Miami in Miami: Gabriela Lastra

Photo by Amanda Velazquez (CC By 4.0)

My name is Gabriela Lastra and I am currently a senior in Florida International University’s Honors College. I am majoring in Criminal Justice and hope to pursue a career in law, focusing on civil litigation and commercial law. I was born in Cuba but came to the United States as a child. I lived in various places before finally moving to Miami in 2010. I have always loved to travel and spend time outdoors. I always thought Miami wasn’t all its cracked up to be, but after my recent experiences with Study Abroad Italia, I realize the face of the city that visitors see is not all there is if you just know how to look. Despite living here for nearly a decade, I know there is so much of Miami that I have yet to discover and I am excited to be able to see this city in a whole new light throughout this course.

Metro as Text

Photo by Gabriela Lastra (CC By 4.0)

Miami is a melting pot of a city, with dozens of cultures living side by side and mixing a little more every day. I have friends from all corners of the world and yet we still live, as Professor Bailly puts it, in our little bubbles. Communities group together, the Cubans in Little Havana, the Venezuelans in Doral. In the near-decade I’ve lived in Miami, not once did it occur to me to ride the Metrorail. I have a car, and before I did my parents drove me everywhere. I had no need of it and so no idea of the things I was missing. When people think of Miami, they think of the Miami James Deering presented to his guests at Vizcaya: beautiful and polished and on the cusp of eternal summer. It is crazy to think that in all my years in Miami, I’d never before been to Overtown unless I was driving through on my way somewhere else. I remember my grandfather in the back seat warning not to stop in this part of town, though I’m sure he had seen even less of it than I. I couldn’t believe the Lyric Theater has been open in Miami since 1913, through an age of segregation and discrimination, and I’d never even heard of it before. There’s an incredible community with a rich cultural history thriving around the metro, from Vizcaya Museum and Gardens with its very own stop to Northside with a mural by Purvis Young, a street artist whose career began in the 1970s in Overtown painting scenes from the things he observed around him. There is so much of Miami that I don’t know, so many facets I don’t even know are there. In a single day, the way I think about my city has changed. I can’t wait to see what more there is to find.

Downtown as Text

Photo by Gabriela Lastra (CC By 4.0)

Downtown Miami is like no other part of the city. It is an eclectic mix of ultra-modern glass skyscrapers and the façades of old buildings only a handful of stories tall. In some parts, the sidewalks are broad to allow foot traffic for people to walk along the center of their city. In most parts, they are narrow barely able to accommodate two people side by side. The mix-mash of Miami is a product of its history. As a city, it is not very old, only a little over 120 years since Henry Flagler brought his railroad down looking for unfrozen citrus crops. It sprung up from the mangroves and swamps and grew at a rate its original inhabitants could never have predicted. Miami is a city of promise and progress, but like all of history, it has its darker aspect. In a little area of green nestled along the Miami River is Lummus Park. It is quiet and empty, and on its green grass sit two old buildings, one of wood and another of stone. In a way, these buildings encompass the true essence of not just Miami, but our country as a whole. The long single-room stone building was named Fort Dallas by the soldiers who used it as barracks during the Seminole Wars, a people who had lived here long before them and whom they had driven from their lands. Before it was part of Fort Dallas however it was something different: a plantations slave quarters. And the irony doesn’t end there for after the army no longer needed it, this building which housed an untold number of people who were viewed as less than human and treated worse than cattle became the first courthouse in Miami. And then? It lay forgotten and empty, on a little known park in the heart of a city which grows and changes and yet stays exactly the same. And isn’t that ironic?

