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Alumna combines business and academic expertise to help lead the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens

Alumna combines business and academic expertise to help lead the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens

July 11, 2023 at 3:41pm

Marcela Lopez Bravo ’11, MA ’12, MA ’16, a three-time alumna of the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, has lived on three continents and a handful of nations. She's fostered a deep understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures and fluency in four languages.

Yet, with all the far-flung locales in which she has lived and studied — including Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, Japan and China — it was an unexpected job opportunity that brought her all the way from Tokyo back to South Florida. It was an opportunity to shine a light on an area dear to her heart: Asian studies. 

Lopez Bravo is now deputy administrator of the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, the Delray Beach center for Japanese arts and culture that opened in 1977 after George Sukeji Morikami donated his land to Palm Beach County with the wish for it to become a park preserving the memory of an agricultural group that Japanese farmers (including himself) had created in what is now northern Boca Raton. 

The center hosts rotating exhibitions, monthly tea ceremonies and educational outreach programs with local schools and organizations to spread appreciation for the living culture of Japan. The 16 acres that surround its two museum buildings include expansive Japanese gardens with strolling paths, resting areas and a world-class bonsai collection. 

In her role, Lopez Bravo currently manages major functions — curatorial, business, finance, information technology and audio/visual, among other areas — while also serving as a subject-matter expert on Japanese history, language and culture.

It's been a long, journeyed road for Lopez Bravo, who was born in Miami but at a young age moved to Venezuela and then Argentina, where her family was from. She would return to Miami when she was 26.

In the first phase of her career, she served in various administrative and business roles: supervisor at a call center, controller of an Italian yacht manufacturer and general manager of hotels. Her multilingual skills also enabled her to serve as a liaison between foreign companies (from Brazil, the Netherlands and Italy) and their U.S. subsidiaries.

And then suddenly, everything changed on September 29, 2008: the day of the historic stock market crash.

“I was one of those people who lost their job on that funky Monday,” Lopez Bravo said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to go back to school and finish what I wanted to do.”

Lopez Bravo was determined to reinvent herself. She would study linguistics and Asian languages and cultures, interests that dated back to her childhood.

“I had a Japanese classmate in elementary school and also later Taiwanese and Korean classmates,” she explained. “I was always fascinated by the characters in their writing systems, and I constantly asked them to teach me something. Being able to read and write East Asian languages had been forever in the back of my mind.”

While continuing to work, Lopez Bravo earned bachelor's and master's degrees in Asian Studies as well as a master's in linguistics from FIU. In addition, she started working as an adjunct instructor in Asian Studies at FIU. Then, she was off to Waseda University in Tokyo, where she continued her graduate studies until earning her doctorate in 2021.

“Studying at Waseda University allowed me to access their research library,” Lopez Bravo said. “Being in Tokyo and working as a research associate and lecturer at [that] university gave me an opportunity to travel to locations relevant to my research several times a year. Living in Japan gave me access to current cultural trends and firsthand knowledge that enriched not only my research but also my teaching. I got to learn and see with my own eyes what I had been reading, studying and teaching about.”

Lopez Bravo has received a slew of recognitions as an educator. She earned Waseda University's top award for her teaching excellence and three awards from FIU given in recognition of her outstanding teaching style, including the creative implementation of innovative technology (such as virtual reality tools) in the classroom and student-centered practices. While she found her time in Japan a very enriching experience, after five years, she was ready to return to Florida — and she jumped at the opportunity to join the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens.

“In South Florida, there are not many Japanese studies-related jobs, and I had learned about the Morikami as an undergraduate student," she said. "Before becoming a scholar, I worked in the business world for many years, so this position lets me combine my business and my academic experience. It’s truly an amazing opportunity.”

Amidst the diverse responsibilities of her job, she still finds time to continue teaching as an adjunct lecturer in the Asian studies program and the history department at FIU.

“FIU to me is like home," she said. "It’s the place where I was able to achieve my dreams.”