Frank Mediavilla: Miami as Text 2022-2023

Photograph taken by Wanessa Montoril. Rio de Janeiro, 2022

Frank Daniel Mediavilla Ponce is a Sophomore majoring in Computer Science at Florida International University. He is an international student from Manta, Ecuador. He enjoys exploring the city, going cool places and doing fun stuff, so this class was the perfect fit for him! (Also because Honors Study Abroad in Japan was way too expensive for him.)

Photograph taken by me. Miami, 2022

Shohjahon is an Ecuadorian-Brazilian-American frog who loves to go out on adventures with his papi Frank. He’ll be a recurring part of my journey, so be on the lookout for him!

⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐

= Downtown Miami as Text =

“same story, different setting”

The capital of Latin America, The Magic City, I had always heard about Miami and its many names. I had always been told about how great it was, about how it was different from other American cities, about how it may have been founded an American settlement, but was truly built and developed by us, Latinos.

Photograph taken by me, 2022

Admittedly, before our first excursion, I knew little about the history of the city I’ll be spending the next few years in. I knew Florida was a Spanish colony just like home back in the day, and that Miami had been founded over 125 years ago, but that was about it. Of course, I was curious about the history of Miami, but to be honest, I did not expect much in the way of an interesting story.

Turns out, I was wrong.

I am no stranger to Government Center, its imposing station tower, its public art, its rusty bus stop benches. I had been to this place several times before, but never had I strayed too far from the station itself, anyhow, the station itself was not the highlight of the class, so we promptly left and started our excursion.

Seminole, Tequesta, Ponce de Leon, Professor Bailly introduced me to these weird names I was completely unfamiliar with, part of a story, a part of Miami unknown to those who live outside its borders.

As he continued his lecture, we visited some other historical places and learned about their story: Fort Dallas, quarters built by slaves and later repurposed as barracks by the military to fight off the Seminoles, the Wagner cottage, home to a couple who fled because of their forbidden love, and made unlikely friends in the way: the Seminoles.

Soon enough, those names started to make sense to me, as part of a bigger story I was already well acquainted with. I realized Miami’s history was not that different to that of my hometown, thousands of kilometers south: the Manta, the Inca, Francisco Pizarro and the atrocities he committed; same story, different settings.

My city also had an aboriginal tribe of its own, it too witnessed their demise at the hands of the Spanish, it was too built atop the literal ashes of an extinct civilization, and it too continues to have heavy Spanish influence, centuries after its independence.

We continued to walk around the Miami River -or what’s left of it anyways- and we stumbled upon a sign telling the story of Julie Tuttle, the so-called “Mother of Miami.” It didn’t take much walking until we stumbled upon another important figure in the history of modern-day Miami: Henry Flagler.

By this point, Professor Bailly had done a great job at explaining this land’s precolonial history, but now we were going to learn about the origin of Miami as a city. On paper, the founder of Miami was Julia Tuttle, but in practice, was she really? And what about Henry Flagler? What about Ponce de Leon? What about the Seminoles? What about the Tequesta?

Miami  has no mother or father. The Old World did not “discover” or “settle” this land -or this continent, for that matter- either.

Colonization is fueling a civilization through the decimation of another one. This is true both here with the United States and the Seminoles, and back home with the Spanish Empire and the Manta and Inca cultures. This so-called “New World” was built atop the ashed of another one, and that’s nothing to be proud about.

Back in South America, we live the aftermath of colonization on a daily basis: systemic racism, inequality, the slow but certain death of our indigenous cultures.

Back home, I’ve been to the ruins of ancient Inca temples, I’ve walked the roads they built and experienced what’s left of their culture. This class, I feel like we did the exact same, all in under 7 hours. Needless to say, I think this city’s history is far richer than I expected, and I am excited to learn some more.

Stay positive, stay safe. Peace out ✌️ ~ Shohjahon.

⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐

= Overtown As Text =

“divide and conquer

I have always believed there’s strength in unity. Civilization as we know it would not exist if we were in eternal conflict with each other. Collaboration between nations and between their different peoples, the mixture of their ideas and knowledge has given birth to innovation in every field imaginable.

It is part of human nature to collaborate, to create with others.

Unfortunately, so is our desire to destroy, to be selfish and to trample others if that ensures our own progress -or just out of jealousy.

The Overtown we explored in class is but the shadow of a once thriving community. Also known as “Little Broadway,” this neighborhood attracted artists from all over. It certainly helped fuel Miami’s growth, making it a renowned center for the arts. The only problem with Overtown? It was not controlled by the white people who ruled the city.

