Rachel Rodriguez: Miami as Text 2022

Rachel Rodriguez is a sophomore at Florida International University. She is majoring in digital journalism with a pre-law certificate. Passionate about media studies, she aims to go to law school to represent cases relating to media and First Amendment rights. When not studying or working, she enjoys singing and listening to music on her vinyl record player.

Deering as Text

Overlook at Cutler Creek Bridge by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“Finding Common Ancestry”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Deering Estate, 6, February 2022.

Growing up in Miami is interesting. As someone who belongs to a group of Cubans whose family moved to Miami to escape Cuba’s communist government, the feeling of displacement is written within our city’s heritage. In a way, it is exhilarating to see how so many different cultures can live together in one area. However, this problem with this displacement is that we tend to focus so much on our own backgrounds that we forget to build something new: a community background. An ancestry that binds citizens together. Despite our eclectic nature, Miami doesn’t have a common ancestry to unite us.

Except that we do – we just chose to neglect it. Embarking on a journey through Deering Estate taught me how much history we have here in South Florida that we have chosen to ignore. Deering Estate is one of the few remaining glimpses of the natural habitat of South Florida, housing eight different environments that showcase the unique ecosystem of the Everglades.

More interesting, however, are the artifacts found at Deering Estate. Long before Spanish colonists discovered South Florida, the now Deering Estate was home to a tribe known as the Tequesta. In a way, the Tequesta were the first settlers of Miami. I walked the Miami Rock Ridge, the same road the Tequesta walked. I found shell tools in their midden that fit perfectly in my hand, and despite the centuries that have passed, these shells still maintained their tool-like quality. Yet, the moment that truly struck me was visiting the Tequesta burial mound.

There’s a macabre knowledge of knowing that were people there when you see a burial site. That there was a history in Miami before the Spanish came, before the Cubans came. I realized that, more than anything, the Tequesta are the real ancestors of Miami. They represent everything that this city stands for: a group of people who live in an eclectic environment.

Yet we choose to ignore our common ancestors. Everything we have in Miami – from Deering Estate to Coconut Grove – came from the Tequesta. And we actively choose to erase them from our history. This may be the reason why we feel so displaced in our own city today: we all come from different backgrounds, yet we chose to close ourselves off from the one background we all share.

I say this as a second-generation Cuban who was born and raised in Miami. I always had this sense of yearning for Cuba – an island significant only to my abuelos who were forced to leave. I have always felt a little bit displaced living here surrounded with so many cultures with backgrounds like mine, but not really unified. After visiting the Deering Estate, however, I realized that at the end of the day, I am a Miamian, who owes her home and livelihood to the Tequesta, the true founders of Miami.

There is a belief that we should respect and honor our ancestors. Even today all of the cultures in Miami are just coexisting with each other – but we have no real unity. Perhaps if we look beyond our family’s culture and look towards the culture that our home holds, maybe we can seek unity through our own shared common ancestry. We just have to choose to want a common ancestry to share.

What is more noble? 

Elcletic community, 

or shared history? 

Perhaps we will not

know how to come together

without a shared past.

What lengths should we take

To discover the truth of

Who we really are?

Vizcaya as Text

The Virgen Mary cut in half by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“A Hedonistic Heritage”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Vizcaya, 6, March 2022.

Traditions define who we are as individuals and mark the principles of a community, no matter how big or small. Vizcaya is no exception as it stands as a beacon of tradition for many residents of Miami, myself included.

Vizcaya holds a special place in my heart as it is the place where I chose to continue a family tradition. It was there that I took my photos to celebrate my Quinces – the Hispanic celebration to debut a young woman entering society. Having the beautiful Mediterranean revival architecture offset with a lush mangrove forest was a magical experience to capture one of the most memorable moments of my life. Being dressed in a lavish ball gown and posing in the same positions and places that my mother and aunt did when their Quinces came was a surreal and happy moment, and it is one that I got to relive when I visited Vizcaya again five years later.

Yes, it was precisely five years until my return to Vizcaya – only this time, it was not to have a luxurious photo shoot. Instead, it was to learn about the history of Miami and how James Deering influenced the city as we know it by touring his home built in 1916, just in time for the roaring 20’s.

