A Cuban Bronx Tale: The Curious Name of P.S. 62



P.S. 62 is in the South Bronx. It has about 700 students, 79 percent Hispanic and 18 percent Black. Test scores are below state and city averages. Only 19 percent of 5th graders in 2016-17 met state standards on the New York State English test and 27 percent met the standards in math. But there are encouraging signs: the teacher-student ratio is down, parents laud the dedication of the teachers and the leadership of the school, and considerable progress has been noted in recent years in raising the academic achievement of the students. Everything points to a school where everyone is trying hard to make a difference in the lives of students. [See the data on P.S. 62 here].

It may not help much, but perhaps P.S. 62 could also try to change its name to one more likely to inspire its faculty and students.

P.S. 62 was named in honor of one “Inocensio Casanova.” It was given the name on the very day the school was inaugurated: June 11, 1922. According to the New York Times article on the opening of the school, Casanova was “a Cuban patriot, who aided in the early Cuba revolution by supplying munitions that were sent to Cuba from the Casanova mansion, which formerly stood near the present school site.”

As far as I know, Casanova’s foremost claim to fame is that he has a New York City Public School named after him. No small feat, since he is, as far as I can tell, the only Cuban who has such an honor. Towering figures of Cuban history, such as José Martí or Félix Varela lived most of their adult lives in New York and did important things here, and Cubans such as Luciano (Chano) Pozo or Mongo Santamaría or Arsenio Rodríguez brought their music to the city and gave jazz its Latin tinge. Those prominent Cubans do not have New York City schools named after them. But somehow “Inocensio” does. It would be interesting to research who, back in 1922, championed placing his name on the school. As for labeling him as a patriot for smuggling armaments from his house, we’ll leave that for later.

But I am being unfair. “Inocensio” has at least one other important accomplishment he can claim besides the school: he fathered Emilia Casanova, a well-known figure in Cuban history largely because of what she did in New York. There are biographies of Emilia. She figures prominently in the pantheon of patriotic Cuban women. On the other hand, there are no biographies of her father and it is not likely that I or any another student of Cuban history would have ever heard of him if not for Emilia. I have not been able to find a picture or drawing of him, and a Google search of his name yields only P.S. 62.

Let’s start the story from the beginning, in Cuba, of course. But first, a spelling issue. The namesake of the school was not named Inocensio, but Inocencio. In fact, he spelled it Ynocencio, as is clear from his own handwriting on both his U.S. citizenship application (1854) and his 1867 application for a U.S. passport (traditionally the Y and I were used interchangeably). It is not clear how it became Inocensio in the New York City Public Schools records because the New York Times had it right (Inocencio) when it reported on the opening of the school in 1922.


Ynocencio’s 1854 U.S. citizenship application


Ynocencio’s 1867 U.S. passport application

The Cuban-born Ynocencio (I’ll use his spelling) Casanova and his wife Petronia Rodríguez, a native of the Canary Islands, lived in Cárdenas, a city in the Cuban region of Matanzas, east of Havana. They had sixteen children, including Emilia, who was born in 1832 and who very early gave evidence of what one of her biographers called a “willful character.” Her personality was matched by her appearance. By age twelve she had, according to one biographer, “the physical development of a young woman of fifteen, and her athleticism gave her a vigorous presence that matched her headstrong behavior.” The Casanova household was frequently thrown into disarray because of her

Emilia Casanova

obstinacies in pursuing her projects and whims. At age eighteen, the independence of Cuba became her purpose in life, the channel for her passion and energy, and a huge headache for Ynocencio, who despite not being an active supporter of Cuban separatism, found that his family came under increasing scrutiny from the colonial authorities for his daughter’s public criticisms of Spanish rule.

