My Father’s First Glimpse of New York, 80 Years Ago Today

My father’s first of many New York stories took place exactly eighty years ago, on July 2, 1933. He had arrived in the city the day before from Havana aboard the ill-fated Morro Castle with his father, his oldest sister Rosa Marina (22 years old and known as Mara), and one of his younger brothers, Rubén. My father was thirteen and Rubén was twelve. It was the boys’ first visit to the U.S.

PoloGrounds2

July 2nd, a Sunday, they all found themselves in great seats at the Polo Grounds to watch a doubleheader between the Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals. The scene made quite an impression on my father: it was the Fourth of July weekend and the stadium was festooned with red, white, and blue banners, with a capacity crowd of some 50,000 cheering on the Giants. It was exactly what he expected the U.S. to look like.

newspaperHubbelThe first game lasted 18 innings, with Carl Hubbell accomplishing the incredible feat of pitching the entire game, allowing the Cardinals only six hits, no walks, and pitching twelve of the innings perfectly. The Giants won, 1-0. They also won the second game by the same score (Dizzy Dean pitched for the Cardinals), but my father did not get to see it. My grandfather stood up at the end of the marathon first game and announced he had seen enough baseball for one day and they all left for their hotel, the McAlpin, near Herald Square.McAlpin

The purpose of that summer trip was to drop off my father and Rubén in Long Island, where they were to start their U.S. education. My grandfather Lisandro, after whom both my father and I were named, was an orphan from central Cuba who had done very well financially by building a successful leaf tobacco exporting business. By 1933 he was already 62 years old and at the height of his business career as the exclusive Cuban exporter for the General Cigar Company in New York. He had just built a spacious home in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood for his wife and ten children, of which my father was the oldest son.

Lisandro and Amparo Pérez and their 10 children, ca. 1930. My father I seated at right in the business suit, Rubén standing in the center, and my aunt Mara, the oldest, behind my grandfather.

Lisandro and Amparo Pérez and their 10 children, ca. 1930. My father is seated at right in the business suit, Rubén standing in the center, and my aunt Mara, the oldest, behind my grandfather.

Despite having a nun for a daughter (my aunt Raquel), my grandfather did not want his sons educated in a traditional Catholic school for boys in Havana. Perhaps because he knew absolutely no English, he was determined to have his children learn the language and the ways of the people in New York with whom had done business for decades. The location of the school could not have been other than New York, since my grandfather relied on the connections of the President of General Cigar, Bernhard Meyer, who offered the corporate box at the Polo Grounds for the doubleheader. One of Mr. Meyer’s children, Max, attended Woodmere Academy in Long Island, and so Mr. Meyer arranged for my father and uncle to not only enroll there, but also to be boarded at the home of the school’s director, Mr. Mitchell Perry.

Woodmere Academy, now Lawrence-Woodmere

Woodmere Academy, now Lawrence-Woodmere

And so it was that my father and Rubén, and eventually two of their younger brothers, spent five years studying at a predominantly Jewish prep school, living in a Protestant household, learning flawless English, and accumulating a trove of experiences and anecdotes centered in New York. That’s how I grew up hearing about Sundays in the Polo Grounds or in Yankee Stadium, of the beauty of Penn Station and the majesty of the Empire State Building, of weekend rides on the Long Island Railroad, the misery of having to eat beets, cauliflower, and rhubarb pie, but also of the charms of a coed school and especially of one Peggy Cohen.

After the boys had been dropped off at the Perry home, my grandfather and aunt returned to the McAlpin for the night. The following day they boarded a ship back to Havana. My father once told me that many years later his sister Mara recounted to him how that night at the McAlpin she had heard my grandfather weeping in the adjoining room, something she had never heard him do. One can only imagine how important it must have been for him to have his sons educated in the U.S., even at the heavy emotional cost of leaving them at such young ages with strangers in a foreign country.

Senior year at Woodmere. My father the catcher at right and Rubén seated at far right.

Senior year at Woodmere. My father the catcher at right and Rubén seated at far right.

After graduating from Woodmere in 1938, my father and Rubén returned to Havana permanently to work in the family business. My father told me that there was a time when he regretted having spent his high school years in the U.S.  When he returned to Cuba he had no network of peers he could count on to facilitate business connections, something so important in a society that so highly values interpersonal relations.

But in 1960, when my father felt compelled to leave Cuba with his wife and two young sons and start over at age 40, the English that he mastered in New York, and his familiarity with the U.S., came in very handy. The old man, he once told me, referring to his father, knew what he was doing.

