Mariano Mendez: Miami as Text 2022-2023

Mariano S. Mendez Perez is a junior majoring in Biological Sciences at FIU’s Honors College. Cuban-born and raised, he strives to achieve excellence and bypass the standard set by communist regimes now in the land of the free. His ultimate goal is to help others’ oral health by becoming a doctor in dental sciences. As a passionate tourist, he looks forward to exploring and creating memorable experiences. His hobbies include practicing martial arts, exercising, and playing video games.

Downtown Miami as Text

“Lands of riches” by Mariano S. Mendez Perez of FIU in Downtown Miami on September 7, 2022

All photos taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

As time progresses, it is human nature to slowly lose interest, and perhaps forget, about the upbringings of the land they step on. However, in most cases, the very soil that one takes for granted is filled with major cultural and historical events worth knowing. Downtown Miami is internationally recognized for its impressive skyscrapers and coastal infrastructure, yet most never get to know the historical artifacts laid around, or beneath. Hidden, yet present within your surrounding. As the city keeps evolving into an ever-growing Metropolis, it is important to revisit its past and gather its fruitful antiquity to feel connected and appreciate the beauty of it all.

Ever since immigrating from Cuba, I have always resided in Miami. Downtown has always been a special place for me, the atmosphere and views are something amazing to be a part of. However, I never once thought about how Miami came to be, and the history that led to today. The timestamp ranging from the Tequestas to the Spaniards, to the British, and so on is interesting. As I explored the culture and buildings with my classmates, I realized how much I was missing from what makes Miami what it is today.

The Tequestas thrived for around 2000 years before colonialism ultimately took over. They used shells and shark teeth to make powerful hammers and knives, among other things such as cups or horns. These helped them hunt for food, gather water, or even communicate. Having coasts all along your land made it easy for them to hunt fish from the ocean and rivers. All of this was essentially ruined by the arrival of Spaniards, or specifically, a man named “Ponce De Leon” and his crew, in 1513. The old native tribes were easily outgunned and out armored by them and over time would be affected by battles among other things like disease and enslavement. Some of the Tequesta remains were found in what is now known as the Tequestan Circle in Downtown.

Another powerful landmark is the William Wagner and Eveline Aimar house. This is now the oldest house structure in the city of Miami, and one which contains a broad past. They were a mixed couple in a time when segregation was dangerous and still used. When they had children, because of their dark-colored skin, they were also harshly discriminated in their upbringing. Mrs. Wager came upon a group of Seminoles at the end of the Seminole wars, it being a dangerous altercation, he used his ingenuity to invite them for a meal, which they accepted. It is said that the group of Seminoles, and the racially mixed couple, dinned in their humble little house. The property still stands, but it has been heavily renovated because of Florida’s challenging weather.

To conclude, this class exploration of Downtown Miami has made me more aware of the extensive history it has. It seems like the lands of Miami are full of rich antiquity, from the Tequesta people to the colonization ages, to today, learning it makes you appreciate your surroundings and actually feel a sense of connection to those times. It is beautiful how Miami has evolved to be a city of broad cultural beliefs and practices, all living and coexisting with one another.

Overtown as text

“A troubled and submerged town” by Mariano Mendez Perez of FIU in Overtown Miami on September 21, 2022

All photos taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

Is hard to imagine a place of such cultural importance be destroyed for business. Yet this exact thing has happened not only in Miami, but in other cities that grow exponentially, they often break important monuments of history. As population grows, so do construction sites for buildings, roads, and others. For many individuals, it is devastating to see the place you grew up on be destroyed for greed. Unfortunately, the people in Overtown have been seeing this reality unfold, many have had to leave their houses, and their neighbors.

As my class dove into what was known as a thriving-colored town, filled with life and joy, I had flashbacks of my home country. Very quickly I realized how similar the situation was for both Overtown and Cuba. Essentially, families had to flee to other places as new rules were set, and land was taken. My class got the chance of visiting what is left of Overtown, much of what was there was replaced with new buildings, roads like the I-95, or simply were bought out and destroyed.

