Italia Spring 2020 As Text: Melanie Rodriguez

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. 

“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.