Cubans in Manhattan: Northerners

demographyThe Cuban New Yorker blog celebrates its first anniversary this week by returning to the topic of that first posting on June 11, 2012: the numbers. In “How Many Cuban New Yorkers?” I presented the results of the 2010 U.S. Census of Population on the Cuban-origin population residing in Greater New York. Those results showed that there were 40,840 persons who identified themselves as being of Cuban “origin or descent” in the five boroughs.  Manhattan had the most of the five, with 11,623. [I did noted, of course, that New Jersey-across-the-Hudson does dwarf New York City in terms of numbers of Cubans].

So this post focuses on Manhattan and asks the question: Where do Cuban Manhattanites live? In subsequent blogs I will ask the same question about Cubans in the other boroughs and I may even do New Jersey.

To answer the question I will use the figures on the population of “Cuban origin or descent” (self-identified) that the 2010 U.S. Census found in each of the approximately 500 census tracts in Manhattan. A census tract is a geographic division used by the Census Bureau to present data for relatively small areas within cities. Census tracts usually have about 4,000 persons. But in areas of cities with high population density, census tracts can be quite large in terms of population and small in terms of land area. A typical census tract in Midtown West or in the Upper East Side, as an example, is four uptown/downtown blocks by two crosstown blocks. But census tracts can vary widely in the shape of their boundaries, land area, and population.

Looking at the distribution of Cubans across all the census tracts in Manhattan, it is evident that there are no overwhelming concentrations of Cubans on the island, that is, there are no census tracts in which Cubans represent a significant proportion of the total population of the tract. While there were nearly 12,000 Cubans living in 2010 in Manhattan, no one census tract had more than 300 Cubans.???????????????????????????????

Nevertheless, there are areas of Manhattan that have more Cubans than others. In this map I have filled in red the census tracts with more than 100 Cubans. It is clear that Cuban Manhattanites are westerners and northerners, especially the latter. The southernmost census tracts are in Midtown West, around John Jay College, west of the Time-Warner Center. But those have less than 150 Cubans each. The more numerous ones are in the Upper West Side, West Harlem, and, especially, Washington Heights. The census tract with the most Cubans is tract 265, which in 2010 had 253 Cubans. That is the tract that surrounds the approach to the George Washington Bridge and the bus terminal (177 to 181 Streets andbusterminal1 between Riverside Drive and Broadway). Other tracts with sizable numbers are along Broadway, from 158th Street all the way north to Inwood.

My sense is that this pattern of settlement in the northwestern quadrant of Manhattan is a long-standing one, dating back to at least the post-World War II period, when there was a significant Cuban migration to New York. That is actually a researchable assertion, but would involve a rather tedious process of digging up data from the pre-digital era and adjusting for changes between censuses in the tract boundaries.  It’s on my to-do list.

What may have shifted over the past decades is the distribution of Cubans between the Upper West Side and Washington Heights. My sense (again, an assertion, a hypothesis) is that the Upper West Side was the primary area of settlement for Cubans up until the area’s gentrification, back when it was primarily Puerto Rican, east of Broadway, along Columbus and Amsterdam.  The Latino population in the Upper West Side has declined precipitously since the 1980s and that’s probably when the shift towards the north intensified, about the time the Dominicans started coming in and settling in the Heights.

I would argue further that the relative absence of Cubans on the eastern side of Manhattan is also historical. Cubans joined Puerto Ricans in the Upper West Side, but not in sizable numbers in East Harlem or in the Lower East Side.

untitledIt is in the west and north of the island where the Cubans’ Manhattan imaginary resides. It was there that Oscar Hijuelos placed the Santinio family in Our House in the Last World (1983) and where the Castillo brothers also made their home in his The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989).

It was in Washington Heights where El Súper battled snow, garbage, the boiler, nostalgia, and displacement in the 1978 film by León Ichaso and Orlando Jiménez Leal.El_Super14

The restaurateur Victor del Corral left his mark on the corner of Columbus and 71st Street by commissioning a high relief mural of a Cuban sugar cane field for the façade of his restaurant, which during the 1960s and 1970s served the locals the dishes of their homeland.

restaurant1Decades after Victor’s Café moved to the Times Square area, the cane field, the oxcart and the young cane cutter depicted on the mural are still there, even as the neighborhood has been completely transformed.20121112VictorSlide2-slide-BN7T-blog480

The space is now occupied by a bistro that bills itself as “the sexiest addition to the Upper West Side since Lauren Bacall moved into the Dakota.” The owners initially wanted to get rid of the mural, but were persuaded by preservationists to keep it. The yoked oxen that pull the cart, “two decrepit, sappy cows” as the new owners labeled them initially, are the plaster guardians of a bygone era: in 2010, the Census Bureau found only 66 Cubans living in census tract 157, where the oxen still stand on a Cuban sugar cane field.ox

An Alternative (Cuban) Tour of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

Last week the Museum of the City of New York inaugurated an exhibit on the storied Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Entitled “A Beautiful Way to Go,” the exhibit is relatively small in relation to the sheer size, beauty, and historicalcemetery importance of the cemetery, but it uses the space beautifully and imaginatively, as one has come to expect from the Museum of the City of New York and the curator for this exhibit, Donald Albrecht, whose staff was aided by Jeffery Richman, the cemetery’s historian.

