Miami in Miami: Jena Nassar

Hi everyone! My name is Jena Nassar, an 18-year-old undergraduate student at the Honors College at Florida International University. I am majoring in nutrition and aspire to complete my Masters in Physician Assistant Studies. From an early age, I discovered my passion for global conservation and experiencing the natural world through travel. I hope to understand worlds vastly different from my own and shed light on those whose regular lives consist of unimaginable, untold hardships.

Despite having lived my entire life in South Florida, even proudly exclaiming to be from Miami for the sake of simplicity when traveling, I can’t say I’ve experienced nearly as much of the city as the typical south Floridian. It has become apparent that my perception of Miami- mile-long beaches coupled with bipolar weather patterns- just barely scratches the surface of everything that is this beautiful city. That is why Miami in Miami is more than a course- it is an opportunity to finally explore beyond the extravagant facade of Miami and discover the far-reaching history of the city many of us call home. Through hands-on interaction and exploration, I hope to surpass the boundaries of my own secure world and take the knowledge gained through this opportunity to leave a positive impact on people near and far.

Miami as Text

The Miami Experience by Jena Nassar of FIU at Miami Metro Station

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Prior to this first class excursion, the extent of my interaction with Miami was limited. I had visited the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens when I was 14, and that’s about it. So unsurprisingly, I was unsure what a day of hopping from Metro stop to Metro stop would entail. I did, however, have a few preconceptions. I envisioned a plethora of historical statues and beautiful paintings; I envisioned a multitude of restaurants serving cultural cuisine; and most intimidating of all, I envisioned unconditioned train carts overcrowded with herds of people. Miami met some of those expectations exactly, and in other ways, truly surprised me.

The first time I visited Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, I had primarily focused on the intrinsic beauty of the luxurious villa before me. This past Wednesday’s visit to the gardens was unlike the previous in that I reached beyond just appreciating the glamour. I pondered the story that led to the miraculousness standing before me and thus, came the history that is James Deering, commissioner of the estate’s construction. Vizcaya’s entrance was notably surrounded by a deep moat, which Deering ordered to be filled with cacti to deter trespassers, a feature left unnoticed my first time there. Yet the most surprising takeaway was that art found itself way beyond the entrance walls. Statues influenced by Vizcaya’s architecture and antiques could even be found at the Vizcaya Metrorail stop. 

Mural by Purvis Young in Northside Metrorail Station

Jackson’s Soul Food offered an authentic and delicious southern menu by an even more gracious staff. Professor Bailly pointed out that he had spotted an image of a blended, collage painting hanging on the restaurant’s walls; this was the same unmistakable mural by Purvis Young found scaling the wall of Northside Metrorail station. Art is entwined into every aspect of Miami culture- a theme I noticed throughout the day.

Miami Metrorail

As for the glue that held each piece together, the machine that allowed us to visit these sites in the first place, I could not have been more wrong. The system I thought I would never need to use was nothing short of enjoyable. From the uniqueness of the domino-styled pillars (art!) to the comfortably conditioned train carts, nothing had contrasted from my preconceptions more than the Miami Metrorail. 

I am astonished at how much more there was to the day than I had anticipated. Even having visited Vizcaya once before, truly learning its history made me feel like I never had– like this was an entirely new experience. The gratuitous welcome from Jackson’s Soul Food, the complex Metro system that reliably runs round the clock, the history found anywhere you choose to look– these all cultivate to make Miami a piece of art in and of itself. 

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Vizcaya as Text

Standing in the Steps of the Forgotten” by Jena Nassar of FIU at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Miami River

If you were asked to think of the historical figures who laid the foundations of Miami, who would come to mind? You’re probably thinking of Henry Flagler, the famous railroad visionary–  or perhaps your brain went to Julia Tuttle, the Mother of Miami. Regardless of which notable dignitary popped into your head, behind them are innumerable, unnamed individuals whose stories are rarely told. This week’s excursion was all about discovering the unknown realities of those forgotten names.

