Verónica Guzmán Betancourt : Miami as Text

Verónica Guzmán Betancourt is a 19-year-old Junior at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Born in Cali, Colombia, Verónica lived most of her childhood in her home country before moving to South Florida in the fall of 2009. Ever since, she calls the Sunshine State her home. Graduating from high school in 2020, she is now pursuing a double major in Psychology and Natural and Applied Sciences, as well as being part of the Honors College. With these degrees, she plans on furthering her career by attending medical school to become a licensed psychiatrist.

Downtown as Text

All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0

They say that time is the best healing tool; however, many fail to acknowledge that we forget about experiences that are traumatic, so much that our brain removes them from our conscience. How might this be relevant? History. Everything we know, everything that makes us a cohesive race and society comes from history. We take what others have learned and done, applying it to our daily lives without even knowing. If it were not for textual and visual records left, many of the historical events we know about today would be forgotten in existence, like they never even happened. 

World War II was a collection of harsh and weary years that our society endured. What once started as an act of self defense ended in the assassination of innocent people. All for power, to have the upper hand, because being loyal and pure of race was more relevant than basic human rights. One of the most important symbols of the war was the Berlin Wall. Concrete that separated people, that divided a country, even more so the world. This wall represented the discrimination and oppression of people for power, all in the name of progress. 

Why is this wall important today, so many years after the war ended? This piece of the Berlin Wall stands in Miami, the melting pot of cultures. A city that thrives on a diverse and rich civilization. There is no city like Miami anywhere else in the world. A city that rose from the wild, from segregation and female foundations. Today this city is a beacon of hope and inclusivity for many who seek a safe haven. Miami is the home to anyone who needs a one, she will open her arms and take you in. She will provide you with life and warmth, regardless of where you come from. 

The Berlin Wall once stood to break apart, to isolate, to create an us and them. Today, it stands in a city plentiful of everything it once promised to end. Today, people from all over the world walk by it without even realizing what it once meant. Many have no idea that this vital part of our history even stands in our city. Ironically enough, so much time has passed by that it is considered just a graffitied wall, a random piece of art, on the sidewalk by the Miami Dade campus downtown. Time has led us to forget what our ancestors fought for, to give us the privileges we enjoy today. There is history everywhere you look, even if it might seem like there is nothing there. 

Overtown as Text

Windows at the Greater Bethel AME Church in Overtown, Miami. All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0

I have called South Florida my home since 2009 and after so many years one would think that I would know everything there is to know about it. Unfortunately, that is not the case for me. I have lived here for 12 years and I must admit that I still feel like a tourist in Miami. 

It is crazy to think that I have been missing out on the culture and history of the city that I frequent so much. My experience in Overtown was beyond everything I expected. Being able to experience it first hand and learn from the natives was so touching and valuable. The things that I learned are not in any textbook or website out there. These were stories and facts told straight from the source, from people who actually were there seeing it all happen with their own eyes. 

We visited Greater Bethel AME Church and Mount Zion Baptist Church, both locations that witnessed vital and historic events during the Civil Rights movement. I stood in the same places in which people like Martin Luther King Jr. once stood. I saw the impact leaders like him left, both in the people and environment. 

Both of these churches rose from the ground, they were brought up with the intention to solidify and grow a community. A goal that faced adversity in a time of discrimination and intolerance. The building of these churches took years, there was no money to hire a contractor or any company to plan and carry out the construction. Given the fact that it was also in Overtown, no reputable (white) company would get involved in the area. The walls of these churches were brought up by its members, people of the community who donated their time and talents. 

The beautiful stained glass windows found at the Greater Bethel AME Church were done by people that came from out the state, particularly from Texas. These talented artists devoted their time to beautify their place of worship. 

These churches were and are more than just a place to go pray. These places united a community, provided support of every kind to anyone who needed it. These churches were education centers and health service providers, resources the community did not have back in the 1900s. It is heart-warming to see how much Overtown has grown, how it has expanded and withstood the past challenging years. At the same time, the churches have fought against the law to stay afloat. They now stand as landmarks in order to avoid being torn down as new people and companies move into the city trying to modernize the area. 

The legacy and history of Overtown will forever stay in the minds and hearts of people. No matter how much is torn apart or destroyed, you cannot erase history. 

