issues into perspective. All under one roof you have artists and curators from around the world proudly displaying works dealing with sensitive, real human issues. Yet upon closer inspection, you see a $50,000 price tag attached to these issues. It felt almost like a dream, to be experiencing something that is so synonymous with Miami as an entity, and yet feel so out of place. Even the water was priced exorbitantly at $4 a bottle! Overall, contemporary art as a genre and the communities surrounding it are two very different things, yet they are so intertwined that its not hard to see how some people may confuse one with the other. Art itself is just human expression, so modern art is simply modern human expression. There is nothing wrong with this, but there is something wrong when an entire trade is born and sustained by profiting heavily from human expression, and the real world issues that inspire them. 

Everglades as Text

A lone Florida Pine tree growing defiantly in the heart of a sawgrass prairie. This tree is a testament to the tenacity of life to thrive against all odds. Photo by Jose Villavicencio/CC by 4.0

Life finds a way

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU at the Everglades, January 12, 2022

The Everglades is an ancient beast, a sleeping dragon that has been shackled and starved by human aggressors once the native populations who once lived there in harmony were expelled. Aggressive and non-sustainable farming practices polluted the soil and water with excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. What was once a natural phenomenon, a cascading “river of grass” that expanded from central Florida all the way to the southern tip of the peninsula, now acted as an express delivery system to distribute these excess nutrients throughout the waterways and lakes of central and south Florida. What followed suit was significant damage done to the delicate ecosystems that covered the great expanse of the Everglades. Nowadays, humans recognize the critical role they play in preserving the sacred balance of biodiversity within the environment and are working tirelessly to restore the Everglades to its natural state. That was what I learned in just the first 10 minutes of our excursion out into the Everglades, the discussion being led by Ranger Patty. That information set the tone for the rest of the day. We weren’t just slogging out in the Everglades, we were slogging through the cardiovascular system of an entire ecosystem and way of life for millions of individual organisms, plant and animal alike. 

Once we actually set out for our slog, it felt as though we had been transported to an alien planet. No longer were we surrounded by the paved parking lots and manicured lawns of suburbia. We were making our way through untamed wilderness. The most significant feeling throughout all of this was a sense of awe, and a sense of insignificance. Who was I, but another living organism, no different from the alligators or snakes we saw. When we were out there under the towering magnificence of the cypress dome, we all had the same objective in mind: survival. Though the threat is more significant to the animals who spend entire lives — from birth to death — in the Everglades, there is no denying the deep, subconscious instincts that make themselves known when immersed in the lawlessness of nature. While I could not put my feelings into words at the time, I felt a great sense of sadness, almost like mourning, when we all took a minute of silence to take in the sounds of the Everglades. “Is this what we lost?” I thought to myself, dreading the return to a society where everything is controlled, developed, and divided into boxes and categories, all for the sole purpose of making it more palatable and digestible. In that short, simple sixty seconds of silence, I yearned so badly for the chaos, the disorganization, the simple driving factor that allows life to spread to every single miniscule corner of the Everglades. For better or for worse, the slog ended, and we all returned back to the predictability and comfort of our modern lives, taking with us forever the magnitude and importance of the Everglades. 

Coral Gables as Text

The Biltmore Hotel towers above, radiating a luxurious, yet elitist energy. Photo by Jose Villavicencio/CC by 4.o

History is told by those who won.

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU at Coral Gables, January 26th 2022.

Coral Gables brings the allure of a tropical Miami to life, coming straight from the mind of George Merrick and out onto the very pavement that is walked today. Still, it takes a village to raise a child, even more so for the brain-child of an ambitious salesman. Coral Gables was not built in a day, nor was it built by George Merrick. While his name adorns the high-end outdoor mall in “Merrick Park,” and his likeness, a not-so-subtle imitation of the statue David just outside city hall, Coral Gables was built on the backs of Black Bahamian workers who were available cheaply, and in great supply due to the brutish levels of segregation present in Miami at the time. The inhumane treatment of Black people in Miami was a shameful and deep scar on the history of the Magic City, however what occurs today may be just as harmful to both the legacy of the Black Bahamians, as well the future of the Black population of Miami today. 