Fort Dallas

Alongside the waters of the Miami River stands Fort Dallas, which was purchased to be a military fort. Lucia Meneses, a kind woman who offered to give an impromptu look inside the barracks, explained its various functions overtime. The properties were used as slave quarters for the then prosperous plantation. However, fear of the seminole war conflicts resulted in it being abandoned. It then went on to become Miami’s first courthouse. While I was only vaguely familiar with Julia Tuttle’s remarkable involvement, I was more captivated by the idea of standing in the very same quarters that slaves once lived in.

Stepping into James Deering’s lavish mansion of Vizcaya, you cannot help but to become, simply put, entranced. Each room, each tapestry, each sculpture– each encompassing a story waiting to be told.

Vizcaya Museum & Gardens

Vizcaya is a cultivation of elements taken from extrinsic sources; various countries, traditions, religions, etc. To put it simply, one might say it is cultural appropriation. Vizcaya’s renaissance room is just one that exhibits this form of appropriation. The intricate tapestry towering along the wall of the room showcases Islamic artistic traditions, all the while, a Catholic painting of the virgin Mary hangs opposite of it. 

Although the class may have ended with me leaving Vizcaya, I was leaving Vizcaya with a new lesson. Everything that we have comes from a lot of different people, not just the one celebrated individual. As explained by Professor Bailly, “there are the people with the money, there are the people with the idea, there are the people with the engineering, and then there are the people who actually build things.” It was truly an eyeopener having the opportunity to stand in those same steps of the forgotten and nameless figures of Miami’s history. 

Deering Estate as Text

“Fossils. Dun dun dun!” by Jena Nassar of FIU at the Deering Estate

The Deering Estate is a house museum located along the edge of Biscayne Bay. While today standing as a prominent historic site, it stood in the 1920s as the home of Charles Deering: industrialist, philanthropist, and American businessman. The structure built in 1896 was originally known as the Richmond Cottage. After closing for business in 1915, Deering purchased the Richmond and began on multiple renovations, as well as structural additions to the property that would serve as a winter home to him and his wife. 

As an avid collector, Deering spent his years residing at the estate filling it with paintings, books, and antique furnishings. Deering passed away in 1927 and the estate was purchased by the State of Florida in 1986. The Deering Estate then became a magnificent cultural landmark and historical site. While most of his art collection was donated to museums by his daughters, some of his items were brought back. The estate, as if frozen in time, showcases the 1920’s Miami era with its antique contents. 

Even before Deering’s residency, the land had already cultivated 10,000 years of human occupation, including the town of Cutler and Tequesta settlements. As you marvel the acres of land surrounding the estate, flashes of its past are hinted in the form of the fossils spewed around. The Cutler Fossil Site consists of a large watering hole packed with Pleistocene fossils. Similarly, there lies evidence of a Tequesta community that once resided there. 

Image by Fauzan Sheikh

Fittingly, the Deering Estate is also a hub for diverse wildlife. In contrast to the previously discovered bones of ancient, extinct species, I was astonished to see the estate fosters a thriving ecosystem with natural plants and wildlife. My fascination only grew stronger once I made the connection that this current ecosystem is quite literally living on the bones of a past one. It also serves as a reminder to preserve what we do have and to acknowledge the natural beauty we can find when we take a moment to appreciate nature.

Chicken Key as Text

“Us vs. Nature” by Jena Nassar of FIU at Chicken Key

There are not many people who can spend their Wednesday morning canoeing out to a beautiful, sunny island and also say they’re actually in class. Fortunately for me, I’m one of the lucky ones. What I love most about this class is that I know each excursion will be an adventure, and this Wednesday was nothing short of one. We were scheduled to canoe out to Chicken Key, a small island about a mile out from the main Deering Estate. I had been kayaking before and was well versed in how strenuous this trip could be. What I was not prepared for was spending the next two hours muddy, bruised, and downright frightened.

The first ten minutes of canoeing went as expected; it consisted of my partner and I attempting, but failing, to steer in a straight line for more than 10 seconds at a time. Right as we finally discovered an efficient rhythm, Professor Bailey enthusiastically invited a small group of us to follow him into a mangrove river off to the side. Clearly, we had forgotten anything we had just learned about paddling synchronously as we were all over the place- turning right when we wanted to steer left, backward when we wanted to steer forward, and so on. 