One of the most impactful parts of the journey in Overtown was visiting the Greater Bethel. This Church is the oldest Black Church in the city of Miami, and it is still standing and in good shape. Founded in 1896, this sacred place was where many important events took place, like the speech Martin Luther King gave in 1958, amongst others. There, we met with a wonderful lady named Alberta Godfrey, she was kind enough to gives us the background of the church and the struggles it has gone through in order to stay open. From the hurricane in 1926, to the imposing demands from the city targeting organizations like the church, to the very people who made the church and congregation being displaced and torn apart, it is truly marvelous how it is still open. She reflected how important this church was for her and others, how the crowds were so big every time they gathered back in the day, that often people came hours early to secure a sit, and others simply just stood. However, she also said the church is struggling as of today since many members live too far to make it, also it was mentioned the people enrolled in the church has been steadily declining through the years because the younger generation don’t often go to church anymore. The story behind this house of prayer was truly inspiring, showing resilience to stay open and a great cultural background.

Unlike the Greater Bethel church, the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist church didn’t have the same luck with how well it stayed open. Also being founded in 1896, the church was a major development in Overtown. As of today, the church sits right next to the I-95 that destroyed the neighborhood. As the city of Miami grew, they gave two options to Mount Zion’s priest, he either had to destroy his house built next to the church, or the church itself. Obviously, his house was picked, and now the road built over it disrupts the peace a church often has, with cars being heard from inside the building. This is probably the most significant, and devastating example that could be given to how destructive the growth of Miami has been to Overtown.

As sad as this might all seem, it unfortunately cannot be undone. All through the history of the world, many errors have been made, most having a long-lasting effect on both the people and the places. Alas, the United States of America has dealt with a dark past of segregation and discrimination, and Overtown is one example. All one can do now is broadcast this story to the public and recognize the faults and the solutions.

Chicken Key as Text

“The cleansing of nature” by Mariano Mendez Perez of FIU in Chicken Key on October 5, 2022

All photos taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

Apart from the great views, it is known how islands typically have broad biodiversity. As the land is bordered by water, the different types of animals and plants that grow there are increased compared to other lands. However, it is also known how remote islands tend to gather huge amounts of trash every year. Human contamination is well known and less acted upon, the amounts of plastic that end up in the oceans are detrimental to fish and others, and even worse, it ends up harming us in the end! As fish eat up this plastic, the levels of mercury increase, which in turn end up in our diet. This is one of the many reasons why we should clean the environment, if everyone put in a bit of effort, the change would be exponential!

The beautiful island of Chicken Key is a clear example of how we are harming Earth. Being in the Caribbean, East of Southern Florida, it is a magnet of trash. Every year, the ocean tides conclude in Chicken Key’s sand, therefore all debris lingering around in the ocean due to hurricanes and simple human ignorance pollute its shores; the number of plastics there is incredibly sad. As our class gathered to go clean up the shores, I, among my classmates, where highly excited to help biodiversity thrive! The lengthy kayaking to get there, and seeing nature firsthand was an interesting experience.

As we settled our kayaks and canoes on the island, we started seeing signs that Chicken Key was going to be full of debris. Hurricane Ian didn’t help matters, as it devastated parts of Florida just a week before. As we got to work, I started seeing how beautiful nature there really was. A broad ecosystem, filled with mangroves, sea grass, and other types of plants among animals such as hermit crabs, birds, spiders, etc. On the other hand, as we started heading inward, we were stunned to see the number of plastic containers, caps, shoes, and even metal debris. As a nature lover, it was truly heartbreaking seeing everything firsthand.