In the summer of 1852 Ynocencio Casanova decided it was best to temporarily relocate his family to the United States, where, after visiting New York, Niagara Falls, Saratoga, and Albany, they settled in Philadelphia. It was there in 1854 that Emilia, at age twenty-two, married Cirilo Villaverde, twenty years her senior, who impressed her with a résumé of sacrifice on behalf of Cuban separatism (Cirilo is another Cuban New Yorker who is a worthy candidate as a school namesake; more on him later). Emilia and Cirilo stayed in the United States and moved to New York when her family returned to Cuba. Eventually they had three children, although their only daughter died before her seventh birthday.

Throughout the rest of their lives, the couple remained active in New York émigré politics. They were involved in 1866 in the creation of the Junta Republicana de Cuba y Puerto Rico. In 1867 Emilia, anticipating the coming war for Cuba’s independence, prevailed upon her father to liquidate his assets in Cuba and move permanently to New York. For $150,000 dollars Ynocencio bought the old Leggett mansion on Oak Point, in what is now the Hunts Point area in the Bronx, very near where P.S. 62 is located. Originally part of the estate of the family of writer and political reformist William Leggett, the house had been totally renovated by a wealthy New York grocer named Benjamin Whitlock, who built vaults underneath the house to store wine. Whitlock lost most of his fortune with the decline in the cotton trade during the Civil War, and the house was shuttered when the Casanovas bought it in November of 1867.

When the war for Cuban independence broke out the following year, Emilia fervently threw herself into the task of organizing expeditions to take men and arms to the rebels to Cuba. Emilia turned the house on Hunts Point into a hotbed of militant activity in the New York area. It was Ynocencio’s house, but, as had always been the case, he was primarily a bystander to Emilia’s intense activism. The mansion’s vaults were converted into storehouses for guns, rifles, powder, and ammunition. Its relatively isolated location near the coast made it ideal for discreetly smuggling ordnance out to the East River or to the Long Island Sound for shipment to Cuba. The neighbors were aware of the secret activities going on, and years later, after the Casanovas moved out and it stood deserted, the house retained a mysterious reputation. As Stephen Jenkins, a historian of the Bronx, wrote in 1912:,
. . . the visits of the dark-skinned, mysterious-looking men ceased, and the house was deserted; while whispers of murdered Spanish spies and of ghosts and strange and unaccountable noises in the vacant house filled the neighborhood. . . so many weird tales were told about the old mansion that its demolition was watched with intense interest.

In addition to helping outfit expeditions from the Bronx, Emilia Casanova traveled to Manhattan almost daily organizing fundraising events. In January of 1869 she established the organization La Liga de las Hijas de Cuba (The League of Cuba’s Daughters) as a way of organizing the Cuban ladies of the city on behalf of the insurgents. It also served as her political platform. The League was the first ever political association organized by a Cuban woman. In March, the League sponsored a theatrical performance that raised nearly $4,000 for the Cuban cause. Emilia was also a prolific letter writer, staying in touch with Cubans, especially ladies, living in different parts of the world, corresponding even with Cuban generals on the battlefield, and soliciting support for the cause of independence from members of the U.S. Congress and from world leaders. She reportedly met with President Grant and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish on more than one occasion. Her correspondence reveals that she wielded an acerbic pen, lashing out at Cubans in New York who she felt were doing less than their fair share for the cause of an independent Cuba.

The war ended in 1878 without achieving Cuban independence. Emilia and Cirilo remained in New York, where in 1880 the U.S. Census found them living in Harlem, at 46 East 126th Street, across the street from Ynocencio and the rest of the Casanova family, who lived at number 49. It was there, in Harlem, that Emilia’s husband, Cirilo Villaverde,



Cirilo Villaverde

completed, with Emilia’s help, the classic Cuban novel, Cecilia Valdés, ó la loma del ángel. It was published in New York in 1883. Most critics regard it as the most important Cuban novel of the nineteenth century.