It was not long before we lost sight of Professor Bailey, and soon my partner and I found ourselves in a narrow pathway enveloped by mangroves along with three other canoers. Before we knew it, the tide had gotten so low that it was completely impossible to row through the river, and most definitely too late to turn back. Expecting to get only minimally wet throughout the day (how naive of me), you can imagine my hesitation as I was told to get out of the canoe and trudge through the muddy water. 

Walking through the water barefoot was not an option. It was knee-deep, mushy, and we couldn’t see what we were stepping on. The scariest part of all was the sporadic, waist-deep holes we would every so often plummet into. I was informed that these “holes” were alligator burrows, which is exactly what you want to hear while you’re walking through unclear water.

There seemed to be no end in sight to this ceaseless mangrove river, but there came a point where we collectively decided that no matter how miserable we were, we would not stop pushing until we were out. Two canoes, one kayak, five exhausted people dragging them, and one bleeding student later, we made it past the never-ending mangrove hell. We finally tracked down Professor Bailly and met up with the class. You can imagine our reactions when after talking his ear off about our mini-survival expedition, Professor Bailly simply asked, “wait… you were following me?”

The remainder of the day was spent exploring the island and picking up trash and debris. Seeing the overwhelming amount of garbage that soon flooded the canoes made me realize the difference just a small group of people can make. Although I had missed a large portion of the class, I certainly left Chicken Key with a new-found understanding of the planet’s condition. The lesson could not have come at a more relevant time, as the current state of the planet only grows more and more severe. Another thing I realized: if I were to ever appear on “Running Wild with Bear Grylls,” I would totally survive.

Wynwood as Text

“Canvas City” by Jena Nassar of FIU at Wynwood and the Design District

Wynwood, although just a mere 30 minutes from my home, manages to somehow feel like a world away. If you’ve ever stepped foot into Miami’s Art District, you know what I mean. But for those of you who haven’t, just imagine a community used as a canvas, and only the most imaginative minds are free to depict any message that speaks true to them. That community is Wynwood- a cultural phenomenon so distinct from our typical, unostentatious neighborhoods, that you can’t help but feel transported to an artistic land far, far away.

Our first visit in Miami’s art district was the Margulies Collection. It featured a large array of fine art in the form of paintings, vintage photography, and sculptures. What appealed to me the most about this collection was that it went beyond what is usually seen as “orthodox”. While the conventional paintings existed, many of the pieces were unique, bizarre, and jarring. However, as Mr. Margulies explained, art doesn’t need to be pretty. It simply needs to mean something; to challenge an idea.

One piece that stuck out to me the most was a display of countless burlap human silhouettes, varying sizes and height, but all headless. It was strikingly reminiscent of the holocaust, the headless bodies indicative of how people were dehumanized and degraded to just numbers. 

The second visit was to the De La Cruz Collection in the Design District. I have never been more fascinated by artwork than I was when viewing this collection. Each piece told a story much more complex than anyone could have anticipated, and I found myself avidly walking up to each, prepared to guess its story. One of the very first pieces we viewed was by Felix Gonzalez-Torres known as the 31 Days of Bloodworks. At first glance, the white canvases may not appear to be much, but I soon discovered their format was indicative of a calendar. More specifically, the month his lover passed away.

31 Days of Bloodworks by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Photo by Gaby Lastra.

Towards the end of our visit, we ran into Carlos and Rosa De La Cruz, the owners of the art gallery. The two could not have been more gracious to us, and Rosa left us with these words: “Always give, and try to help someone.” Both Mr. Margulies and Carlos & Rosa De La Cruz offered to share their love for art, and that’s what they gave to Miami. 

HistoryMiami as Text

“Close to Home” by Jena Nassar of FIU at the HistoryMiami Museum.

The story of Miami is one that began 10,000 years ago with the arrival of prehistoric Indians. Their arrival to Florida was one full of acclimation- crucial to their success in the new environment. Their lifestyles were restricted to the resources the early South Florida climate had to offer.

