Rafael Vasquez: Miami as Text 2022-2023

Florida Key Largo Newport

As in the words of Marcus Aurelius Roman Emperor and stoic Philosopher “A man(person) is a measure of all things”. I am Rafael Vasquez, a current student at FIU, an educator working as a substitute teacher, and most importantly a human seeking to further understand and help make the world a better place. As a student FIU, my aim is to be a therapist and educator, which I believe are one of the same. In one field you’re teaching and helping others with personal challenges, and in education your sharing knowledge and planting seeds for the leaders of tomorrow.

My aim in this site is to share with you my insights, experience, and reflections on key points throughout the city of Miami. Covering areas such as history, social issues, philosophy, and culture. I hope to guide you through my experience in exploring the history and story of Miami. As a native to south Florida I was born a raised in Miami as the son of two hard working immigrant parents. As well as being raised by my cuban grandfather, who although not blood related was an important leadership and paternal figure growing up. I am privilege to say that although I’m neither fully Colombian or Cuban, the two cultures are woven into my person as an inseparable part of who I am. Giving me two different lenses when understanding the world around me.

I believe the world is looked through the lens of your life experiences, faith, and thoughts. That being said as objective as I like to be, my life experiences and beliefs will be reflected in these papers. As I shine light on current issues, and look back on history certain judgements and critiques will be made. However the essence of this is not to convince you to think like me, but to open a conversation and give you something to reflect and ponder upon.

Historic Miami as Text

Whom we Remember

Miami Fl, Brickell Avenue Bridge

History is a series of past events connected to the present day. Molding and shaping a societies beliefs, values, and identity. Although Miami’s history has a unique story with many layers, I want to magnify attention on the history and current legacy of the Seminole wars. Along with its direct relation to the foundation of the bustling port city we call Miami.

The Seminole wars consisted of 3 separate wars spanning from 1816 to 1858, in which that main goal was for the U.S. government to take the state of Florida and as direct by product dislodge the native people. History is often riddled with solemn examples of the “dominant” culture taking advantage and conquering the indigenous populations. In this regard the US was not unique or different to its European counterparts. However, the way in which they conducted the war including the genocide and the annihilation of an existing culture cannot be ignored when looking at the foundations of the US and the state of Florida. 

A key event that happen during the 2nd Seminole war, was the killing of Major Francis Dade in the form of a coordinated ambush by Seminole and African American forces. Before I proceed, it’s important to note that at this point in history the US had purchased Florida from Spain during the 1st Seminole war, and brought slavery and genocide along with them. Beforehand the Seminoles and African populations were on good terms with the Spaniards and were treated with a mutual respect. The Spanish set up missions, with the goal to convert the natives to catholicism and have peaceful relationships. It’s also important to note that by this time slavery was outlawed in Spain, so African Americans slaves would often go down to Florida to seek shelter in Spanish territory. However with Spain selling the land to the US, both Seminoles and African Americans faced a hostile invader in their once peaceful existance. So they banded together in their efforts of maintaining their freedom and way of life.  

The ambush consisted of the Seminole and African forces trying to stop the US advance into their native soil. Major Francis Dade was assigned to forcefully relocate the natives west, leading two armies into their land. Major Dade was killed within the first moments of the battle proceeded by the complete victory of the Seminole and African warriors leaving only 3 US soldiers alive of the original 110. This marked the first battle of the 2nd seminole war, and although the natives won this battle history would see them massacred and reduced to small pockets of survivors in the years that folowed.

The event I just described is currently remembered as the Dade Massacre. A massacre is an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people, which in many regards yes, this event was. However, the Seminole wars were a complete and total massacre of a native people by the US government. History, is written by the victors and objectivity and truth is as a byproduct distorted in the process. Currently, the state of Florida chooses to honor the life of Major Francis dade through naming Miami Dade County after him, as well as having a grand bronze plaque in front of the downtown courthouse. Making him a martyr in what seems to be a romantic narrative of the sacrifices made to establish the state of Florida.

The horrors of a past genocide, are not only remembered but put up on display and celebrated as a part of our culture. What true remorse is shown to the current Seminole people and African Americans in our state and country, when our very courthouse plaque, contains racial slurs that feed into stereotypes. As a country that prides itself in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness I feel that we often forget whom exactly this applies too. When the very institutions of law and order celebrate the time in history where we supported slavery and killed the native population. I asked myself what type of message does this send the minorities walking through the grand doors of the courthouse.