In the end, we were able to clean up huge amounts of trash and help out the wildlife there. Professor Baily explained how in all his years of cleaning Chicken Key, he had never collected as much garbage as our class did that day. As humankind progresses, it is easy to forget how polluted we have made the ocean; if individuals cleaned an island like Chicken Key from time to time, they would be surprised by how rewarding of a feeling it is. Detoxing a beautiful island was a fulfilling experience, if everyone put an effort into helping clean the environment, Earth would be a better, cleaner place.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens as a Text

“Forgotten relics and antiques in Miami” by Mariano Mendez of FIU at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

All photos taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

Throughout the world, there are many places that one could regard as an overlooked gems of the past, often forgotten and only visited by those curious enough to be interested. Humans have achieved architectural wonders as time has passed, some destroyed for any given circumstances, and others maintained and still up strong. One such example is right here, at the doorstep of Miamians, in Vizcaya.

The mansion of James Deering, today known as “Vizcaya Museums and gardens”, was a luxurious masterpiece of its time. Allocated strategically on the South Coast of Florida, it has some of the most extravagant items and views in any place in Miami. The owner, a businessman of high class, is known for an agricultural machinery family company. He had dreams of leaving the cold and moving down South to a warmer area where he could build a house suited for his big ambitions. He indeed ended up bringing his ideas to reality when started and finished his house. Right at the entrance, it is clear how he wanted to make a house of art, not only to show off his ideas, but his money to anyone who visited him at the time. The downward trail, with numerous fountains by the side focused straight on his beloved villa. It was said that anyone walking down that trail could smell the fresh scent of the ocean. Unfortunately, due to renovations, this very big feature was removed when air conditioners were placed and so they had to put glass, essentially blocking the smell. As one entered the house, one was met with an abundant show of statues and paintings. Mr. Deering had a love for European-style decorations, and so he based his tiles, furniture, and overall features around that. One of the features which mostly impacted and caught my attention was how in his office, James has a mini library of books, which were all cut in half, as the door to the other room was too big for the full books to be placed. This decision was only to impress spectators who scrolled on by his house, it served no other purpose than that.

Additionally, to many of its features, its garden and coastal views were beautiful. It seemed that this house was the embodiment of spring season, a warm, subtropical paradise. James Deering achieved a masterpiece when he decided to construct such a building. The place has so much art, and thought put into it that it became a museum, as of today. It will most likely continue to be a tourist attraction, for those who seek to explore a house of bliss.

Miami Beach as Text

“Island meets modernity” by Mariano S. Mendez Perez of FIU at South Beach on November 2, 2022

All photos taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

It seems like a common trend for human urbanization to grow and expand at the expense of environmental life. Whilst we continue to innovate as a society, it is often that nature is harmed and left in despair. However, it is not all bad, as constructions and developments happen, it allows us to enjoy a modernized place, with an uninterrupted breeze, like Ocean Drive. Truly a beautiful place with extensive history and culture.

What some might consider a fun, tropical, tourism magnet, is all thanks to a man named “Carl Fisher” who emerged with an idea of creating a small city on what was known to be a biodiverse island. Some deem his action inconsiderate, as the land had a rich habitat, and also because discrimination soon followed Miami’s beaches as developments of his ideas progressed, mainly because he, the protagonist of this move, was supposedly racist himself. As the city grew, Blacks and Jews were soon restricted from many of the areas of Miami Beach, quite ironic, as it was found African-Americans and Seminoles resided there, long before any of this happened. However, it is hard to not recognize the creations that led to the wonderful city of Miami Beach, as of today.

Subsiding from the darkness which occurred during the upbringings of Ocean Drive, the amount of culture in one small place is truly amazing. After the establishment of the city, many designers took the role of building structures which resembled machines, very symmetrical, with sharp lines and curved edges. They also took inspiration from European buildings with Mesopotamian and Mesoamerican designs. All these constructions constitute to what is known today as the Art Deco, a preserved number of buildings with astute detail and beauty.

The mixture of modern and old infrastructures side by side to the beach is what attracts an immense number of tourists every year to Miami Beach. Once rich with wildlife, now a booming city. It seems to stand true, how bad always seems to balance out with good, in the end.

Deering Estate as Text

“The beauty in preserving nature” by Mariano S. Mendez Perez of FIU at Deering Estate, November 16, 2022

As unusual as it is, some organizations step up to keep something as it was instead of replacing it with new ideas. Now, I am no hardcore environmentalist, but I appreciate when things such as nature are nurtured, when they are kept genuine and pure. As my class strolled down the preserved wilderness of Deering Estate, I felt like I got close to the roots of the real Miami, I experienced a sense of serenity, like never before.