Deering Estate as Text

Patterned pottery shard (Photo by Gabriela Lastra CC By 4.0)

The Deering Estate is a treasure trove of hidden secrets. It doesn’t matter if I’ve been in there before, every time there is something new to find and marvel at, from the antiquities of times gone past to the spicy, burnt garlic taste of the guinea hen weed. When I think of the habitats of Florida I think of the marshy Everglades and sandy beaches. Rarely do I remember the Pine Rocklands and all the incredible diversity they sustain. The Tequesta lived on these lands for 10,000 years before the Europeans came to the Americas. Now, there isn’t a single word of their language recorded anywhere in the world and all that they left behind are graves and shattered fossils. Most of this I knew already, from past visits to the Estate. Shards of tools made of conch shells bigger than any we get today are scattered throughout the land, in the huge treacherous solution holes dotting the property. From those pieces, we learn about these people, our geographic ancestors. From colorful pieces of pottery, no bigger than a quarter, we know that the Tequesta traded with other native tribes as far north as the state of Michigan, as the color of the tiles comes from ore deposits found there. It is incredibly sad how little there is left of these people, and even sadder how the little we know is rarely common knowledge.

One thing emphasized in class is the fact that though we are not related to the Tequesta people, they are the ones who lived on this land before us and in a way, they are our geographic ancestors. In the course of the day, something that was said stuck with me and has lingered in my thoughts since then. When the Europeans came to Florida, they brought with them diseases that devastated Native American populations. Those who survived were often taken captive and sold into slavery. This was the fate of the Tequesta. In particular, the Tequesta were taken and sold into slavery on an island in the Caribbean: Cuba. To those of us who live in Florida, the Tequesta are our geographic ancestors but a significant portion of the people in South Florida are Cuban immigrants or the descendants of Cuban immigrants. It is possible then that to some of us, myself included, the Tequesta are more than just geographic ancestors. In a way, it’s like they finally made it back to their ancestral lands, or at least I’d like to think so.

Chicken Key as Text

Gabriela Lastra at Chicken Key (Photo by Blanca J Alcaraz CC BY 4.0)

Chicken Key is a small island right off the coast of the Deering Estate in Biscayne Bay, about a mile and a half out. The morning we were set to go dawned hot and sunny, and after a day of a nonstop downpour, there were no more than a few lazy clouds drifting slowly across an azure sky. Out in the distance, the water glittered, giving the impression that the ocean and sky blended into one or that you could simply fall off the edge of the world. As we made our way out to the island, most of us for the first time and many lacking experience on canoes, we followed Professor Bailly into a channel cutting through the mangroves. It didn’t seem so bad at first if you could ignore the distinctly unpleasant odor of wetlands and marshes. The water was dark and muddy and not too deep, just enough for the canoes to smoothly glide through the roots of the mangroves if you could avoid getting tangled in them. Of course, being as inexperienced as we were that’s the first thing that happened to my canoe and the one right behind me, bringing up the rear. By the time we were beginning to get the hang of it we had fallen far behind and were beginning to realize we had a problem: the tide was going down. Every time we got stuck, the water level went down a little more and our professor was a distant figure, at first occasionally glimpsed through the branches and then not at all. Soon enough the tide was so low that the canoes couldn’t stay afloat. Even if they could, the space between the mangrove roots was so narrow the canoes no longer fit through them. We were well and truly stuck unless we got over our disgust and hopped out of the canoes and into the blackish smelly water.

We trekked through the marsh, having to lift and push the canoes sideways through tight spots and over roots, slipping and sliding through the slippery mud. In the sticky oppressive heat, we marched on, occasionally falling victim to huge sinkholes hidden under the water, impossible to see until you had stepped into one and sunk to your chest, grabbing onto hanging branches to pull ourselves out and getting our fingers pinched by crabs. Our legs were scratched by branches hidden under the water and the mosquitoes were out en masse. The 5 of us who had been stranded out there sang songs and joked to keep our spirits up as we began to get dehydrated and the canoes filled with the brackish water, covering all our stuff and even all of my food for the day in the pungent muddy water. We had to stop to catch our breath, my chest getting tight with the beginning signs of my asthma acting up. Simply getting through the mangrove marsh took us two grueling hours. As we approached the end, the clear freshwater springs allowed us to hop back into the canoes and gladly paddle the rest of the way. We had made it when the trek had seemed interminable. From somewhere deep inside us, we had found the strength to push through. We were survivors, and we are stronger and closer for it.