Boats used by Cuban and Haitian immigrants on their journey to South Florida

Our excursion was supplemented by the gracious insight of our HistoryMiami Educator, Maria Moreno, who accompanied us on our tour throughout the museum. At one of the final installments of the tour, we witnessed boats used by Cuban and Haitian immigrants during their travel to South Florida. As Maria had informed us, a museum visitor who had once stood within the exhibit for hours actually claimed the small, wooden boat as the one he used on his journey to Florida. Able to recall the materials he used and the way he had constructed it, the boat was indeed verified as his. I cannot even begin to imagine the sense of admiration the generations following after must feel. Their family’s arrival to South Florida is indeed an awe-inspiring piece of history that will continue to be told for generations to come.

The Freedom Tower, known as the “Ellis Island of the South”, served a crucial role as the Cuban Assistance Center from 1962 to 1974. Today the building illustrates the story of humans seeking political asylum who were welcomed with open arms.

The Freedom Tower

Every step I took toward the Freedom Tower, the more I gained this sense of familiarity. It was not until we were standing beneath it that I realized I had been here once before: eight years ago protesting for the safety of Syrian refugees. As a ten-year-old, you cannot fathom the idea that anyone would deny innocent humans safety and protection. Standing beneath the tower, Professor Bailly’s lecture suddenly hit close to home. As a child waving my Syrian flag and dawning my “free Syria” t-shirt with hundreds of other Syrians, no one had bothered to explain to me the reason why the protest was here. Being at the Freedom Tower eight years later, I now understand why. The tower is a symbol of everything we were fighting for: hope, safety, and freedom.

Miami Art as Text

“Louder than Words” by Jena Nassar of FIU at Art Basel

Unsaying It by Joana Choumali

Miami Art Week is a cultural whirlwind fueled by creativity at every corner. The first week of each December brings the city masterful paintings, sculptures, and performances for art enthusiasts and collectors alike. Although having lived in South Florida for the entirety of my eighteen years, this was my first Miami Art Week- and I could not have imagined a better way to wrap up the Miami in Miami semester.

Coherance by Faig Ahmed

There is no form of expression more unmediated than a piece of artwork- and this stands true for all forms. Something as wordless as a painting is able to transcend all boundaries of communication and provoke a thought into the minds of every viewer. It just takes one second of a glance. Another second later, and the viewer may feel something entirely different. The power of art expression lies in the fact that its significance is up to each individual beholder.

Speaking about transcending boundaries, UNTITLED, Art and Art Miami featured some of the most conceptually astounding pieces- one of which was Super 30 by Peter Halley. The piece featured vibrant-colored squares and lines resembling prison cells, as well popcorn-ceiling textures that immediately caught my eye. Halley’s work represented the monotonous life constraints many fall victim to, despite living in a vibrant world of adventure. Two other artists who truly captivated me with their work included Faig Ahmed and Joana Choumali, who made use of distinctive mediums. Ahmed created wool carpets by hand, whereas Choumali utilized photography and embroidery to create tapestries through which she explored her identity.

Super 30 by Peter Halley

Perhaps the most personally influential and thought provoking exhibition was the one where each of us as students were able to play a hand in the installation. Environmental artist Xavier Cortada developed collaborative art projects as a part of the Futurescape Miami: Skyline to Shoreline exhibition, just outside of UNTITLED, Art. The project we participated in was Letters to the Future, in which each of us wrote a short letter to those living in year 2119. Cortada aimed to address the current climate crisis by provoking thoughts of the impending threat that is the state of our planet. As this is an issue I care about immensely, the project allowed me to reflect on what I have been doing, but also how much more there is that I should be doing.

Everglades as Text

“Alligator Adventures!” by Jena Nassar of FIU at Everglades National Park

The Everglades National Park hosts one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems within its 1.5 million acres of land. It’s five habitats– the Hammock, Mangrove, Pineland, Sawgrass, and Slough– are home to an array of wildlife. Some inhabitants include manatees, bobcats, and the endangered Florida Panther. Yet, not one of those compares to the monstrous creature that is the American Alligator. 

I’ve always had a difficult-to-explain sense of enticement towards alligators. Perhaps it’s their ability to stealthily lurk through the depths of our very own backyards, or the fact that they look like 21st-century dinosaurs. In my opinion, they are one of the creepiest creatures, which only further drives my fascination with them. 