When I served as a consultant three years ago to the New York Historical Society’s exhibit on the history of the Latin American presence in the city (Nueva York!), I came to appreciate the challenging zero-sum game of exhibit planning: the available space sets a tyrannical limit. If you decide to add something, something else must come out.exhibit

Imagine the challenge in the Green-Wood exhibit. You want to cover the history, the architecture, the landscaping, but most importantly, you have to answer the question: who is buried there? Anybody we know? The answer is YES: Samuel Morse, Boss Tweed, Leonard Bernstein, John Underwood (the bernsteintypewriter guy), the Steinways (the piano guys), the Havemeyers (the Brooklyn sugar refiners), James Weldon Johnson, Horace Greeley, Jean Michel Basquiat, Henry Chadwick and Charles Ebbets (both of baseball fame), the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, Juan Trippe (PanAm founder), the musician Louis Gottschalk, Susan Smith McKinney (first African-American woman to practice medicine in New York State), the guy who played the actual Wizard of Oz in the 1939 movie, Thomas Adams (the inventor of the chewing gum), and, in my view, the man who most influenced the history of the city: Governor DeWitt Clinton. Oh, and by the way, more than half a million other people. The selection process for those who are showcased (literally) in the exhibit must have been brutal. Even Gottschalk, arguably the most renowned composer and musician of his time, did not make the cut (although the guy who wrote It’s Raining Men did).

So I understand (although I am disappointed) that not one of my dead Cubans, with whom I have been living with over the past decade or so as I research the history of Cubans in New York, made it to the exhibit. And there’s quite a few of them buried in Green-Wood, and fairly prominent ones at that.  In fact, I venture to say that Green-Wood is the cemetery outside of Cuba where the greatest number of notable Cubans is buried, with the possible exception of Woodlawn in Miami (two Cuban Presidents and at least one wanna-be Cuban President, among others, are buried in that Calle Ocho cemetery). But as far as 19th-century Cubans are concerned, I would argue for Green-Wood (Paris and Madrid are possible challengers).

Here then, is my supplement, or Cuban appendix, to the fine, although necessarily limited, MCNY exhibit.

But first: the context. Most of the notable Cubans buried at Green-Wood belong to the migration wave that arrived in New York in the aftermath of the outbreak, in 1868, of the first war of independence from Spain. That wave made Cuban New York the largest community of Latin American immigrants east of the Mississippi and remained so until Ybor City (another Cuban community, in Tampa) surpassed it in 1886. It was a migration spearheaded by the Havana elite, mostly owners of sugar plantations and slaves, as well as the lawyers and intellectuals associated with that class, who found themselves in physical danger when their eastern compatriots decided in 1868 that the political status of Cuba had to be decided by the sharp edge of a machete. The Spanish unleashed a wave of repression against the Havana criollo aristocracy, so they exiled themselves in New York, where most of them had been selling their sugar for decades and where they had sizable accounts with the counting houses lining South Street. Here they joined forces with longtime Cuban residents of the city to support, with widely ranging degrees of enthusiasm, the cause of the rebels fighting the Spanish in Cuba.

Juan Clemente Zenea

Juan Clemente Zenea

Even before the outbreak of the war, Green-Wood had become a well-known place for Cuban New Yorkers. One of the most important Cuban poets of all time, Juan Clemente Zenea, who first arrived in the city 1852, visited Green-Wood and penned a poem En Greenwood, which starts: “next to these quiet waters/among these woods, in this refuge/under these lawns and roses/is where I want to peacefully rest.”

Miguel Aldama, the most prominent of all the Cuban sugar planters, the informal leader of the Havana elite, and perhaps once the richest man in the island, is buried at Green-Wood. He gained prominence in New York as the official representative in the United States of the Cuban rebels, and although his properties in Cuba were embargoed

Miguel Aldama, on the cover of Harper's Weekly

Miguel Aldama, on the cover of Harper’s Weekly

by the Spanish, he had stashed away in New York nearly one million dollars, which enabled him to live very comfortably in the city, give his daughter a sumptuous wedding and a European honeymoon, erect a huge sugar refinery in the Brooklyn waterfront, and build a relatively modest mausoleum in Green-Wood to bury his father, Domingo, and his wife, Hilaria Fonts, both of whom died within a few years after arriving here. Aldama was on a first-name basis with most of the city’s rich and powerful, including mayor Oakey Hall.