Segregation had been the rule since the city’s birth, and it only made sense for those in power to keep on enforcing it. Jim Crow meant Miami Beach could benefit from their talent, but they could never truly enjoy the city’s amenities. It was a win-win for those in power, but it soon backfired.

It was segregation that gave birth to Overtown in the first place, and it too was the fuel that made the district become an artistic powerhouse back in the day. For the black people of Miami, Overtown was more than just a set of arbitrary borders. It was a community, their community. In addition to its world-class art venues, it had its own churches, schools, and just about anything else a small city of its own would. In other words, they had turned Overtown into something big.

Perhaps just a little too big for the rulers’ content. So when they had to decide where to effectively raze to make room for the new Interstate Project, Overtown was a no-brainer.

Natural disasters can decimate a community, but they always return more united and stronger than before. But when you divide a community, you weaken them, and ensure they remain that way forever. I am no stranger to this.

To ensure the colonies in the Americas never became too powerful to revolt, to ensure their voices remained silent and . The Spanish empire applied the same measures centuries ago. They divided the Americas into small, weak departments, each with their own interests and challenges, sharing only their loyalty to the crown. And that is how they maintained their grip on them for centuries.

Now that Overtown is split into 4 by the infamous Interstate project, now that its growth has been halted and the voices of its people silenced, now that it’s been devalued, gentrification is looking like it will be the last nail in Overtown’s coffin. “New” developments mean the demolition of historic buildings, and the displacement of the neighborhood’s population. It is truly a shame that a such a rich place, historically and culturally speaking, is being destroyed right in front of our eyes en pleno siglo XXI, and I wholeheartedly hope that they fare better than South America did.

Stay positive, stay safe. Peace out ✌️ ~ Shohjahon.

⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐

= Chicken Key as Text =

more than meets the eye

I’ve spent my entire life in proximity to the ocean. It is my home, and throughout my life I have been to countless beaches all over my home country, as well as some in Panama and Brazil. Admittedly, I have been to few of them in the United States -specifically South Beach and Key Biscayne Beach- but I found them to be one of the, if not the most pristine beaches I had ever been to in my life.

It is only natural for third-world countries to have pollution problems. They have the most corruption, and even if they did have the wealth to develop more eco-friendly infrastructure, their populace would rather have those funds invested into solutions for other, more pressing issues. That is why, aside from witnessing the cleanliness of its beaches and cities myself, I assumed the United States had the situation under control.

What doesn’t stop to fascinate me about islets like this one is the amount of life it harbors. Though it is not too far from the coast, Chicken Key is quite small, and had almost exclusively mangroves as its flora, and yet it managed to have all kinds of wildlife in it. Birds are common in all islands, but giant spiders are certainly not. I have been to the Galapagos Islands, and the diversity of its flora and fauna is unmatched. It has penguins, flamingos, sea lions, lava lizards, giant tortoises, and they are all endemic to the archipelago. Chicken Key is not as extreme, but life’s ability to thrive in places like it is undeniably impressing, and I certainly did not expect anything like it in a metropolis as urbanized and populated as Miami.

Sadly, man-made pollution can make it even to remote locations like Chicken Key. Not even the Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a Natural World Wonder are safe from it. Human settlement in the archipelago contributed to the extinction of several species endemic to its islands, entire species of animals and plants that will simply never be seen again. But it’s not just about humans settling on the islands. Extreme events like tsunamis can often cause trash to wash ashore the archipelago, even though it is a thousand miles from the nearest continent, and even though they are meant to be kept pristine.  

Our impact on this world is undeniable. Our climate is changing, and our seas are rising. If things continue the way they are, beach towns like the one I was born in, and major cities like Miami will all cease to exist in just a matter of decades. The best we can do is doing our part now, because one day it will be too late.

Stay positive, stay safe. Peace out ✌️ ~ Shohjahon.

⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐

= Vizcaya as Text =

“it’s all in the details”

I had been to the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens before. That night, I arrived, took a few pictures, and promptly left. Out of all the different tourist attractions I had been to in Miami, I found it to be the least interesting one – or so I thought before this lecture.

Based on its name, architectural style and presence of a nearby villa, I assumed the place had been built by Spanish colonizers centuries ago. I’ve lived my entire life in a former Spanish colony, so I did not found another remnant of European colonization to be particularly exciting. But then I learned the place was not at all just another Spanish villa. In fact, I learned the place was not even built by Spaniards in the first place.

