Privilege and Perspective

This week, a lawyer and I were chatting about the difficulties of dealing with legal fees in a low income environment. The lawyer then said, “I know you don’t know what it’s like to struggle, to deal with the law while also worrying about where you’re going to live, or where you’re getting your next meal, but that’s a strenuous environment.” I let the assumption slide, responding with, “I can imagine it, but I know immigration makes that much more complex.” However, all day, I was frustrated by the lawyer’s assumption.

My frustration stemmed from one simple fact. I do know what those things are like. I’ve experienced them first-hand . I can’t blame the lawyer for their assumption. I know I am in a position of privilege by being a university student with the opportunity to spend a summer working for free. I also understand that, unlike me, many people I go to school with did not deal with socio-economic struggles like homelessness or a having family with no source of income.

Yet, the chasm between my personal experience prior to college and the way society perceives me can be frustrating. It’s not that I want pity. Instead, I want people to understand the complexity of my perspective; that whether I’m talking about my perspective of homelessness or higher education, it’s greatly influenced by my experience, not solely speculation or secondary research. Part of this desire is rooted in the fact that I don’t want to be associated with the negligence and limited perspective that is commonly found in privileged populations. More importantly, though, I hope that my personal experience provides a more complex form of empathy and understanding for the lower income populations that I get to work with in the future.

-Symonne Singleton


Exploring Miami One Bite at a Time

During our talk with immigration lawyer David Silk last week, we learned that Miami is a sanctuary city, which means that its legal policies are designed to not prosecute someone solely for living there without documentation. Because of this, and a number of other factors, Miami is a haven for immigrants from around the world. Although some ethnic groups, like Cubans and Haitians, predominate, the sheer size of the city and its cultural diversity makes Miami a gastronomic paradise for foodies like me.

Determined to try as many restaurants as I can in my 8 weeks here, and put just about every mouth-watering meal on my Snapchat story, here is a countdown of my top five treats so far in Miami:

5. Cafecitos

For fifty cents to a dollar, locals enjoy this sweet and creamy Cuban espresso as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up to make it through the workday. After trying my first one on our food tour of Little Havana, they have become a regular indulgence as they are sold at many ventanitas (little shop windows) near my office downtown.

4. Mangoes

Although they aren’t unique to Miami, the ubiquity of mangoes here makes me smile because they are one of my absolute favorite fruits. While I am used to seeing them in the grocery store for upwards of $4 in Ohio, I found them for just $.79 at Publix or even left in baskets outside residences, with faith that a passerby may leave $.50. As a salad topping or just with a spoon for breakfast, I have been lucky to enjoy mangoes almost daily this summer.

3. Mussaman Curry (Moon Thai and Sushi, Coral Gables)

One doesn’t generally think of Asian food when they think of Miami, but because of Moon Thai’s proximal location (right across from our dorm on UM’s campus) and my love for Asian food, I was eager to try it. A steaming hot coconut broth with avocado, potatoes, red peppers, and chicken, this curry melted in my mouth and its leftovers were even better. I will definitely be returning to Moon throughout the summer, but I’m not sure if I will be able to try any of their other dishes after falling in love with this one.

2. Fried sweet plantains

A South American and Caribbean delicacy, fried sweet plantains are everywhere in Miami. We learned about the many ways plantains can be prepared on our food tour of Little Havana, and I have indulged in them as a popular starter or side dish at many restaurants, from Venezuelan to Cuban to even Whole Foods. They are the perfect balance of sweet and savory and Kim has even made it a point to order them at every restaurant with plantains on the menu!

1. Tres leches cake (Versailles Cuban Restaurant)

Tres leches is a popular Spanish dessert consisting of a sponge cake soaked in three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream. When I saw it on the menu during our group dinner at Versailles Cuban Restaurant in Little Havana, I could not resist ordering it (even though I was already stuffed from the chicken and plantains I had already consumed). I have eaten tres leches a number of times before, but this was the first time I had ever seen it come in a bowl. It was floating in sweet milk, and I used my spoon to drench each bite of cake before bringing it to my mouth. The cake was cold, sweet, and refreshing; the best tres leches I’ve ever had. (I was still raving about it the following afternoon) Definitely worth going back to Versailles just for another piece.

All the extra trips to the gym have been worth it. I’m looking forward to more gastronomic adventures during the rest of my time in Miami, especially when they bring me to parts of the city and allow me to learn about cultures I might not be exposed to otherwise.

-Ellie Pasquale

The Flavor of Miami

This past week, we had our weekly group dinner at a restaurant called Versailles on Calle Ocho in Little Havana.  It is a destination for locals and tourists alike. Whenever my uncle comes to visit Miami, he goes straight to Versailles from the airport to get his dose of arroz con pollo and café Cubano as quickly as possible.  I have eaten at Versailles many times in the past, but had not been there in a few years. During our visit to Versailles, I became aware of many features of the restaurant that I had not noticed in the past.