The Aldama mausoleum

The Aldama mausoleum

Eventually, both the war and the refinery failed, and Aldama was forced to return to Cuba to try to recover (unsuccessfully) his properties from the Spanish. When he died virtually penniless in Havana in 1888, his body, in accordance with his wishes, was shipped to New York and buried in Green-Wood. All the New York newspapers covered the arrival of the body and its burial.

Also buried at Green-Wood is a colleague of Aldama, José Morales Lemus, a prominent lawyer for the Havana planter class, who was the rebels’ representative prior to Aldama and who devoted himself to an unsuccessful campaign to get the Grant administration to recognize the legitimacy of the cause for Cuban independence. He was practically a fixture in the office of Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. Already an older man when he arrived, he died of a gastrointestinal ailment in his Brooklyn home in 1870.

Jose Morales Lemus
Jose Morales Lemus
Tomb of Morales Lemus
Tomb of Morales Lemus

There are three large and prominent families from that migration wave buried at Green-Wood. All three arrived here with money, but made a fortune investing in Manhattan real estate. The Govíns, headed by Félix, owned some twenty-six multifamily rental properties in what is now Hell’s Kitchen and Félix was probably the richest Cuban in New York in the 1880s. His daughter, Luciana, inherited most of the family fortune and she provided the critical financing for the expedition José Martí organized in 1895 after the Fernandina fiasco (see Cuban New Yorker blog #16, February 4, 2013).

The Angarica family plot

The Angarica family plot

The Angarica brothers, José and Joaquín, also had substantial Manhattan real estate holdings, but were better known as very high-ranking Freemasons, establishing and leading an important lodge in Manhattan.

Years before the conflict, the Mora clan had already established a presence in the city as sugar merchants, selling their sugar to New York refineries and investing in income-producing property in the East Village. José Mora was a generous contributor to the Cuban cause, losing much of his fortune in the conflict. José also lost a brother-in-law, the husband of his sister Carlota, General Domingo Goicouría, who was famously and publicly executed by the Spanish in Havana during the war.

The Mora family plot
The Mora family plot

A second-generation Mora, José María, established a photography studio on Broadway, eventually becoming a prominent theatrical photographer. In his last years he lived as an eccentric recluse and his death was covered by the major New York newspapers.

Jose Maria Mora's portrait of Chester Arthur

Jose Maria Mora’s portrait of Chester Arthur

Benjamín Guerra, a collaborator of Martí and the treasurer of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano, who died in New York in 1900, has one of the most modest tombs in the cemetery. There are undoubtedly many other Cubans interred in Green-Wood. It is difficult to know without much more exhaustive research because the searchable burial records are not complete. I have a long list of Cuban New Yorkers who died in the city, but I have yet to determine where they are buried.

The body of Zenea, the poet who loved Green-Wood and wished to be buried there, is not in the cemetery. In 1870 he was sent to Cuba by Aldama, allegedly to meet with the rebels and communicate a Spanish peace offer. Despite having a “safe passage” document issued by Madrid’s ambassador in Washington, he was imprisoned by the Spanish authorities and held in La Cabaña fortress in Havana, where he was eventually executed.oldGreenwood

Every New Yorker has a story. The stories of some are deemed more important than the stories of others, but that is a matter of perspective. These stories are important to me because they are the stories of people who were born where I was born and who lived in the same city where I now live. Many are untold stories. Since I started researching their lives, these dead Cubans have been coming at me out of archives, records, and old newspapers, clamoring to have their New York stories told, especially since their stories are not usually found in the history books, historical markers, or exhibits about the city.winter

A parting note to the Museum of the City of New York: thank you for the exhibit, it is wonderful and I thoroughly enjoyed it. If by any chance you are thinking about an exhibit on Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, give me a call, I have a couple of dead Cubans for you.

May 11, 1873: A Death in Cuba and a New York Family

One hundred and forty years ago today in the Jimaguayú savanna, Camagüey, a bullet pierced the skull of Mayor General Ignacio Agramonte y Loynaz. At just thirty-one years of age, Agramonte was arguably the most distinguished of all the military leaders of a war for the independence of Cuba that had been dragging on for almost five years, with no end in sight. The youthful Ignacio, scion of one of Agramonte1the oldest and most prominent of the traditional Camagüeyano families, was educated in Europe, earned a law degree from the University of Havana, and was an accomplished fencer. He was the principal author of the constitution of the government-in-arms established by the Cuban rebels.