Turns out, the entire estate had been the brainchild of a wealthy American, James Deering. When it comes to distinguishing between different European art styles, I am not really the most qualified to do so. To me, Vizcaya seemed like a collection of matching European artifacts, all pertaining to the same era and place of origin, so it came as a shocker when professor Bailly told us that was far from the case.

James Deering was a powerful man, whose ego was matched only by his deep pockets. If he wanted something, he bought it; even if the something in question was an ancient Roman relic only those in the highest echelon of Roman society could lay their hands on. His complete disregard for the history and symbolism of the ornaments that decorate his estate is what makes Vizcaya so unique.

His vision of his estate was to make it a European villa, and though it has everything to truly make it one, the fact that the artifacts he purchased have been taking entirely out of context and stripped down of all value but visual, the fact Vizcaya pretends to be what is really not, with artifacts that chronologically and geographically do not belong there; truly the equivalent of the British Museum here in the Americas.

It just impressed me how much the little details, like the fake marble used for the walls, to the artwork Deering split in half just so the pipes of his organ could be easily cleaned, say about his personality, and Miami as a whole; and how this collection of European artifacts mirrors the treasures they stole from the ancient civilizations of South America.

Just like modern day Europe was built with the wealth they stole from the Americas through their incursions, modern day Miami too was built by the elite. Its culture imported from abroad, all the unique elements that make the city being purchased from elsewhere, taken out of context, and incorporated into the identity of Miami.

Vizcaya is the perfect embodiment of this. Of a city that has based its identity on implants, a city where looks are everything and symbolism is irrelevant. Simultaneously a city renowned for its art, and for its lack of depth. For good or bad, this is Miami, this is Vizcaya, it’s all in the little details.

Stay positive, stay safe. Peace out ✌️ ~ Shohjahon.

⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐

= South Beach as Text =

“every good house needs a good façade”

We started the lecture on South Pointe Pier. An artificial structure on an artificial beach that overlooks the artificial neighborhood of South Beach. Annually, millions of tourists walk through this boardwalk, admiring the high rises and vibrant colors of the city, all while hearing the sound of crashing waves on the breakwaters, and feeling the refreshing breeze of the Atlantic in their face. They come in droves to live this unique “Miami Experience,” but few know that it is but a façade, a manufactured lie used to mask the city’s past. A past full of segregation and indifference, a past with consequences that have remained well into the present.

Miami Beach, like most of South America, is a lush tropical paradise. But human settlements in places like these usually come at a cost, and in the case of Miami Beach, it was astronomically high. The pristine white sand that characterizes its beaches is but an implant; a constant resupply of imported sand is required to keep the them from complete eroding away. The city used to be a mangrove forest. These resilient trees provided food and shelter to countless fauna species, while simultaneously keeping the soil in place, something desirable in a place that is often hit by hurricanes and is susceptible to heavy beach erosion. Not only that, but the land had human inhabitants of its own.

But just like the European powers did centuries ago in the Americas, Carl Fisher saw no importance in maintaining the local native ecosystem. Instead, it was under his orders that the mangrove forest that covered Miami Beach was cleared. Not only did he destroy a rare, important ecosystem, but with his settlement also came eviction for those already living there. Since they were not white, Fisher did not hesitate to kick out, and subsequently heavily restrict the presence of, black, Jewish, or indigenous people.

When one thinks of Miami, Ocean Drive is sure to be one of the first places to come to mind. We all picture Miami as this beachside neighborhood of colorful art deco houses. In that regard -creating an identity for Miami- South Beach has truly succeeded. In terms of outwards appearance, it seems like a tropical paradise, with an abundance of flora and a lively nightlife. This pretty vista conceals the challenges SoBe faces, however.

While obviously not lawful anymore, the effects of segregation in the neighborhood continue to this day, and there is little to do once the damage has been done, specially if it happened so long ago. But perhaps the worst challenge SoBe will face in the upcoming decades is its constant battle for survival against the environment. As the world warms and tropical systems become more powerful, erosion due to these storms will become more impactful, and importing sand will stop being an efficient solution one day. Not only that, but rising sea levels also pose an existential threat to the neighborhood.

SoBe’s future is not looking very bright right now, but even then, it uses its neon lights and high rises to trick us, to sell us this image of the perfect neighborhood. That is very Miami.  

Stay positive, stay safe. Peace out ✌️ ~ Shohjahon.

⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐

= Deering Estate as Text =

“the biggest enemy of empire is nature”

Growing up, I had always been told about the importance of biodiversity. Ecuador is certainly not the greatest nation in South America, at least -and especially- not when talking about land area. But despite its small size, the country takes great pride in being one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. In its tiny territory, it manages to squeeze in several ecosystems, host to even more species than all the United States. My point here is, natural preserves in the US had so far failed to impress me; they all paled in comparison to the Galapagos, the Amazon, the Andes, or even the tropical rainforest 20 mins away from my home.