I had been excitedly anticipating the Everglades class day for weeks– just until the morning of. Of course, of all days, Florida had randomly decided it wanted to take part in this year’s winter. My outfit very quickly proved to be insufficient. Professor Bailley was quick to call out my poor choice of footwear (crocs because I didn’t want to ruin a pair of sneakers!), and suddenly the water didn’t seem too welcoming. But with the added warmth of a friend’s beanie, our slough slog adventure had begun.

Our class was led through the Everglades by Park Ranger Dylann Turffs, who expertly guided us through the mangrove trees and slushy water. Prior to this excursion, I had never heard of slough slogging, but I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity we had to experience the Everglades in the most hands-on way possible. The slow move through the water and uneven terrains was never short of thrilling, not to mention the looming threat of possible gators or snakes encounter.

If there were to be just one “I’m in class right now, wtf?” moment, it was without a doubt as I ventured off for a minute to an area where the water was undisturbed and crystal clear. I looked up through the tall canopy of trees, beams of sunlight casting though gaps in the leaves, with the soft sounds of my class’ water splashes in the distance. I wish I had a picture of my view in that exact moment– the intricate beauty, the light twinkling on the still water and greenery all around. But perhaps it would have just been futile. Surely, no photo would have been able to capture that concealed magnificence deep within the Everglades National Park.

South Beach as Text

“Architectural Artistry” by Jena Nassar of FIU in South Beach

Photo by Jena Nassar CC by 4.0

South Beach is located on the southernmost tip of Miami Beach. For years, the destination has remained a travel favorite for tourists coming in from all over. South Beach has become the setting of countless of movie and tv sets– Scarface and Miami Vice, to name a couple. And with its coastline views and alluring nightlife, it’s easy to see why. 

Prior to making its way to our tv screens, South Beach was nothing more than unsettled farmland. The Lum Brothers purchased 160 acres of the land for coconut farming in 1870. In 1912, the area landed at the hands of the Lummus Brothers, who envisioned an oceanfront city. Thus, South Beach was born. Through many collective efforts, the city then grew into a renowned playground for the rich and famous. 

One of South Beach’s most notable aspects is its architecture. The uniquely structured, white and pastel colored buildings all along Ocean Drive are a part of the Art Deco Historic District. The hotels and residences along the island are marked by nautical port-hole windows and “eyebrows” to block out the Miami sun. Because no building was to be taller than three stories, vertical lines can be seen on many of the hotel faces to make them appear taller. 

Photo by Jena Nassar CC by 4.0

Compared to the futuristic, silver skyline that takes over much of Miami, South Beach is a refreshing dose of architectural artistry. The MacArthur Causeway is a machine that transports you somewhere entirely different. One minute, you’re driving through skyscraper central, and the next, you’re walking on the grass in front of a strip of short, vibrant, and quirky hotels, each with an element unique from the last.

The Deering Estate as Text

Deering Estate Photo by JW Bailly CC BY 4.0

My time in Professor Bailly’s course has offered me the chance to uncover many hidden places I would never have otherwise experienced. But none have had a history quite as staggering as the Deering Estate. Located along the South Dade coast, the Miami estate served as the former home to Charles Deering in the 1920s. Today, it stands as a 21st century museum, hosting many grand events, various classes, and tours. Its goal is to protect the historic legacy of the estate and preserve its beautiful, natural landscape.

The most unique aspect (and certainly my favorite) of the entire estate is its grand Boat Basin. It was built by Deering between 1916 and 1918 as his own boat harbor. Currently, no watercrafts are allowed into the basin due to the fragility of its marine life. The basin is also a common manatee spotting-site, and occasionally a spot to see sharks, turtles, and dolphins.

The estate lies on the shores of Biscayne Bay, just a short distance from Chicken Key Island. Chicken Key was formed of quartz and limestone sand depositions from the ocean currents. One of the most memorable experiences I had in this course was kayaking out to the island one mile off the Deering Estate shore. The day was spent collecting waste and debris from Chicken Key and bringing them back to the estate. The sheer amount of debris piling into each of our kayaks was at first disheartening, but only reiterated the reasons why cleanups like this are crucial part of cleaning the environment.

Lotus House as Text

“Our Last Class” by Jena Nassar of FIU at the Lotus House

The Miami in Miami class at the Lotus House. Photo by Katy Roth (CC by 4.0).