Outflanked and surrounded by attacking Spanish troops, the fatal shot felled him from his horse and onto the tall grass, where his lifeless body lay abandoned until the enemy realized the prize they had netted and recovered it. The corpse was taken to the city of Camagüey, also known as Puerto Príncipe, Agramonte’s native town, paraded down the main street, and then summarily cremated.  His family was not in Camagüey to mourn him. Ignacio and his cousin, Brigadier General Eduardo Agramonte y Piña, occupied such prominent roles in the insurrection that by 1871 their families had already left Puerto Príncipe, and Cuba, to avoid reprisals by the Spanish, especially by the fanatical paramilitary voluntarios.

The Agramonte family, like most exiles from the war, came to New York. The 1870 U.S. Census found Ignacio’s mother, María Filomena Loynaz, 46, a widow, living with her sister-in-law, Ignacio’s aunt and godmother, Mercedes Agramonte, 45, and with Ignacio’s brother, Enrique, 25, at 104 W. 20th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, in the Sixteenth Ward. There were also four teenagers in the household, nephews and nieces of María Filomena. In that household, Enrique was the most recent arrival from Cuba. He had been sent by his brother Ignacio after their father died in New York not long after the family arrived here.

Also in New York was the household headed by Dr. José Ramón Simoni, a sixty-year old physician enumerated in the 22nd Ward, on Sixth Avenue, just south of Central Park.  Living with Dr. Simoni in New York were his wife Manuela, 50, their son José Ramón Jr., 22, and Manuela’s niece Victoria Ginferrer, 16. The household also included the Simonis’ two married daughters with their children.

Amalia Simoni

Amalia Simoni

The oldest, Amalia, twenty-five years old, had an infant son, Ignacio Ernesto, and was pregnant with a second. She was married to Major General Ignacio Agramonte. The other daughter, Matilde, was twenty-four and had a two-year old son, Arístides. She was married to Brigadier General Eduardo Agramonte. Sisters in New York married to cousins who were in the Cuban battlefields.On February 20,1871, Amalia gives birth in New York to her (and Ignacio’s) daughter, Herminia, and the new baby and her brother are baptized in October of that year in Holy Cross Church on West 42nd Street.

More than two years after that baptism, the news of Ignacio’s death would reach the two families. Ignacio’s mother received the news in New York. At that time, the Simoni family was living in Mérida, Yucatán, where Dr. Simoni had taken the family to try to reestablish his medical practice. Ignacio Ernesto was four and Herminia two.

Eduardo Agramonte

Eduardo Agramonte

Five months after Ignacio Agramonte’s death in 1873, Carlos del Castillo, who at the time was serving as a representative of the Cuban Republic in New York, received a letter from Dr. Simoni in Mérida, thanking del Castillo for sending him the official dispatch from General Manuel Sanguily that detailed the circumstances of the death of Ignacio. It was much appreciated by the widow, Simoni wrote. In a chilling postscript to the letter, Simoni requests from del Castillo the dispatch from the battle of San José del Chorrillo, which took place in 1872. “It is anxiously awaited by the widow of Eduardo Agramonte,” he wrote.  Dr. Simoni found himself with two widowed daughters and three fatherless grandchildren.

Not long after the tragic news, Amalia and Matilde Simoni returned to New York from Mérida with their children. Amalia became a U.S. citizen on June 13, 1881, listing her occupation as “lady” and her address as 360 West 45th Street.  Her son Ignacio Ernesto became a citizen much later in 1893 and listed his occupation as “civil engineer.”

Blanche Baralt, in her 1945 memoir of her youthful days in the New York of the 1880s and 1890s, remembers with affection the Simoni sisters and their children, noting especially the family’s joy on the graduation of Arístides, Matilde’s son, from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Matilde remarried and had three more children, all girls.

Amalia Simoni, Ignacio’s widow, never remarried. She returned to live in Cuba in 1892, an event recorded in Patria by José Martí. After living in Camagüey for many years, she moved to Havana to live in El Vedado with her daughter Herminia and her grandchildren. She died there in 1918, 45 years after Ignacio’s death, and was buried in the Colón necropolis on January 24, declared by President Mario García Menocal as a national day of mourning.

Arístides Agramonte

Arístides Agramonte

At the burial, her nephew Arístides, by that time a well-established physician and an important actor in the joint U.S.-Cuba effort to eradicate yellow fever in Cuba,thanked the multitude assembled at the gravesite for “accompanying to this sacred place the mortal remains of the exemplary compañera of the bravest, most courageous and daring soldier of our liberties, the undiminished hero of Jimaguayú, Mayor General Ignacio Agramonte.”

Havana in the 1950s: “If You See Something, Say Something”

“If you see something, say something. If you see a suspicious package or activity on an MTA train or platform, do not keep it to yourself, alert the nearest MTA employee or police officer.”