Cirilo Villaverde died in New York in 1894, a year before the start of the final and definitive Cuban war of independence. His death did not in any way minimize the impassioned activism that his wife had demonstrated during the nearly half a century of the couple’s residence in New York. Upon Cirilo’s death, Emilia traveled briefly to Havana to bury her husband in the capital’s Colón necropolis, but returned to New York, where she remained ready to support not just with words, but also with firepower, the new war against Spanish control of the island. Her correspondence reveals that in 1894 she was stockpiling Winchester carbines and ammunition in her home in midtown Manhattan to send to Cuba, much as she had done twenty-five years earlier at Hunt’s Point. Emilia Casanova died in New York in 1897 before witnessing a Cuba free of Spanish control. She was twenty years younger than Cirilo, but survived him by only three years. She was interred in St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. It was not until 1944 that her son Narciso fulfilled her wish to be buried next to her husband in Havana.

My humble proposal is that P.S. 62 in the Bronx continues to be named after a Casanova, but not Ynocencio. Emilia was the true Cuban patriot who shipped arms and ammunition from the former Leggett Mansion near where the school is now located. Ynocencio was just along for the ride. There is no evidence that he was active in émigré separatist activities. Maybe the New York City school administrators knew this in 1922 when the school was dedicated and simply chose not to name the school after a woman. Or maybe they did not know about Emilia’s activities. But we now know of her courage and her impassioned commitment to a cause to which she dedicated her life, a woman who could not be discouraged from pursuing her goals. That is not a bad example for the deserving faculty and students at P.S. 62.


One of the first kindergarten classes at P.S. 62


[I want to acknowledge that my son, Lisandro Pérez-Rey, first called to my attention the name of P.S. 62]




Cuban New Yorker Returns (Temporarily) to Miami


Back in 1985, when I arrived in Miami from Louisiana State University to accept a faculty position at Florida International University, I was talking with a friend, a Cuban and resident of the city, about the ethnic makeup of Miami at the time. When I touched on the topic of americanos in Miami, he said: “What americanos? There are no americanos left in Miami!” I laughed at his observation since it was obviously an oversimplification of the changing demographics of Miami-Dade. In 1985, there were certainly americanos in Miami.

That was then.

After spending the past seven years in New York City, as a professor at John Jay College of the City University of New York, I have returned to Miami, on a sabbatical leave from CUNY. I will be returning to New York and to my faculty position after the leave.
Coming back to Miami after a seven-year absence has given me an appreciation of how things have changed, and not changed, in the city I once called home. I share here my observations, seasoned somewhat by the four months I have already spent in South Florida. Now is the time to jot down my reactions, before they become commonplace and lose their freshness in my mind.

My most overarching reaction is that during the first month back in Miami I was not able to empirically verify, through personal observation, that my friend’s 1985 comment continues to be an oversimplification. That is, during my first few weeks here I did not run into a “bona fide” americano in Miami-Dade. [Yes, I know, all of us from the Western Hemisphere are Americans, but you all know what I mean when I say an americano, in Spanish and in italics].

It’s not like we are living in Hialeah or in Little Havana. Liza and I have rented an apartment in the Gables, which in my early years in Miami was a bastion of americanos. And in our initial weeks we trolled throughout most of the county, shopping for what we need to set up living quarters, eating out constantly (especially until the movers came with our pots and pans), visiting CVS, COSTCO, and IKEA more times than I would have liked, contacting utilities and maintenance people, the sales agents at the gym, dealing with realtors and a property management company, etc., and not an americano in sight. Even the staff of a Japanese restaurant I frequent is all Latino, except for the head sushi chef, who is, of course, not americano, but Japanese.

The presence of the more recent wave of arrivals from Cuba is especially evident. The cable guy has a degree in ciencias informáticas from a Cuban polytechnic. The customer representative at the cable company was born in the 10 de octubre neighborhood in Havana. The handyman the management company sent to fix the garbage disposal is from Morón, where he was a bongocero. I have also been surprised that Spanish is the language in which strangers greet me, even though now, with my grey hair, I could credibly “pass” as an americano.

