Toni Slebi: Miami as Text Spring 2023

(Photo by Toni Slebi/ CC BY 4.0)

Toni Slebi is a Colombian-Palestinian first generation student at Florida International University. She’s a junior studying Public Relations. Slebi hopes to work as a public relations professional in the music industry or make her own career as a singer! She currently works with her family and loves to perform when and where she can.

“Too Far Gone?” by Toni Slebi of FIU in Miami January 29, 2023

The consequences of the industrial revolution as a contrast of nature and man. (Photo by Toni Slebi/ CC BY 4.0)

Like many other Miami residents, my family comes from another country. I was born in America and I’ve spent a majority of my life in Miami, however, it’s only recently that I’ve come to really learn about Miami and its history.

I’ve finished one semester of the Miami in Miami course, this blog post is the continuation of this as I discover more of Miami’s secrets that most often are in plain view (we’re just unaware of it). Some of my more memorable moments from last year, or most infuriating, all revolve on how the Miami Dade School system has ignored the rich history we have in Miami. Despite all the required history classes, none of them uncover the history of the Tequesta, none of them go in depth as to how bad Miami was just a couple of decades ago (and continues to be) regarding racism. Today, the effects of this blatant ignorance is clearly evident as communities continue to be broken apart. 

Miami is a gorgeous location but the ugliness in it is continuing to grow. Miami is growing more and more of a dark entity that is money hungry and doesn’t care who it hurts in the name of capitalism. Miami has many lower income families that are struggling to keep up with the rising rents and groceries. The lack of walkability throughout Miami (aside from the Metro as it only covers a small portion of Miami) makes having a car a necessity rather than a privilege. An efficiency or room for rent is a minimum of 800, most going upwards of a thousand dollars which is insane. It’s becoming increasingly harder to thrive and so then we’re pushed away from our homes, forced to leave what we know. Even the places near FIU which are supposed to be student friendly are 1k each and up a month- how is that student friendly? Near other universities in Florida (University of Florida and Florida State) these apartments go for around 700 dollars each student which is a much more reasonable price to be paying monthly. The current minimum wage in Florida is $11 dollars. Working the max amount of part time hours (29), a student would make $1,276. In rent alone, their money’s gone and they have nearly no money for food or other necessities. Being expected to work full time as a full time student is a horrible request to make of students as burnout is a serious and on the rise issue already for students. 

This side of Miami is ugly and learning more about how it’s trying to simply destroy the evidence of the communities we’ve displaced and destroyed, as seen in Overtown and Coconut Grove (places where residents were primarily black). Though this class has offered me many beautiful places to visit, it’s also offered me insight as to what Miami is and is causing a disconnect for me. I refuse to simply let the city win in its efforts of erasing history and displacing people of color and lower incomes status. Both the love and the anger for this city have been growing in the duration of this class- I hope to figure out ways to advocate for these diminishing communities that are struggling but mean so much. 

The many issues discussed in this post may be a little scattered but in the end, they hold the common factor of a general disregard for the happiness of the general public. Businesses simply want to make money and the ability of throwing the word ‘Miami’ on a rental to raise the price on horribly maintained and outdated buildings is absurd . Miami is absurd. This may be a great vacation spot but I personally don’t plan to live in Miami after graduation. Miami used to be more of a community based place where immigrants came to thrive and help each other. Nowadays it seems more like a free for all and I can’t stand for it. 

The environmental side of Miami is the only side that seems to be prospering. With further efforts and research being put towards helping endangered animals and more natural spaces being restored and protected, Miami is a great spot for nature loving visitors! I find the environment to be Miami’s redeeming quality that almost makes it worth the stay. I just wish we’d take more care of it. This being said, Miami still has a disregard for it’s nature. Many still wish to tear down mangroves and other remaining untouched pieces of land. This lack of consideration for the consequences of removing these sources of life is a result of capitalism gone too far.

As I continue my studies, gain more work experience, and learn more about life, I hope to be able to put some time towards helping both the dislocated and struggling communities of Miami as well as the unique environments we host. There is so much to love about Miami but its growing disregard for the quality of human life is too frustrating for me and I can’t help but want to get away. In the meantime, the plan is to leave Miami even though I enjoy its beautiful scenery. I know each location will have its good and bad but Miami has become too out of reach for the upcoming generations. It’s gone too far down the capitalistic road that it’s hard to see it recovering. It will likely be flooded well before we figure out how to redeem Miami as a community orientated place. The ‘hustle’ culture is just not for me- I want to work to live, not live to work.