For many people on the subway, the conductor’s announcement falls on deaf ears, like falling rain. But I listen to it. I get it.

As I viewed the photographs of the horrific bombing scenes in Boston, my attention was drawn to those pictures taken before the explosions which showed that the unattended backpacks apparently drew no suspicions from peopleboston-marathon-second-bomb standing in very close proximity to them. No doubt those people were distracted by the passing runners. But it may also be that Americans, for the most part, and perhaps less so New Yorkers, are not attuned psychically to the possibility of terrorism, that is, they do not instinctively assume, for example, that the unattended package they have suddenly encountered poses a real danger.

My reaction is different: I react immediately with suspicion to packages I see in public places. It was wired into my brain circuitry in the Havana of my childhoodradiocentro when an illegal and decrepit government clung to power and a revolutionary urban underground movement sought to depose it through violence in the streets. That Havana of the 1950s, where a Cuban boy could have his grade school class interrupted by the sound of gunfire, where photographs of bloodied dead bodies on both sides of the conflict showed up almost daily in the morning papers, where the presidential palace was fructuosomilitarily assaulted and dozens were killed, where the sound of distant gunfire broke the stillness of the night, where military trucks rumbled through residential neighborhoods, where people jumped at the sound of an engine backfire or of a ceremonial cannon fired from a historic fortress.

And it was a place and time where you learned to heed your parents’ admonition, repeated incessantly, like the MTA message, to stay alertcanizares and the hell away from any packages you might see on the street. One never forgets that, even after more than half a century. I love fireworks but not their sounds. I assume the worst when I hear firecrackers. And to this day, a lonely package in a public place can give me cause to pause. Only four days before the Boston bombings, I froze when I walked into my class and spied a small shopping madresbag that had been left in a corner of the classroom. Fortunately, it was open, so I forced myself to walk slowly towards it and peer in, without touching it. It was the detritus of someone’s breakfast.

I suspect I share this sensitivity (phobia, if you like), with many of my Cuban contemporaries. And I know share it with many people around the world who grew up in places and times in which bombings and shootings were part of their daily lives. The street violence of pre-revolutionary Havana, after all, was nothing compared with what many children have experienced, and continue to experience, in the Middle East and other regions with protracted and devastating conflicts.

iraqi-child-covering-eyes

That is not normal. It is not the way children should grow up. And that is not the way that children have grown up in the United States, a country that, despite 9/11, has not had to habituate itself to random acts of terrorism directed at innocent persons in public places; it has not had to internalize a hyper sensitivity to dangers in the streets.

What is normal is that in a crowd watching a marathon no one should have to worry about a stray package. But what is normal may be changing in this country. Let’s hope not.  By far most of my childhood memories in Cuba are truly pleasant. I could, of course, do without those that are not.

Breakfast in Union City

It’s been a long winter, intruding on Spring. And the semester has been more than busy. So Liza and I started Spring Break early, rented a car, and sought out the landscapes of the Hudson Valley, favorites of ours, just for a change. We did not stay overnight, but the car was not due back until the following day at noon.

So what can we do in just one morning with a car in the city? Escape the city for breakfast. And I mean escape the brunch plague. Yes, New York City has thousands upon thousands of restaurants, but it seems all of them, at least in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, have one menu on weekend mornings: some 07variation of Eggs Benedict, waffles, pancakes, and your choice of a Mimosa or Bloody Mary. Oh, and if you happen to wake up early (as I do), you have to wait until about 11:00 a.m. to make your selection. I like to have breakfast when I wake up, and by midday I’m ready for a real meal, not eggs on English muffins or something covered in syrup.

With a car, the choice is clear. Burrow into the Lincoln Tunnel and come out in Union City hoping for a breakfast we have not had this long winter: a Cuban breakfast. You know what I’m talking about: café con leche, tostada cubana (buttered, crisp, well pressed), and huevos fritos (not runny, with that whitish layer on the yolks that you get by splashing the cooking oil on top while you fry them). We were also hoping for a side of either chorizo, or even better, croqueticas de jamón. 006

In an earlier post, I asked readers of Cuban New Yorker if there are any Cuban places in New York that serve cafeteria fare, because that’s what you are looking for when you go out for a Cuban breakfast. No one suggested a place in the city. So I went online: “Cuban cafeterias in Union City, NJ.” I was referred to Cuban restaurants in Union City. I scanned through the results and saw one with the name “Latin American Restaurant,” evocative of the cafeteria in Miami with the same name. And it opens at 9:00 a.m. every day. That’s what I’m talking about.