Of course, in time some americanos have surfaced here and there. But my initial reaction is that the trends that I and other sociologists have been talking about for a long time, the “Latinization” of Miami, the institutional completeness of the Cuban community, and Spanish as the lingua franca, are all evidently proceeding apace and show no signs of abating, fueled by the largest ever sustained migration wave from Cuba.

A few more observations.

I must be bringing with me a New York mindset with respect to the provision of public services. After any heavy overnight snowstorm, I could peer out of the window of my Manhattan apartment at 6:00 a.m. and see the street plowed clear of snow, as were virtually all streets in the city. And if they weren’t plowed (as happened in the infamous December 2010 storm), the mayor had hell to pay. Here’s another example: crowded-subwaythe deterioration over the past two years in the reliability of subway service. Once the outcry went up, the Governor went down from Albany and showed his face, appointed a new director of the MTA, investments were made in the infrastructure, and scheduled maintenance work stepped up noticeably. I have every expectation than when I return to New York service will have noticeably improved. New Yorkers demand good service. They may not always get it, but there is an expected level of performance that pushes the institutions that serve the public to do better, to remedy the situation, to set a higher bar. Maybe that’s because New Yorkers pay for it, in the form of both state and city income taxes, as well as in higher prices for just about everything else. It’s a New York mantra: you pay more, but you expect more. That applies to everything from municipal services, restaurants, cultural events, and even to seats at Yankee Stadium. Admittedly, the downside of that is that the city is pricing out all but its more affluent residents, as the gentrification of working class and ethnic neighborhoods continues apace.

hurricane debrisWhen I arrived in Miami I saw piles of debris lining the streets from a hurricane that came through nearly a month before, with no sign that anyone was coming around to pick them up. And as far as I could tell, there was a deafening silence in the media (from mainstream to social) about it, as if that is the expected level of performance from those responsible for providing public services. I also hear horror stories from relatives about waiting more than an hour or two in a doctor’s office. At a department store where I went to return an item, I took a number at the customer service desk only to find that there was just one taciturn clerk on duty and sixteen people ahead of me, all of them with a look of resignation on their faces. New Yorkers don’t put up with that and those providing services, from doctors to retail outlets, know it. The transformation of the Marlins into a AAA team by a management interested in only the bottom line is the most evident example of the lack of respect for consumers that seems to pervade down here.


I’ll admit don’t drive much in New York, so I can’t really have much of a basis for comparison, but I have been surprised by the uptick in both the density and unpredictability of the traffic and the brazen disregard for traffic norms so many drivers exhibit here. And I don’t have an option as I do in New York: here I have to drive.

Some of the stuff I hear on some Spanish-language radio programs and, especially, what I have seen on the evening variety  programs on America TeVé is beyond embarrassing, not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of sexism, racism, and homophobia.


happy hour

A skit on “El Happy Hour” on América TeVé


Let me balance the criticism with a list of things that I love about Miami and that I have joyfully rediscovered upon my return:

• First and foremost: spending more time with my younger son and other family members, and reconnecting with so many dear friends.

• Cuisines that abound in Miami and that are poorly represented in New York: Argentinian, Spanish, and Nicaraguan. New York has some restaurants that represent these national cuisines, but nothing like the number of establishments and variety (in terms of price range) that exist in Miami. Places like El Gallego, Graziano’s, and El Novillo have the authentic feel of the home country, including a lack of both pretentiousness and pricy menus. Of course, Cuban eating establishments are in a class by themselves here in terms of number and range of prices, with the most unique ones at the lower end. I have found nothing in New York – or anywhere, not even Cuba — that comes close to El Palacio de los Jugos or El Mago de las Fritas.

• Publix, Navarro, and Vicky’s Bakery.

• No schlepping. It is the one advantage of an automobile-based city. You drive a car, you buy stuff like groceries or clothes, you put the stuff in the trunk, and you take it out when you get home. No carrying of heavy loads over long distances, no bags in movie theaters or restaurants.


A New Yorker cartoon on “schlepping”


• Bookstores such as Books & Books and Barnes & Noble with large Spanish-language sections.

