Maria Cruz: Miami in Miami As Texts

Photo by Alex Gutierrez (CC by 4.0)

Maria Karla Cruz Velazquez is a senior at the Honors College at Florida International University majoring in International Relations and minoring in Marketing. Fresh from her study abroad trip she completed this past summer in France with Professor Bailly she is in the midst of completing her final year at FIU, and looking forward to graduating in the Spring of 2020. While her studies are a major focus of her life, outside of school she loves traveling, new places to eat, and hanging out with her friends — all things that can be found in FIU’s Honors College new course Miami in Miami and are bound to make for an exciting semester. Below are her reflections of the these experiences throughout the academic year.

Miami Metro as Text

Photos and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“Redefining Miami,” by Maria Cruz of FIU in Miami on September 11, 2019

For many, art is viewed as the height of a society’s culture. Whether it has historical relevance or ties to the modern scene, a city’s association with art has been a defining factor in its cultural value — and consequently, an individual’s appreciation of these locations. Despite Miami being one of the United State’s most popular metropolitan areas, and my home for the past 17 years, it is a place I took for granted for many reasons. For one, it lacked the cultural appeal and charm that other cities, such as Los Angeles and New York City, are renowned for. For example, in terms of the arts, we are seemingly lacking in widespread access and appraisal. As someone who spent the summer throughout Europe studying the origins of some of the most important artistic developments in the world, the opportunities to view the masterpieces of Monet, Da Vinci, and Caravaggio on a regular basis is something I have increasingly mourned. In many parts of the world, art, in all its forms, is something that is greatly appreciated by the public and largely celebrated; however, the same can not be said for Miami. Or well, that is what I used to believe. Throughout our class excursion day, it became even more clear to me that I could not be more wrong.

With art pieces strung throughout metro station stops and university museums, the city of Miami is investing in enhancing its culture, and in turn, redefining its residents’ cultural values. In our modern-day, art is not limited to the banquet halls of châtalets and internationally known museums for the privileged to visit, but it has transformed to become a public act for all to enjoy. Whether it be the domino themed walkways or recreations of sculptures, art has increasingly become accessible in the city, opening many to the importance of it. For many years, I, and millions of others, merely associated Miami with the art deco style that dominated the look of its downtown area. However, I now know that the city’s ties to art have deeper historical connections, going back several centuries to the times of El Greco. Even more recently, artists such as Purvis Yung have contributed to the contemporary art scene in Miami, reforming people’s views on modern art and its association with the city. I was truly astonished at just how much we discovered by spending just one day using the metro. While I cannot help but lament over all the years and experiences I missed, I cannot be more excited to discover the other hidden gems of Miami and form the relationship with my home that I have missed out on these past 17 years.

Downtown Miami as Text

Photos and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“Ground Zero,” by Maria Cruz of FIU in Downtown Miami on September 25, 2019

With just over a century of its existence, Miami is one of the most unique urban areas I have encountered. Being established in 1896, Miami is one of the youngest major cities in the U.S., still in the midst of developing and forming its identity. The history of the city began with Julia Tuttle’s spirit of entrepreneurship, and since then has become a place for individuals from all backgrounds to start their new lives  — a ground zero, if you will. From the start, Miami has reflected the values and cultures of its everchanging population, making all those that seek its solace feel welcomed. It has become the home of countless marginalized communities, and I, a Cuban immigrant who regularly speaks Spanish outside of my house and can go to a local cafeteria to get a cafecito can attest to that fact. But the reputation of the city was elevated by the artists that found inspiration in this tropical paradise, Haitian and Puerto Rican refugees who sought to rebuild their lives, members of the LGBT community who found themselves accepted, and millions of others that have come to call Miami their home.

Despite this progress, the city is not immune to the tragedies the rest of American history is plagued with. From racism to misogyny, Miami is still dealing with its “problematic past”(as our professor refers to it) and its modern-day implications. Tuttle’s efforts are ignored for the economic achievements of Henry Flagler, the city’s involvement in the violent persecution of Native populations is disregarded,  and its involvement in the discriminatory racial policies of the South is largely omitted from its historical narrative. Therefore, it is imperative that the younger generations, who are still living with the consequences of these actions, do not ignore our past. Rather, as a local community, we must come together to confront these issues while we are in the midst of making history and have the time to make a change. 

Deering Estate as Text

Photos and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“From Fossils to Modern Politics: The Value of the Deering Estate,” by Maria Cruz of FIU at the Deering Estate on October 13, 2019

Following its unmarked paths and navigating through the dense forestry of the Deering Estate you will find yourself in the parts of Miami that are unknown to a majority of the public. With its acres of undeveloped terrain, thriving flora, and undisturbed wildlife, it felt like I was transported from the city I grew up in to a land far, far away. From the Paleolithic era to the times of the Tequesta, the area Charles Deering’s luxurious estate was built on is the very site of centuries of history and environmental splendor. Getting the opportunity to walk through such valuable land, retracing the very steps our ancient animal and human neighbors did, is an opportunity that I never thought I would get to experience in such a “new” and developed city like Miami. Our exploration of the estate was one of the most impactful on-site lectures of the semester for me as it directly exposed me to the historical value of Miami, which, despite my many years of residence here, is something that I have not grasped the full depth of. This lack of awareness partly comes from locals’ unfamiliarity with the subject, which can be blamed on the local government’s refusal to acknowledge the importance of such a past for the sake of future ideals.

Our time at the Deering Estate was enhanced by the presence of its director, Jennifer Tisthammer, as she accompanied us throughout our exploration of the grounds, acting as a personal guide for us. As a group we traversed the pine rockland and hardwood hammock, learning more about the sabor tooth tigers that once roamed the land and the native communities that would years later settle into the same area. However, some of the most important pieces of information I learned that day was not about the history of the estate itself, but rather its modern-day conditions. In a candid conversation, Jennifer spoke about the many issues she has faced throughout her time as director to ensure the estate’s maintenance as a public establishment for the enjoyment and enhancement of the community. From dealing with local politics and its leaders to branching out to schools for research programs, Jennifer and her team have countlessly attempted to preserve the land and the centuries of history contained within it. As someone who studies international relations, I must admit I have a tendency to overlook issues in local politics; however, Jennifer’s words reminded me that if you want there to be any change in this world, you must always start off in your own community.

Chicken Key as Text

Photos and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“Just us, some hermit crabs, glass bottles, and the haunting reality of the state of our planet,” by Maria Cruz of FIU at Chicken Key on October 23, 2019

Our journey to Chicken Key started off quite simple; however, what we were able to accomplish by the end of the day was remarkable. For my peers and me, our day of exploration was filled with many challenges, but without these obstacles we were forced to confront and overcome we would not have been as enlightened on the environmental problems plaguing our local areas. My time in the mangroves demanded I keep up with a level of physicality and awareness that I had not been directly exposed to in a long time, and as a result, my experience has impacted me beyond my original expectations.

Immediately following our canoe ride to the island we were met with a site of chaos, to put it simply. Amongst the trees and hermit crabs were endless pieces of plastic, shards of glass, and countless of other discarded objects that do not belong in such a scenic location. However, much to our surprise the present conditions of Chicken Key were exacerbated the more we got to explore — the further we walked along the shore from our original parking site, the worse things seemed to be. While I was aware of the pollution issues in Miami beaches and other nearby water sources, my day out in Chicken Key was definitely a moment of awakening on how grand this dilemma is in our community. One would originally assume with how pressing of a topic this is our local government would be proactive in matters where our national one is lacking, but what I witnessed out there proved that this is definitely not the case. It is up to us, individual citizens, to unite and protect our own “backyards” because what we found in Chicken Key is not an isolated incident, but rather a microcosm of a much bigger problem that is being continuously ignored. Without us being proactive in this issue, there is no telling of what lays ahead for us. The reality of environmental degradation and its disastrous effects are not our future, their our present, and without any immediate action, we are dooming the land we are dependent on, the many animals that are under our protection, and ourselves. Canoeing back to the Deering Estate, all those that volunteered alongside me knew that we were not just carrying back all these pounds of trash on us, but also the burden of sharing the reality of what we witnessed.

Wynwood as Text

Photos and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“Analog,” by Maria Cruz of FIU at Wynwood on November 6, 2019

Founded in the early 20th century, modern-day Wynwood has come a long way from its farming origins. Now, internationally recognized as the center of Miami’s contemporary art scene, Wynwood and its many trendy locales are seen as the epitome of ingenuity and creativity. As a Miami native, I have spent years hearing the most entertaining anecdotes from those that have braved downtown traffic to pay this spot a visit; however, throughout our time there this week, it became evident to me that behind the trendy brunch spots and nightlife scene there is much more to the charm of this district. Getting to explore the many artworks housed in the  Margulies and de la Cruz (located in the very near Design District) private collections exposed me to a whole new world of analysis and appreciation.

While I had studied the principles of contemporary art back in high school, seeing photos of art in textbooks is never quite the same as viewing the pieces in person. Especially when it comes to such a multidimensional movement. From the alchemist inspired works of Anselm Kiefer to the professions of love by Félix González-Torres, I saw reflections of my own personal life in their art. These were not singled out occurrences, from Magdalena Abakanowicz, Kishio Suga, Wade Guyton, and the many other artists we were exposed to, no matter what medium their work was, I found myself identifying with various aspects of their messages and reflecting on the application of these ideas in my daily life. With the guidance of Martin Margulies and Daniel Clapp, I began to better understand just how impactful modern art can be, whether from local or international artists,  despite its dismissal of it by many. These works of art and their influence is something that should be recognized as one of the many beauties of Miami (aside from that mere week of Art Basel), and not seen as the “hidden Miami secret” my classmates and I originally assumed. Getting to see these contemporary work we found our stories heard, our struggles shared, and our ideas validated — something every individual should have the joy of experiencing.

HistoryMiami as Text

Photos and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“It’s Not Just Us,” by Maria Cruz of FIU at HistoryMiami on November 20, 2019

Miami has its many secrets, leaving us to ponder the reality of what we have been told of its past and the modern-day implications of these “facts.” As I have discovered these past few months, its real history can be found in stories unwritten, photos unfound, buried scandals, and most important of all, the individuals whose existence was purposefully erased from its history. However, the sad reality is that this is only a microcosm of a much larger issue of neglect that plagues the majority of the world.

At HistoryMiami our educator, Maria Moreno, exposed us to the parts of Miami that go uncovered in our school curriculum — which is to say, a majority of it. From the good to the bad, the stories she told illustrated the harsh realities of settling into the problematic, tropical environment that Florida encompasses. While the topics we covered during our tour of the museum pertained to heavy subject matters, these are important conversations about our home that we do not have. Whether this be on purpose (most likely) or not, it would be a disservice to us and the thousands, possibly millions, that have suffered due to such disregard. These issues are of importance now more than ever because the imperial and racists attitudes of the individuals that established our state and country still have influence today, no matter how much people claim progress has been made. Even outside of the museum, the history behind the Gesu Catholic Church and Freedom Tower shows the need for more awareness of the plights of minorities and other marginalized groups. As a Cuban immigrant myself, I was exposed at a young age to implications of sociopolitical challenges so this a cause I am sympathetic for; however, what concerns me are the millions of others I have seen been exposed to in recent years that violently opposed to such an effort. Yet, people still want to claim America is the “leader of the free world.”

Miami Art as Text

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“Miami Art Week Marked by Banana Craze,” by Maria Cruz of FIU at Miami Art Week in December 2019

Since its founding, Miami Art Week has brought thousands of new, unique individuals to the city, and it is definitely an event no one in the city wants to miss. For me, I spent several years merely listening to the many stories of those that attended, always amazed at the increasing levels of absurdity and spectacle these events attracted. However, after my involvement with one of the fairs hosted this year I have a completely different perspective, and experience, with these infamous art shows.

By far, the most memorable occurrence of this year was the banana taped to the wall that sold for $120,000. Although my classmates did not attend the show in which this piece was exhibited, nor did I, it was all everyone talked about. From the most educated in modern fine art to the average citizen that heard about it from a news show highlight, this story swept the week and took everyone by interest. Yet, my own curiosity in it did not derive from the “artwork” itself, but rather its ability to get an entire community to intensely engage with the contemporary art world. Originally, I had assumed I was so informed on this situation because of the environment I had surrounded myself with for the week, but when I would discuss with my friends, peers, and family members the other events of the week this topic was always brought up. It was quite different to see so many people from my everyday life engage in discussions about the piece, whether they be good or bad, and talk about the implications of it. However, my hope is to see these same people engage with art throughout the year and not just during this season, especially when Miami is such a unique location whew there is always something to derive inspiration from.

Everglades as Text

Photos and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“It’s Just Our Backyard (And Yet),” by Maria Cruz of FIU at Everglades National Park on January 22, 2020

Emerged in swampy water up to my knees, using a walking stick to navigate around treacherous roots, and keeping a wary eye out for crocodiles is not how I imagined spending a Wednesday morning. Much less when Miami was experiencing one of its coldest weeks in recent years. Yet, there I was surrounded by my equally as skeptical classmates and very enthusiastic professor as Park Ranger Dylann Turffs led us in our exploration of the Everglades. The first and last time I visited the national park was in elementary school when my class was invited to go on an airboat ride of the mangroves and a small tour of the park. A much less daunting experience than what we were currently doing, yes, but also much less memorable. 

Despite the less than ideal weather conditions and few slips in the slough, my time spent exploring made for an unforgettable afternoon. Wading through the depths of the cypress dome and getting to personally interact with the surrounding landscape gave me a newfound appreciation for Everglades — a sentiment I know I share with my peers. If it were not for this class trip, I do not think I would have taken the chance on an opportunity like this. Ever. In its entirety, the park spans 1.5 million acres all across South Florida, contains 9 different habitats, and is home to countless species of animals varying in sizes. Learning about the diversity and magnitude of the environment is intimidating on its own, facing the reality of it was on a different level. Especially for someone that has rarely interacted so closely with the wildlife of Florida and is trying to cope with the possibility of coming across a crocodile. Yet, I was able to quickly overcome these fears and enjoy the time I got to spend there. My day at the everglades was marked by moments of reflection, contentment, and, most importantly, a desire to complete my quest in discovering the other hidden adventures in Miami and redefine what my home means to me.

South Beach as Text

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“Under the Veil of Glamor,” by Maria Cruz of FIU at South Beach on February 19, 2020

The early 20th-century was a time for great developments and advancements in America, ushering in a new era of innovation in the country. As countries began to interact with one another and exchange ideas and beliefs between their citizens the first few decades of the century saw many important cultural changes. For Americans this included witnessing the rise of art nouveau and art deco buildings, being exposed to the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald and other authors of the Lost Generation, getting involved with newly booming agriculture and industrial markets, and immersing themselves in the drama and mystery that surrounds old Hollywood — all things that we still glorify to this day. Yet, there were other events that spoke to the shortcomings of the land of the free that we choose to overlook to maintain this idealized image of our past. While this veil of glamor and riches did not come to cover the streets of South Beach until later in the century, the tales of grandeur that surround the heart of the city echoes those of the rest of the country.

With society’s focus on the shining riches of new-age stars and opulent decor of high-rise buildings, many of the issues that plagued the poor and marginalized communities in America were neglected. The founding of Miami itself, from South Beach to the surrounding areas, can attest to such a fact. With society’s focus on the shining riches of new-age stars and opulent decor of high-rise buildings, many of the issues that plagued the poor and marginalized communities in America were neglected. The founding of Miami itself, from South Beach to the surrounding areas, can attest to such a fact. During a time of workers’ right violations, rising racial and ethnic tensions, and emerging conversation efforts, amongst many other important social movements, you have millionaires coming down to Florida and developing land for frivolous motives and taking advantage of the misfortunes of the local population. A pattern that we still see to this day. While our class is centered on discovering Miami, this particular day of exploration left me thinking about our relationship to this rest of America. As a local, it is quite easy to feel detached from anything past Ft. Lauderdale; however, our time in South Beach served as a reminder to me that we are not isolated from the historic and social frameworks that influenced the development of the country. With society’s focus on the shining riches of new-age stars and opulent decor of high-rise buildings, many of the issues that plagued the poor and marginalized communities in America were neglected. The founding of Miami itself, from South Beach to the surrounding areas, can attest to such a fact.

With society’s focus on the shining riches of new-age stars and opulent decor of high-rise buildings, many of the issues that plagued the poor and marginalized communities in America were neglected. The founding of Miami itself, from South Beach to the surrounding areas, can attest to such a fact. During a time of workers’ right violations, rising racial and ethnic tensions, and emerging conversation efforts, amongst many other important social movements, you have millionaires coming down to Florida and developing land for frivolous motives and taking advantage of the misfortunes of the local population. A pattern that we still see to this day. From Henry Flagler and Carl Fisher to even Julia Tuttle, we speak very grandly about these figures’ historical role in our city but fail to mention the negative impacts of their actions and the legacy they established.

While our class is centered on discovering Miami, this particular day of exploration left me thinking about our relationship to the rest of America. As a local, it is quite easy to feel disconnected from any place past Ft. Lauderdale; however, our time in South Beach served as a reminder to me that we are not isolated from the historic and social frameworks that influenced the development of the country, but a microcosm to a much larger matter that needs to be addressed.

Lotus as Text

“Help Others, Help Yourself,” by Maria Cruz of FIU at the Lotus House on March 11, 2020

Quite frankly, the day my classmates and I spent volunteering at the Lotus House was one of my favorite offsite excursions. In recent years, most of the volunteering work I had completed was organizing events or activities of that manner for organizations, which was rewarding at the time because it allowed me to raise further awareness for their work and the impacts of supporting their efforts. However, because of the indirect nature of my positions, it has been a while since I contributed my personal time and efforts to face these issues head-on. This is why I was so interested in volunteering at the Lotus House since I first heard of the opportunity, and despite just how unprepared I initially felt when we showed up for our shifts I now feel more motivated than ever to help those whose struggles are being widely ignored in our community. 

Despite the list of chores we had to complete and various hours of work, throughout our day at the Lotus House my classmates and I came to know many of its workers, the story of the women and children that seek their help, and the sanctuary’s mission. While this was a completely new experience for me, it is an opportunity I am truly grateful for having. Looking back on our time here, despite my own economic troubles and personal issues my time in this quarantine world has helped me realize that I am still a position of privilege. Our work at the Lotus House gave me a new perspective on what I, and our community, can do to support one another because no matter how small of a contribution you make, it can result in a grand difference in somebody else’s life. From clearing out the warehouse to sanitizing the common areas, we put maximum efforts in making sure everything was left squeaky clean. The shelter’s workers profusely thanked us for assisting them, expressing to us how despite their best efforts, the “village” (the rebranded name for this shelter) has become so large and there are so many daily operations they have to look over that sometimes menial tasks like these get pushed back.

While we only spent half a day here, I was really looking forward to going back and completing the remaining of my volunteer hours at the Lotus House — a sentiment I know I share with some of my classmates. After personally witnessing how they are making their mission a reality and the change this organization is making in Miami, I feel more empowered than ever to help combat the issues of homelessness and socioeconomic disparity in Miami.

Deering Estate as Text

Photos and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“The Estate’s Past, Present, and Future,” by Maria Cruz of FIU at Deering Estate in March 2020 