When I think of the US, or any other country in the developed world, I am used to thinking of it as a grey jungle overriding the green one: major metropolises stretching hundreds of kilometers with just some uninteresting patches of green, and perhaps just a few dozen protected, untouched National Parks in between. And to be honest, I did not expect Miami to be any different. I thought any remaining jungle left in the terrestrial limits of the city had been fully razed and developed by now, with no sites of archaeological or environmental interest left.

The Deering Estate was not at all like I expected. When professor Bailly mentioned we were going to walk through 8 different biomes in just a matter of hours AND visit a relatively untouched archaeological site, I was skeptical. Turns out, he really meant it.

It wasn’t like the different biomes he talked about were any different from each other, either. Without him telling the class, I could tell that we had walked into a new biome, since the flora differed so much. We saw mangroves, pine rocklands, hardwood hammocks, and more. I never thought the Miami metro area would have such a large degree of diversity within it, or a burial site that has remained more or less the same for millennia.

The Spanish came to the Americas with a scorched earth policy. They plundered and razed an area before establishing one of their missions. Back home, that is what they did to my city. Neither indigenous settlements, nor nature itself were safe from them, so the city that I live in was built atop the ashes of another one. Save for a national park, the entire land is different now than before the arrival of the Spanish. The past was erased by them.

That was not the case here. Thought the Northern settlers developed almost all of the Miami metro area, the Deering Estate and the lands it protects remain essentially untouched, and they have been for thousands of years. It’s crazy how we could walk into the past, and get a slice of what Florida would have been today had it not been for the empires that destroyed its natural beauty.

I was wrong to assume the US would not have any interesting biomes in it. Thing is, I forgot it used to. Florida used to be this vast, lush tropical paradise. What we have is but a fraction of what used to be. The empire has truly left its mark on nature.

Stay positive, stay safe. Peace out ✌️ ~ Shohjahon.

⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐ ~ ⭐

= Rubell Museum as Text =

1 step forward, 3 steps na

When we think of art, most of us think of Mona Lisa, and other renaissance paintings. Works that were completed centuries ago, works that were meant to highlight the artist’s mastery of the medium, not to have any meaningful contributions towards any conversations, and even for those that did, it is more than likely those messages are irrelevant in our vastly different reality.

Truth is, as impactful as artworks from the Old World were at their time, they hold little to no relevance in today’s world. They do not enable us to navigate a conversation relating to today’s issues, they do not bring anything new to the table, either in terms of technique or criticism about a specific problem. In other words, Old Art has no place in today’s art institutions, because it is, simply put, not ours.

Modern issues require modern trains of thought. A fresh slate of ideas, and historically, it’s been the arts that have helped foster the environment for ideas to be exchanged, conveyed, and disseminated in an impactful way. Literature, music, writing, and the people who make them and travel the world to share them, have always been the driving force of innovation, of change.

I believe we should start looking forward and stop looking back. Rather than being so fixated in the past, why not focus on the art that is being produced as we speak? It is contemporary art that tackles the issues of today. It’s time to stop our obsession with old art and support the art that is truly ours.

Colonialism, of course, has a lot to do with this issue. With the arrival of the Spanish, came the subjugation of the Incan empire and the censure of its culture. For centuries, the Spanish language, traditions, and perhaps most importantly for this article, arts, were preferred over those that were native to the continent. Colonies wanted to look more like the homeland, and less like home of the Incas, basing most aspects of their daily life around the former. Even Peru, which bases most of its tourism industry around its Incan heritage, is said to have wanted to erase it once. But in the end, they embraced the little that remained of the Incas as an essential part of its own. Machu Picchu is just as, if not more impressive than La Sagrada Familia, and by embracing its culture, Peru managed to become one of the most visited countries in the world.

What I want to get to by talking about Peru’s success story is, it is time for us to embrace what is ours. To pay more attention to contemporary art, to give them more exposure, more praise, and stop thinking it is inferior to old art because it requires “less artistic prowess.” I have only been to two contemporary art museums, one in Rio de Janeiro and this one, and it amazed me how they each had artworks that reflected modern and local issues, systemic racism against the indigenous in Brazil, and school shootings in the US, for instance. I hope we can break the stigma that contemporary art could be done by anyone, because making an impactful piece just as much skill as painting the Mona Lisa.

Stay positive, stay safe. Peace out ✌️ ~ Shohjahon.

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