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A bold and arresting presence, the heron relies on South Florida’s unique wetland habitat for its survival. The largest bird in the Everglades, the Great Blue Heron is dependent – as are all residents of South Florida – on a reliable flow of clean, fresh water.
Xavier Cortada, “Heron,” 8′ x 9’3″, glass mosaic, 2013
A public art project at Stirrup Plaza (Miami-Dade Housing Authority), Miami, FL.
I first entered Stirrup Plaza to visit Maria Aguila. She lived in apartment 305 and was a beautiful grandmother with a contagious smile. She was born in Cuba, but immigrated to Miami fleeing Castro’s revolution. She and her husband, Jose, made their new home at Stirrup Plaza in 1972 and watched their city and grandchildren grow around them.
Jose passed in 1990 and Maria continued living there for another 19 years. I would visit her with her my University of Miami fraternity brother, Frank Jimenez, her grandson.
In conceptualizing the work I thought a lot about her. I spoke about her when I visited with the elderly residents to discuss the art project. Most were also immigrants who had come from the Caribbean basin and set new roots in Miami. Some were around when Maria lived there. They remembered her fondly.
The heron symbolizes the journey that Maria, Jose and their neighbors made to foreign shores to build new homes, new lives. This iconic, majestic heron stands alone. But it greets the individuals at the doorway, reminding all– that this is now home.
The art piece is a replica of a painting I created in 2005 and donated to the Mission San Luis in Tallahassee and in so doing to the permanent collection of the Florida Department of State. I presented the work to Columba Bush, then First Lady of Florida. She was active with the mission which helped educate Floridians about the Hispanic origins of our state.
I thought the original artwork provided the perfect way to weave a narrative. The painting sits at the location where among the first Hispanics settled. Its mosaic replica lies at the entry of where many settle today.
Besides drawing a connection to the residents who live here, the heron acts as a visual emissary– urging us to protect our environment. The diminishing water in our aquifer – diminishing because of the billions more gallons that are consumed by a growing population – affects not only the heron, but all the inhabitants of this ecosystem, including humans.
We are all that heron.
In the image, it wades in water – its legs immersed. We stand where it stood. But it isn’t firm footing. The heron reminds us of what is to come: rising sea levels, water shortages, beach erosions, and the death of our sea grasses and our corals.
When Ebenezer Stirrup, the building’s namesake, started building homes in Florida, residents lived in a much different environment. The birds in the courtyard outside, along with this heron, lived in massive flocks.
But as we moved in, their populations diminished.
In the early part of the 20th century, people came in droves to shoot these birds to use their feathers for luxury apparel.
They weren’t thinking about sustainability or coexistence. They didn’t understand the intricacies of an interconnected ecosystem.
Greed, recklessnessly drove them here.
This is what led to the massive destruction of these avian species.
Entire barges of dead carcasses of animals were killed and transported across the wetlands, just so that women up north could have stylish hats. In many ways, we continue to do this today, as we pipe and dredge and build and destroy South Florida.
Our ever-growing consumption and increasing carbon footprint destroys entire habitats and ecosystem.
We aren’t thinking about sustainability, coexistence.
By placing a heron at the lobby, I remind residents and visitors that our natural and human histories are intertwined. We are obliged to be proactive in addressing environmental concerns in Florida.
This beautiful, magnificent wading bird stands like a sentinel, asking us to take better care of our shared community.