I speak, of course, of historical revision. In the heart of Coral Gables lies a small building made of oolite stone, more commonly referred to as limestone. Along the outside of the building are the carved heads of police officers and firefighters to commemorate the building’s previous life as a fire/police station. Nowadays, this building serves as the home for the Coral Gables Historical Museum. Remember what I said about revision? This museum is one of the main perpetrators of this injustice today. While the exhibits are not one-hundred percent devoid of references to the Black Bahamians that lived in South Florida before the days of Flagler and Merrick, they do a massive disservice to their legacies by referring to them as “Guides” who happily cooperated with Merrick and his developers, lending their services and knowledge of the land out of the good of their hearts. It totally ignores how the workers, in their days, were treated as capital. Regarded as mere tools to be pointed in a direction and put to work, the Coral Gables Museum spends more time recanting every intricate detail of the Merrick family, lauding George Merrick as a singular white saviour who ventured into Coral Gables and tamed the murky swamps of South Florida, transforming it into a Mediterranean Revival neighborhood. All of this whie grossly misrepresenting the true role played by Black Bahamians and Americans, as well as the context under which they participated. 

It is imperative that the lives sacrificed not fall to the annals of history, and that we constantly question who is telling what histories, not under the guise of suspicion or malice, but because it is our duty as citizens of the Earth to pursue the truth, no matter how unsavory or unsettling it may be. We owe them that much. 

Deering as Text 2

The channel where five Black Bahamian workers were killed in a dynamite accident. It now serves as calm respite for manatees. Photo by Jose Villavicencio/CC by 4.0

It starts with you.

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU at the Deering Estate, January 28th 2022.

Throughout the history of humankind, there have been constant battles that go on endlessly. Battles that are more conceptual and ideological than they are fierce or bloody. In the case of human rights, however, those battles have been both. All too often we fall into the trap of thinking that human rights abuses of the past were all solved in a neat, three-act structure with a figure of historical significance acting as the de facto “protagonist” of these “stories.” Ask anyone on the streets who they think ended slavery in the United States and many will answer with the name of the US’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. What they will fail to consider are the tens of thousands of Union Soldiers who lost their lives, or of the Black Americans who risked their lives and dared to dream of freedom in a country so hostile to their very existence. What falls onto our shoulders is the responsibility to view these historical narratives for all their components, rather than reducing them to palatable, bite-sized snippets that we can easily consume. 

Thats why, when analyzing the role of Charles Deering and the Deering Estate in Miami’s history, we must look through a multi-faceted lens. Charles Deering thought the Richmond Cottage, a small wooden hotel on Old Cutler road, would be the perfect location to build himself a summer home. As with nearly all of Miami’s early history, the construction of the Deering Estate’s stone house was done by Black Bahamians. Black Bahamians were so heavily present during the development and construction of Miami due to their ancestral knowledge of working with the terrain of the then wild landscape. Much like the Tequesta, Bahamians knew what would work and what wouldn’t, as well as how to build effectively. Five Bahamians were even killed while dredging the main channel of the Estate, yet at the time all that was mentioned of them was a simple passage in the newspapers. In 2022, the Deering Estate now serves as a living library, an archive of biomes and habitats that remain untouched by human development, and this is thanks to Charles Deering.

 Even though he fell victim to the horrible racial undertones of early Miami, he was still an avid preservationist, and he helped keep a piece of ancient Miami alive. Unlike his counterpart, Flagler, Charles Deering sought to preserve what is now only one of two undisturbed Tequesta burial mounds, as he recognized the cultural and historical significance of such a finding. So while he subscribed to both the racist practices of segregation and unfair labor of the time, Charles Deering also respected the rights of the buried Tequesta at his estate. These are the multi-dimensional things we have to consider when judging people and actions from centuries past. While it is important to recognize injustice and do what is possible to correct it, I do not believe that we should ignore efforts made in the name of preservation or culture. Once we start dividing history into good vs. evil, we become vulnerable, and it becomes all too easy for bad actors to manipulate these senses of right and wrong for their own nefarious purposes. 