When we finally made it to Chicken Key, muddy and exhausted but having had a truly unique experience, we finally got to the main event: trash clean up. Chicken Key is covered in the detritus of everything that falls into the Bay. We found dozens of pairs of shoes, chairs, pool floats, plastic buckets. There were enough glass bottles to fill a whole canoe and with our 10 canoes, there was still so much we couldn’t carry. We returned to the mainland exhausted, but having done something, however small, to help preserve our precious and endangered ocean and every moment was worth it, an unforgettable experience.

Wynwood as Text

Félix González-Torres exhibition at the De La Cruz Collection
(Photo by Gabriela Lastra CC By 4.0)

I have always known Wynwood to be the neighborhood of the artists and the hipsters. It is littered with little galleries, trendy restaurants, and of course the famous Wynwood Murals. It is well known as a neighborhood for the young and artistic, hosting some truly incredible collections of contemporary art. The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse, which we were privileged to go and receive a tour of from Mr. Martin Z. Margulies himself, is an incredible deposit of some of the greatest works of contemporary art. As soon as you walk in, there is a gorgeous Frank Stella work full of colors and three-dimensional pieces. Miami is a city of modernity and mixing cultures and from the merging of cultures comes the birth of creativity. Contemporary art is not something I’m very familiar with or particularly interested in, but I have never been to a contemporary art exhibit like this one. Every single piece was beautiful and captivating. I will admit to being drawn more to pieces with story and significance like those at the De Las Cruz Collection. Felix Gonzalez-Torres is a name I did not know before and now I’m unlikely to forget it. Every single piece captivated me, from his “31 Days of Bloodwork” to his pile of his father’s favorite candy. What the De La Cruz and the Margulies families are doing is the work of modern-day heroes. They collect these beautiful works of art and then open their homes and lives to the public, not for any kind of profit but simply for the joy of sharing something beautiful with people who might otherwise never get the chance. The De La Cruz family offer scholarships and during art Basel week, literally open the doors of their home for people to come in and marvel at all the beauty they have collected. If being willing to share such incredible gifts with the world simply because it is a kind thing to do, with no benefit to themselves whatsoever, does not make you a hero I don’t know what does.

HistoryMiami as Text

Picture of workers on Flagler’s railroad at the HistoryMiami Museum
(Photo by Gabriela Lastra CC By 4.0)

The HistoryMiami Museum is located in the heart of the city, directly across from both the Miami Dade Public Library’s Main Branch as well as the Government Center Metro station. The Museum itself is one of the largest history museums in South Florida, with its permanent exhibit spanning around 10,000 years of human occupation on the peninsula. The exhibit, “Tropical Dreams: A People’s History of South Florida”, covers everything from prehistoric settlements of the original inhabitants to modern-day history. We were lucky enough to receive a tour by HistoryMiami Educator Maria Moreno, who not only took us around and gave an amazing tour but was honest. She didn’t gloss over problematic parts of history and she didn’t sugarcoat the areas where the museum was lacking. The entire history of slavery in Florida was a single display, tucked into a corner next to the section on pirates in the Caribbean.

History, as they say, is written by the victors. It is not nearly as surprising as it should be that that was all there was. No one paid attention to slaves and records are few and colored through the lens of white supremacy. And yet, the HistoryMiami Museum has acknowledged this problem of erasure in the history of marginalized groups and is working to correct it. As we walked further, we came upon an image of black workers from Flagler’s railroad, the men who were given the right to vote only long enough to have Miami incorporated and then were immediately segregated to “Colored Town”. This image is one I thought about long after we left. We have been to several incredible historic cites throughout the course of this class and one thing that was very common is that most of the names of the people who actually worked on the railroads or built the beautiful villas at Vizcaya and the Deering Estate, mostly people of color and immigrants from the Caribbean, were all but forgotten, their names lost forever in favor of the white men who benefited from their labor sometimes at the cost of their lives. This picture, however, was different. Underneath the picture hanging on the wall was a laminated sheet of paper with the title “Black Pioneers of Miami”. It was a list of names of the 12 men in the picture. They were not forgotten. It was and amazing exhibit, engaging and vibrant with so much to look at I could stand there for days and still go back to take in every detail.