Unfortunately, when one is too busy taking photos, there is little time to actually take in the history around you. Thus, when I was able to finally embrace Vizcaya and engage with the house itself, I learned that Vizcaya is not just a place where family traditions live on, but it is also the place that fostered the cultural tradition of Miami as a city.

Unlike his half-brother Charles, James Deering was a Gatsby of his time. He didn’t build Vizcaya as a mansion to house a wife and children – he never had any to begin with. Rather, Vizcaya was made to be a palace of partying and the destination for debauchery! This theme is made very clear with the statue of Bacchus in the back entrance of the estate. Housing the Roman god of wine and pleasure certainly highlights the purposes of Vizcaya, which is to have a good time and how!

With an interior that houses baroque and neoclassical rooms, gardens filled with fountains and lovers’ hideaways, and a barge with a mermaid that needed a breast reduction to avoid scandal, Vizcaya is the picture that goes right next to the word hedonism in the dictionary. But most importantly, it highlights the values that we hold in our city today.

As I mentioned in my reflection at the Deering Estate, we as citizens of Miami do not care about our geographical ancestry as a city. This is really why we are so divided as a community – there isn’t a lot that unifies us as one distinct Miami family. And I believe that by visiting Vizcaya, this sentiment begins to make sense when you realize that James Deering invented the Miami party atmosphere that we continue today.

A lot of the art and splendor that James Deering housed in Vizcaya comes across as a mere point of interest. For instance, why create a Romanesque fountain when you can just buy an authentic one from a village in Italy? This lack of interest in caring and preserving history is what made James so different from Charles, and it is also what got carried on in the ideals of Miami.

“I never look back darling, it distracts me from the now.”

Edna Mode, The Incredibles

Of course, this is to be expected from a house that was built to host parties. But just like the quote above from the movie The Incredibles, perhaps we want to ignore the past in order to live in the present.

This is the cultural tradition of Miami: a hedonistic heritage. Miami is always marketed as the city to go to when you want to have a good time: a tropical climate year-round, filled with beaches and clubs galore! A party paradise that is waiting to be exploited explored!

It saddens me that, as a city, we actively choose to ignore the rich history that surrounds us and defines us more than just a place to party. We are just as historically significant as New York or San Francisco or Boston! But we decided to keep the past in the past and focus on the now with all of its fleeting excitement and grandeur. However, understanding the roots of this sentiment has given me a lot of clarity – that perhaps our unity doesn’t stem from our historical ancestry as a city, but rather our principle to enjoy life and revel in it.

It makes perfect sense doesn’t it? Vizcaya, the cultural birth place of the hedonistic traditions of Miami, is the same place where millions of Quinceaneras take photos to celebrate the biggest party of their lives that kicks off their debut as adults in society. No wonder the tradition lives on!

Downtown as Text

Broken bowl of oranges by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“Coming Full Circle”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at Downtown Miami, 26, March, 2022.

Miami is unlike any city I have ever encountered. Instead of individual little townships that surround the urban downtown area, it is pervasive.

The city itself spreads beyond skyscrapers and bustling streets. Like a mother, she spreads her arms wide as the shining buildings shrink to houses in the suburbs and farms in the outskirts. Welcoming all her children in a smothering embrace of heat and humidity.

It’s no wonder why a sculpture depicting a broken bowl of oranges captures this idea so perfectly. Miami spreads itself far and wide, continuing to grow alongside its people. Thus, in order to understand the cultural and historical ideals of Miami, we must first venture out to where the bowl dropped in the first place: Downtown.

As a Miami native, I don’t really have a need to go downtown often. So, it was a nice change of pace to walk the streets of the city I call home and find landmarks of history out in the open ironically surrounded by the modern innovations of the 21st century. I always thought that the real Miami lies outside of downtown. That downtown is the place that markets my city to vacationers who believe it is just a tropical metropolis.

Oh how wrong I was.

Well, not completely wrong in that sentiment. Miami is marketed as a paradise to travelers, but my ignorance on the matter was made apparent after walking through the city.

In my previous entries, I often lamented on the lack of history we care to preserve in Miami. That we don’t care enough about our geographical ancestry enough to let it breathe amongst our concerns for the innovations of the future. However, I learned that we really don’t ignore our history – it’s sticking out right in front of us like a sore thumb. We just blend it in with our modern ideals.

In other words, we make with our history in the most Miami-way possible: it gets incorporated in our melting pot of a city.

