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.

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10 responses to “An Alternative (Cuban) Tour of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

  1. As always, a fascinating and informative read. Both Green-Wood and Woodlawn Cemeteries are National Historic Landmarks; the documentation for the former can be found at http://www.nps.gov/nhl/designations/samples/ny/ny.htm.

  2. Love your emails!

    I am half Cuban, half New York Wasp and have American family buried at Woodlawn. Even have space for me!

    So it was good to know that I would not just be surrounded by gringos, but will have Cuban ghostly companions with whom to share cafecitos and pastelitos, if I choose Woodlawn. Aunque pienso que voy a preferir el panteón de mi familia (Godinez)en el Cementerio Colón. Seguro que los muertos allí son más divertidos!

    Maggie Hernandez, Realtor Retail Placement Int., Inc. Miami Luxury Real Estate 305 495-8775

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Sorry Green Wood!

    Maggie Hernandez, Realtor Retail Placement Int., Inc. Miami Luxury Real Estate 305 495-8775

    Sent from my iPhone

  4. Woodlawn in the Bronx is actually on the verge of its own 150th Anniversary, for which we’re planning an exhibit at Columbia University. The show will close out our celebration, in 2014. Stay tuned at https://www.facebook.com/woodlawnconservancy.org or on Twitter: @WoodlawnConserv.
    Cristiana Pena, Director of Programs
    Woodlawn Conservancy / The Woodlawn Cemetery

  5. Benjamín J. Guerra y Escobar, treasurer of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, did not die in New York but in Philadelphia. Distraught about having been accused by Enrique Collazo in a Havana newspaper of misappropriating funds from the PRC, and wishing to spare his family some measure of the scandal that would attend his premeditated act, Guerra took a train to Philadelphia, checked into the Lafayette Hotel and committed suicide there with an overdose of morphine on January 8, 1900.

  6. Thank you for the correction. I was careless when I indicated he had died in New York. I did know about the suicide and its causes, but I did not know he had gone to the trouble of traveling to Philadelphia to kill himself. That, of course, must have complicated things for his family, since they did bring him back to New York and he is buried in Green-Wood, lot 26824, section 138.

  7. I think that Guerra wanted to elude the scrutiny of the New York press and hoped that by taking his life in Philadelphia his death (and the theft that motivated it) might pass unnoticed (as in fact it largely did). His humble grave at Green-Wood attests to both the ruinous state of his finances as well as his family’s desire to be as low-key as possible given the circumstances of his death.
    You mentioned that Carmen Mantilla is also buried at Green-Wood. Do you know if her mothyer Carmen Miyares is also interred there? She would be the most important Cuban in that cemetery.

    • I mentioned in the blog on José Martí’s last days in New York (February 4, 2013) that Carmen Miyares de Mantilla is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I don’t know where María Mantilla, her daughter, died nor where she is buried. (Presumably in California, where she lived for many years).

  8. Indeed, María Mantilla de Romero is buried in California, where she died in 1962. Her son, the actor César Romero, remembered today as the Joker in the 1960s tv series Batman, played his biggest “trick” by having his mother buried under a gravestone that reads “María Martí.” For the case against María Mantilla being “María Martí,” see:
    http://josemartiblog.blogspot.com/2011/04/myth-of-jose-martis-natural-daughter.html

  9. Very interesting article on the cemetary. Do you have any information on my great-grandparents, Domingo Martínez y Martínez (Martínez de Ribamontán) and María de Jesús de Pedroso? They were married at the Santiago Spanish Church in 1875. She was the daughter of Leandro de Pedroso. Leandro was one of the Cubans who as early as the 1840′s was active in the movement of make Cuba and American slave state along with
    people like Cristóbal Mádan. To complecate their situation in Cuba Leandro and his

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