Photo taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

Is hard to put into words how beautiful the scenery was, from the diversified fauna, to the butterflies, and the clearest pond of water I have ever encountered, there is no better place to experience Miami’s nature than in the Deering Estate Preserves. The walk throughout the land was a little difficult, and some might say a bit “dangerous” as well, but that only adds excitement to the adventure. Dodging holes several feet deep, and poisonous plants was nothing but a small inconvenience, as long as you pay attention to your surroundings, everything should be fine.

Photos taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

Our class was lucky enough to encounter multiple butterflies which are considered to be an endangered species worldwide. Native to Florida, the Atala butterfly is a mostly black type of butterfly which was thought to have gone extinct, until it was spotted again here in our own land. This creature adds a touch of uniqueness to the already stunning place. They are closely monitored, and I, for one hope they continue to thrive here as butterflies are gorgeous animals.

Photo taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

Charles Deering’s achievements were plenty, but the creation of an estate in the middle of Miami’s nature was a marvelous idea, and one which will be appreciated much more than his other accolades by locals like me. I never once thought I would be able to experience nature firsthand in Miami, as it is mostly known for its city rather than its land.

A second marvelous idea was converting his estate into a natural preserve. I encourage everyone to step out of their comfort zone and explore the beauties nature offers. It is life-changing and an experience, for sure.

Untitled as Text

“Artistic forms” by Mariano S. Mendez Perez of FIU in Downtown Miami on November 30, 2022

As some of us might know, art can be variable, everchanging, and certainly powerful pieces of work. It is often artists are underappreciated for their way of expressing themselves, this can be for many reasons, but the simplest is because individuals regularly think anyone can draw what an artist drew. For this reason, as I was walking through the expositions of particular works, I was fast to pick up how important it is to have a story behind paintings. If they have a descriptive analog behind the drawing, it leads to a more meaningful piece of art.

Photo taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

As I continued to roam through the Miami Art Week establishment, it was interesting how abstract some paintings can be, often using what seemed to be random patterns and styles, colors and shapes. Though this was my initial thought, an artist named Natalie Kates explained how this might seem to be true at first sight, however, they often have deep meanings, sometimes portraying dark stories or charismatic enlightening events. An example of how drastic forms of art can be was her own colleague showed us his book published a while back. This book was certainly the epitome of color, with every page being extremely vibrant, completely in contrast with other works shown, like the nylon structure of an artist named Turiya Magadlela, which definitely was the complete antagonist to the previously mentioned work. Her art portrayed the inequality of women around the world, definitely a dark background with much context.

Photo taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

Another work, which I found the most pleasant and utterly addictive to watch was the dolphin captured in dark oil dripping down. I was told most people get absolutely mesmerized by this piece of art, with one lady who stood there for hours staring at it. This work was also part of the change in my view of regular art. It was a very genuine and unique thought, at first leaving me confused on how the system worked. Its purpose, to show a contrast of light and never-ending darkness, much of like today’s world.

Definitely eye-opening, art seems to be completely unorthodox to me, not what I expected. I say this because I personally have always like to draw, however, much more traditional drawings like a person or a figure. I got my inspiration in art from my dad, who was an architect and showed me his prolific paintings of extremely symmetrical buildings. The show was a wonderful experience, a normie like me definitely got a whole new altering perspective in art as of today.

My Miami Final Reflections as Text

Photos taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

“Seeking Miami’s Ultimate adventures” by Mariano Mendez Perez

As some might say, one must try and live life to the fullest. As I entered FIU’s Honors program and look for a class to meet my honors prerequisites, I never thought I would have chosen a better class to begin my FIU experience. Since coming from a whole other institution, I was worried the more “advanced classes” would result challenging and somewhat uninteresting, to be honest. This “Miami in Miami” class blew any other I have taken out of the water. After enrolling, I thought this would be a regular class, yet I had it completely backwards. Going to places I have never gone before? Exploring Miami as deep as one can possibly get to? Never crossed my mind.