The Lotus House is a non-profit organization committed to ending family and child homelessness and poverty. The aims of the shelter are to improve the lives of women, youth, and children by providing education, sanctuary, support, and resources to empower them and help them blossom. As a class, we had the opportunity to connect with its residents and lend a hand in its daily operations.

As a part of the sanitation crew, I helped in disinfecting the surfaces on the first floor of the center. We began by sanitizing one of the classrooms, wiping down each table, chair, handle, and cubby. We then continued into the children’s playroom, where once again, we wiped down every surface. Everything from the large play bins, down to the smallest, wooden toy block was disinfected. While to some it may seem a little excessive, the sanitation of all surfaces in reach of everyone is a large aspect of ensuring the health and safety of the shelter’s residents. Later on in the afternoon, my classmates and I got the chance to speak with the incredible, empowering women working on the staff. We were told the stories of their upbringings, how many of them came from backgrounds not much different from those at the shelter today. In fact, some of them had been residents of the shelter growing up and wanted to return as a part of the commited and empathetic staff.

Although we were not aware of it at the time, this March 11th class would turn out to be our last– at least of our in-person meetings. Our entire year of learning the ins and outs of Miami, the authentic stories that make it what it is, and the people that served as its backbone, ended in just the perfect way: giving back to the Miami community. Getting to work alongside these strong, courageous women for the day was an unbelievably humbling experience. Whether our impact was large or small, being any part of making the lives of those at the Lotus House better is an opportunity I do not take for granted. 

Quarantine as Text

“A Month at Home” by Jena Nassar of FIU

Spending lots of time outdoors. Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0).

The severity of the current situation first truly struck my family around mid-March. At the time, my sister had been working at an urgent care clinic. Due to the shortage of PPE and other vital protective gear, she actually came into contact with an ill patient– no gloves and no mask– who wasn’t diagnosed with COVID-19 until days later. By the time my sister was notified that she should get tested, we feared that everyone in my house may have already gotten it. Yet after what felt like an eternity of waiting, my sister received her test results– she was negative. While we were incredibly lucky this time, it did not mean we were safe. I have an elderly grandmother, my father is immunocompromised, and my other sister is 7 months pregnant. The risk of any one of them getting the virus is a fear we, as well as many other families, are struggling with daily.

My cat wondering why none of us have left the house in a month. Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0).

This entire past month of quarantine has ensued with great uncertainty. While a scare like that hasn’t repeated itself since, my anxiety lies in the unknown of how this will all end. When is the next time my family will be together again? Telling my brother, who has no choice but to keep his stores open, that he can no longer visit us for fear that he may get my parents sick is something I never imagined having to do. And as we near my sister’s due date, we can’t help but feel worrisome not being with her on that day, let alone visit her in the hospital at all. 

I’ll admit, for a long while I felt hopeless. Each time I’d watch the news I’d feel a heavier weight of despair fall onto my shoulders. Part of it due to the back to back stories of families losing loved ones, and my thought that it is only a matter of time before something happens to someone I love. Another is partly due to the possible end that is seemingly far away in sight. Each time I catch myself falling into that dangerous mindset, I have to remind myself that this is not the concern of one age group, one racial group, or one country. The entire planet is going through this, together. And in turn, we have been able to see the way people can come together for the greater good of mankind. I also find it important for me to remember, no matter what my situation may be, it could always be one million times worse. With just an ounce of perspective, it is easier to think of my anxieties as minuscule and to think of those who truly need our help.  

With that being said, I believe a healthy mindset serves as the strong foundation necessary when enduring troubling times. I found that sticking to a daily routine is what would do this for me– It helps each day at home feel less abnormal. Quarantine has brought the opportunity to do more of the things I enjoy the most, such as spending time outdoors and exploring the night sky through a telescope. It has also allowed me to dedicate more time to learning new things, like strengthening my Arabic and painting skills. Above all, I’ve taken this time to reflect on the things in life that matter the most to me. It has reminded me that my days are numbered, and I do not want to let one pass without having achieved something or made a positive impact, being big or small. In the end, this will be a part of all our lives that we can say we experienced together and I hope we can all come out of this experience having gained more than we lost. 

Spending lots of time outdoors. Photo by Jena Nassar (CC by 4.0).

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