Majo Chavez: Miami as Text 2023

Majo Chavez is currently a Junior at FIU Honors College majoring in Marketing and International Business. She’s been living in South Florida for 12 years but was born in Lima, Peru and lived in Panama for some of her childhood. After graduating, she hopes to continue her education by obtaining a Masters in Management abroad. In her freetime, she enjoys going on long walks, going to the gym, eating good food, and spending time with her friends and family.

Spring Encounter as Text

Majo in front of the Eiffel Tower in 2017 (Photo by Majo Chavez/ CC By 4.0)

“Embracing Change

By Majo Chavez

Change is challenging, but it forces us to explore new paths in our lives and get to know yourself better. Do you really love living in Miami or have you never experienced life anywhere else? You can’t answer that question until you’ve experience what it’s like to be a citizen anywhere else in the world. If you go into the cereal aisle, you see tons of different options on the shelves. Yet most of us will always pick the same brand and flavor because it’s what we’ve always had and we know it’s pretty good. You know that if you try a new flavor, you might not like it and then  you’ll have wasted $5. But there’s a possibility that this flavor is exactly what you were looking for and you’ve discovered a whole new side of yourself  that you didn’t know was there. As silly or simple as this may sound, the metaphor applies to all areas of our lives; food, music, friends, hobbies, and more. Sometimes we do the things we do not because it’s what we know is best, but because it’s what we’ve always done or been taught to do. I want to experience what the world has to offer, and understand what I really want from my life.

As someone who has always struggled with anxiety, I don’t often live in the present. I’ve caught myself asking: What experiences in my life will shape me into the future me? To answer that question I should probably figure out what experiences have already shaped me into who I am. Having lived in 3 different countries has inevitably played a big role in my philosophy on change, but I was very young and have trouble remembering what I really felt like in those moments. I’ve also been privileged enough to have a father who has always understood the importance of travel and has shown me the world from a very young age. But I can safely say that one of the most life changing experiences I’ve had happened at 16 years old, when I participated in an exchange program to Madrid, Spain. At this point in my life, I had already travelled to 10 different countries with my family, but nothing could have prepared me for the cultural shock and immersion I would experience on this trip. It gave me a taste of Spain, and it left me wanting more.

4 years later, 20 year old me is preparing for a study abroad in France. Although I’ve visited France when I was 14, I’ve learned that traveling with your family for a couple of days is completely different than living there for a month and experiencing it independently. Living there provides a much deeper understanding to the country’s culture and allows you to see the differences it may have with your own. As you can probably gather, I have pretty high expectations for my trip to Paris. These expectations come from my past experiences and are more placed on myself rather than the course. I want to be able to acknowledge and appreciate the differences between France and Miami, whether they are positive or negative. I want to get a taste of Paris, and determine if it’s a place I could see my future self in. This is why out of all the places we’ll be visiting, I’m most excited to walk along the cities, meet strangers, visit small bakeries or cafes, and maybe even get lost in the metro. I expect this course to make me explore the unknown and dive headfirst into France. I want to be uncomfortable, I want to be vulnerable, and most of all I want to destroy and replace any preconceived notions I might have of the country.  I’m ready to embrace change with open arms, and try out this new box of cereal.

Enlightenment as Text

Before the enlightenment, during the ancient regime, there existed this idea of “divine right of kings”. This belief stemmed from the Catholic Church, which held that kings “derived their authority from God and couldn’t be held accountable for their actions by earthly authorities”. In short, the King was exempt from human judgement as God himself granted him the authority to rule. It’s hard to believe that all monarchs and members of the Church were devout believers of this ideology, but they worked together to sell this idea to the people of France. Both the Catholic Church and the monarchs were extremely wealthy, powerful, and used each other to achieve their common goal—controlling the masses. The monarchs would provide financial support and power to the Church, and the Church would provide them with religious legitimacy. Their alliance made it easy to maintain political order, and extremely difficult for anyone to defy the court. If someone were to express their discontentment with the King, it was equivalent to challenging the Church—and had deadly consequences. The same went for paying their taxes, going to war, or performing any of their civilian duties.

The Church’s authority went so far as to controlling education, so people’s world view was as wide as the Church allowed it to be. Faith was the only thing that led people’s decisions, as they didn’t know any other ideology that could defy it. That is, until the Enlightenment– the birth of reason and individualism. Reason is the antithesis of faith, so how could they ever coexist? The enlightenment forced people to ask themselves questions about themselves, their freedom, rights, who had authority over them, and why. It was these same ideas and questions of the Enlightenment that inspired the French Revolution. Voltaire was a huge influence during the time of the Enlightenment, and Candide was his most famous work.

Candide was an exaggerated and satirical mirror of reality at the time.It was through this exaggeration that people were able to realize the flaws of the Ancien Regime. In his work, Voltaire was abe to indirectly (but not very subtly) critique various aspects of the Church and political system. Candide’s character represents the french people– as he goes through extremely unlikely yet heart wrenching tragedies, he tries reminding himself that he is living in the “best of all possible worlds” and everything “cannot be otherwise as they are”. He begins to lose hope that this is indeed true, and begins to make his own philosophy based on his individual experiences and knowledge he gains along the way. Voltaire established that there are many different social, political, and religious structures around the world, and the French is certainly not the best of them. Candide essentially supported the idea that with the increase of reason, came the decline of faith.