Since I do not usually have a car in New York, I do not, regretfully, get out to Cubanland in Jersey I often as I would like. So I had to depend on the GPS to direct me to 4317 Bergenline Avenue. But the expedition was worth it, as I realized as soon as I drove up to the place. There were signs on the restaurant’s exterior advertising its offerings, including pan con bistec, sandwich cubano,

001and, most importantly, desayuno completo, that is, cafeteria fare.  As it turned out, we could get both chorizo and croqueticas. The croqueticas were atypically slender, but they were homemade, fried to order, and light and crispy. The eggs were perfect, as were the café con leche and the tostada.

???????????????????????????????That morning the restaurant was a one-woman operation: waitress, cook, and cashier all in one, which was not a problem since the place was not exactly crowded at 9:00 a.m. (where did everyone go, to Manhattan for brunch?).  I did ???????????????????????????????not ask her name since she was initially a bit leery of us when she saw me taking pictures of the restaurant’s exterior. [Maybe sizing up someone’s place of business is not a good thing to do in Tony Soprano’s 003territory].  But after we started talking she told us she had arrived in Union City (and the U.S.) three years ago, after leaving Cuba through Mexico.

U.S. Census data show that the Cuban presence in Union City is declining, in both relative and absolute terms. The 2000 Census counted 10,296 persons of Cuban-origin or descent, the largest single Latino-origin group in Union City, but that was already a dwindling number in comparison to the 1970’s and 80’s. The most recent census (2010) found 7,510 persons claiming Cuban origin or descent, with Dominicans now the largest single Latino-origin group in the city (10,020).002

The figures also show that Union City remains a first-generation (immigrant) community for Cubans. Even as the numbers decline, Cuban-born persons continue to predominate among all persons of Cuban origin. In other words, the children of Cuban immigrants move out of Union City, with new arrivals from Cuba (the preparer of our fine breakfast is an example) replacing them. But they are not fully replacing them, since new immigrants from the island are likely to go to Florida, and so the community in Union City declines.

But Union City, and especially Bergenline Avenue, continues to bear the mark of what has been a premier community for Cubans in the U.S.  Fortunately, ethnic communities tend to outlive the immigrant generation, at least in terms of businesses catering to the group’s traditional consumption patterns, as evidenced by Little Italys everywhere and even Ybor City in Tampa. I hope so. I plan to go back to Union City for breakfast.

Martí’s 1895 birthday, the fateful days that followed, and the women in his life

José Martí celebrated his last birthday at Delmonico’s. Starting the following day, he was immersed in a whirlwind of events in preparation for his departure to Cuba. On January 30th, 1895, Martí left New York. Those last days in the city bring into focus the women who were important to him during his life here. This is the story:

On a cold January evening in 1895, José Martí walked briskly to Delmonico’s Restaurant on 26th Street and Fifth Avenue to celebrate his birthday. It was a Monday, the 28th day of the month, exactly forty-two years after his birth in a modest Havana home.

Delmonico's, corner of  26th Street and Fifth Avenue

Delmonico’s, corner of 26th Street and Fifth Avenue

As he walked into the restaurant, his mind was on the events he had set into motion and that at times seemed to overwhelm him. But the sight of four loyal friends waiting for him at a corner table helped to place him in a celebratory mood. It was, after all, his birthday and it was his favorite New York restaurant. He once wrote about Delmonico’s that “everything there is served and prepared with supreme distinction . . . moist bottles set on rich napkins, select dishes on elegant platters, delicate crystal filled with perfumed wines, silver plates with soft breads . . .”

Dinner that January evening provided a much-needed distraction from what Martí had to do on the following day: draft the order to start a war. Perusing the menu, he recognized many of Delmonico’s signature offerings: Red-Head Roast Duck, Breast of Chicken à la Lorenzo, Terrapin (Baltimore Style), Filet of Beef with Stuffed Olives, Renaissance Timbales, Clear Green Turtle Soup, Peaches (or Pears) à la Richelieu, and “Fancy Cakes”.

Among his friends in attendance that evening was his loyal right-hand man, the young U.S.-educated lawyer Gonzalo de Quesada and Gonzalo’s father-in-law, Dr. Ramón L. Miranda, Martí’s physician. Missing from the all-male table,DelmonicoDinner however, was the woman who made possible the celebratory spirit that permeated the occasion: Miranda’s wife and Gonzalo’s mother-in-law, Luciana Govín.

Luciana was the oldest daughter of Félix Govín, a man who had left Cuba in the wake of the outbreak of war in the island in 1868 and settled in New York. By the 1880’s Félix Govín was quite possibly the richest Cuban in New York from his careful investments in Manhattan real estate. In 1884, he enticed General Máximo Gómez to come to New York from Central America with the promise of $100,000 of his own money and an additional $100,000 from his friends to finance another independence war against the Spanish.