As a first generation American, my roots are Colombian and Im from a hispanic culture which is prevalent in our community here in Miami but a minority non the less. What does this message send to us as well. I pondered on the words of Martin Luther King “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, the degrading language, our dark and lamentable history of slavery, segregation, and genocide how can I not feel the pain that African Americans and Seminole people feel today when reflecting on the past. A past that is directly tied to laws and policies today. A past that still grips the very foundations of out cities names and landscape. How can we ever fully let go, how can the past ever be remedied if such prevalent reminders are still in effect in the most public and important building of our city.

2022 Plaque in Downtown Miami Courthouse

This I believe is a disrespect, by the same standards countries and states would celebrate the actions of past dictators and their genocides. Reopening the scar of racism, oppression, and tyranny. In fact, many modern states do the very thing, such as china, Russia, and North Korea which many western states openly condemn. 

I pose the question are we not any different than the Chinese government who cover up and whitewash the history of Tiananmen square, Russia masking their invasion of Ukraine as a liberation, or even the Nazi regime that labeled they were making the master race. By these standards putting up a statue of a KKK leader would be acceptable, so long as he played a role in establishing a part of the country. It’s my belief than when such fundamental truths are covered up or whitewashed in a society, we not only ignore the mistakes of the past but are bound to repeat them. 

My belief is not that we forget history, nor that we try to change what happened. But to openly acknowledge our mistakes and short comings of the past. This event occurred 187 years ago, and in fact the United States government loss a great amount of soldiers that day. However the context in which it occurred was a moment in history where the US government was in the wrong and the aggressor. So why should we choose to celebrate and bring into the current day leaders and figures that didn’t help create a better world but are in fact part of our countries shameful past. To the very least naming counties and having bronze plaques on courthouses to celebrate and remember their lives are not part of the solution if we are to move forward together.

Faith and Freedom

In talking about the church, I believe we must first define what it means. Now this is a tricky task because a Church goes beyond a physical building, it’s very much the product of the people within it. Throughout history churches and religion has been often a subject that stirs mixed feelings of faith and apathy, truth and lies, acceptance and judgement, as well as charity and theft. I answer this in that as humans we have manipulated faith to be used for power and control using hypocrisy. Taking something that in essence is meant for good and turning it against the very people it’s meant to help. 

Depending on your experience growing up, within your family, and your personal beliefs there is an emotion that comes to your very soul upon hearing the word. However, my goal today is not to convince you about Christianity, whether there is or isn’t a God, or if you should attend a religious institution. The goal is to talk about the essence of the church and its role within a community. In the truest sense why should there be a church within a community to begin with. Our connection will then be with historic over town and the church’s role in an African American community.

Such a place I believe reflected the truest mission and purpose of a church is in current day historic over town. Referred to as little Broadway, in the 1930s it was the center for performances by renowned artists such as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald. All along the avenue world renowned artists, would perform after shows. Breaking the chains of formality and mannerisms little Broadway was a haven where their raw artistic expression was unchained. Unbothered by segregation laws that governed the theaters they performed in, they found a place that welcomed them and gave them hospitality

Historic Lyric theater- By Rafael Vasquez

A soft golden glow lined the streets, as the grand arch of the lyric theater saw lines of eager people black and white waiting to get a spot inside. The trumpet opens with a deep strong sound, a voice of strength expressing the sentiment of a community. The band plays on, getting looser and looser the expectation, the judgement melting away. As the base keeps anchor, the drums remind you of the chains that were beginning to break, break away judgement and oppression.  Observers would tell you that it was like going to mass, the community heard the message and danced to the rhythm. Looser now the there is no form or style that can be labeled upon it, lyrics are mismatched, styles are fused, it soulful, its Jazz.

Little Broadway soon became a place for businesses and black entrepreneurs to venture into. The streets rumbled with bustle, children going to schools, venues preparing for the night wave, and diners filled for the lunch break. In the center of this community was Mr. Dorsey, having made millions in real estate, he rented out properties in the community of over town and managed the first black owned hotel, with his tall white house overlooking the property. Mr Dorsey along with the over town community helped donate the money and time to build the greater bethel church. 

In the middle of the success and bustle, the greater bethel church was the base keeping the community together. Young and old, poor and wealthy all lined up inside on Sunday mornings. As the radiant glow of candy red and sky-blue panes filtered in the light, the choir the very foundations of the room. All together the preacher and members clapped their hands and moved to the rhythm, the piano played on as Reverend Franklin Ball went up to the pulpit and to address the community. The church was a place for both spiritual messages as well as social ones, addressing the current issues of the day, teaching the community to have faith to get through the hardship and oppression that was faced daily.