One of the best things this class offers is its compact size; what I also never thought was going to happen is how I was going to get to know wonderful classmates in the process, everyone is a much-focused individual, the highest intellects from FIU. The synergy was outrageous, for example, as we ventured to Chicken Key to clean up residue from the ocean, to get there, it was a completely synchronized effort. It is clear how dangerous the ocean can be but having the amazing instructor Baily by our side was enough to guide us, injury free. As we got to the island, me and a group of classmates separated from the main group, in order to help out even more and explore. We ended up being one, if not the most debrie-packed canoes. It was challenging, as the muddy Key shore was slowing us down tremendously, we ended up circling the parameter completely. This would not have been possible if not for the amazing collaboration in-between us.

Additionally to the class being exciting and fun, and having met great people, the roots of the class are also extremely rare to find in a conventional class. Yes, we went to distinct places, some widely recognized, others not so much, but the structure in which the lectures were taught was top-notch. Professor Baily, along with his student assistant Chris, kept the group organized while teaching valuable information about the locations. I can say from experience, I wish, and hope more instructors start doing what Mr. Baily is doing because this style of class in more engaging, a circle where ideas and thoughts can easily be thought and digested by being a live class.

Overall, the semester consisted of eight specific classes ranging from museums like the FIU Museum of Florida to other religious locations like the Greater Bethel Church, with history-rich tales of the struggles of Jews and Afro-Americans. We also explored a quite enchanting place named Deering Estate, which loomed large in the number of experiences gathered from the class, as we went during multiple occasions, to explore the fauna, wildlife, and the roots of our ancestors which lived exactly there.

The information covered, mixed with the experiences created is hard to match. The topics studied ranging from the struggles of our ancestors against colonialism, to species of trees and rocks, to Miami’s diverse art encoded in buildings in the Art Deco and Vizcanya, and art works, was a peculiar mix of contents, and an enjoyable experience to say the least. I find it utterly impressive how I have gained more knowledge about Miami in the time of being in this class than I have in all the years I have lived here. Truly a window of endless exhilarating occurrences, an inordinate series of events.

Neighborhood as Text: Surfside

“To new experiences” by Mariano S. Mendez Perez of FIU

Photo taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

The town of surfside is an extremely small place consisting of only a couple thousand citizens. It is the neighbor of pretty much all the beaches Miami has to offer, being one of the highest, North of the bunch. Being in the same coast, I did not really notice a difference in the beach, per say, as it was very much similar as South Beach or the well-known Miami Beach.

As I roamed around the premises, I noticed how it wasn’t like Hialeah for example, with heavy Cuban or Hispanic individuals, but more of international tourists exploring. This was surprising, as I didn’t really think it was going to differ from the Southern beaches, being so close, yet you could really sense a bit of change. I don’t know, it is weird to explain, maybe it was a placebo.

Photo taken and edited by Mariano S. Mendez Perez/ CC by 4.0

The history behind it lies with a bunch of individuals, for example, the Tatum brothers, Henry Levy, and Spearman Lewis, they all helped shape what is now today the small town of Surfside. Packed with residential areas, it was a quite calm place unlike the others. I found it enjoyable walking down the street, with the sunshine blazing through my skin. Though walking to the beach was fun, the traffic combined with little to no parking was extremely frustrating. I recommend people visiting to stay at the Four-Season Hotel, or a cheaper option Residence Inn by Marriott because the experience was harshly diminished by the difficulty of getting there. Also, it is important to note that the access to actual beach was quite hard since the small town is full of private hotels and residencies.

Overall, a positive experience. I was quite sure I was going to like the place since I go to Miami Beach frequently with a group of friends, and Surfside is extremely close to it. I went to the Flanigans nearby to grab lunch, but it also wasn’t necessarily something new since I go to one in Hialeah quite often. Though it didn’t top my favorite go-to beach, the location and vibe regarding the people and the environment were quite immaculate.

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