Melanie Rodriguez: Miami as Text Spring 2023

Melanie Rodriguez is a sophomore at the Florida International University honors college, who studies natural and applied sciences. She also minors in biology and psychology, as she hopes to have a career in the medical field, specifically dermatology. Her long term goal is to open her own practice in Miami, and hopes to help others feel beautiful in their own skin. She currently holds a role in the healthcare field as a certified medical assistant, and values supporting her community. Daughter of two Cuban immigrant parents, Melanie is a first generation college student who has been a Miami resident for twenty years and continues to explore the city’s great history.

Everglades As Text

“Florida in all its greatness” by Melanie Rodriguez of FIU at the Everglades

The Florida Everglades is a breath of fresh air, away from the crowds and unarguably one of the most underrated spots in Miami. The majority of travelers write off the Everglades from their “must-see” list, which is a big rookie tourist mistake. While knowing how to navigate and scope out the Everglades is daunting, many resources are present, such as guides and maps, to help you along this wilderness adventure. This historical site demands and deserves your attention, but one thing that resonated with me while on this visit are the misconceptions that surround the Everglades, ones that I am guilty of believing and wish to unveil today.

 I was born and raised 20 minutes away from the Everglades, but why had I never paid a visit to this world-famous park? Like many others will respond, because I was afraid. Afraid of man-eating giant gators, aggressive insect beasts, slithering snakes, and dark and empty roads. When I put it this way, it sounds like a horror movie, but truly this could not be farther from the truth. Never in a million years did I expect to go so far out of my comfort zone and walk through the waist deep water of the slough-slog, but I am grateful for these uncomfortable situations that led me to the magical landscape that is the Everglades. Straight out of “Avatar,” this otherworldly environment was established in 1947 and aims to protect the landscape in this park like no other, while preserving its many species and numerous habitats. One of the best trails to explore is the Anhinga trail, where you can spot some friendly giants (not at all scary or man-eating). Being this close to Florida’s native species makes me proud that these areas are still preserved for them to thrive. This extensive marshland was formed 17,000 years ago, when the Pleistocene sea level rise created runoff from Lake Okeechobee. If the Everglades seems unimportant to you, just know that it creates drinkable water for over 7 million Florida residents, which is one of the reasons why this ecosystem needs to be protected. While many people did not realize the value of the Everglades, there is one person in Florida history who advocated for the preservation of this national park, and that is Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. She famously published “Everglades, river of grass” in 1947 which spoke volumes to the importance of safeguarding this area. Today, the Everglades has received immense recognition as a world heritage site, deservingly so as it is the United States’ largest subtropical wilderness. 

Having an open mind while visiting this wetland can make all the difference in your experience. I truly believe that everyone should take advantage of this remarkable experience to feel elevated in the natural landscape of the Everglades. The typical stereotype is not at all what I experienced, and my hope is that I inspire at least one person to set their fears aside as I continue to spread positive information about my experience in visiting the Everglades.         

Miami Encounter As Text 

“My Miami, Through My Eyes” by Melanie Rodriguez of FIU in Miami

Photo captured by Grace King.

Being born in Miami does not speak to my expertise of the city. While I wish I could say I knew it all, I was truly baffled at the amount of information I did not know while being in this class. Places that I have been to a million times in my life, such as Vizcaya, Overtown, downtown Miami, or Coconut Grove, I realized that I didn’t know the stories behind these places or understand the historical importance of them. So when taking this class, my goal was always to look at these places with a fresh set of eyes. When we arrive at a location, even if I have been there before, I expect to receive an entirely new perspective and context of the area. Time and time again, this class has proven to me that Miami is much more than appears to the naked eye, and much more than an aesthetic, luxurious, sunny paradise, which is all that Miami might seem to others. I have been to Vizcaya multiple times, but did not know about the bohemian hands who built it. I had no idea when walking through downtown Miami that the park in between two buildings was an ancient Tequesta monument. When visiting Overtown before this class, I had an idea of the history, but when delving deep into our discussion I soon discovered an entirely new side to black history in Miami. In coconut grove I always visited miracle mile, boutiques and nice restaurants, but had no idea about the Barnacle, or the long standing homes that are still there. The place I was most eager to visit this semester was the Everglades. I was highly anticipating this visit ever since the first class when it was mentioned, I was intrigued by the Everglades but at the same time fearful of the unknown. Each day I come in eager to discover something new about a city that I have inhabited for so many years, and now after one semester I am beginning to feel like a cultured expert in my own city. This is vital for me because I would never want to look ignorant or clueless when speaking about Miami, and now I recognize how important it is to be able to know the history of where you live, not only to hold up a conversation but also to fully appreciate the environment which surrounds you. I was born in Miami, yes, but I did not know it as well as I thought. I knew very little about the culture of Miami, and the last time I remember touching upon the subject was in early high school. Even then, I was not taught about half of the landmarks that I’ve seen in only one full semester of “Miami In Miami.” Preliminary schools in Miami truly need to do a better job at teaching the rich history of Miami, and without washing it out of its impurities. I wanted to learn the bad, the good, and the ugly, and because of this, I was eager to learn more and decided I needed to enroll in this class. I know that this is one of the best decisions I have ever made. Constantly getting put in uncomfortable positions that are out of my comfort zone has made me discover so much about not only my environment but about myself as a person. I have discovered a passion for nature, for adventure, and I am not scared to explore unknown territory, and for that I am grateful for this class and excited about what this second semester has to bring. 