In my book, reason falls under the category of science, and faith under the category of religion. It would be hypocritical of me to say that I believe they 100% cannot be reconciled, as I am not a completely faithless person yet I believe in all scientific theories and explanations of human existence and what follows. I think both are incredibly important for human development, as religion joins people together and gives meaning to life, while reason keeps us grounded and provides us with knowledge and valuable information.

Historic Miami as Text

All my life I’ve had this idea that the United States doesn’t have culture. I’m not sure if this came from plain ignorance, or more likely the flawed education system, but I never considered America—or frankly Miami of all places—to be “culturally rich”. It didn’t help that ever since I migrated to Florida the only history I was taught was that of wars, battles, and the triumphant colonizers who “discovered” this land.

Before starting this walking lecture, I asked myself: What does Miami mean to me? Miami is the city 40 minutes away from home, the city where I happen to study. Miami is a growing city with a diverse population, where people come from all over the world to live a lavish lifestyle, or find a “good time”. But that is as far as my very superficial knowledge goes— you’d never guess I’ve been living here for 12 years. On the other hand, if you were to ask me about Peru—my birth country—I’d start off by telling you about the Incas, the capture of the Emperor, and the Spanish conquest. Why am I incapable of doing the same thing for Miami, where I have lived for the majority of my life? After reflecting on it I’ve realized that a big reason as to why I don’t feel like a true Floridian/Miamian even after living here for most of my life now, is because I never gave it an identity.

Much like a person, a place’s identity is made up of the experiences and history it holds. The first time I could understand Miami’s identity was upon seeing the Wagner Family Homestead. What looks like a run-down wooden shed in the middle of a park is actually the oldest house to exist in Miami. It was owned by an interracial couple where they raised a family and welcomed and fed Native Americans even during times of conflict. What better way to define this City? Much like the Wagner home, Miami opened its door for many immigrants in hard times. Miami is “Little Haiti” and “Little Havana”, it’s a place that many immigrants can call home without giving up their culture and traditions. It’s a place where no matter what background you come from, you will undoubtedly find your community and representation in the city. Another perfect reflection of Miami’s identity is seen in the Freedom Tower– a spanish-style 17 story building that became a symbol of freedom for Cuban immigrants. Miami is home to all but belongs to none, and this building represents all immigrant’s escape from their respective situations– wether it was poverty, war or a corrupt government that led them to flee, Miami became their refuge.

Freedom Tower at night, 2023 (Photo By Majo Chavez / CC by 4.0)

A less positive but equally important historical building on our walking lecture was the Slave Quarters at Lummus Park. William English got his slaves to build themselves quarters, and then gave it to the US Army only a couple years later to use as a trading post. Miami is no exception to the history of racial injustice, slavery, and segregation. Henry Flagler is considered one of the most significant figures in Miami’s history, yet he was the instigator of segregation, had no remorse for destroying the Tequestian burial grounds, and was at fault for a huge waste spillage into the Miami River. Fast forward to today, we have a life sized statue of him outside the Miami Dade Courthouse (disappointed not surprised). Julia Tuttle– the founder of Miami– was the woman responsible for the existence of the railroad in Miami. Without her, it’s likely that Flagler would have never expanded his railroad to this city. I find it strange that before this walking lecture I was familiar with the name Flagler, but had never learned that the founder of Miami was a woman named Julia Tuttle… and of course there is no grand statue of her to be found.

“Julia Tuttle- Mother of Miami” 2023 (Photo By Majo Chavez / CC by 4.0)

After this lecture, I realized Miami might just be misunderstood. Somewhere between the crazy yacht parties and ultra-modern glass skyscrapers you can find a story of diversity, freedom, expression, and growth. Somewhere in the city you can find touch the same limestone that slaves did and walk the same paths that the tequestians did. Miami’s history– as imperfect as the rest– is made up of unique stories and the diverse people that have inhabited it throughout its existence.

If Juan Ponce de Leon had a Yacht.. (Photo By Majo Chavez / CC by 4.0)

Revolution as Text

Many of us have been familiarized with the history of the French revolution through textbooks, movies, tv shows, and art. We know that the French nobility were eating cake and throwing parties while the rest of France was sick, starving, and oppressed—until the Revolution began in 1789. We celebrate the birth of the revolution, as it signals the beginning of an egalitarian society, the pursuit of justice, and the acknowledgement of universal human rights. The Revolution ended the monarchy—the very thing that sought to destroy all ideas of equality. But even after achieving their main goal, people were still seeking justice. Since no one could bring back the years of pain they endured, the only way that justice could be served was by inflicting pain and suffering upon those who caused it. “History is usually written by the victors”, which is why most of us have yet to hear of the Revolution from the perspective of an aristocrat. While we acknowledge the years of hardships and abuse the French population had to endure, Cadbury delves into the atrocities committed against the monarchs during and after the revolution.