Maximo Gomez

Maximo Gomez

The old general, always up for another fight, came to the city only to find that Govín reneged on his offer. It may have simply been a ploy of Govín to leverage the Spanish with the threat of supporting an insurrection if they did not pay restitution for his embargoed properties in Cuba. Gómez was outraged.

Félix died in 1891 a widower, leaving an estate valued at $600,000. He left a third of it to Luciana and the rest to his other children and grandchildren.

In the closing days of 1894, Martí had three ships outfitted with men and arms ready to sail for Cuba from Fernandina Beach, near Jacksonville. The expedition had been coordinated with simultaneous landings in Cuba of the military leaders, led by Gómez.  But the betrayal of one of the collaborators and the relentless activities of the Pinkertons, (who had long been the bane of Martí as agents for the Spanish government) tipped off the U.S. government to the violation of its Neutrality Act and the vessels were confiscated before they could leave for Cuba. Through legal maneuvers the movement recovered some of the arms and munitions, but the fruits of Martí’s years of fundraising were lost, as was the element of surprise. The Spanish were astounded by the magnitude and organization of the movement and started preparing for an uprising.   For the first time, Martí’s closest collaborators saw him lose his composure and act in a desperate, even irrational, manner.  It would not be easy to raise the money needed to outfit a comparable expeditionary force again. What remained in the treasury of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano was not enough. But in a twist of fate, Luciana Govín came forward and put up the rest of the money. She handed Martí a blank check and told him he could have up to $100,000, not coincidentally the same amount her father had deceitfully pledged to Gómez more than ten years before.

A new expedition was quickly assembled, awaiting Martí’s order to proceed. It was the responsibility of giving that order that weighed heavily on Martí’ mind as he walked into Delmonico’s on the night in January 28, 1895 to celebrate his last birthday.

UprisingOrder-TrellesMatanzasP127The day after the dinner, January 29, Martí drafted and signed the order to start the uprising on the island. Gonzalo de Quesada, one of the diners at Delmonico’s, carried the order to Key West where, according to legend, it was rolled into a cigar, taken to the island, and delivered personally to Martí’s representative in Havana, Juan Gualberto Gómez.

January 30th was Martí’s last day in New York. Since his return from Jacksonville he had been staying at 116 W. 64th St., the home of Dr. Miranda and Luciana Govín.  Martí was keeping a low profile so as not to tip off the Pinkerton agents that the uprising was underway.

On that final New York day, Martí found the time to bid a hasty farewell to the Baralt family, who also lived on W. 64th Street, number 135. Blanche Baralt wrote years later that on that day Martí came to her family’s house, apologizing for not visiting longer since he did not have a moment to spare. After saying that only God knew when he would see them again, he “dashed off like an arrow into the freezing morning.”   Days later, Blanche and her sister-in-law discovered an unfamiliar brown winter coat hanging in the cloakroom of their foyer. Upon searching the pockets, they discovered it was Martí’s coat, left there on that last day because he was, Baralt concluded, so preoccupied with his precipitous departure.  No doubt. But at some point after leaving the Baralt home, the cold January air must have reminded him that he had left his coat behind. He might have momentarily turned back to retrieve it, but then realized that he would never need it again. He was, at last, going back to Cuba.

The most wrenching farewell of that final New York day no doubt took place in the house of Carmen Mantilla. Two days later, aboard the S. S. Athos of the Atlas

Carmen Mantilla
Carmen Mantilla

Line, the steamer taking him away from New York, Martí wrote a letter on the ship’s stationery to “my dear girl,” the fourteen-year-old María. He asked her to retrieve his Larousse from the home of Gonzalo de Quesada and borrow from Blanche Baralt her copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology so she could look up “Athos” and “Atlas.” He signed the letter, “your Martí.”

On May 19th, Carmen Mantilla and her children received another letter from Martí, one that had been written more than a month earlier in the Cuban countryside. In it, he told them that he carried at all times a picture of María on his chest, next to his heart. The day Carmen received the letter in New York, Martí was killed by a volley of Spanish bullets.

María Mantilla, at the age of 15, in 1895

María Mantilla, at the age of 15, in 1895

It was the sense of a fatal destiny that made the birthday dinner at Delmonico’s a bittersweet occasion for Martí. For him it was much more than a birthday celebration. Enjoying an exquisite culinary evening was a good way to bid farewell to a city that had become a part of him, and which he knew he would never see again.

Luciana Govín is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Carmen Mantilla is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

María Mantilla, reputedly Martí’s daughter, lived the rest of her life in the U.S. and was the mother of the actor César Romero.

Blanche Baralt, born in 1865 in New York, moved to Cuba after the war ended in 1898 and in 1945 published a memoir of her life in New York and the Martí she knew.