Miami is a city that is full of contradictions and challenges. And it’s especially shown in the way our history pops up here and there amongst the modernity of the age.

Take, for instance, Lummus Park. A regular park within a neighborhood of the city. Walking through crosswalks, sidewalks, and passing the highway, it’s there. Complete with benches, a playground for kids, and – an old cabin with barracks built by slaves?

Yes, Lummus Park is home to two different historical sites. The slave barracks were a failed attempt at establishing a plantation in South Florida. They were later used to create Fort Dallas during the Seminole Wars. The cabin is William Wagner’s house, the first settler of Miami who became the diplomatic representative between the United States government and the Seminoles at the time.

But the history goes on much further than popping up next to highways and buildings. They are the landmarks that pinpoint exactly why and how Miami became what it is today. They also define the history that led to my creation as a person.

Old Miami courthouse by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

The old courthouse, established in 1925, standing mighty and tall. It also contains a statue of Henry Flagler and a plaque remembering the loss of lives due to an ambush in the Seminole Wars. How ironic to remember problematic contributors of injustices at a place that is meant to uphold liberty and justice!

However, passing by the courthouse reminded me of my father. How he took me to court with him to see him in action as a lawyer, pointing out the new courthouse across the street. It’s impressive structure intimidating those who enter.

Reminding me of my current path to pursue law like my father. To uphold justice and fairness. A reflection of my past, present, and future all represented in one old building. The same can be said about the Freedom Tower.

Freedom Tower by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

This tower is where so many Cuban immigrants were processed to become citizens of the United States. My abuela was processed here like so many others.

Most interestingly is how the Freedom Tower is modeled after the Giralda bell tower of the cathedral in Seville, Spain. My abuela stayed in Spain (Madrid specifically) for one year before going to the United States. I wonder if she was reminded of Spain when she came across this tower, all for the sake of freedom. And so the pattern comes full circle when I visit for the first time, the result of her labor and sacrifice.

This is history that I cannot ignore because it defines who I am. And I realized that it is all around me in the city that I call home. It blends in with our modern-day aesthetics. But most importantly, it shapes who we are as a city by nourishing the cycle of history through its residents who experience them. Whether by passing by the buildings or stopping to read the descriptions on plaques honoring these landmarks, it all comes full circle.

Tequesta burial mound by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Of course it all comes full circle, especially when you see a Tequesta burial mound in downtown, paralleling the start of this journey at the Deering Estate.

I started this journey thinking that Miami intentionally ignores its geographical ancestry. But now I know that it is as pervasive as our city as it spreads to everyone in subtle ways. Shaping us as individuals. Defining our past so that we pave the future with this history pushing us forward. Landmarks that stay standing, representing us like a flag of a nation.

We do have a geographical ancestry after all. It’s not as visible or well-maintained as other cities, but it is there. It lives in the blood and spirit of the residents of Miami, constantly moving. Driving us through the cyclical pattern of the past, present, and futures in an eternal chain. A full circle.

South Beach as Text

Art Deco Avalon in South Beach by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

“The Face of Miami”

By Rachel Rodriguez of FIU at South Beach, 10, April 2022.

In my previous blogs, I discussed the nature of the “real” Miami – stripping down the layers of my home city by exploring the Deering Estate, Vizcaya, and Downtown. Exposing the true history that tourists never get to experience when they visit Miami.

But now, it’s time to examine the face of Miami. The image travelers have in mind when they say “hey, let’s go here for spring break.”

The paradise that is South Beach by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Enter, South Beach: one of Miami’s most popular tourist destinations. In fact, the area had a curfew in place a couple weeks ago due to the influx of “spring breakers,” looking for a haven to live for a good time (not a long time), which includes the chance for wrecking havoc.

However, despite local tantrums about vacationers, South Beach sets the precedent for the way Miami is perceived to outsiders, whether we like it or not.

Google “Miami aesthetic” and you will find the following: pinks, purples, sunsets, palm trees, neon lights, and art deco. The majority of which are found in South Beach. In Fact, by the fourth image, a section of Ocean Drive makes an appearance.

Googling “Miami aesthetic by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

While not representative of the true Miami, I do admire the fact that South Beach retains the art deco architecture of Miami. In fact, it is the odd-one-out in being that it stands as a rare moment in the city’s history where someone chose to preserve the cultural identity as opposed to looking for the future.