The Revolution accomplished many significant goals, but it also supported the use of violence to attain those goals. Its very easy for us to stand here, enjoying the basic human rights we have today, and question whether the violence and bloodshed instigated by the revolutionaries was “justified”. To an extent, I think violence was the only way for commoners be heard or acknowledged by the elite– peasants had basically no voice or vote, they could only take physical action to show their outrage and disapproval for the monarchy. Although the revolution was initially motivated by the fight for justice and equality, it eventually turned into a period of unjustifiable and extreme brutality—the Reign of Terror. During the Reign of Terror, we know that violence was no longer a necessity, rather a tool for revenge, personal satisfaction, and instilling fear. Louis XVII, the 8 year old “Lost King if France”, was subjected to some of the most horrific acts of torture during the Reign of Terror. In her book, Cadbury goes into excruciating detail about how the young boy was neglected, starved, raped, beat, and put through intense psychological trauma by his “caretakers” –all because he was a direct representation of the monarchy, and people decided to take their anger out on an innocent child. Including Marie Antoinette and King Loui XV, tens of thousands of people were tried and executed by guillotine, and many other were killed in prison (Britannica).

 Acknowledging that the revolutionaries were morally wrong for the way they tortured these people does not invalidate the reasoning for their actions. Although monarchs were guilty of many more (and worse) crimes, nothing can justify such abhorrent treatment and abuse of children—or anyone for that matter. Overall, these brutal actions were a direct contradiction of what they were supposedly advocating for—human rights— and can not be forgotten or justified by the results.

Viscaya as text

As one strolls through the gardens and halls of Vizcaya in Miami, it’s impossible not to think you’re strolling through a historic European vacation destination. From its pastel walls to the statues that greet you at every entrance, it’s no wonder that Vizcaya is such a common place to take “quinceañera” or wedding pictures. After all, there is no place in Miami that resembles the architecture or castle-like aesthetic that Viscaya exemplifies. For starters, upon entering the estate you are welcomed by the statues of Ponce de Leon and ‘Bel Viscaino’ directly across from each other.

The latter is a fictional character that Deering created to be an “explorer and fellow traveler of Ponce de León”, even though it was originally carved from the image of a renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio ( Deering directly erased this identity and replaced it with that of a mythical character to add to the grandeur of the Viscaya name. Additionally, after walking through the beautiful greenery through the entrance road and pass through the doors of the west entrance, you are met with the statue of Bacchus the Roman God of wine and ecstasy– a direct representation of how James Deering intended to use his new estate.

While Viscaya feels and looks like an escape from the rest of the city’s culture and history, it’s important to acknowledge Viscaya as an extension of Miami, not an exception. Before James Deering, Miami hadn’t yet fully established the reputation it has today. One could say that Viscaya was partly to blame for the city’s present day notoriety. If you were to ask an outsider to describe what they think about Miami, chances are they’ll mention one of these words: sexy, luxurious, partying, drinking, etc. During its time, Viscaya emulated all of these things and more. Continuing our walk through the interior of the villa, it’s made clear that this villa was built for the purpose of entertaining guests and hosting luxurious parties. James Deering did just that, and it’s rumored that many of these parties were hosted for all-male attendees. Although his sexuality was never officially defined, I find it fascinating that many of the historical figures of Miami are diverse in gender, sexuality, race, and more.

Through the furniture and stylistic choices on the villa, you could tell James was an extravagant man who was fixated on his wealth and power– and making sure people knew it. Although I wasn’t able to see it, there’s a stained window that reads “J’ai dit” right above the staircase where guests would travel through to get to their bedrooms. This is not only tasteless but also indicative of his “holier than thou” behavior. There are definitely more questionable choices he made in decorating the mansion, one of which is the large religious seventeenth-century painting that was split in half in the reception room just to make way for pipe organs.

But if you look past the pretentious façade, there lies a less beautiful truth. Although there is little documentation of it, there’s many photographs that were used to track the progress of construction where “black men were present in almost every image, doing everything from installing detailed stonework on the Main House to cutting limestone in the quarry that supplied the construction site” ( Vizcaya made significant use of the labor of marginalized workers. Many peasants were transported and forced to work on the grounds, but black Bahamian laborers were mostly responsible for building Vizcaya from the ground up. Its not known exactly who or how many workers were responsible for the building the luxurious villa, but it’s for certain that the workers were paid unjustly and in difficult condition (as were most of Miami’s black laborers).

After taking a closer look at Viscaya, I can’t help but compare some aspects of it to the Versailles castle. Many say that King Louis XIV built Versailles to show the rest of the world how powerful and wealthy he (and therefore France) is, despite other seeing it as an absurd project and waste of taxpayer money. Similarly, Deering built Viscaya to showcase his own wealth, status, and power. Although they have major differences, its safe to say that both are now extremely vital pieces of history that add value and prestige to their respective cities (notwithstanding the fact that one is more historically famous and extravagant than the other)– I think James Deering would be very pleased to be compared to a King.

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