• The greater ease of travel to Cuba is a big plus. A 45-minute flight. I could not get used to spending nearly four hours on a plane to get to Cuba, which is what it takes to get from JFK to Havana. I have always thought of Cuba as being close, if only in distance.

• And there is the comfort that one derives from the most laudable of Cuban national traits, so evident in the public spaces of Miami (as in Cuba): the value placed on interacting, especially with strangers, in a warm, familiar, and even humorous, manner. Cubans typically strive to instantly eliminate interpersonal distance, to be considered buena gente. No one wants to be a gruffy arrogant pesado. The quintessential example is the waitress or female clerk who in an instant refers to a complete male stranger as mi vida or mi amor with not even a hint of irony or sarcasm, as if it were heartfelt.

Do I miss New York already? Yes, and here’s that list:

• I miss my Brooklyn guys: my oldest son, his wife, and my granddaughter.

• The subway, believe it or not, even with delays. It’s the most liberating feeling not to be tied to an automobile (except, of course, when you have to schlepp stuff). With a monthly pass and your own two feet you can go anywhere in that fabulous city. To me, the subway is New York City.

• My college, department, and students. A sabbatical is always welcomed, but with only a handful of exceptions during other sabbatical leaves in my career, when the Fall semester comes around I have always been in front of a classroom, going back to that


Faculty and graduating seniors, LLS Department, John Jay College, Spring 2017

September forty-six years ago when I taught my first class as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Florida. It’s hard to break a habit, especially one that is enjoyable and rewarding.


• The chill in the air, the fall colors, and the magnificent landscapes of the Hudson Valley. Of course, I was glad not to be there when the chill turned into a deep freeze.gas

• Something that may seem trivial, but it’s kind of basic: I miss cooking with gas. Unlike New York, home gas seems to be the exception in Miami.

So that’s an initial pass on my thoughts upon returning to Miami. I expect to post more about the dynamics of Miami as viewed from what (I realize) has become (with apologies) my New York eye. I’ll mix those in with postings from my research about the history of the Cuban presence in New York. Hope you will find them interesting.



José Martí and The Greatest Showman

“The Greatest Showman,” a musical biopic of P. T. Barnum, starring Hugh Jackman, opens today in movie theaters. showman
When José Martí lived in New York City, Barnum’s entertainment ventures were already fixtures among the city’s amusements, and it is not surprising that the Cuban was well acquainted with what the legendary showman had to offer. Martí may have been busy building the Cuban nation, but he rarely passed up an opportunity to let the city amuse him.
Martí had a predilection for “The Greatest Show on Earth.” In one of his earliest chronicles, in September of 1883, he labeled Barnum a “man of genius”: “This world gives rise to so much pain, but it also gives us those who alleviate it. He who discovers ways to attract and entertain others is a benefactor of mankind. Happiness is the wine of the spirit.” To Martí, Barnum’s show at Madison Square Garden was the site of fantastic sights, which he described in 1887 with childlike wonder:pt-barnum
Shiny chariots with their hairless coachmen, gladiators smeared in white to resemble classical statues, their horses dancing on a wire, . . . women hanging by their hair from the highest reaches of the circus, elephants prancing and making like clowns until one of them tires of the tamer’s harassment, . . . breaks down the door and is followed by an infuriated herd that knocks over musicians and dancers and heads into the stables beneath the seats in a volcanic rumble.
In April 1894 Martí hosted the return visit to New York of General Máximo Gómez, the aging but still respected military leader with whom Martí had an unpleasant falling-out ten years earlier during a meeting in Madame Griffou’s hotel in Greenwich Village. This time Gómez was returning to New York at Martí’s invitation. The young upstart poet and orator who had so annoyed the general with his impertinence when they had last met was now the head of a unified civilian movement poised to take a revolution to Cuba. Anxious to lay aside any animosities between them, Martí hoped to persuade the general to lead the military campaign, and Gómez was ready to be persuaded. It was important to establish a good personal relationship with the general, and to that end he enlisted the help of his favorite New York attraction. One day during Gómez’s stay in New York, Martí scribbled a note to his assistant, the young attorney Gonzalo de Quesada, excusing himself for not being able to attend an event that evening because, he wrote, “tonight I am taking the General to Barnum’s.”

