Christopher Carlos Montejo: Miami as Text 2022

All photographs were taken by Christopher Montejo/CC BY 4.0

My name is Christopher Carlos Montejo and I am a second-year honors college student at Florida International University majoring in Philosophy and Computer Science and minoring in Art History and Psychology. My studies focus on the intersection of aesthetics, cognition, and community, and I plan to pursue a career in university professorship and museum education. In my spare time, I host a jazz show at the campus radio station, skateboard, write, and play too many video games.

Deering As Text

All photographs were taken by Christopher Carlos Montejo/CC BY 4.0

Weight

by Christopher Carlos Montejo of FIU at Deering Estate on January 28, 2022.

I hate mosquitos but I hate the feeling of bug spray more, so I went into the swamp trail with just a T-shirt. In the backwoods hike, we walked along a ridge that countless others spanning millennia traveled. I constantly checked my arms to swat away any mosquitos. We arrived by the mangroves, their long fingers drinking from the freshwater, the same the Tequesta drank from centuries ago. In the soil next to it, lied artifacts of tools and meals. Memories tucked below the topsoil. Their laughs and stories still whispers with the wind. We moved on and descended into a solution hole. The pit was created from decaying leaves and rainwater. Animals looking for a drink would be unknowingly trapped and suffer a bitter end. The soil was fertile. Our hike ended at a burial mound. From the buried bodies of the Tequesta people, a sacred tree grew and reached the skies. It was not the largest tree, physically. But its presence bore down on us, we were so small in comparison to its energy that permeated the skin. Its stretching branches carried the weight of the sky and its people. This ecosystem thrives from decay, it is a beautiful circle that is living and breathing. Beneath this soil is history. The Bahamians, Tequesta, they all rest here, unknown to most of the world. Their tools and food came from the earth, and they returned to it. I am participating in a cycle. My body is feeding the mosquitos. Some day my body will feed a tree as well.

Vizcaya as Text

All photographs were taken by Christopher Carlos Montejo/CC BY 4.0

Facade

by Christopher Carlos Montejo of FIU at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens on February 18, 2022.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to Vizcaya. I’ve been during the day, night, alone, on a tour, on a first date, on a last date, even accidentally during a wedding. Yet, each time, I discover something new, some secretive minute detail carved onto the walls. There is no expense spared in Vizcaya, there is an obsessive detail dedicated to every inch of the palace to make it as extravagant and gaudy as possible. It’s excessive, it’s glamorous. But it’s a manufactured contradiction. Miami wasn’t Spanish villas and Roman arches. It was mangroves and swamps. Vizcaya is the whole European world packaged and imported to a continent that does not share that history. A place out of place. But that forced image now represents Miami more than anything else. So much so, that the surrounding neighborhood of Coral Gables used Vizcaya as a thematic blueprint. An old-world colonial village that pushes out the “savages.” You can still see the segregation today. Miami was not only shaped by the image of Vizcaya but its mission. We’ve paved and plugged up every hole with concrete and palm trees, transforming this land into an unrecognizable imitation.

In the front of Vizcaya Gardens, are two giant marble statues. One is of Ponce de León, the conquistador that discovered Florida, and the other is a fictional conquistador, Vizcaya. The ego of the American conquistador, with his fiction, myth, and self-righteousness. Vizcaya tries so hard to be European, but it is so American.

Downtown Miami as Text

All photographs were taken by Christopher Carlos Montejo/CC BY 4.0

Center

by Christopher Carlos Montejo of FIU at Downtown Miami on March 11, 2022.

I’m waiting by a ventanita to get something to eat, leaning against a wooden statue of a Native American chief, the corny and offensive stereotype used to sell cheap tobacco. There’s a blonde woman buying some lottery tickets, she’s asking where the Powerball is at now. There’s a black construction worker moving his head to the reggae over the speakers. A Venezuelan woman is asking if there are any croquetas left. Flys buzz around me as a Dominican man smoking next to me asks for a straw for his Jupina, his hands remind me of my dad’s. I fumble through my wimpy Spanish and pick up a Cuban sandwich. As I skateboard away I take a look at the building adjacent to it. It’s boarded up, falling apart from the seams, I assume covid is the reason it shut down, it even looks like it caught it.

Whenever I tell someone I’m from Miami they think of sports cars and cocaine cowboys. Images and advertisements of the beach, nightclubs, and eternal summer are what come up. In Brickell, there’s a billion-dollar mall project called the City Center, inside it are million-dollar designer brand stores. Surrounding it are billion-dollar skyscrapers that are home to million-dollar condos and its million-dollar people. But what’s on the ground? Displaced working people, who have to make room for the ones that want to live in the sky by the sea. The people I saw by the ventanita.

The center is not malls and ivory towers. This is the real center. But the real Miami is falling apart.

South Beach as Text

All photographs were taken by Christopher Carlos Montejo/CC BY 4.0

Sand

by Christopher Carlos Montejo of FIU at South Beach on April 1, 2022.

The weather is beautiful, I wish I brought something to swim in. From the pier, the water looks crystal clear and you can see all of the diving beachgoers and the sand beneath the water. It never gets old to lay under the shade of a lifeguard tower, in the famous Miami sand so many across the world come to visit. Maybe I could go for a swim and skate by the Art Deco District, I adore the style of the buildings. There’s a pretty good noodle place next to my favorite museum, maybe I’ll pass by it on the way back. Sometimes, even in my most cynical moments, I like South Beach.

As we walk down the pier, the professor tells us the history of what came to be South Beach. The shores were lined with mangroves that protected the land and its people, who formed a community near the water. But once the mangroves were chopped up by an influx of railroad barons, the community and its land were cut into pieces. He tells me that the reason you don’t see any plants below the water is that nothing can grow anymore. With the mangroves gone, the land slowly returns to the ocean, taking everything with it. Therefore, sand has to be imported from the Bahamas every year to keep Miami from sinking. Because of some rich and powerful men, Miami, both in land and identity, is washing away from the shore. Yeah, that sounds like the Miami I’ve come to learn.

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