Vizcaya as Text

All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0

Walking into Vizcaya feels as though you are walking into another dimension. Coming in from the busy city of Miami, the serenity and green landscapes of James Deering’s villa will blow your mind. It is astonishing to see such architecture hidden beautifully within nature from the constant gaiety of the city. With construction beginning in 1914, over 100 years ago, the grounds still hold the same magic and breathtaking views that once mesmerized every soul who set foot at Vizcaya. The perfect blend between the characteristic warmth of the city and the blissful, fresh ocean breezes makes Vizcaya something of a paradise on Earth. 

One of the things that captivates the attention of those who visit Vizcaya is the diversity within the estate. There is not a single detail that was not taken into consideration. The intricacy of every room is unmatched. James Deering proudly adorned his property with items personally designed and requested by him. Nowadays many questions still remain as to why certain artworks and items were brought to Miami by Deering. 

This villa has been the epicenter of many important events through the history of the city of Miami. Among the most significant events held at Vizcaya was the meeting in 1987 between President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. A moment in time that signified the coming together of democracy and faith in one of the most distinct places in the country. Miami has always been known to be a city full of life, culture, and diversity. Even so, Vizcaya stands out in a place where everything is already one of a kind.

SoBe as Text

All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0

Miami is one of those places where the more you see, the more mesmerized you are. This time around, my journey in South Beach made me realize how much I take South Florida for granted. Even though I have lived here for over a decade, I must admit that my knowledge of the area is miniscule. There is so much valuable substance right at my fingertips, entire cultures and oceans of history that just sit there waiting for me to come discover it. 

Now that I am a college student, my mind is far more educated and open than I thought. I remember the very first time I visited Ocean Drive was a couple years ago when I was still in high school. It was so captivating, so much so that it left me feeling like a tourist in my own backyard. Growing up in the age of technology, playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was what gave me some sense of what Miami was like, South Beach in particular. Coming from Colombia from such a young age, I did not even understand what Miami was. In my head, the Miami I knew came from video games and movies. That video game was what introduced me to Ocean Drive, to the beaches, and the architecture. Coming to see this, in real life, as an adult gave me nostalgia, without even knowing any of the true history that built the streets I walked upon. 

Walking through Ocean Drive today, even in the times of a pandemic, still has its magic. No matter how many times you pass by, there will always be something you never noticed or knew about. Regardless of the day or time you go visit, the streets are full of life, whether it be the tourists or locals, the beautiful palm trees and ArtDeco buildings with vibrant pastels and neon also bring a fantasy to life. Having the ocean right in front of you as you enjoy a coffee or dinner with your family, is an experience like no other. With something as simple as taking a stroll through, breathing in the atmosphere, as the sun hits your skin, makes you feel like the main character of your own movie. 

Still, it feels as though I have not truly processed the fact that there is no place like South Beach anywhere else in the world, that I walk the streets many dream about. In reality, that is all it is, the distinctive vision of people who were not afraid to stand out in a rigid world. 

Rubell as Text

All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0

Being creative takes an immense amount of courage. Your creativity is innate, it is born with you and shaped as you go about experiencing life. That is the true beauty of art. It does not have to be about what technique you use or what you are doing in your work, the key is in expressing yourself. Your art allows people to see other perspectives, it opens people’s minds to other worlds. Art is like seeing the world in different colors. Art is to the eyes as taste buds are to your mouth. It is everywhere, in the building you drive by every morning, the billboards you see on the streets. 

The Rubell Museum in Miami offers an immersive experience with contemporary art. Their collection is absolutely beautiful, representing cultures and people from all over the world. Every work has a space dedicated to it, respecting the uniqueness of it while providing the recognition it deserves. 

This museum is also home to some of Cajsa von Zeipel’s work. She is a Swedish born sculpturist, mainly using silicone to bring her works to life. The sculptures she makes can be described as “dramatically adorned figures and contorted figures [that] delve into identity, queerness, normativity, and fantasy” (Rubell Museum Cajsa von Zeipel). I understood her display at the Rubell Museum as a criticism of influencer culture and modern sexualization of women. It portrays women in particular, doing the most attention seeking things one could imagine. The clothing itself, full of color and disagreement in theme, shows how eccentric and bizarre the lives of these women are. The sculptures, to me, are a representation of the material world as they include technology and designs from luxury brands, like Louis Vuitton. The use of cute animals and pastel colors brings attention to how these influencers target the most impressionable audience, children. Even though the sculptures are extravagant, they have a charmingness to them, captivating the attention of those who land their eyes upon them.


