"Remaking Miami" Exhibit at Freedom Tower Spotlights Miami's Transformative Years

Lydia Cabrera (behind the car) and Josefina Tarafa (standing in front of the car), ca. 1957.
Lydia Cabrera (behind the car) and Josefina Tarafa (standing in front of the car), ca. 1957. Photo courtesy of the Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami
Photographer, writer, and philanthropist Josefina Tarafa was born into a wealthy family at the start of the 20th Century in Havana. She had the privilege of an education, and from a young age, she studied languages such as English and French and was taught how to act in society according to her social status.

Despite coming of age in a time when women were taught to behave and be quiet, Tarafa was interested in advancing the role of women in society. In her 30s, she was introduced to photography and began documenting life on the island. In the 1940s, Tarafa embarked upon an anthropological study of Afro-Cuban culture, particularly life in the sugar mills.

In a black-and-white photograph from 1957, Tarafa stands in front of a canopied car, hand on her hip, with Cuban anthropologist and Tarafa's travel companion Lydia Cabrera in the background. Her pose is as effortless as the cigarette hanging between her lips. She has an air of adventure about her, the devil-may-care spirit that guided her through her travels on full display.

In the late 1950s, Tarafa left Cuba for Europe. Much of her family immigrated to South Florida, and the socialite would make frequent trips to Miami over the next two decades. She traveled to Miami almost annually during the 1970s, capturing new facets of the city with each visit. Over the course of the decade, Tarafa compiled about 150 photographs that chronicled the city's evolution.

Thirty prints were selected from this collection to be displayed at the first exhibition dedicated to Tarafa’s photography. "Remaking Miami: Josefina Tarafa’s Photographs of the 1970s" showcases images of a city undergoing both a physical and metaphysical transformation.

The late photographer’s work will be on display November 5 through February 28, 2021, at Miami Dade College’s Cuban Legacy Gallery in the Freedom Tower. It will be the gallery’s first public exhibition since it closed owing to COVID-19 restrictions earlier this year.

The exhibit was organized by curator and scholar José Antonio Navarrete and the prints were produced in collaboration with the MDC Special Collections and the Lydia Cabrera Papers at the University of Miami Libraries.
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Josefina Tarafa with her dog Cocuyo in Rome, 1964.
Photo courtesy of the Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami
An immigrant herself, Tarafa was interested in the relationship between her fellow Cuban immigrants in Miami and their new, unfamiliar terrain. Through her lens, she captured how Cuban immigrants contributed to transforming Miami in various ways — culturally, economically, and socially.

More than anything, “Remaking Miami” is about immigration and culture.

“In Miami, she was [documenting] the new community that was forming and how the Cubans were evolving in a new environment. How they transformed the city and transformed themselves,” Navarrete explains.

Tarafa died in 1982, not long after moving to Miami. As it turned out, her most revealing photographs about the city were taken while she lived elsewhere.

“Josefina made her big photo essay about the transformation of Miami, about the immigration and the cultural immigration here in Miami while she wasn’t even here,” Navarrete says. “She was able to apply her knowledge of anthropology and her use of photography as a cultural tool in order to record this city’s transformation.”

During the 1970s, Miami and its surrounding area metropolitan area morphed from a winter retreat into a multicultural metropolis. The Cuban migration branded the city as a land of opportunity, which led Latino immigrants from other countries to make the move.

“The ‘70s were the years that many people, many Latin Americans outside of the States, were interested in coming to Miami because Miami was a city that had the possibility for them to have a better situation,” Navarrete says.

Among other changes reflected in Tarifa's photos was the immigrant-driven evolution of storefronts and billboards, which began to advertise their services in Spanish as well as English.

Navarrete says Tarafa had a very sophisticated point of view that placed her ahead of her time.

“Josefina was committed to using her camera to capture Cuban culture,” the curator says. “She showed how Cubans were creating a new community here in Miami and how their own Cuban culture was evolving at that time.”

“Remaking Miami: Josefina Tarafa’s Photographs of the 1970s.” Opens November 5 through February 28, 2021, at Miami Dade College’s Cuban Legacy Gallery, 600 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-237-7700; Tickets cost $12.
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Carolina del Busto is a freelance writer for Miami New Times. She nurtured her love of words at Boston College before moving back home to Miami and has been covering arts and culture in the Magic City since 2013.