River of Grass as Text

In this one shot capturing a fraction of the expansive Everglades, countless instances of life, death, and rebirth are taking place all at once. Photo by Jose Villavicencio/CC by 4.0

“Echoes of the Past”

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU at Everglades National Park, February 16th, 2022

October 1962 is a month that, to many of my peers and colleagues, means very little, at least on the surface. In my opinion, this is a great thing if you consider what the alternative meant. If the month of October 1962 would have gone down in infamy, a bloody scar on the history of humanity, it would have been so based on the fact that a standoff of nuclear proportions had culminated in what would have surely been a mutually assured destruction for all of mankind. Now all that stands as a reminder of the irradiated dragon that had its hellfire airmed squarely 90 miles north is a lone army site housing a Nike defensive missile in Everglades National Park. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a dark month in history where human kind came its closest to the existential threat of extinction. As is human nature, unfortunately, we incessantly thirst to outdo the ghastly achievements of our generations past.

Today, we face a threat that is arguably worse than the blinding white shock of a nuclear blast, and this cataclysm is called climate change. The Everglades serves as a beating heart for the ecosystems of south Florida, and its acres of flowing filtration are the lifeblood with which south Floridians have subsisted off of dating back to the age of the ancient Tequesta ten thousand years ago. After decades of haphazard and disastrous development and mismanagement, the urban developers of south Florida are scrambling to undo the untold damages that the rapid suburbanization of Miami’s neighborhoods dealt to the delicate wetlands that sustain us all. Should we fail to restore and protect the sacred stability of the wetlands that span the countless miles of the Everglades, we would be dooming ourselves to a degradation of life not anticipated since the fateful month of October 1962, when nuclear apocalypse threatened us all. 

Vizcaya as Text 2

A beautiful tapestry in Vizcaya depicts the myth of Hercules fighting a lion. Photo by Jose Villavicencio/CC by 4.0

There are strength in numbers.

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU at Vizcaya, February 18th, 2022

Many cities around the world nurture a certain outward appearance about themselves. This translates into many aspects of life within these cities, such as Paris, the city of love, being one of the most visited cities for its famous cuisine, culture, and atmosphere. Cities like Paris, however, have had a few hundred years head start, so what about a more modern city? What about Miami? After James Deering and his family fell into a huge fortune selling farming machinery, James Deering decided it would be he who set the tone in Miami. He would build Vizcaya.

Unfortunately, as blinding as the golden opulence of the bayside mansion is, Vizcaya trapped Miami into one set identity. A rich person’s playground. Built by the blood and sweat of Black Bahamian laborers, Vizcaya looms over the bay, as if to telegraph “You’re in our city now.” Vizcaya symbolizes a problem that has persisted throughout nearly the entirety of human history, including the construction of the legendary Versaille palace and gardens by Louis the XIV, and that problem is the perceived expendability of the lower class at the whim of the ruling class. Back then, Black Bahamians would do painstaking work in the conditions of pre-Miami. Mosquitos pestered them, and the heat was blistering and humid. While Vizcaya was built on the backs of these people, few reminders can be found surrounding the halls and gardens of their contributions. Like most eccentric rich people, James Deering believed that it was he who willed Vizcaya into existence. In reality, he only paid for it.

A similar echo of labor relations can be heard in our more modern Miami as well. During the height of Covid-19 uncertainty, countless offices, banks, and firms elected to work remotely in order to shield their employees from the health hazards of a viral pandemic. Unfortunately, when their pockets started bleeding and the issue became extremely politicized, suddenly these employers couldn’t care less. Terms like “Hero” and “essential worker” were thrown around endlessly, yet their actual compensation for their labor never reflected a reality befitting of being a “hero.” They were forsaken and, in some cases, sacrificed to keep the GDP steady, to stop the devaluation of companies, yet these powerful institutions never paid it forward. They continue to abuse and extract wealth from the working class, and it is so many decades later. 