“Cajsa Von Zeipel.” Rubell Museum, 


All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0

I see Miami as a city of contemporary art, supporting artists from all walks of life as well as giving birth to new ones. Never have I been the person who would willingly go to a museum or see art as anything remotely interesting. The truth is that in the past few weeks I have come to learn that you do not need to be a professional critic or an artist to get involved with art. Art is a form of expression, regardless of the medium.

My visit to UNTITLED, opened my eyes to the way I looked at art. I did not realize that it was not just about paintings. The booth that caught my full attention was the one belonging to Galerie Kornfield, which came all the way from Berlin, Germany. The artist that was featured was Federico Solmi. He is an Italian artist based in Brooklyn, New York. I found his work to be mesmerizing. He merges two different worlds into one. The representative of the gallery present at UNTITLED, explained that his work is first rendered using coding software. It is designed virtually, which takes months to do, then it is all carefully and accurately transferred to a canvas to be painted. The completion of just one of those paintings can take up to a year. The process is lengthy to allow enough time and thought to provide peak creativity and essentially perfect work. One of my favorite aspects of Solmi’s work was the beautiful colors used in the background of his paintings. Everything is perfectly blended, uniting the background and the drawings into one cohesive piece. 

Also featured in my collage, is LOOP by Amy Ellingson from Eli Ridgway Gallery.

Coral Gables as Text

All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0

The one thing about Miami that will never fail to mesmerize its visitors is the architecture. Coral Gables adds a vital touch to the rich and interesting history of the Magic City. 

Throughout our tour and learning experience, the building that caught my attention was City Hall. The building was finished in the late 1920s, built in the style of the Spanish Renaissance.  Inspired by the Mediterranean revival, the common architectural style found throughout the city. As you walk closer, you can see the detail in the stones, the perfect placing, the beautiful carvings. This building works to serve the community, as it provides the residents with their needs. Whether it be for personal or commercial demands, City Hall welcomes anyone who can benefit from its services, even in the times of COVID-19.

In front of City Hall, lives the statue of George Merrick. A man who is credited for the development of Coral Gables as a whole. A man who envisioned a city built with fine style and at the same time exploiting the benefits of urban living. A man who is often judged for his perspective in a time of severe segregation. It is known that this fascinating city was built with the hands of hard-working Bahamians. Many of which had to endure the horrible conditions and consequences of racism in Miami. 

River of Grass as Text

All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0

Even in a world ruled by technology and advancements of all kinds, the Everglades still stand intact. Through many efforts of conservation,  this National Preserve houses some of the most incredible species in the world, some of which are only found here in South Florida.

Coming from the city, I was shocked by how secluded this vast area actually feels.  I had to drive essentially an hour and a half down to Homestead to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. Having been living in South Florida for almost 12 years, I had never found myself visiting the Everglades. I was very surprised to find out that this part of the Everglades is actually home to old army bases where defensive missiles were kept throughout the Cold War. The Everglades supports a massive amount of species and us too. 

This excursion out to the wild allowed me to connect with nature in a way that I had never been able to before. Growing up I thought that I had a good sense of what nature was given the fact that I had grown up in rural areas where farming and farm animals were very common. However, I realized that I was extremely wrong.  

This trip to the Everglades was mind opening,  it was beautiful to see how peaceful it really is out there and how clustered and stressful our lives have become with the extensive use of technology.  Everyday we stray away from nature and everything it has to offer. 

As we ventured out into the wild,  we faced different types of vegetation.  We walked among carpets of tiny, little grasshoppers jumping around.  We walked through puddles of weather rock filled with tadpoles as they were swimming around.  The wind brought us a blissful breeze to counteract the effects of the Florida sun rays on our skin. We came across a snake curled up on the ground, almost undetectable as it camouflaged with the dirt.  We walked among high grass becoming one with nature. 