The church is a release valve, the true expression and needs of the community. The racism, oppression, and tyranny faced by African American’s was insurmountable, however they were neither flagged nor failed and Christianity giving them the strength to keep going. In the face of the harsh reality just like Moses escaping the pharaohs grip and leading towards the promise land. The role of the reverend is the same, to lead the people through the desert, with the gospel and community by his side. The church naturally became a center for the civil rights movement, becoming a place to rally and organize events, and fight back. Leaders of the movement such as Malcom X, and Reverend Martin Luther King were invited across these churches to deliver messages of hope and organize sit ins, protests, and walks. Not all speakers invited to the churches were “Christian”, such as Malcom X who was a Muslim and many others who were atheist or identifies with different faiths would often speak. 

Greater Bethel Church- By Rafael Vasquez

The aim was not religion, but transformation. All religious differences seemed to have melted away, and the African American people worked collectively to reach their aim. On February 12th, 1958, at the greater bethel church Rev Martin Luther King delivered a speech beginning his campaign in the south. Speaking for the SCLC campaign, he advocated for voter rights and registration. He addressed the community on the hardships that African American’s have faced in obtaining the right to vote, and the how now is the time to keep pushing and head to the poles. This campaign was a concentrated effort to double the number of black voters in the south, given the fear and suppression faced many African Americans who were fearful to go out to vote. 

Greater Bethel Church – By Rafael Vasquez

Over town was a pivotal city, where the marginalized African American community was able to not only thrive but organize civil rights movements. The fact that Martin Luther King, and many famous artists passed by the town, shows testament to its prosperity and growth from its humble beginnings. However, in the 1960s, the community would be faced with a direct attack, that has shaken the very foundations of the city till this day. As America strives for “progress”, a country wide objective was made to connect the country via a highway system. Miami Being the major city, was no exception to this change. However, the city that was chosen to construct the highway over was none other than over town. 

The once prosperous and close-knit community was displaced, and forcefully evicted. Thousands of people watched immobilized as their homes were torn down, replaced with grey concrete. The colorful houses, were now concrete graves of a time that once was. Right next to the entrance of the highway was mount Zion Baptist church facing the bulldozer, as the developers gave the pastor the option of having his house that was right next to church destroyed or the church itself. And although Mt Zion is currently still standing tall, a vast majority of its members were relocated and hour away to Liberty City. As earlier mentioned, what is a church but if not, the people that make it up? I ask myself as I ponder upon this history, why, why is it that they had to choose over town and specifically where a church was to build the highway. 

As I stood there surveying the scene, I listened to my professor explain these events, however I was transported back in time. I felt the pain of the people of over town, the struggle of all the African Americans who have been here. The streets where children would ride their bikes, colorful homes lining the streets, Mr. Dorsey house that was 2 blocks away from the church, now overlooking a giant monster of noise and concrete. My chest burned and my eyes redden as I watched this, I couldn’t help but think of the pastor giving up his home so that the church could stay. Is that not true love and charity, giving up your home for the community and people you love. 

For what is faith but the belief in the uncertain, the strength to keep going, pushing on no matter how hard the road may be. In seeing the churches of over town, I saw such faith. The greater bethel church in the recent year has also faced new challenges, such as the gentrification of over town. Where schools and houses used to stand a mighty apartment complex was built, in front of the 3-story church. As well as threats form the city to tear down the historic structure under the pretense that its unsafe. However, I believe in the people of over town, people such as Wendell who guided us through the church. His pants covered in paint and sweating from working to renovate the building that has helped so many, he took time out of his day to share their story. A community funded church from its origins to current day, supported by their members and their contributions. I believe that the goliath of development and gentrification will not see these people and church displaced, as I hope it will stand as a testament of all that has been endured and the strength of the community that is over town. 

Author: Rafael Vasquez

Rafael vasquez, I'm a current Senior at Florida International University majoring in Psychology. I seek to explore the cultural, social, and political roots that influence the current city of Miami. Looking beneath the surface I seek to bring to light the stories, of the people and culture that have shaped this modern day metropolis. Being born and raised in Miami there is much history and culture I wasn't aware was an integral part of my city. My aim is for you to follow me along this journey of discovery as I share with you my experience in learning about the authentic and real part of Miami. My stories will cover a range from philosophy, psychology,and history that combines all my fovorite academic disciplines into the art of education and story telling.

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