‘I MADE MYSELF AT HOME HERE’


You can say it in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, or a combination of 20 other languages spoken here; Miami means home. Here's a look at what it means for Miami to house its wealth of diverse cultural communities and how we go from coexisting to thriving.


By Anjuli Castano


By Greg Clark, Good Miami Project

SoFlo Asians, a Facebook page for organizing meetups and creating social ties among the small Asian population in South Florida, was founded by Phong Luu as he adapted to a new city.


“When I moved to South Florida six years ago from Vietnam I expected for there to be a small population; that's why I needed to create an organization, to bring people together.”


Feeling isolated can distort our perception of what community exists out there for us. But Luu proves that there is always community if we seek it.


He declared, “I made myself at home here.”


The connections Luu built through SoFlo Asians introduced him to the National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP) and leading him to open a chapter in Miami. Since then, NAAAP Miami has provided a digital and in-person community-building platform for Asians in South Florida to find and empower each other as well as the cities they now live in.


This connectivity is not only happening among Asians but within and among all cultural diasporas within South Florida. The Miami chapter of NAAAP participated in the 10 Days of Connection and hosted a family-style picnic Luu described as an “opportunity for people to connect cross-culturally in a human to human way.”


By Greg Clark, Good Miami Project


Feeling othered or disconnected from the place you reside obscures one’s connection to the community and challenges one’s ability to put down roots. It tests our resourcefulness and affirms communities need resources to build wealth that provides safety and security for this and the next generations.


Leonie Hermantin came to this country as a child with her younger sister to meet their mother in New York. She described her upbringing there as familiar; living in predominantly Haitian neighborhoods, her language and identity were never questioned. Coming to Miami was another experience of familiarity. Moving into the historic neighborhood of Little Haiti, she saw signs written in Creole as another signal of recognition.


But, as Leonie settled into her new home, she says, “I realized we were not being treated fairly when it came to resources and inclusion. People around me were living in poverty and almost uninhabitable housing.”


In Leonie’s upbringing and now in her position as Director of Development at Sant La, she has firsthand experience with the kind of unfair treatment Haitian migrants face. Hatian migrants fleeing from poverty, violence, and political instability have the lowest rate of asylum granted out of 84 national groups. Sant La served over 900 migrants in 2021, primarily Haitian asylum-seekers. The greatest frustration she says “is the people who have been granted status to stay in this country are not being granted access to the same survival resources extended to other migrant populations.”


South Florida has long been regarded as a melting pot of people because a wealth of cultures exist here. Yet, simply existing is not enough. We can't excuse ourselves from examining and critiquing how accessible our communities' resources are. We can’t excuse ourselves from a monitoring and accountability structure that ensures – on a continuing basis – all cultures in our community thrive equitably.


"Caribbeans all come from plantocracies,” Leonie explains, “the apex was white people, and we still carry that with us.”



Given our country’s historical role in slavery, racism and class-based social structures, confronting how Black migrants are treated when trying to come into this country is a first critical step to building the infrastructure for Miami’s cultural diasporas to thrive. Without that, Black migrants (and ultimately all migrants) will always struggle to heal from and combat oppressions.


Leonie points to how “It is very difficult to get stories from Haitian refugees who come by boat because they are usually jailed. And jail is a big source of shame for us.” With the scarring images of Haitian refugees accosted at the Texas border still fresh in the hearts of Haitian immigrants, and the reality that Black immigrants are disproportionately at risk for deportation, there is still a need to discuss how, we as a city, are going to redefine our acceptance of immigrants and create true diversity for a progressive world.


By Greg Clark, Good Miami Project

One way to have these conversations is to be bold in your approach and initiate sitdowns with the people you theoretically have little in common with. The result will usually be the revelation that you are not as different as you thought. We can see this in Shabbir Motorwala’s approach as founding member of the Coalition of South Florida Muslim Organizations (COSMOS). Any spike in conflict among Israel, Hamas-controlled Gaza and other Arab states causes ripples of cross-culture tension throughout all Jewish, Palestinian and Muslim diasporas. During one such spike, Shabbir reached out to Jewish community leaders to meet.


“We’re not going to be able to solve the problems in the Middle East, but we can work together to address the antisemitism and islamophobia happening in our home South Florida.”


The meetings are a commitment to each other that both communities will not let the hatred and conflict happening in the world spread into their communities in South Florida. Beyond these reoccurring touchpoints, leaders within South Florida’s Muslim and Jewish communities step up for each other in moments of tragedy.