Miami Art as Text

Works by Joana Choumali, Faig Ahmed, and Godfried Donkor at UNTITLED, Art.
(Photo by Gabriela Lastra CC By 4.0)

“The More Things Change” by Gabriela Lastra of FIU at UNTITLED, Art.

Miami Art Week is one of the busiest weeks in Miami. People stream in from the world over to enjoy, buy, and sell art at any of the numerous fairs the spread from Miami Beach all over the sunny city. Works by artists from our very own city are displayed alongside those from as far as Ghana. People from all walks of life come to enjoy this once a year treat, around 83,000 people at Art Basel in 2018 from renowned celebrities to local college students and everything in between. Our visit begins at UNTITLED, Art, a gallery known for its contemporary focus. It is a sprawling white tent right on the sand in Miami’s most iconic neighborhood, South Beach. It hosts collections from galleries in various countries and a plethora of artists. We had the opportunity to speak with several gallery directors, including some local and some from very far away. Most notable in my mind were exhibits by Sapar Contemporary featuring works by Faig Ahmed and Gallery 1957 featuring works by Joana Choumali and Godfried Donkor. These artists gripped my attention because though each was displayed as contemporary artists, their works were not at all what I picture when I think of contemporary art.

“Coherency” by Faig Ahmed is a gorgeously woven carpet, steeped in the tradition and history of it’s medium and yet with its unique shape one cannot say that it is anything but contemporary. Similarly, Godfried Donkor’s “St Muhammad” with its oil and gold leaf halo on linen calls immediately to mind the flat disc halos of medieval art, before artists learned to show perspective in their paintings. His subject matter, however, is most definitely a modern figure, infamous boxer Muhammad Ali. Joana Choumali’s “Sometimes I wonder if they can hear it as well” is a gorgeous 2 by 1-meter mixed media digital photo printed on cotton canvas and then embroidered with chiffon and tulle. Three very different artists expressing modern, relevant ideas using very traditional mediums and techniques so very different from the chrome and glass and led lights that come to mind when I hear the word contemporary. In the constantly changing landscape of Miami, these traditional mediums almost juxtapose the past and present, to say nothing of the incredible stories they tell beyond a surface level perusal. Donkor’s works particularly are callbacks to the brutality of bare-knuckle slave boxing in the British colonies where a slave could fight his way to freedom, not unlike the often-disdained brutal ways of the Roman Coliseum. We think we have come so far and learned so much, that the past is so far behind us. We always do. Sometimes I think there are yet things we could stand to learn from the past. With all our modernity and advancements, we are so set in our ways. Our planet is dying around us and people refuse to change, to act. Its time for a new Renaissance of an entirely different kind, to learn from the past and change, to attempt to save our future. We must learn from the mistakes of the past and try to do better now.

Everglades as Text

Scenes from the Everglades (Photos by Gabriela Lastra CC by 4.0)

“What are we conserving?” by Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Everglades National Park

The Everglades is the widest river in the world, nearly 60 miles from shore to shore at its widest point. The River of Grass is vast and unfathomable, with so much left untouched deep at its center. With over 1.5 million acres it is easy to see how a person could wander in and never come out. The morning of our visit dawned crisp and clear, colder still when compared to the unseasonably hot January it had been. As we stepped into the crystalline freezing water, it became clouded by our footsteps. Everywhere we walked we stirred up the settled silt, broke up the spongy periphyton that grew everywhere you looked. Our guide for the day, Ranger Dylan and several of her colleagues guided us expertly over the deceptive prairie-like marsh, towards what many might confuse for a round island out on the water. This particular “island”, she tells us, gets its name because it used to be two that eventually met in the middle. The Double Dome, however, is not an island. At the center of the trees, right where they are tallest, is actually where the water is deepest, a gator hole. As we walk, Ranger Dylan tells us about the park and the species found hidden in the sun-dappled waters and cool shade where the Bromeliads bloom. Conservation of nature is something very recent in the grand scheme of things. Everglades national park was only established in 1947, but people have lived on the Florida Peninsula for thousands of years, and our presence has had a not insignificant influence in the changes to the landscape. The question then is what exactly are we preserving? Do we preserve the everglades as they are now, or as they were in 1947? Have we missed our chance entirely? We kill the snakes and the lizards because they are invasive, they ruin the natural landscape and are creepy-crawling-cold  but what of the feral cats who eat our native birds? What about coyotes who wandered into the everglades naturally, filling an existing niche left behind by the extinct wolves and diminishing panthers? There are no easy answers, no simple solutions. Everyone has an opinion and how can we determine what the right answer is?

