As the city of Miami turns 125 years old today—the anniversary commemorates the date in 1896 on which it was incorporated—alumnus Cesar Becerra ’95 writes about his healthy obsession with an early-Miami settler whom he deems underappreciated.
For more than two decades, Becerra has traversed the United States and even traveled to Australia to gather documents and artifacts attached to the trailblazer in hopes of revealing “her integral and often overlooked role in the founding of Miami.” With his new book about the enigmatic Mary Brickell, “Orange Blossom 2.0,” now available and several events scheduled around its promotion, Becerra has taken on the role of public historian and storyteller in support of a new, elevated reputation for the businesswoman who owned and developed vasts tracts of land, having taken control at the turn of the century of the real estate empire once shared with her husband. Becerra has also helped turned FIU Libraries into a Brickell family archives.
In an original piece for FIU News, Becerra explains why the secrets of yesterday hold allure for him and why all of us should care about what came before.
By Cesar Becerra '95
Mary Brickell matters. She lived for nearly 86 years, and her influence on Miami has been felt for another 100 and counting. Hidden in plain sight—the names of such luxurious locales as Brickell Key and Brickell Avenue posthumously honor her and her husband—she looms from the shadows, refusing to fade away. She seems to call out from the grave, urging me to tell her story.
History is rife with inaccuracies, biased interpretations and outright falsehoods that can take decades if not centuries to unravel. In an attempt to arrive at Mary’s and, consequently, Miami’s verifiable origin stories, I’ve relied on the work of those who preceded me, work that has allowed me to do the research to tell a story that has been haunting me for decades.
Mary was a very private person, yet her family archive continues to grow. It now exists in close to a dozen collections in private hands as well as public institutions. And FIU, with the largest share, serves as a guardian of facts about how our city was born.
The FIU collections together—which constitute the largest assemblage of Brickell legal and personal paraphernalia anywhere—tell a complex story of land issues, politics and prejudice that sheds light on why Mary has not been accepted in popular culture as a cofounder of Miami on a par with the better known Julia Tuttle. It all helps explain why Mary has been kept from claiming her rightful title as the real mother of Miami.
Like much of history, the story of Mary Bulmer Brickell has everything to do with the perspectives and motivations of the people and institutions who have had a role in the telling of that story. In Mary’s case, for example, she kept to herself and lacked social connections, leaving her somewhat a mystery to those around her. Unlike Tuttle, for example, Brickell never made her intentions widely known but acted quietly. (Were she alive today, the lady would definitely avoid posting on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.)
I aim to highlight her vital role in shaping Miami as more than just a footnote to the activities of her husband and other movers and shakers of her day.
Mary was one of the largest female landowners in the state, holding thousands of acres, in an era when women didn’t have the right to vote. The land was hers—not her husband’s—a fact uncovered only 10 years ago. Furthermore, she handled all her own land sales, making her the first female real estate agent and developer.
Finally, the mother of eight did all this while maintaining a motherly touch. Although she was known as a shrewd negotiator, she never foreclosed on a mortgage, and she frequently doled out cash to poor families during tough times.
That kindness extended to the African American citizenry. For example, she purchased land to shield a family from harm’s way after a racist incident. It has become known that the first burial on her land, in what later would become a city of Miami cemetery, was for a black man. She taught her own children to be fair to all and, upon her death, the African American community came out in droves to pay their respects.
I spent 25 years contemplating the woman and how to write about her. The tsunami of change that our country has experienced in the past year and “The Politics of Teaching America’s Past,” as Time magazine wrote about recently, convinced me that going back in time and digging deep, especially in the interest of marginalized populations and cast-aside individuals, is a worthwhile pursuit.
I hope that through my journey to uncover the gray areas of Miami’s history, others will be inspired to ask more, question more, learn more about the foundations of their own cities. I urge everyone with nagging doubts or potent curiosity to not accept the regurgitated story but to recognize that there could be more. Visit the Special Collections at FIU libraries, check out historical documents in the museums wherever you live. You have the power to uncover the invisible, to make your own discoveries, to contribute to our understanding and appreciation of the past.
I have Mary to thank for pushing me to all kinds of realizations about history and its evolving nature. My book about her will forever remain a work in progress as new information—and new ways of looking at existing information—comes to light. Still, this was the moment to deliver what I have gathered so far, even as I vacillated about when I would be truly ready to share her story. Through various ways, she whispered to me, “Why wait, young man? Tell it now.”