Coconut Grove as text

“The ‘Little Bahamas’ of Miami” by Melanie Rodriguez of FIU at Coconut Grove

The culture and vibrancy are abundant in Coconut Grove, and this has much to do with the influence of early black settlers in Miami. Before the Grove was filled with shops, lush landscaping, and modern restaurants, this was a place for free spirits and is a true gem in Miami. My visits to Coconut Grove are quite frequent, but I failed to indulge myself in the history of the area until my most recent visit, where I learned about the true importance of The Grove. As a Miami resident I have to say that this is the first time that I’ve explored Coconut Grove beyond its aesthetic appeal. Many people do not know that in building Coral Gables and Miami, there is deep Bahamian involvement. Just a few blocks away from the populated streets which I frequent stand homes built by Ebenezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup, unarguably one of the most selfless people of his time. Stirrup, who was an African-Bahamian immigrant, was an instrumental part in the development of Coconut Grove, building and renting out homes for African Americans and presenting them the opportunity to own land in a time where this was extremely difficult to do. The Grove is filled with vibrant colors and structures that reflect the influence of the bahamian settlers during this early time. I enjoyed the diversity of these buildings, and seeing something that looked original and different from the rest of the architecture that fills Miami. Modern white homes are far and frequent in any area, but what I truly love to see is culture, history, and especially the stories behind how and why these structures were developed. Sadly, I saw that more and more homes are not being preserved, and are now collateral damage to people who tear them down and build modern structures. 

To me, these structures should be treated like museums and memories of a time that should never be erased. Under no circumstance should they be destroyed, especially to build modern homes and structures, as this is slowly declining the amount of black history present in Miami. The importance of these homes is being completely disregarded, and I urge Coconut Grove to protect these structures, just as Miami beach is protected. The Grove is not The Grove without this rich history, and it is being reshaped to be a regular urban neighborhood, something that it has never been and should never be. The theme of washing away history in Miami is prominent, but seeing the washing away of an entire cultural inhibition before my eyes has awoken me to the seriousness of this situation, as I hope it has to others around me. This area is filled with remembrances of the past, such as the Bahamian cemetery, and was clearly an area important to this minority group, who I’m sure have been forced to move due to skyrocketing prices and urbanization. I enjoyed touring the neighborhood of Coconut Grove as well as the homes that Stirrup so graciously developed, and I can only hope that the city of Miami comes to their senses and protects these important structures for future generations to learn about and visit, before it is too late and they are all torn down.  Recently, I’ve explored more about this topic and found out that Miami is considering turning Coconut Grove into a “Little Bahamas,” which I believe is a step in the right direction when it comes to preserving culture and community. I do hope that this goes through and solves the issue of gentrification in the community.

Coral Gables As Text

“The Mini Europe Of Miami” By Melanie Rodriguez of FIU at Coral Gables

I hold the city of Coral Gables close to my heart, as it has always been a place where my family and I escape from the modern landscapes of our neighborhood, somewhere where the architecture and design does not allow us to walk as freely as in the Gables. Coral Gables is what I’d like to call my modern utopia, and I perceive it exactly as it was designed to function. This neighborhood has been designed, from day one, to be a city-beautiful, with its main goals being overall sanitary areas, classic architecture inspired public buildings, abundance of trees lining the roads, and landscapes such as schools, fountains, and parks. Visiting Coral Gables transports me to my time in Spain, when I would only have to walk across the street from the apartment to grab a coffee, or even go for a walk in the park in the following block. While the founder of Coral Gables, George Merrick, never visited Spain, he did want the design of this city inspired by them, and drew comparisons from Mexico and Cuba. Where I’m from now (Kendall lakes), I’d be lucky to find a coffee shop a mile away. I don’t enjoy the way that most of Miami is designed, and how far apart everything is in the sense that there is no real “community,” only people and places in somewhat-near proximity to each other. 