Wynwood as Text

An assembly of vulgar neon signs. After centuries of sterile and prudish art, contemporary works seek to recapture the promiscuousness of the ancient Romans. Photo by Jose Villavicencio/CC by 4.0

All that glitters is not gold

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU at Wynwood, February 23rd 2022

Art is a language with which all the people of the world communicate. From the sprawling classical pieces that depict the heavens to the contemporary exploration of human sexuality, art connects us all. Some of the biggest draws to the most famous cities in the world are their extensive collections of art available for the public’s viewing. These collections take decades of curation in order to be large enough, however. So how does an infant city like Miami make a name for itself on the international stage of art? The answer lies in contemporary art, and the sprawling graffiti of Wynwood. What was once an industrial district littered with textile factories, is now one of the most photographed neighborhoods in the world, as well as home to some contemporary art galleries where Miamians and tourists alike can come together to view the cutting edge of human expression. 

Contemporary art, however, is an especially delicate subject of conversation. Now more than ever, art is accessible to a greater population of humans. Anyone can create a piece that shines a light on the injustices that plague them and their communities, but the stage of contemporary art is more heavily weighted towards those individuals who are more entrenched in the scene. Even Wynwood, a neighborhood heralded for its involvement in contemporary and street art, suffers from gentrification. For every piece that draws attention to the plights of the world’s oppressed communities, there is a family who is forced to move, or a local business that needs to close. Contemporary art is very important, and acts as a boon to any city that decides to host it. We cannot, however, use that as a justification for gentrification and displacement within our impoverished communities.

Key Biscayne as Text

The magnificent view of Bill Baggs State Park and the Atlantic ocean from the top of ‘El Farito’ or the Cape Florida lighthouse. Photo by Jose Villavicencio//CC by 4.0

A natural opulence

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU at Bill Baggs State Park on March 16th, 2022

Off the coast of mainland Florida, nestled in between a chain of barrier islands that were once held together by the tendrils of the mighty mangroves, lies a cradle of life unlike any other in the world. Biscayne Bay is home to countless species of sea life, both plant and animal, and the aquifer beneath sustains the clean drinking water for our great city of Miami. At the mouth of this bay sits Key Biscayne, one of the premier barrier islands that was once untamed, pristine nature. Nowadays, it looks a lot different, but it still serves as a spot for Miamians to go and enjoy the beautiful natural scenery that the bay has to offer. Bill Baggs state park is one of the best examples of this, as it is consistently in the top ten most beautiful beaches in the United States. Some of the natural features boasted by Key Biscayne and its namesake bay are freshwater springs. There are spots in the bay where you can drop a bucket into the ocean and pull out drinkable water! 

Just like the Everglades to the south, Biscayne Bay and Bill Baggs are natural areas that depend heavily on a delicate balance of life. The cycles that maintain these environments are extremely sensitive, and while life is resilient, the ecosystems at stake can only take so much urban development and expansion. Even the very island itself has fallen out of its natural homeostasis. The sand’s structure, which was once effortlessly maintained by an expansive mangrove jungle, now has to be annually replenished by shipments of sand that is imported. Bill Baggs faces similar challenges, as invasive species such as iguanas and mother of millions find comfortable places in the food chain of the area, as they have the ability to outcompete native species. 

Our lecture took us to one of the hiking trails in the park, where we helped remove countless stalks and flowers of these exotic species, and it puts into perspective the true ability they have to disrupt and spread. Still, helping to remove these plants filled me with a sense of inspiration, as if we were fulfilling our human purpose of shepherding life and helping it thrive. Our roles as protectors and propagators of nature should be kept in mind as we sit at a crossroads of ecological crisis. 

Downtown as Text 2

The mouth of the Miami river, it was once home to a large Tequesta settlement. Now lined by sky scrapers, it serves as an artery for Miami commerce and leisure. Photo by Jose Villavicencio//CC by 4.0

Much to learn about everything

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU in Downtown Miami on March 11, 2022

Cities are an unending tapestry of human civilization, teeming with culture, history, and a sense of hope for the future. They represent some of the best qualities that humans possess, as they are a physical embodiment of the cooperation and determination it takes to erect a living, breathing concrete work of art. No more can this be seen than in the downtown area of Miami. Dubbed “the Magic City,” Miami is a special place not just within the United States, but throughout the world. Being able to walk through the streets of the city and learn about the different monumental moments that each led to the city in its current state is nothing short of awe inspiring. Of course, there are some things, like Henry Flagler’s desecration of a massive Tequesta burial mound, that leave a sour taste in one’s mouth, but it is important to to realize that cities like Miami, while a modern marvel by today’s standards, were built on the backs of oppressed and marginalized groups. 