jose20marti20y20maximo20gomez (2)The lens of history renders it an extraordinary sight: the builder of the Cuban nation and its most revered military figure, icons both, sitting together enjoying the “Greatest Show on Earth.” That spring of 1894 Barnum & Bailey’s featured attraction was a pair of large chimpanzees, “Chiko and his bride Johanna,” whose trained act was a parody of the bliss and agony of human matrimonial life. Judging from the advertisement in the New York Times, the three-ring circus at Madison Square that season was an extravaganza:
Wild and domestic brutes performing at one time, . . . eighty marvelous circus acts, fifty aerialists, twenty acrobats, thirty-three golden chariots, . . . two herds of elephants, two droves of camels, . . . twenty animal clowns and twenty pantomimic clowns, . . . a real Cossack encampment, . . . savage people, black and brown skinned natives from everywhere, . . . truthful, moral, instructive, and historical.
Truly historical was the bond that the writer and the general cemented in those few days in New York. The evening at Barnum’s was part of Martí’s strategy to gain the trust of the cantankerous but indispensable warrior who was a critical piece in the revolutionary movement that Martí was organizing in New York to take the war for independence to Cuba. Gómez served, until the end of the Spanish-Cuban-American War, as the commander of the Cuban rebel troops.


Martí’s Statue: From New York to Havana


I saw it last week in Havana. It had just been placed on the broad esplanade that runs along la Avenida de las Misiones from the Museo de la Revolución (née Palacio Presidencial) to the Havana Tunnel and Máximo Gómez’s monument on the Malecón. In fact, the day I saw it must have been the first or second day after the statue was hoisted onto the massive pedestal. Most of my friends who live in Havana were not aware that it was finally up. Yet there it was, with Martí about to fall off his rearing horse as the fatal bullet strikes him, just like in New York’s Central Park.
If I did not know the story behind the statute’s appearance on this Havana boulevard, I would have thought it had been magically transported there (Star Trek style) from its site just inside the Park at the top of the Avenue of the Americas. It is a identical down to the original inscriptions on the base. It did not get there by magic, however, but primarily by the sheer perseverance of two people who made this project the legacy of their twilight years: Eusebio Leal Spengler, the Historian of the City of Havana, and Holly Block, Director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, who passed away this past October 6. Their idea was to have the replica in Havana stand for the enduring friendship, despite official hostilities, of the peoples of Cuba and the United States.
I admire what Eusebio and Ms. Block have accomplished. When I first heard of the project – casting in upstate New York a replica of the bronze statue, shipping it to Havana, and building a duplicate granite base – it seemed utter folly. The cost. The logistics. The politics. They all seemed insurmountable. I remained skeptical and not a fan of the project, for three reasons.
First, the cost, which I understand was considerable and which, as a gesture of friendship from the people of the United States, could have been channeled into supporting more utilitarian programs than this large symbolic one. An unromantic position, I know, but one shaped by an understanding of the many needs of the Cuban people.
Second, the statue itself. Aesthethically, it is a powerful sculpture. The pathos of the falling hero, the horse on its hind legs with muscles bulging, mane flying, and terror in its eyes. But this is not a statue for a poet, writer, and political organizer.