I must applaud Coral Gables for the architectural choices which keep the streets full of pedestrians and tourists, and keep me coming back to this neighborhood quite often. It is an example of many things done right to promote pedestrians and a bustling city life. I don’t often get the urge to visit other neighborhoods in Miami like I do Coral Gables, and that is because I enjoy the simple luxury of being able to walk to so many businesses in just one street, a stroll which I frequently take and enjoy. Leisure, relaxation, and a residential sense of community is what comes to mind when speaking of Coral Gables. This is exactly what George Merrick wanted and envisioned, as he planned so carefully to implement this European-like mode of living, as I’d describe it. The classic and old world mediterranean revival architecture that fills Coral Gables is strictly protected, and just adds to the essence and vibe of this metropolis. 

As the land boom in the 1920’s arose, it became the perfect time for Merrick to establish Coral Gables with his prominent vision for the city. He should be remembered for his work, however his controversial and racist beliefs should not be left without mention. George Merrick sold land based on its “potential,” and created an almost magical image of what it could be, the same tactics he used when proposing his new plan. Once Coral Gables was established, the greed of wanting more sparked an idea in this businessman, a plan that would only affect thousands of people, but at least he’d get to produce another city-beautiful… right? With the success of the Gables came the desire for Merrick to acquire Overtown, of all places. His “genius” plan involved a “complete slum clearance,” as well as “removing every negro family.” The extremely controversial, cruel, and almost barbaric proposal shook the audience, even at a time of heavy segregation in Florida. While he is credited with the creation of this beautiful city, he pushed for segregation until he died. When I see his statue, part of me thinks of his ideals which led to Coral Gables as it is today, and part of me thinks of him as a person, and his inhumane mentality. If he said these controversial things out loud in a speech, I cannot even imagine what thoughts spew in his mind. 

We are at a crucial moment in history where we are able to keep the beauty of Coral Gables alive and thriving by not only protecting it but also its past, which includes honoring and remembering the bahamian workers who spent restless days and bare hands building this city. I absolutely adore Coral Gables. It is my escape from the Miami craziness, and I much prefer this neighborhood over more popular areas like south beach or Brickell. There is something so compelling about Coral Gables that intrigues me, maybe it is the thriving cultural scene, maybe it is the architecture. What I do know is that places like these are far too few, and I wish more of Miami resembled this area.          

Key Biscayne As Text

“They key to Miami’s story” by Melanie Rodriguez of FIU at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park

I have many memories of “The Key” as I call it, all having to do with summer, spring break, or a sunny escape from the suburbs where I’m from. Each class, I discover a deeper history of a place that I’ve visited numerous times, and this class visit did not fall short of that. To say that I knew what was in the place of the lighthouse in Bill Baggs State Park would be a lie, and this shows fault in Florida’s education system. To Say that I knew the significance of my favorite kayaking spot, Virginia Key, would also be a lie. It goes without saying that The Island of Key Biscayne packs a heavy importance on Miami’s history. It is not only important to us today, but was also an imperative part of the lives of black slaves wishing for a free life, and Tequesta tribes relying on this ecosystem. 

Key Biscayne is known to be Florida’s barrier Island, which was widely inhabited by the Tequesta tribe before anyone else. The Key was an essential part of Tequesta livelihood, as hunting and gathering in this area was popular among the tribe. They were not only settlers of this area,but this area was the center of their entire civilization. The Tequesta tribe saw what a treasure this area was, and undoubtedly saw the potential to form a community here, before they were unfortunately outnumbered and pushed away.  

In 1825 when the lighthouse at Bill Baggs State park was first lit, it was said to be intended for ship navigation, but was reconstructed to 95 feet after a battle against a Seminole tribe. By 1878, this lighthouse was overall unsuccessful, and was no longer in use due to its unideal location and little visibility of coral along the coast. The location of the lighthouse at Bill Baggs state park is not random, I’m afraid. When this lighthouse was built, someone had to have known that its location was not ideal for its intended purpose, which is why this lighthouse’s use was short lived, but what came from building this lighthouse in this specific location was more important at the time than its practical use. By building this lighthouse here, it stopped the voyages of freedom of blacks escaping slavery, where many slaves and even seminoles escaped to the Bahamas or other neighboring islands via boat. During this time, there was an underground railroad present precisely at this location, which unfortunately had to stop operations due to the building of the lighthouse. It is clear that this was the main motivation for the location of this lighthouse, because while we needed one, it could have been built anywhere else. 

Standing at the top of the lighthouse where 8 other keepers stood was breathtaking, overlooking the ocean where the wildlife play and the families frolic on the beach. But, what was even more breathtaking was being able to recognize the rich history of this area that happened just feet away from where I was standing. I took a piece of history home with me that day, and appreciate the fresh perspective that I have about my beloved Key.

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