“Common Misconceptions” By Toni Slebi of FIU at the Everglades January 29, 2023

THIS is Miami. (Photo by Toni Slebi/ CC BY 4.0)

In elementary school I had a field trip to Shark Valley, one of three entries into the Everglades. Since then, I have not seen the Everglades until this course where we visited the Ernest F. Coe visitor center. I am now almost 20 years old, most of which have been spent in Miami, and I’ve only gone to the Everglades twice in my life. This disconnect I’ve had with the nature around me is incomprehensible considering how accessible it is and yet it’s there, just like it is for many others in Miami. 

Why are there little visitors to the Everglades from locals? Is it better this way? Why do we not discuss and learn more about the Everglades in school? This park helps Miami function and offers us so much yet we ignore it, a common and sad trend seen in Miami. 

It seems ignorance is Miami’s favorite state of being and I’m just as much at fault as the next person. I live a mere 20 minutes away from Ernest F. Coe visitor center and yet I hadn’t been till just now. There we got to learn so much from our two tour guides and it was a great experience that the greater part of Miami is missing out on. 

There we actually learned that there are several misconceptions regarding Miami and the Everglades. The first is that Miami is just a city- it’s not. The Everglades takes up almost 5 million acres! That’s a large amount of land in Miami that we just ignore. We’re so often focused on the man made parts that we forget the beauties that are naturally available to us. The second misconception is that the Everglades is a large swamp. The Everglades actually has several different ecosystems in it. From sawgrass marshes, prairies, mangroves, and more! Because of the different ecosystems found so close together, the Everglades hosts a variety of different animals. Our biodiversity is plentiful and the fact that we’re putting this land and its inhabitants at risk is insane. The Everglades also acts as an aquifer supplying us with fresh drinking water.

There is a third misconception held about the Everglades and it is that the ecosystems around us are doing terribly. While they are struggling, some ecosystems are actually thriving. At the location our class went slough slogging, I noticed there weren’t too many birds near the alligator solution holes despite it being nesting season. The ranger explained that this was because the coast, where the birds were originally from, had gotten healthy enough for the birds to return there. 

There are so many more instances in which nature is winning yet we don’t often talk about this. We’re so focused on the negatives and downfalls that we forget to look for the good. These misconceptions are the reason we need to put more effort into teaching our younger generations more about the world right next to them and its history. These stories affect our day to day far more and we can enact change to fix the past’s mistakes. 

Earlier I asked a series of questions. To them I say, it’s the fault of ignorance that led to the misconceptions and absence of visitors we see today. It may seem as though it’s healthier for the environment if we don’t visit it but if we don’t visit and learn about our surrounding ecosystems, how will we know how to protect them? How will we fall in love and want to learn to care for the Everglades if we haven’t used all our senses towards discovering this whole world full of different critters, plants, and sounds?

With education, we can erase these common misconceptions and raise generations that are aware of their surroundings and its history. With that knowledge, they’ll be able to learn from the past and grow from it. We can do better but we have to give ourselves the tools and chance to do so. Our efforts are already making a change, we can increase this and save our ecosystems. The rangers were a great source to learn from and their doing the Everglades a great service. I plan on going back very soon to explore on my own accord; I hope to see others doing the same as there’s so much to explore!

“Fight Against Erasure” by Toni Slebi of FIU at Coconut Grove February 5, 2023

“Mariah Brown’s House” (Photo by Toni Slebi/ CC BY 4.0)

Coming into Coconut Grove, I was completely unaware of its Bahamian ties. However, my ignorance towards this history is on purpose-not on my accord, but by the state’s will. Our country is trying to continuously erase its dark past instead of owning up to it. Many of the original houses that were built by Bahamians in Coconut Grove are being destroyed one by one despite the rich history behind each one. They’re being left to decay with little to no restorative efforts. These houses have stories behind them that can still inspire and connect with people today, no matter where they’re from, who they are, or what their status is.

One of the stories I felt the most connection to was Mariah Brown’s. She was a single mother of three kids who came to the United States alone from the Bahamas. She started in Key West as a laundress but moved up to Coconut Grove to live at the Peacock Inn, where she worked. She was able to save the money to buy land then built her own home.

As a first generation citizen, I can feel her story on a different profundity than generational Americans. I was lucky to be born here whereas my parents weren’t.