In the same vein, it is important to not only focus on the negative aspects of Miami’s history, we must also give credit where credit is due. The Freedom tower is a perfect example of this. During the mass exodus from Cuba following the revolution, this tower on Biscayne Boulevard was nicknamed “the Ellis Island of the south” as thousands Cuban refugees were received and processed by the US government there. Many of my classmates and peers can trace their family’s arrival to Miami and the United States to the Freedom Tower. 

To me, this represents the duality and nuance one must have when approaching topics such as history. In Miami’s case, you once had the indigenous Tequesta fleeing South Florida and going to Cuba in order to escape cruelty and oppression at the hands of the British. It is incredible to think that some two-hundred years later, Cubans would be fleeing to South Florida from Cuba, not knowing if they had a Tequesta ancestor who was sailing those same seas in search of their humanity.

South Beach as Text II

The legendary Clevelander on Ocean Drive at Dusk. Photo by Jose Villavicencio//CC by 4.0

Beyond what you see

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU at South Beach, April 1st 2022

Close your eyes and picture, if you will, a million of something. Anything. It could be a million dollars, a million people, or a million feathers. It’s not so easy, is it? That’s because it is generally believed that the human mind cannot conceptualize numbers at that scale. Eventually, our frame of reference breaks down when the numbers get too big, and our brains just guess. Now try that same exercise, but instead of a big number try to envision the exact spot you’re in right now, but hundreds of years in the past. If you were in Miami Beach, you would be standing right in the middle of a dense, lush tropical mangrove forest. Serving as a barrier island against hurricanes in the past, Miami Beach now plays the role of a tropical paradise where citizens and tourists alike go to enjoy white sandy beaches, or get a taste of the famous Miami nightlife.

Since South Beach has undergone this radical transformation, development has been the name of the game. In a desperate attempt to shield South Beach’s beautiful art deco neighborhoods from being razed and built over, Barbra Capitman led the charge that would eventually culminate in Art Deco’s preservation. Nowadays, the struggle continues as Miami Modern high rises are slowly yet surely being erected to the north and south of Ocean drive. There is a balance we must achieve that can one day hold historical preservation of our past and further development for the future in a homeostasis, ensuring that neither dominates the other, if we want to help shepherd our great city of Miami towards its full potential.

Coconut Grove as Text

The Plymouth Congregational Church in Coconut Grove. Photo by Jose Villavicencio//CC by 4.0

Planting seeds whose trees you never see fruit.

by Jose Villavicencio of FIU at Coconut Grove, March 30th 2022.

The mighty mangrove jungles of South Florida create a safe, calm environment where all sorts of creatures spend their infant years as they learn how to tackle the dangers of the open ocean. A small cradle of life where they can learn free from the pressures of the wilderness, not unlike Miami’s own Coconut Grove. In the late nineteenth century, Coconut Grove was the only hint of civilization in what would become the city of Miami a few decades later. Comparable then to a sleepy little town in the Florida Keys, Coconut Grove was small, and most of the people that lived there came from the Bahamas. This, of course, should come as no surprise. Spend even one day in Coconut Grove, and it becomes apparent that it exists at a junction from which the whole of Miami is accessible from.

Still, the foundation of our city is now a far cry from what it used to be: a Black, desegregated Caribbean community. Perhaps nowhere is more gentrified than Coconut Grove, where even the historically preserved Conch houses that dot the neighborhoods face the modern threats of development. Once again, the MiMo architecture style looms over the quaint neighborhoods that were once home to the laborers who built this city with their bare hands, dishonoring their memories and essentially erasing them from history. We must ensure that this does not happen.

Author: josevilla12

I am currently a senior studying business analytics at FIU. When I'm not working, you can usually find me cycling at the golf course near my house or meandering through the hardwood hammock trails that dot the corner of suburbia I call home.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: