Melanie Rodriguez is a second-year, first-generation student at FIU’s Honors College pursuing a double major in English (Creative Writing) and Exceptional Student Education (Policy) with a certificate in Exile Studies. As a Global Learning Medallion student, Melanie was a part of FIU’s inaugural Millennium Fellowship cohort working to advance the United Nations’ 4th Sustainable Development Goal, Quality Education. Melanie currently works as Culture Shock Miami’s Program Coordinator at the Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs and is also Tutorial Coordinator for FIU’s Student Support Services Program. Her goal is to enact social change by combining her passion for the arts with her dedication to activism and youth education.
VIZCAYA AS TEXT
“Yo vengo de todas partes y hacia todas partes voy” by Melanie Rodriguez of FIU at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens
Despite living only ten minutes away from the lavish estate, the first and only time I visited Vizcaya was over a decade ago. At eight years old, I remember coming away with the impression that this place was just too big for me in a variety of ways. I particularly recall being told the instruments in the music room were most likely not played much, which I could just never wrap my head around; after all, the thing I wanted most at the time was a piano. When I learned I would need to revisit this place, I was not particularly amused. I didn’t think there would be much to learn from what I remembered as some very rich dude’s exorbitant display of wealth. However, revisiting this place so many years later, I found myself questioning so many things that I never recalled from my first encounter with the property. It’s funny how much our memories can hinder our explorations.
While exploring the courtyard, I noticed children looking upwards in amazement as I had once done, locals knowing exactly which spots to pose in for their perfectly curated Instagram feed, and groups of tourists pulled like magnets towards the doors facing the water marveling at the rareness of a chilly Miami day. I gravitated towards a tour marker titled “The Work Force / La Fuerza Laboral” which explained the importance of Miami’s immigrant population, especially those from the Bahamas, in the construction of Vizcaya. Even though the construction required nearly a tenth of Miami’s population, this is one of the only markers of working people’s influence on the property; something that came as no surprise to me. Continuing the tour through the main house, my mind kept going back to that sign. Even though his story is quite interesting, I was far more invested in knowing more about the people who ran this massive property’s daily operations than James Deering’s fascination with yachts and luxuries for his vacation home. Maybe my eight-year old self’s jealously of an untouched music room was still looming around, but no one object captured my attention as much as that one tour sign.
That was until I entered the room with towering stained-glass doors looking out into the garden. My whole life has been shaped by these vitrales, and even though I have seen them so many times in so many places, this particular moment became very pivotal for me. I had recently come back from a trip in Washington D.C. where we visited the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality Monument in which the door was framed by a vibrant vitral; at the moment I didn’t understand why, but I felt familiar there. Standing in front of these massive doors at Vizcaya, I think back to the vitral painting my father has gifted me and regret the many times I’ve told him he paints about Cuba too much. His memories have fostered my exploration; memories are the only way I am able understand why I don’t quite fit into the land I was born in. In that moment, with the colorful array of light shining through the window, I no longer felt Vizcaya was too big for me; instead I realize, it is made up of parts of me.
From the coral taken from my island for the columns of this man’s fascination to the palm trees towering above me to my father’s painting of a vitral looking out into El Cobre, I walk through life each day in the presence of my homeland, but each day I wonder if I will ever have the chance to meet the original. I feel angry at times that so much has been taken from us, much like the recognition taken from those immigrant workers who without them a man’s dream would not be in existence today, yet only small traces of their impact remain. I may not know where exactly I am supposed to call home, but I find comfort in knowing that the feeling of home surrounds me even in the places that were not meant for me but made of me.
MOAD AS TEXT
“Writing Pictures” by Melanie Rodriguez of FIU at the Museum of Art and Design MDC
I have always been fascinated by how people form systems of communication across time and cultures. When I visit museums, I am always drawn to exhibits detailing communication styles, especially early ones such as hieroglyphics. When visiting MOAD, I was immediately drawn to a section of the exhibition featuring Mayan writing. According to the museum label, “The Maya created a unique glyphic system that combined syllabic and pictorial writing. It is the most visually diverse script ever conceived.” This combination of text and pictures is so similar to the style of communication we know today; it is even how we are told to compose these assignments.
Writing has helped mark many events, not only throughout history, but throughout personal milestones as well. The Maya are said to have recorded moments such as births, deaths, and marriages with this glyphic system on materials such as the stone shown above. Today, we keep track of important events in our lives in a very similar way. Even through ways we may not notice, such as social media, the way we communicate as a society is very much shaped by these practices. We show others important moments in our lives with a combination of syllables (captions on posts) and pictorials (pictures to post).
When reflecting how on we communicate with others that may not speak the same language as us, visuals are usually able to help us establish some common ground for understanding. This makes me wonder if this glyphic system was developed by the Maya as way to establish a more global understanding. The written syllabic language serving those who knew it, and the pictorial depictions establishing a way to form more extensive and global communication pathways.
DEERING AS TEXT
“Endless Blue” by Melanie Rodriguez of FIU at the Deering Estate
I have only stood before you once,
if only for a few short minutes.
Yet, the moment lives eternally within me
as I remember the breeze flowing through my hair,
as I stare at the endless blue before me.
Where sea and sky collide,
as they have for centuries past,
to remind me of my brevity on this land.
I look back at the famed buildings–
but no luxury,
no wine cellar,
can compare to the endless blue before me.
I look back at the famed buildings,
and for a moment they seem pure,
one with the boundless green surrounding them.
I later learn of the “accident.”
Yet another reminder
of the mark we’ve made on this land.
A reminder of possession,
a fortune that reserves this blue,
for only a select few.
With the sacrifice
of those who dreamt to one day
look out from the structures they create
into the endless blue.
Instead, those dreamers say–
Gone with a boom,
and instantly replaced.
MIAMI BEACH AS TEXT
“The People’s Theatre” by Melanie Rodriguez of FIU at the Colony Theater
South Beach is undeniably one of the most popular destinations in Miami; whenever friends come to visit or someone mentions what they think about Miami, South Beach never fails to make it into the conversation. Needless to say, it was a place I definitely tried to stay as far away from as possible. However, after some exploration and discovering some “hidden gems,” I’ve come to understand the magic of this place.
From this digital walking tour, I’ve learned about details I may not have otherwise noticed. I had never heard of Barbara Baer Capitman nor her efforts to “save” South Beach. I find it quite ironic how often women are overlooked in the very things they create. Another piece that caught my attention was The Betsy Poetry Rail. The Betsy has played a very important role in my aspirations as a writer; this is where I received my recognition for 3rd place in the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Essay Contest during my junior year of high school. To see the rail display voices important to Miami’s identity reinforces the Betsy’s commitment to the arts and the role it plays within the community. Not only is the Betsy amplifying the voices of established writers, but it also plays a role in inspiring the next generation of Miami’s identity.
One place I have grown particularly fond of is the Colony Theater. Located right on Lincoln Road, the theater stands out from its more modern surroundings due to its distinctive Art Deco design. The building has many of the qualities discussed in the virtual walking tour such as white facades with pastel highlights, curved edges, and, of course, neon. Originally a movie theater, the building has served many purposes throughout the years, including serving as “one of the largest centers and officer schools for soldiers” during World War II. However, in recent years the theater has become a staple of the community.
An article by The New Tropic titled “The Colony: A Theatre That Looks Like Miami,” describes the Colony’s mission as, “opening its doors to everyone in Miami and shares the responsibility of telling the diverse stories that have created the city.” This mission is definitely reflected in the works the theater chooses to present each season.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a performance of The Cubans by Cuban-American playwright, Michael Leon, and director, Victoria Collado. As someone with a deep passion and appreciation for theater, these excursions are something I do often. It’s something I love to share with my family, and we frequently attend performances together; however, I am usually left feeling unsure of how much they were truly able to connect with pieces in the same ways I have— I mean, after all, my mom thought Alexander Hamilton had been president at some point despite watching Hamilton twice. But this time it was different; this time my brother, my parents, and I were able to sit side-by-side understanding something as one. It was a moment where languages ceased to be barriers, and the story took center stage. It was one of the first times where I looked in the program, and the biographies did not only read NYU or Carnegie Mellon; instead, I became consumed in reading biography after biography showcasing the words “graduate of FIU.” It was a moment where I was able to feel at home surrounded by strangers. It was a moment where I realized the stories of my community, told by people of my community, are stories that deserve to be told. The Colony Theater and Miami New Drama’s commitment to reflecting the stories of the community on stage is something that is extremely special. Given its location, it’s also a chance for visitors to take a moment to learn a little more about the people that truly make up Miami and not just what they see in movies. By giving a platform to local artists, the Colony enriches the already vibrant community of Miami; it truly strives to be the people’s theatre.
While South Beach may be known for spring breakers and nightlife, it is so much more than that. If we take the time to look around, we’ll see that there’s a lot more for us to experience than what meets the eye.
HISTORYMIAMI AS TEXT
“De Niña a Mujer” by Melanie Rodriguez of FIU at HistoryMiami Museum
Music is always playing in some room of my house.
My dad’s six-CD stereo is his prized possession,
entrusted with streaming the guiding soundtrack to our lives.
I learned to show my love through CD mixes,
burning my affection onto someone else’s songs.
The living room became my studio;
second-hand furniture housed my favorite pastime–
my parents’ 99 cent CD collection,
their first accumulative possession in the US.
I can still recall eagerly sorting through the collection;
spending hours numbering CDs,
memorizing their track lists.
One day, as I play an album by Julio Iglesias,
a family favorite,
I hear a song I’ve somehow never stumbled upon.
As the song begins,
I see my mother’s eyes begin to well with tears;
Play the next one, she says,
the music— ceases.
This part of my mother’s soundtrack
was one she never wished to replay.
Some memories, it seems, are too painful to ignore,
but far too difficult to pass on.
I make sure to always play the next one.
When I am older, she tells me—
She is haunted by the image of her seven-year-old hands,
clinging to the chain link fence,
bawling for her father,
as she watches him sail away into a land unknown.
It was a moment they thought would last,
maybe several months at most.
They write letters to each other,
promising each other,
trying to convince themselves,
they’ll see each other soon–
it becomes the last she’ll see of him
until her sun sets on twenty-two.
And the song begins to play:
La paraba en el tiempo pensando
Que no debería crecer
Pero el tiempo me estaba engañando
Mi niña se hacia mujer
When her father returned to Cuba,
he was not the father she had watched sail away;
she was no longer the daughter in the frilly pink gown.
They were both tainted;
permanent scars left by El Mariel,
not only to those who left,
but especially to those that stayed.
His skin darkened from selling viandas under the piercing Miami sun;
the reason my mom insists on stopping at every fruit vendor’s corner to this day.
His voice different,
unlike the last one she remembers,
hoarser and aged—
a reminder that their encounter is limited.
He watches her face,
plastered with permanent pain,
an eternal reminder of the day she watched her family change.
She was married now,
but he still surprises her with a birthday cake;
she had become la mujer but had never stopped being his niña.
The song becomes a part of my soundtrack;
a song I wish to replay,
until the CD burns away—
a song that reminds me of who I am today.
A reminder that despite the systems that El Mariel saw break,
Luis’ legacy is felt to this day.
Now when the song comes on,
I never play the next one.