My mother came to the states alone with my older brother when he was only three years old. She worked several different jobs in order to provide for him. After some time, she found my father, a fellow immigrant. He came to the states when he was about 20 years old in chase of that same dream my mother was chasing. Together, they’ve fought to achieve this dream. Just as for many other immigrants, it’s hard to flourish with no support from family in this big country so my family has struggled. That being said, they’ve made it easy for both my brother and I to achieve the dream they wish they had by coming to the states. America has far more opportunity than our home country.

Thanks to them, my brother and I are both first generation college students with scholarships that cover our tuition. We’re both excellent students and are determined to make the most of our opportunities and resources here in the US.

With stories like Brown and my family’s we can create connections from our past to our present. It allows us to see how things have changed, and how things have stayed the same. This will allow us as a nation to truly grow.

Mariah Brown’s story is one of bravery, perseverance, and admiration. She risked so much by coming alone with three kids yet she bought and built a home and was a big part of a community. That story is one that can resonate with a lot of people in Miami. A hotspot for immigrants, Miami has several people that recently moved from their home countries in order to chase the American Dream, just as Brown did. I’m not sure if the term American Dream existed back then but she was the perfect example of it and yet her history is trying to be erased.

Even though many today still resonate with her story it is being targeted for removal. The houses from her community have already been destroyed, with only a few remaining, hers is sure to be next.

In order to preserve history, I feel as though the house could be made into a small museum, similar to the barnacle house. It can include a walkthrough of the house along with the United Christian Church-Christ. Because of their close proximity to the Barnacle house, it would be even better if the church and house were bought by the state as well so that they could be visited as a package. The Barnacle house is full of important information and connects with the lives of the Bahamians in Coconut Grove too; By selling package tickets, the state could promote an In depth Knowledge tour of these three places with a pass. This way, money is raised for the upkeep and survival of the buildings, more knowledge about Coconut Groves’ past is spread, and history is kept. The upkeep for the two buildings will also be a lot less considering that there isn’t a huge chunk of land to care for and the buildings are rather small in size.

Mariah Brown’s house being boarded up and the church inaccessible are a shame considering they’re part of the few buildings from back then that are still up. I feel as though time for these buildings is slowly running out, and they’ll be gone soon enough. I hope this doesn’t happen, but seeing how history is being rewritten for the comfortability of others, I wouldn’t doubt this erasure occuring.

“Picture Perfect” by Toni Slebi of FIU at Coral Gables February 19, 2023

‘What they want you to see’ (Photo by Toni Slebi/ CC BY 4.0)

Friendly people, Mediterranean revival-inspired architecture throughout, great dining spots, and much more can all be found in Coral Gables. It’s the place to live if you’re dreaming of a European-inspired lifestyle without having to actually move. However, just like most things trying to pass as ‘picture perfect’, the interior does not match the exterior. 

With the creation of social media, the notion that we need to look perfect at all times has become so idealized but it’s not something new. Coral Gables was a town created on shifty ideals and instead of owning up to it, the general population has decided to live in blissful ignorance as per usual. So here’s to uncovering the truth of what is known as a pretty city to visit:

First up is environmental ignorance.

Golf is a global sport and while it may be relaxing to some, its presence is actually a hindrance to the environment. This sport requires way more land per player than any other sport. This means that for this game to hold place, natural land has to be destroyed. Native plants killed off, animals displaced, and bodies of water disrupted by erosion and sediment. To add to that disaster, the maintenance of these fields requires on average one million liters of water a day. This is the equivalent of what around 780 families of four would use. Thankfully some of the owners of these fields are changing to green-friendly options such as utilizing recycled water, removing fewer native plants and animals by reducing space usage, and installing nature-friendly turfs. 

The Biltmore hotel’s golf course takes up 7112 yards and was recently grassed with Tif-Eagle Bermuda. This grass is drought tolerant, disease resistant, and can maintain its health despite the constant cutting down. This all being said, it seems as if the golf course as a whole has not implemented any environmentally conscious efforts. The new turf being drought resistant may mean less watering but the displacement of native flora and fauna is still an issue as the course takes up a large amount of land. The use of pesticides is another issue that remains. 

Now, ignorance in our history: by choice or deliberate?

It’s recently been brought to attention that George Merrick, the founder of Coral Gables, held racist ideals and tried implementing these when constructing the city. One of the most prominent ones was the ‘n*gro resettlement plan’. He voted in favor of this idea which would force Overtown residents to move in order to allow white families to move in. This alongside many racist quotes and votes of approval for segregated plans in cities proves that Merrick wasn’t someone we should be proudly showing off as the founder of our city, or of the universities in the area. 