This is such a unique circumstance for Miami. Charles Deering did the best he could to preserve the South Florida’s natural environment with the Deering Estate. Vizcaya, on the other hand, set the precedent for “living in the moment” as James Deering focused on the roaring part of the 1920’s. Finally, Downtown highlights the blending of history with modernity as a few relics remain standing amongst the marvels of the 21st century.

However, walking along South Beach is like being in a time capsule: the entire area is covered with buildings that are mimo, Mediterranean revival, or art deco. The sense of cultural identity is palpable as the history of these buildings continue to stand tall.

This is why South Beach is important: it is one of the few areas of Miami that retains a fraction of the city’s history. Those buildings stand as a reminder for how our city grew to be what it is today. From intense racial segregation to boats coming from Colombia with cargo ships of cocaine, South Beach is the gem that defines the cultural identity of Miami since it is the only place that truly retains it through historical preservation.

Versace Mansion by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Outside from the buildings, South Beach also fosters Miami’s sense of community. What once was a sleepy little town grew into one of the nation’s most prosperous and cosmopolitan cities. But South Beach continues to define the character of Miami. Sure, the city may be bustling with parties and neon lights, but most importantly, we do not care.

That is to say, we do not care about convention. This is mainly the reason why Italian Giovanni Versace moved down here to begin with. Seeing the laissez-faire attitude that Miami has, especially regarding sexuality, created a paradise on earth for him. Thus, Versace, along with many other celebrities, flocked to South Beach, where Miamians simply did not care about the famous when met with hot, year-round summer heat and an ocean that beckons with crystal-clear waters.

Despite the tragic murder of Versace, his mansion continues to stand as a reminder of this attitude in Miami. In fact, you can say that Miamians truly don’t care about anything, which ties back to the topic of preserving historical ancestry.

Except when it comes to marketing a city for tourism! While South Beach continues to preserve its cultural identity, it truly has become the face of Miami as many tourists from all over the world travel here to marvel at the famous art deco strip of Ocean Drive. To them, this is Miami. Not the Everglades, not Deering Estate, not Vizcaya, not even Downtown – but South Beach is their Miami.

A tourist’s Miami by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Perhaps I should be mad. As a local, it is within my right to scream at tourists “hey, this isn’t the real Miami, it’s just a fraction of the city!” But then I am reminded of my upcoming study abroad to Italy, and I pause.

What are my perceptions of Italy as a traveler? I envision ancient, cobblestone streets, Roman ruins outside of my apartment, WGPP (wine, gelato, pizza, and pasta). I can picture myself sitting in a cafe with an espresso in my hand. During the day, I see myself riding in a vespa, with a scarf billowing in the wind. At night, I imagine riding in a gondola through the waters of Venice.

In other words, I see the face of Italy as opposed to the real Italy. The perceptions and expectations that are marketed to tourists. And I learned through South Beach that maybe these perceptions aren’t so bad if it draws people in so that they can learn about the real Miami I know and love.

The Betsy Orb by Rachel Rodriguez. CC by 4.0.

Sure, I may not love the tourist traps and gift shops that commercialize the local area. But I learned that I shouldn’t be too spiteful seeing as though I have fallen into those traps whenever I travel to a new place.

If the beauty and history of South Beach is what’s needed for people to take the first step to seeing the real Miami, then I welcome it.

To be perfectly honest, this is the first time I’ve actually been to Ocean Drive. I thought I knew about the real Miami, my home. But after going on these adventures through my city, I realized that I had a lot to learn before I could even say I knew Miami. Now, I know what the real Miami is.

By the time this is published, I will have less than a month before I fly into Rome. I start with the face of Italy in my mind. Let’s hope that when I leave, I will have known the real Italy the same way I learned about the real Miami – through adventure and appreciation.

Rachel Rodriguez

Help an opera singer out so that she can enjoy Italy! Any contributions are greatly appreciated, and may earn you a concert in the future 😉 Comprami un espresso. Ci vediamo in Italia!


Author: rachelrenae603

Rachel Rodriguez is a student at Florida International University. She is majoring in digital journalism with a certificate in pre-law. After earning her bachelor's degree, she has aspirations to go to law school. Rachel enjoys singing, reading, cooking, and travelling.

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