Wynwood as Text

All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0

Coming from an outside perspective, as a person who is not involved with art in the slightest, Wynwood and Design District really opened up my mind to be more receptive to modern art. Having lived in South Florida for over a decade, I had found myself visiting these places before, but never under the guidance of someone who knew so much about the history of the area. 

The Margulies Collection in Wynwood was my favorite stop throughout our day in Miami. Their Postwar Italian Art collection was absolutely mind blowing. I was truly shocked to see that art is not just paint on a canvas. Modern art has taken so many shapes and forms. The collection had digital art, as well as something that I had never seen before, olfactory art. Ernesto Neto and his “Eo bicho” exhibition left me speechless. It worked on my senses far more than anything visual ever had. Smelling the spices sent me back to my childhood, it brought me to a safe place, full of memories I forgot I had. It is incredible to see how something as simple as smell can trigger so many memories. 

Growing up, one of my biggest interests was Italy and its culture. So much so, that it led me to learn the language and dedicate part of my studies in high school to it. One of my favorite exhibitions at the Margulies Collection was the work by Luciano Fabro. The meaning behind it seems very subjective to me. As I see it, a rock sits on a log with the inscription,  “il giorno mi pesa sulla notte”, meaning something along the lines of “the day weighs upon my night”. This leads me to think that he is reflecting upon his daily actions, that what he does today is what leads him to tomorrow. Perhaps the nights are meant to be reflective, they lead him to think about life and how what he is doing influences his future. 

One of the things I learned on this excursion was presentation vs. representation. Most of the time, with art, people try to convey meaning visually, meaning that you have to interpret what you see. However, modern art has taken another look at it and actually represents what it’s meant to be. A wall is a wall and not a barrier between two worlds. A ladder is a ladder and not a connection between a high and a low.

Key Biscayne as Text

All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0

One of the things that gives Florida its uniqueness is the spectacular scenery anywhere you go. The Sunshine State has nature growing and thriving wherever you look. South Florida is home to some of the most beautiful nature reserves in the country. Key Biscayne is year after year voted one of the best places to vacation and visit. Tourists from all over the world come here to delight themselves under the bright, hot sun. 

The barrier island is home to Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, where the famous Cape Florida Lighthouse is located. The one we see today was not like the original one at all. It faced adversity, being destroyed and rebuilt in 1846. The famous lighthouse guided sailors for many years. It helped boats stay away from the reef that could have caused many accidents if they came too close to shore. Much of the trees and other plants you encounter throughout the park are man-made. You can find some in multiples of three, carefully placed to conserve the environment and enrich the ecosystem.

According to Florida State Parks, “Cape Florida was designated a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Site”. These grounds were a vital point for people who sought refuge. Being so close to the Bahamas, many Native Americans and fugitive slaves were able to flee Florida. There they were able to have much more freedom than they had before, even during times were racism and segregation was in place.

Coconut Grove as Text

All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0

As a Miami in Miami student, I have been able to learn about the extensive history of Miami. There are so many things that I was unaware of, history that I walk upon everyday unknowingly. With this class I have been able to learn about my community and how to give back. 

Coconut Grove has such a rich history everywhere that you look. This neighborhood was established in the late 1800s by Bahamians who made it their permanent residence. The lands that Coconut Grove stands on are older than the City of Miami, lands that were once inhabited by Tequesta and Seminole indians. Much of the origins of Miami as a whole started in Coconut Grove, something that most people do not know.

All photographs taken and edited by Verónica Guzmán Betancourt/CC BY 4.0

On my excursion out there, I encountered so much life and beauty as I walked the streets. Ever since I was young, I loved reading and being able to disconnect from reality, which sometimes can be harsh. Books have provided so much knowledge and culture that I otherwise would not have gotten. The Coconut Grove Branch Library was the only library that I had the chance to visit in all of the excursions we did as a part of Miami in Miami I wanted to take that opportunity to be able to give back some of the magic that books gave me to other children out there. I know that there are many families out there who live from paycheck to paycheck, who might not be able to afford the luxury that books can be. 

As we get older, our interests change. What we once loved suddenly becomes a distant memory. Now, as I’m moving on to a new stage of my life, I decided to let go of some of my childhood but at the same time give the opportunity to somebody else. I took this as a community service act and I donated about a dozen books from my old collection. Those non-fictions that once fed my imagination, will now get the chance to inspire somebody else. 

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