The University of Miami (UM), or the University of Coral Gables as Florida International University Panthers like to call it, recently motioned to remove the Merrick name from their campus. Wanting to move away from racist ideologies and removing the displays is a great step forward. Despite these great strides, the city itself proudly shows off Merrick as its founder. The statue stands proudly in front of the city hall, mocking the attempts of moving away from racism. This statue should honestly be taken down- the founder is not someone to be proud of. 

The argument some people make for historical figures and the actions they partook in, from slavery to derogatory statements towards people of color, is that they had a different standard back then. That when looking into the past with our modern ideals, all these people will appear as shameful people. And the fact is, they were. We can acknowledge the good they may have done but some actions are far too irredeemable. 

Whether or not what these people did in their time was considered bad or not, in our current ideals, it is. When businesses and organizations want to construct their message, they need to ensure that employees and sponsors value and display these ideals as well. So why would they proudly display historically racist people unless, of course, they feel they represent our same values?

I hope this isn’t the case for Coral Gables but that petition of UM and their concerns regarding Merrick were brought to attention three years ago. The city has had, at minimum, three years to reflect upon its values, the founder’s values, the statue, and what its presence means for the city yet the statue remains. One can easily assume what this means for the city and its values. 

With these issues in mind, Coral Gables is a beautiful town. I hope the city implements environmentally friendly efforts towards their golf course and takes down the Merrick statue. Though I do believe we shouldn’t proudly display these historical figures like they’re heroes, we should be teaching these bits of history in our public schools. Knowing allows for reflection which leads to growth. We can grow away from these prejudiced motions that were put in place by coming together, teaching our youth, and constructing a better Miami for all. We can do better together if we give ourselves the opportunity.  

“Cultural Appropriation and Appreciation in Art” By Toni Slebi of FIU at Norton Museum March 19, 2023

(Photo by Toni Slebi/ CC BY 4.0)

With the recent rise in anger, the argument of cultural appreciation versus cultural appropriation has become massive. The guidelines are so blurred as the context matters so much and so many cultures have borrowed from each other over time with migration movements and the mixing of cultures. With this argument, there’s been attempts at setting clear guidelines but everyone has their own boundaries. Another issue is that people that aren’t from the culture speak for those that are, creating a confusing dialogue and erasing their voices. It’s also difficult in setting that line between what is appropriation and appreciation. 

In the art world we see the concept of borrowing or drawing inspiration from other artists constantly. At the Norton Museum we see this build up of inspiration. Artists utilizing concepts from others, then making it their own. This helps us see the shifts in societal thinking as art progresses. We saw this at the Norton museum when looking at pieces like The Madonna and Child in Majesty circa 1300 and Madonna and Child in Glory circa 1563 by Giovanni Francesco Bezzi, called Nosadella. The concepts are very similar and are from the same culture but even then, the artworks have their key differences. With an increase in more human-like identifiable features, there is a visible societal change of humans trying to connect themselves more and more with these figures as they start to see themselves in the stories of their religion. Coming from the same culture, there’s no issue but how about when artists borrow from other cultures? Where do we draw the line from drawing inspiration from and simply copying?

Before continuing, it’s important to define cultural appreciation and appropriation. Appreciation is when you respect a culture’s boundaries, learn more about their traditions, and most importantly give credit where due. Appropriation is where you steal from their culture and claim it’s your own idea, you play into stereotypes, or you use or wear culturally identifiable looks or clothing just for fun without understanding the background behind it and how it can perpetuate stereotypes. 

The argument surrounding art aligns with cultural appreciation versus appropriation but when it comes to the cultural argument, there’s a heavier weight to it. I believe it is important to highlight where we drew inspiration from, whether it comes from art or culture. Let’s say I’m making a Japanese-Colombian fusion dish; I’m not going to simply say I created the Japanese components of the dish. I’d draw attention to the dish I drew inspiration from and how I had it play along with the colombian components I added. If there’s a historical aspect to the dish, I could also include it in my explanation of the dish so as to pay tribute to the culture. 