The first thing that hit me after I finally got past the seemingly mile-long line and drifted through the front doors was a wall of aroma that struck my nose first, and next latched on to my clothes.  I could smell the fried plantain chips, media noche sandwiches, and Cuban coffee all at once. I was then almost teleported back in time to the county fair mirror room that I frequented in my youth, when I saw a myriad images of myself reflected across the walls. I had to keep my balance to avoid falling.  Of course, there were the famous waiters running from table-to-table delivering food as fast as they can.  This type of ambiance is what Versailles is all about.

The atmosphere inside the restaurant is representative of Miami’s great diversity. Although Versailles is a Cuban restaurant, the restaurant attracts people from around the world and around our community, no matter what their background.  As I stood waiting outside the restaurant, I heard many different languages – other than Spanish and English – being spoken.  Additionally, we were seated at a table next to an Asian family.  Versailles is truly a melting pot restaurant and gathering place, where all the sounds, smells, and culture of Miami come shining through.  As a local Miamian, I almost felt like an outsider at the restaurant – surrounded by various groups of non-locals.  Versailles is an iconic Miami restaurant, and I now understand why.

-Jessica Roth

Stranded in America

Last night, we watched a documentary, titled Refugee Kids: One Small School Takes on the World, about refugee children in an all-refugee summer school as they transitioned into what life in the United States school system will be like. Learning about the hardship these children go though was probably one of the most emotionally stressing events we’ve participated in since coming here. It wasn’t because we had to discuss the documentary afterwards, but instead it was because I could not pinpoint the exact emotions I was feeling. Looking back, I now realize sadness, confusion, and several other similar emotions blended together in a way that left me unable to articulate what I was feeling.

We learned how some children spend their entire childhood growing up in refugee camps with little-to-no formal education, and extremely poor living conditions. As if this was not a hard enough childhood, we also learned about the struggles these children and their families face once they come to the United States. A guest speaker talked about how in some cases the entire economic, social, or immigration related problems a family faces are placed on the shoulders of a teenager because they are the best English speakers in their families, as they were able to use and expand their language skills the most in the United States. The documentary was crafted excellently, in such a way that grabbed my attention from the beginning, and would not let go until the very end.

Although it was not directly related to the work we have been doing at LSGM, it is undoubtedly related to Miami. I have been feeling closer and closer to Miami partially because of the amount of time we have spent here, but also because I could see myself living here in the future. Hearing members of different organizations go around and speak about similar problems and challenges they face made me realize just how widespread the immigrant and refugee situation in the United States is.

-JJ Finkel

Five Reasons Every Miami Tourist Should Visit Versailles

5. The Portions

If you are anything like me, fancy food doesn’t impress you. And by fancy food I’m not referring to any quality level of ingredients or cooking methods but rather the presentation. There is nothing more disappointing to me to receive a dish that has two stems of asparagus delicately stacked and decorated with a total of four grains of rice around it. As much as I would like to appreciate the artistic nature of it, I can’t help but feel cheated.

Coming from a multicultural background, I equate food with a way of showing love. My dad is a southern man from Texas and South Carolina, where love was shown by tables of barbequed meat, bowls overflowing with green beans, mountains of mashed potatoes and a never-ending appetite for homemade pecan pie. My mom is from Thailand, where most meals are literally served “family-style”, in massive portions meant to be shared. At Versaille, the love is well communicated, as all of the dishes come with generous, satisfying portions with every dish.

4. The Desserts

Looking at their Yelp page, you’ll notice significant portions of comments are dedicated to their desserts. In all honestly, I was disappointed when I first saw the menu and saw dishes like tres leches and chocolate cake. With reviews like I saw, I would have assumed the dessert menu included wildly creative desserts you couldn’t find anywhere else. Upon further examination, I came to an understanding.

Yes, the dishes themselves were pretty common, but the taste? Outstanding! Yes, I’ve had crème brulee a dozen times before but it has never tasted so rich and fresh before. My friends who got the other desserts had similar sentiments. Even though the service was fast, you could taste what was the product of hours of work and years-old homemade recipes.

3. The Legacy

When you go to the restaurant, one of the first signs you see everywhere is the slogan “The World’s most famous Cuban restaurant”. It has definitely earned this title as it’s served as a Cuban community staple in Miami for over forty years. The sense of legacy and honor that comes with being at a museum, you feel when you step foot into the massive display of Cuban heritage and architecture that is this restaurant.

For how long it has physically been at the location, it’s a fascinating thought to realize that the food and the atmosphere of my visit was the same as it was during the 70’s. A home for Cuban exiles, the restaurant has served as grounds for activism and community building. One look at the history page of the website and you learn that even the parking lot is a focal point of activity, as news reporters often meet there in attempts to get the Cuban community’s opinions.

2. The Culture

Even the food my mom used to pack in my lunch box communicated a message of multiculturalism that made up my heritage. Often I would take to school basil fried rice made with fried chicken, or green curry made with collard greens instead of bamboo.

