What It's Like Growing Up in Miami & What You Learn When You Leave


“Sun, sand, and surf.” “Vice City.” “Bienvenido a Miami" (thanks a lot Will Smith). That’s how most people writing about Miami begin their stories. And then they go on to pontificate about how the city’s maturing. How we’re finally this estranged bourgeois definition of “cultural” now, a burgeoning metropolis. Well, this isn’t one of those stories.

Once you get past the tanned bodies, luxury cars, unending bottle service booths, and selfies in front of the Versace Mansion, you’ll find a sprawling amalgamation of cities, towns, villages, neighborhoods, and unincorporated areas that are unlike any other place in the country.

I left Miami for the better part of 2009 for the exact opposite way of life -- a small town on the outskirts of Parma in Northern Italy with a population of 9,000. A place that experiences the four seasons, and where public transportation actually works.
That entire year was an unexpected crash course in identity.

There’s a common misconception that Miamians were born in the sand & went to school in their bikinis.

Four of my fellow classmates were American, but our differences were stark. First of all, I had an accent. Not a southern accent, but that infamous accent that makes you sound like a Miami version of a Valley Girl, except that we roll our r’s, shorten our a’s, and say things like “eating shit,” “supposably,” and every other word/idiom you’d find in the Miami slang lexicon. I also didn’t understand common idioms such as “Kill two birds with one stone;” “like a bat out of hell;” and “colder than witch’s tit in a brass bra.” I mean, “hace frio broder” (It’s cold) is so much easier.

I had an “otherness” that they couldn’t quite put their fingers on -- especially because there was another classmate from Peru (born and raised), and I wasn’t like her either, even though we were both Hispanic. My time spent abroad was eye-opening and encouraged me to think about my roots in Miami, how it was unlike anywhere else in the world, and where exactly that “otherness” came from.

My family hails from Nicaragua and most of them came over in 1984. My parents lived in a house with five other family members. Their freezer was packed with TV dinners because they didn’t know how to cook, as everyone had maids in the home country. I was born at some point along the way, and life in those days was very much about survival.

My earliest memories of grade school are laced in cafecito and overtaken by teachers with bright lipstick, juxtaposing in the most unfortunate ways with their coffee stained teeth. Speaking of coffee, carpool rides always included a stop to a ventanita for the designated chauffeur, a ritual it took me years to understand. You see, as a Nicaraguan, I grew up being the outsider in my classes... they were 90% Cuban, and I fit into the 10% “other.” As the Cuban community rules the Catholic sector, growing up as an Archdiocese kid you kind of just have to go with it. I sometimes struggled in Spanish, because the words they would teach us weren't the ones I learned. Now, I speak an unusual mix of Cuban-Nicaraguan that seems to work just fine in Miami. I remember parties outdoors, with our parents staying to have their own party inside. Food by the pound, usually spaghetti and meatballs or arroz con pollo, acted as the food du jour at these soirees.

During the holidays, I’d walk around the original Town & Country with its centerpiece merry-go-round, visit Santa’s Enchanted Forest, and/or the original Parrot Jungle. And where other places were gifted feet of snow for Christmas, I was given sunshine, sunscreen, and trips to Disney.


When I inevitably entered my teen years, I was slingshotted into a goddamn existential crisis.

Living in permanent 90-degree weather with effortless access to premiere vacation spots (four hours north to Orlando, four hours south to Key West, 30 minutes to Port of Miami) is enough to make anyone totally jaded by their surroundings. And although I’ll never quite understand if my parents actually enjoyed taking us to Disney World, they did it anyway; at least once a year until I was 18. I love my parents, I hate Disney World. And I understand it might sound strange to an outsider to hear a Floridian say they hate Disney World, but what I’m about to say next might sound even more bizarre: I don’t really like the beach.

There’s a common misconception that Miamians were born in the sand, raised in the tides of the Atlantic, and went to school in their bikinis. In fact, there are many native Miamians who don’t go near the beach at all, let alone touch the sand. There was a period in time, when I was younger, where we’d take our out of town guests to The Clevelander for overpriced burgers and Heineken -- now, I don’t go near Ocean Drive, much less the ocean.

Mandy Baca/Thrillist

When I inevitably entered my teen years, I was slingshotted into a goddamn existential crisis. I became acutely aware of Miami’s portrayal in the media, in fancy magazines, on E!’s Wild On!, and I wanted (or at least thought I wanted) to live that life. It led to some serious FOMO and a swelling urge to experience a Miami filled with late nights, wild parties, celebrities, and breaking curfew. 

My favorite memories shifted from clubbing with fake IDs to blasting down US1 without worrying about traffic.

Quinceañeras are to Hispanics what Sweet Sixteens are to Americans. I had about six dresses that took me through that bagel bite, hors d'oeuvres-filled, cider drinking, banquet hall dancing hell of a season. No matter your background, Miamians experienced at least one of these lavish parties growing up, but these days they aren’t as ubiquitous as they once were, probably due to the modernization of the local Hispanic community. Around junior year, I got my first fake ID and went to Back Door Bamby, as well as other spots like Pawn Shop and Oxygen. In my later years, it was Buck 15, Tantra, and Grass. Everyone knew someone with a fake ID hook-up, but for the most part, you didn't need one.

Eventually, I matured -- as we all do -- and my favorite memories shifted, as well. They went from memories of clubbing with fake IDs to more whimsical, nostalgic, only-in-Miami type of experiences. Blasting down US1 on a Saturday night without worrying about traffic and construction, when the Miami Arena was the latest and greatest? Yeah, that was the best. I can easily recall the magic of crossing MacArthur Causeway with my parents to visit the then unknown and unconquered Miami Beach, and spending Saturdays watching morning cartoons while eating Eggos and Milca (bubble gum cream soda), arguing with my parents in Spanglish the whole time, pleading with them to take me to a friend’s house later to watch SNICK. And Sunset Place. How could I forget walking around Sunset Place for hours with friends? (Back when it was cool, of course). But, as much as I am accepting of changes, it’s my hope that Miami won’t become one tremendous slab of concrete filled with chain establishments and forget -- and destroy -- its own history in the process. The old can live amongst the new, no? The death of Fox’s Sherron Inn, Jumbo’s Restaurant, and Tobacco Road might say otherwise. It’s a tired cliché, but appropriate: only time will tell.

When I returned from Italy, Miami was already beginning to feel like a different place than the one I grew up in. New buildings were being erected, gentrification was creeping in, and there were more events, more people, and more bustle than ever before. The craft beer movement was slowly taking off at spots like Abraxas Lounge and the original DRB. In the food world, Miami started to make more appearances on the yearly James Beard Awards list, and the digital publication Eater premiered. While there were still spaces available for rent, Wynwood was already on everyone’s mind to be the next best ‘hood. Even quieter areas like South Miami were gaining traction. What won’t change, however, is the enthusiasm for making Miami a greater place to live.

These days I gripe and moan as the snowbirds flock south in the winter, congest the roads, and take all the good parking. Don’t they know the DMV doesn’t teach parallel parking in Miami? But I get it. It’s nice here in January. At least they don’t prefer the city in the summer, when I do. When the locals get the city back, and when the city regains some of the magic I was lucky enough to grow up with.

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Miami native, Mandy Baca wrote this from the sands of South Beach. Just kidding, she hates the beach, which explains why she’s paperwhite. Follow her Miami life on Twitter at @mandybaca.