Now food is a more forgivable category when it comes to borrowing from cultures. But how about art itself? Picasso himself has an African period as seen in the museum. This means that he drew inspiration from the African cultures and depicted them in his art in his own way. While he pays homage to the feelings the culture’s art arose in him, he states to have not had any influence from them. These cultures were often viewed in a negative light due to racism and such, so being brought into the spotlight due to Picasso’s love for their art is great. However, this does remove the spotlight from actual artists from that culture. Had he not had this period inspired by their work, then maybe less attention would’ve been drawn at how powerful the African works of art are. Nonetheless, should he have credited them more (or just credit them) for the inspiration he drew from their work? Yes. While they were pros and cons to his inspirations, stealing from others without the proper credit is not okay.  The influences ran deeply in his works from that time as the depiction is very clearly of that culture’s works of art, just in his style. This makes him an example of appropriation considering the fact he does not pay homage to the african cultures he so clearly drew influence from.

A more neutral example of cultural influence would be Le Bois de Boulogne and Avenue Henri Martin by Eduoard Vuillard of France. The long vertical painting resembles the shape of Chinese scripture but that’s all he borrowed for this painting- the orientation of the work. Considering the fact that all he drew from inspiration was the orientation and length of the image, this is rather neutral in the cultural borrowing area. The rest of the work is in his own style and has no visible Chinese culture influence in it that would raise any concerns of appropriation. 

In the museum I couldn’t find any work of art that we examined that would pose as a great example of cultural appreciation. That being said, I did notice a lack of representation for artworks of other cultures.  A lot of the work we examined was Christian-Catholic or European works. It’s important to be exposed to cultures outside of your own so that you can gain insight, perspective, and maybe even draw inspiration for some of your own works so it’d be nice to see more variety in that sense. In any case though, in and our of art, just make sure to always give credit where due and understand the historical and cultural significance of what you’re borrowing. 

“Redistribute Value” By Toni Slebi of FIU at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park March 26, 2023

Worth more than just a city (Photo by Toni Slebi/ CC BY 4.0)

There is no doubt that doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professions are well valued and important. If you tell your parents you’re studying to become one of those, your family doesn’t ask many follow up questions. Maybe just, “what specialty” or “what degree are you pursuing to get there?”. It’s a lot easier in that regard. But when you say you want to become a musician, an environmentalist, or start a non profit, their doubts and concerns start to load in. 

While there is much value in the main professions, there are so many other jobs our society requires to function and yet they’re not valued or offered the compensation they deserve. One of these jobs is that of a park ranger.

With my visit to Bill Baggs Cape State Park I got to enjoy a thriving environment that was once just a concrete field. There’s native endangered plants, knowledge to be shared, and lots to be cared for. The environment offers homes for native animals, storm surge protection with the mangroves, and an insight into Florida’s past. Despite this and the importance of the location, the workers aren’t well compensated. Environmentalists do what they do because they truly love the environment. They want to care and help our Earth that has been struggling more and more and the thanks they get, from a government job, is about 20-49k a year in Florida according to Zip Recruiter. The poverty line for a single person is currently 13.5k. In Miami Dade county, that poverty line rises to less than or equal to 19.8k. 

Out of love, these park rangers devote their life to the care of our parks and the thanks they get is living paycheck to paycheck. Miami is an unforgiving city when it comes to rent and other bills, and if you have a family, that salary is practically unlivable if you’re on the lower end of the salary range. 

When I visited both the Everglades and Bill Baggs, both times I asked about career opportunities, I was told that it doesn’t pay well. I truly believe we should put more money towards the salary of the rangers and towards the parks. We have more than enough houses and roads down here; our money is being poorly spent. We’ve clouded our minds with these outdated ideas of expansion and have our values unequally spread. Every job builds our society so we should put more value towards these jobs by at least offering a living wage, especially for environmental-government jobs. We don’t need to build more roads, we need to improve our public transportation so it seems more feasible for more people to avoid the usage of cars. We don’t need more houses constructed, we need to create laws for landlords so they can’t randomly increase your rent by double what you were previously paying for. All of these changes are for the better of our environment but we’re so focused on profits.

Miami could have a whole other audience to cater to if they were to promote their environmental diversity- Miami is not just clubs and the beach. It is acres upon acres of untapped beauty that we’ve continuously ignored and harmed. Our parks and their rangers truly deserve more in appreciation and in pay. 

There’s so much more I could rant about but the basis of today’s blog is to appreciate your state parks and their rangers more, volunteer, advocate for these parks and their budgets so rangers get paid more, and go out and enjoy these locations! When seeking nature trails, Miami is often overlooked but we offer so many unique environmental experiences that it’s a must see. I hope to contribute by volunteering and voting for any legislation that aids these parks and their employees. I hope to see others do the same as there is so much value in these jobs and the environments they protect. 

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