The food at Versaille represents this same level of multiculturalism as one can easily find Haitian, Dominican, and even American influences within their less than traditional options on the menu. In addition, nearly every entrée name is presented in English and Spanish, and the music playing is traditional as well, further emphasizing authentic cultural roots.

1. The Symbolism

Although this establishment is primarily based in Cuban roots, it is a melting pot if I’ve ever seen one. To put simply, it beautifully represents what makes Miami so unique. In my hour and a half visit, I overheard at least four different languages, saw food from multiple regions at one table, and our waiter even took our order bilingually. Despite the bustle and chaos of the dinner rush, people were still taking time to talk to one another from table to table. (Okay that may have been an over-exaggeration because I only saw it twice, but still pretty cool right?)

Miami as a city represents so much more than the flashy lifestyle portrayed in the media. It’s best quality isn’t a charismatic rapper shouting the area code every five seconds and throwing champagne everywhere (looking at you, Pitbull). It’s best quality represents a meeting point in which several cultures come together to create a new community built from love, acceptance and togetherness.

-Jessica Womack


If you Fail to Prepare Experience, Prepare to Fail

After three long weeks of waiting, last Thursday, my fingerprint results finally came in, and I was finally allowed to do my first intake at the office! After weeks of shadowing the process, discussing the form with the lawyers and paralegals, taking notes on the process, and asking my coworkers tons of questions, the intake process became second nature to me. You would think that after all of this preparation, my first intake would go as smooth as possible – well, you’re right. I sat the minor down one-on-one in my office, discussed the confidentiality agreement, asked him about his family, his sponsor in the United States, what his long journey was like, if the immigration officials mistreated him, if he had ever been harassed or abused, if he was forced to come here, etc. And little “Juan Carlos” wasn’t shy at all; he answered all the questions clearly and in detail. The intake couldn’t have gone any smoother, and I was content, even proud by the end.

Has anyone ever told you that, by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail? Well they lied to you—kind of. By the end of my first intake, I thought preparation was all I needed to succeed. But Benjamin Franklin’s famous saying fails to leave out experience. This past Monday at the temporary Homestead shelter, I realized that when you lack experience, you should also prepare to fail, because no amount of preparation made me ready for that day’s intakes. Long story short, I got my first case of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse that came with tears rolling down a little Salvadoran girl’s face. That same day, I also got my first case of gang violence and death threats that came with a glance at a thick long scar down a little Honduran boy’s sternum.

Needless to say, the stories of these children weren’t as easy to put on the intake form as the first one. Don’t get me wrong, I knew stories like these would come eventually, but I didn’t know that I would start to imagine how these incidents happened. I also didn’t know I’d carry these stories with me on my commute back to the University of Miami. Only experience could really help me learn to execute these kinds of intakes and learn to make sure these cases don’t affect me personally. The rest of the week was proof of this because things definitely got easier. I’ve learned a lot of self-care and coping mechanisms. The most effective one by far, for me, is not keeping it inside and talking about it; whether it be to my roommate, friends back home, other members of my cohort, or even the audience of this blog. The past week was tough—one of the hardest, so far—but also one of the most insightful.

-Kim Perez

The Crime and the Punishment

What is the duty of law enforcement? Law enforcement would hope the unanimous answer to be “to protect civilians”, but its stated intentions and actions have somehow become incongruous. Especially considering the high percentage of people of color and immigrants in Miami-Dade County, the supposed trust between law enforcement and civilians has become even more muddled.

At our weekly brown-bag lunches at Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc., we invited Mr. Brodhead (pseudonym), a long-time worker at the Public Defender’s Office, to speak to us about the cases he deals with on a daily basis. Although all his anecdotes were very informative and representative of the struggles public defenders face, it was most disheartening to hear about the lack of trust the general public placed in law enforcement. The rampant abuse of power and discrepancy in incarceration rates between people of color and those not of color have severed such trust between civilians and police officers. For example, it was only last year that an ordinance was passed in Miami-Dade that treated marijuana possession in the same manner as littering— a civil citation without a criminal record. Before the ordinance passed, possession of marijuana was a criminal offense punishable up to 15 years in prison. For non pot-smokers, this is probably not a big deal if news at all, but the social ramifications are huge. Mr. Brodhead stated that from 2010 to 2014, 55 percent of marijuana related cases involved black defendants. The percentage is even more staggering when one sees that only 20 percent of Miami-Dade’s population is black, and that black and white civilians smoke pot in very similar rates.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion regarding the legalization and usage marijuana, but is the U.S. Justice System truly promoting justice with such inequalities? Is law enforcement really protecting civilians by trying to catch every pot-smoker on the street? The correctional facilities and rehabilitation centers can do all they can to help reinstate individuals back into society after adequate jail time, but a criminal record is an inerasable blemish. Everyone has made mistakes in their lives, and no one should be subject to a punishment not fitting the crime; treating marijuana possession like manslaughter seems extreme. After all, isn’t the United States an advocate of second chances? Most importantly, a sense of trust between law enforcement and civilians can only be established if civilians are willing to talk to police officers.

-Chris Yoo