South Beach as Text

Art Deco District Miami (Photos by Gabriela Lastra CC by 4.0)

“Façade” by Gabriela Lastra of FIU at South Beach

Miami is a city of affectations and façades, and no part of Miami embodies this more perfectly than its most famous neighborhood: South Beach. South Beach has long been the iconic face of Miami, with its long stretch of beach and small brightly colored buildings. The characteristic style of the area is called Art Deco, a movement which debuted in Paris in the early 1920’s before making its way to Miami. At the time Miami was barely a city, having only been incorporated in 1896. The style it took in Miami of pastel buildings and water motifs is evident all along Ocean Drive. The Art Deco Historic District is composed of over 900 buildings built between the 1920’s and the 1940’s. In the 1980’s colorful South Beach was all but abandoned, and its unique buildings almost demolished. Now, the entire area is on the National Register of Historic Places and any new buildings built must comply with very strict restrictions, imitating the style of the older buildings to blend in with the skyline.

South Beach has been host to a people as varied and colorful as its appearance. In the early days of South Beaches glory, Black jazz musicians would come fill the bars at South Beach, drawing all kinds of crowds, but they were not permitted to stay in the hotels at which they played. Later South Beach became a haven for the colorful LGBTQ+ community of Miami, hosting the first pride parade in Miami in 1972. Now, though the street signs bear pride flags much of what made South Beach a refuge for the community has changed, geared more towards tourism than anything else.

Lotus House as Text

FIU Honors College Students Volunteering at the Lotus House Shelter
(Photos by Gabriela Lastra CC by 4.0)

“Community” by Gabriela Lastra of FIU at Lotus House Shelter

The Lotus House Shelter, located in the heart of the historic district of Overtown Miami, opened its doors in 2006. It is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to help women and mothers with small children who are experiencing poverty and homelessness. The facility has grown from house to village in the 14 years since its doors opened, helping countless of women with counseling programs, job training, and even a thrift shop where the guests of the village can work. In fact, the thrift shop is managed and operated exclusively by Lotus House guests and alumni. In the midst of the Covid-19 world health crisis, sanitation is a vital part of our everyday lives. At the Lotus House this is doubly true, with dozens of women and children coming and going every day, using the same rooms, and eating in the same places. Operation of the shelter in this difficult time is essential and the job of keeping it clean is constant. It’s a very large facility, with community rooms, yoga, acupuncture, a hair and nail salon, and even play and art areas for the children. To be able to come here and help was a privilege and an inspiration for all of us who participated. Every part of the running of the Lotus Village is important, from the storage rooms to the kitchen. It truly helps the people who come through those doors, seeing as most of the people who we met working there are alumni of the Lotus Village who were able to use their experiences there to help them build a better life.

On this occasion, where the Miami in Miami class took the time to give back to the community, I was on the sanitation team, cleaning the handles of doors, chairs and sofas, and even the trashcans. Everywhere that anyone could possibly put their hands on has to be sanitized to avoid the spread of any illnesses in a place with so many women, and especially children. Others from the class volunteered in the kitchen, helping to serve and pack lunch for over 200 guests. The entire day was an eye-opening experience. We have done community service before in this class, but this one was unique. Where the Chicken Key cleanups are helping the world in general, here at the Lotus House we had direct contact with the people we were helping. We got to see firsthand the impact of our actions, and it was an extremely rewarding experience.