With its cottage and stone houses, nature preserve, and unique topography the Deering Estate is one of the most exciting sites I have visited in Miami. From reading this description, one might think that this is some far-off hideaway when, in reality, the Deering Estate is an easily accessible public area. Not only is the Estate a place of major historical and cultural importance to our local community, but with its winding paths, roaming fauna, and flowing streams you easily get lost in the beauty of its scenic environment. That says a lot from someone who has hiked the Alps before. Throughout my many visits to the Deering Estate, I have been exposed to opportunities that have given me a new perspective on Miami, its unknown past, and the potential for its future. From walking along the paths of our “geographic ancestors” (as my professor so eloquently put it) to kayaking out to mangroves and seeing firsthand the effects of pollution on our land, I have been inspired to become a more active participant in our community. After living in Miami for so many years, I have slowly felt more disconnected from my home as my dreams of traveling have grown; however, I more now impassioned to connect with my fellow residents and make them aware of the important lessons I have learned during my various trips to the Estate. Whether this knowledge was the byproduct of my professor’s lectures, a guide’s expertise, or my own moments of reflection, I now recognize that no matter how powerless you may initially feel, if you make an effort you are guaranteed to make an impact in your community.

The Deering Estate is one of the few remaining environmental preserves located in Miami-Dade County, offering refuge to both animals and humans alike from the chaotic setting of city life. The first time I visited the site I was amazed by how well conserved this open and flourishing landscape is, and as we went through our day I felt increasingly disconnected from the urban world and reconnected with the natural one. This kind of reprieve is not common in a city like Miami that seems as if it will never stop developing and expanding. My first expedition of the site was just as lively as my final one, and as my classmates and I walked along the Rock Ridge, gazed at Biscayne Bay, and explored the Tequesta Midden I always found new things to appreciate — things I was not aware our city had to offer until a year ago. While I am thankful for Charles Deering’s personal efforts in preserving this land, my true appreciation goes to the Tesquesta’s who were the original settlers in the land, the Afro-Bahamians that endlessly worked on the Estate, and any other community that has contributed to the Estate’s historical legacy. While the Deering Estate’s current team has made it their mission to acknowledge those groups that our city has wrongfully ignored, we are still a long way from adequately honoring their memory. I hope that I, along with all my classmates that I have shared these experiences with, play a role in reviving these forgotten people’s legacy and make an actual change in the future of Miami.

Quarantine as Text

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“My Daily Life in a Quarantine World,” by Maria Cruz of FIU at in April 2020

I would love to say that my time in quarantine has been incredibly productive, but that is not the case. Or at least that is how my situation. While I have spent time focusing on “bettering myself” and “making the most of my time,” as everyone has advised, the past month and a half has still been incredibly taxing on me. So, while it is not like I have spent this entire time doing nothing, when I compare how I spend my days to what everyone posts on social media it is difficult to not feel as accomplished. While other people’s days are filled with leisurely walks, home-cooked meals, and indoor workouts, I have been stressing over my finals and completing remote courses for my job. I still find it difficult to express just how overwhelmed I feel to my closest friend so I will break it down like this: I am in my final semester of college and need to attain the highest scores in all my classes because when I graduate I have no idea what to expect next, I am struggling to find ways to support my family of 6 because once this semester finishes my student job ends and I am the last person in my household that is earning income at the moment, and I am endlessly frustrated at the political developments in this country. I do not think I have ever faced such trying times before, and my mental and emotional health has definitely been on a decline. I know to some it just seems like I am complaining over trivial manners, and in retrospect, I also know that there are people living through a lot worse; however, why must we be judging others on what they are feeling? Or how they are coping? We are currently living through a pandemic, facing the start of a major recession, and subjugated to a series of other issues our own government has repeatedly shown they were not prepared to handle. This leaves me with a lot of concerns for our future, and while I had some hope that change will come about in a post-quarantine world, now I am not so sure. It is this unknowing that unsettles me the most; with the inability to currently do anything my anxious thoughts about what will become of us plague me every day. 

Nonetheless, my friends and family remind me that I can not give in to the fear, for that never bodes anyone well. While this is more difficult some days more than others, I can recognize that there have been some good moments and how privileged I am to say that. These instances include: having more time to connect with my family, recreating recipes I saved from Pinterest months ago, finally getting to read for leisure, getting through my movies to watch list, and, on some occasions, going out on one of the infamous walks with my family. I wanted to end this reflection on a more positive note because I, along with many others, keep forgetting just how much there will be for us to do once this is all over.

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