When the mosque in Kendall was vandalized, Rabbi Solomon Schiff, the late Miami Interfaith leader, demanded it be called a hate crime. And in 2018 when there was a mass shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburg, there was a vigil held at the Jewish Holocaust Memorial in South Beach where COSMOS attended to show solidarity. Shabbir recalls when a reporter asked him why Muslims were at the vigil. He explained, “if you attack a synagogue, or a church it is like attacking a mosque; they are all places of worship.”


Originally from India, and as a Muslim immigrant, Shabbir has worked to take back control of the narratives that surround his Indian and muslim identities by educating those around him. An effort that he says “creates understanding of Muslim culture, eradicating misconceptions and, in turn, unnecessary issues.”


Building tolerance through education is one of COSMO’s core praxis with initiatives like Educating the Educators; in collaboration with the Miami-Dade Public School System, COSMO provides speakers to talk about Muslim culture to students and the common elements between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. A different program, with Miami-Dade College students, covers topics on Muslims’ contributions to science, medicine and math.


Learning about our similarities undoubtedly creates bonds amongst people. So does celebrating our differences. The Guatemalan-Mayan Center operates within this framework, dedicating their service to Mayan migrants, a majority non-Spanish speaking indigenous group, coming from Guatemala.


Fighting for acknowledgment of their difference is especially difficult coming from a region generalized en mass as Hispanic. Generalizing an entire region without consideration for the inevitable nuances among cultural subsets of that region leads to misunderstandings and mistreatment. Being on the receiving end of those misunderstandings and mistreatments is psychologically challenging and there’s no one-rule-fits-all-cultures solution. But the place to start is creating communal space that builds resilience and a sense of pride in a culture’s own uniqueness.


Lindsay McElroy, a long time employee of the Guatemalan-Mayan Center, explains the organization has “a long history of not only serving the people but advocating for them as well.” She shares how “a lot of the kids grow up ashamed of being Mayan and undermine their own uniqueness.” The Center is intentional in using storytelling and songs like The Mighty Mayan to instill confidence in the kids and inspire pride in coming from such a rich culture. "A lot of times our families are alienated because not only are they immigrants, but they are immigrants who don’t speak Spanish as their first language.” In a society that considers Hispanic a monolith, finding representation is a struggle the Maya face every day.


“Even though there are a lot of cultural differences people who seek help through the Center can all relate to the common ground of being an immigrant. No matter what country they come from, they have to advocate for themselves,” says Lindsay.


Our current systems of labor and social acceptance require self-advocacy, and in this reality, groups who advocate for each other find more strength and enact more change than those who remain isolated. In this reality, groups who advocate for each other find more strength than those who remain isolated.



By Greg Clark, Good Miami Project


Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC) advocates for all who live under this struggle. Working with a long list of immigrant- and worker-centered organizations, all the member organizations represent the vastness and intersectionality of the immigrant struggle and identity. “Every human right is also immigrant rights,” says Tessa Petit, Co-Executive Director at FLIC. As a Haitian immigrant herself, she speaks to the shared reality they all face, “[Emigrating] requires adjusting to a new culture, new laws, new policies…it requires learning how to adapt to this new world while maintaining and sharing our culture."


FLIC dedicates itself to not only protecting immigrant rights through policy but also increasing local leadership representation. “What people call diversity is in itself a unifying quality,” as told by Tessa, and that comes to fruition when there is representation of all the immigrant groups that make up Florida, in government at state and local levels. Tessa describes Florida as “practical but not progressive,” as more often than not, our representatives do not speak for us but for the practicality of business, of profitability. “This is where our diversity ends,” says Tessa.


The reality for many Floridians, documented or not, is that our sense of security is precarious. Yet we can find strength through the human ability to adapt and to learn from each other. South Florida’s diversity is often taken for granted but we are privileged of so many examples of people who overcome fear, inaccessibility, and misrepresentation to combat humanity's most pressing issues.


Now, we must move with the time, answer the call to create communities where all cultures can thrive, or allow time to move us.


 

These Summer Series Stories, funded by Florida Humanities, are developed in collaboration with the 10 Days of Connection, a movement that empowers hundreds of community organizations, leaders, and locals to burst bubbles, engage in acts of connection, and celebrate differences. Please visit 10daysofconnection.org for more information, or follow them on Instagram/Twitter at @10doc. The 10 Days of Connection is a movement produced by Radical Partners and powered by 200+ organizations.