The Deering Estate as Text

The Midden and Pine Rockland Habitat (Left) and the Tequesta Burial Mound (Right) (Photos by Gabriela Lastra CC by 4.0)

« Secrets » by Gabriela Lastra of FIU at The Deering Estate

The Deering Estate is Miami’s jewel, perched on the edge of Biscayne Bay. It is around 450 acres of beautiful Miami nature, Miami as it was before the Europeans came and devastated everything in their path. There are signs of people living on the Estate lands for 10,000 continuous years, long before the Europeans set foot in this part of the world. The Estate has a million secrets hidden along its trails, including the midden where signs of Tequesta habitation lay scattered in shell tools all along the ground and the Tequesta Burial, where Miami’s true natives buried their dead. The Tequesta people were the original residents of the Deering Estate, but today there are only faint traces of them left. The Estate owes its name to Charles Deering, a wealthy industrialist from Chicago who purchased the local inn, the Richmond Cottage, and the surrounding lands in 1916, and built his Stone House to house his extensive art collection. Deering was a conservationist as well as an art collector, and it is thanks to him that we have this preserved area with several Miami habitats found over the land, including pine Rocklands, tropical hardwood hammocks, and mangrove swamps. The Estate also runs along the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, known locally as the Miami Rock Ridge, a natural elevated rock formation that runs from South Dade and the Everglades all the way to New York.

The Deering Estate preserves both the natural landscape and the man-made structures of 1920’s Miami. A walk through its shady trails reveals the incredible diversity found in South Florida, so much of it lost now to human habitation. Places like the Deering Estate are precious and rare, containing thousands of years of history from the Cutler Fossil Cite to the wreck of a Cocaine Cowboys plane being slowly reclaimed by nature. The Estate is a link to our past; a historical, environmental, and cultural treasure. So much of Florida’s natural habitats have been destroyed and its species lost, but it is never to late to do your part for preservation.

Quarantine as Text

Photo by Gabriela Lastra CC by 4.0

« Living History » by Gabriela Lastra of FIU in Quarantine

There is a curse which seems appropriate in these times, which I am sure we have all heard often enough recently: May you live in interesting times.

Today is my 47th day in quarantine since the COVID-19 global pandemic forced Miami-Dade County to shut down. On March 11th of 2019 FIU announced that in addition to the canceling of all summer study abroad programs, it would be moving to remote learning, effective immediately, until April 4th. As April 4th got nearer, the pandemic only got worse. The university announced that remote learning would extend until the end of the Spring semester, and graduation would be cancelled. This is the part that affected me the most, as I am a senior this year and was meant to have graduated yesterday, April 25th.

COVID-19 which is commonly known as the Corona Virus first appeared in Wuhan, China around November. In just a few short months it had spread to every corner of the world, killing thousands. It has changed the world we live in, with paranoia and suspicion on the faces of everyone you see. The grocery store shelfs are empty of essentials more often than not, and the crops rot in the fields with no one to harvest or deliver them. The whole country has been paralyzed. It feels like a surreal nightmare, like something out of a movie and not something that can really be happening in real life. Because I suffer from severe asthma, my family has been extra paranoid and I have not left my house, even to go to the grocery store, more than two or three times in the almost two months since the quarantine began.

I suppose things have not been all bad. Despite the fear and uncertainty, the incalculable losses, and the economic difficulties that seem to loom ahead, I can’t remember ever spending so much time with my family before. We are closer than ever, and we have taken the time to stop and appreciate all the ways we have been blessed in our lives. The planet too has had unexpected benefits. The reduced human activity has allowed animals a chance to breath and recuperate.

It is difficult to know what lies ahead or how much longer this will last. Everyone is talking about the corona virus all the time, but the predictions keep constantly changing. There is one thing I know for sure and it is this: we are witnessing living history.

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