Is Miami the Caribbean?
JASON FITZROY JEFFERS AND NATHANIEL SANDLER
The Caribbean takes its name from the Caribs, a tribe of indigenous people who lived in the Lesser Antilles, a group of islands that sits between the Greater Antilles and South America. The original inhabitants of the southeastern parts of present-day Florida, including Miami, were the Tequesta. Different people altogether.
As the maps are drawn, Florida is considered the northern border of the Caribbean, not geographically a part of the region itself. If you don’t trust cartographers and want to dig a little deeper, the Caribbean tectonic plate encompasses most of the islands in the region, and sits just south of the North American plate, which Florida is a part of.
The islands of the Caribbean were colonized by the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, and the French, whereas the United States as we know it was founded by runaway Brits. While Florida was only under British rule for twenty years, all these lands were tainted by the abominable history of slavery—and still suffer from its poisonous legacy. However, the Caribbean islands suffer from a different colonial hangover that doesn’t stretch this far north. Most of the islands only grasped for their inde-pendence in the last sixty years, plunging deep into the murk of post colonialism to confront issues of identity and the responsibility of nationhood, a proud yet insidiously messy process that’s still unfolding today.
For all these reasons, Miami is not the Caribbean. Yet Miami feels like the Caribbean.
Not Lincoln Road at noon on a Saturday, but in the way the air hangs heavy and still whenever there’s an approach-ing storm. What passes for winter here rolls right into the brain-boiling heat of summer, skipping spring. As of just over five years ago, Florida was home to 40 percent of the Caribbean immigrants in this country. According to a report from the Migration Policy Institute created in 2011, nearly four out of ten immigrants in Florida were born in the Caribbean. Think of Pembroke Pines, Miramar, and Little Haiti, Little Havana, Lauderhill, and Puerto Rican Wynwood before the art galleries moved in. Which Miami you choose to live in becomes an incorporeal, if tropical, decision.
In Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, there are twenty districts. However, Miami is often referred to as “Kingston 21,” the honorary twenty-first district where those who were able to snag a green card come to live the “good life” in the suburbs. It’s as if Miami is a Caribbean suburb itself. In the Barbados of the 1980s, you’d hear of lucky friends who went with their families on shopping trips to Miami, buying G.I. Joes and skateboards and coming home flashing L.A. Gear shoes with neon laces as if all of Miami was some exclusive shopping district uptown. The Omni International Mall in downtown Miami was spoken of in reverential tones on playgrounds from island to island, lighting up the eyes of little boys and girls who’d never once stepped foot on US soil.
Consider the fact that so many of the first black settlers in this city were Bahamian, shaping the untouched land and doing much of work the white “pioneers” thought was beneath them.
Consider that the last four mayors of Miami—Suárez, Carollo, Diaz, Regalado—were all born in Cuba.
Consider the potion-lined shelves of dusty botanicas and hand-painted supermarket signs.
The Caribbean has always coursed through the veins of this city, much like the canals that ferret out of the Everglades and right into Dade and Broward County. That said, it seems it’s only become fashionable to refer to Miami as a Caribbean city in the last five to ten years. Why? Does it add to the allure of Miami as America’s most “exotic” city? Would someone who’s never left Guyana or St. Kitts or Martinique consider Miami a Caribbean city and does this designation benefit them? Here comes that increasingly dreaded word—appropriation—sailing into the conversation big, slow and mighty like a colonial clipper ship on the horizon. Or a cruise ship. Or a private plane. But who’s steering?
Does this mean it’s wrong to refer to Miami as Caribbean? Not necessarily, but maybe it should inspire stronger bridge-building between the two places, as if the Caribbean proper and Miami are lost siblings with a heartwarming story to fulfill once they really get to know each other.
Tourists typically experience both Miami and the Caribbean the same way, through abject alcohol use and a general sense that their surroundings aren’t real. Through sunburned eyelids, they look upon the locals not as equals, but as people who can’t possibly be of substance.
Time in both places moves as if sedated, as if the hands of the clock are covered in the salty muck of the land. And the muck of both places has been greedily tainted by what St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott calls the “bitter history of sugar.” Industrialists and colonialists are woven from the same loom.
We are the “brutal emergence” of Glissant because both histories do not stick to a narrative accepted as canon and only live in independence for approximately a hundred years. One colonial, the other not patriotic enough. And the fragility of both landscapes remains omnipresent. Perhaps we are bound by our fates and the encroaching Atlantic. Martinican Poet poet Aimé Césaire’s writings on the Caribbean’s environment could be read as Miami’s, or any of the islands:
At the end of daybreak, on this very fragile earth thickness exceeded in a humiliating way by its grandiose future—the volcanoes will explode, the naked water will bear away the ripe sun stains and nothing will be left but a tepid bubbling pecked at by sea birds—the beach of dreams and the insane awakening.
And our nature, our environment, is fragile together. Aerial images of the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas show the uniform navy of the Atlantic meeting the sandy turquoise of the Caribbean Sea. The two ying and yang on either side of the island and it’s amazing the symbolic weight doesn’t cause the island to turn a different color altogether. What color would we be? How should our salt mix? Do we wait until we sink, and those blues are forced together? Where the fuck is the bridge?
Jason Fitzroy Jeffers is from Barbados.
Nathaniel Sandler is from Miami.