The only reason the bronze Martí is on a horse is because Anne Hyatt Huntington, the sculptor and wife of a millionaire, who donated the statue to New York City in 1959 (it was not installed until 1965), specialized in equestrians – she loved horses. So when do we know for sure that Martí was ever on a horse? When he galloped towards Spanish troops and was shot off his mount in eastern Cuba on May 19, 1895. I can think of very few examples of statues that show their subjects at the moment of their deaths: Jesus Christ, the two thieves, and St Sebastian (with the arrows) although I am sure there are others. For the uninformed observer, it is an enigmatic portrayal. As one colleague totally unfamiliar with Martí once asked me after viewing the statue: “what is happening to him and his horse?” In a nod to Martí’s civilian status, but making matters worse, Huntington put a business suit on him, a touch that is not only visually dissonant, but also historically inaccurate. We know from the letters he wrote from Cuba that he wore, as one would expect, the white uniform of the rebel troops.
Third, very simply: does Cuba need another statue of Martí?
But as I stood last week gazing at the replica on the Avenida de las Misiones, I was glad that Eusebio and Ms. Block persevered. The statue looks great there. I’ll go further, and on a limb: it actually looks better there than in Central Park. The replica is on a broad esplanade with nothing around it, giving it a perspective appropriate to its


monumentality. The space in Central Park, on the other hand, is busy and constrained, the monument is on a small space closely flanked and shielded on two sides by a low wall and tall trees. From Central Park South, the statue is visible only from only a few angles. It is practically invisible from the Park.


So despite my misgivings, I welcome this new addition to Havana’s already crowded statuary landscape. It is a statement, in bronze, of the historical connections between New York and Cuba.
My only lingering regret is that the extraordinary effort spent on this project may have stalled forever a much less ambitious yet equally meritorious plan that has long been embraced by many Cuban New Yorkers: placing a plaque in the Financial District, at 120 Front Street, where Martí did most of his literary and political work during the fifteen years he lived in Manhattan. The row house with the walkup office are long gone, and the area is crowded with skyscrapers, but there is an open public space almost exactly at that address, where a plaque could be easily placed and be accessible to visitors.

If a massive New York statue can be replicated and sent to Cuba, how hard can it be to place one more plaque in a city with thousands of commemorative plaques?


I do not tend to frequent Natural History museums, and when I do I am usually selective in what I view. As a social scientist, I predictably favor the anthropological exhibits. At the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) on Central Park West my favorite is the permanent exhibit devoted to the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, especially the Kwakiutls.kwakiutlmasks

I love their totem poles and masks. And that potlatch stuff is so utterly unlike anything we practice in modern societies. I am not as keen on the stuffed animals in the dioramas that abound in the AMNH. And even the huge whale fails to impress me. Forget about the assembled dinosaur skeletons. Maybe I am just not an animal person.

My recent visit to the Museum’s temporary exhibit, ¡CUBA! upended those preferences. The exhibit  was developed in collaboration with the Cuban National Museum of Natural History and as such it is a triumph for Cuba-U.S. scientific and academic collaboration. It opened this past November 21 and runs through August 13 of this year. It is on the third floor, just beyond the permanent reptile exhibit.


I found myself enthralled by the animals and underwhelmed by the culture. That is not, of course, the fault of the curators, who have put together here an extraordinary exhibit, visually striking, readily accessible, and packed with information.

No, it’s me.  After all, I already know what are guarapo,  croqueta, and ajiaco, that Cubans play dominoes with a double-nine set, that baseball is a serious passion and that there are sixteen Cuban teams.011

I know about La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre and that beliefs and practices of African origin occupy a critical place in the Cuban religious landscape. I am also painfully aware that in Cuba (as in New York) there are bici-taxis (I know, they are examples of entrepreneurship, but of the lowest, most exploitative kind). Yes, there are also fruits carts in Havana (and in most of the world).  I’ve even been in a real leaf tobacco drying house like the one reconstructed in the exhibit in painstaking detail, except that the Museum one is odorless, totally devoid of the pungent smell my subconscious was expecting when I walked into it.

But more than just ho-hum familiarity made me regard the anthropological side of the exhibit with a mild displeasure. It was strange to see the culture that I grew up with, the foundation of my sociocultural self, treated as exotic.

Cubans as the exotic “other.” Cubans as Kwakiutls.

003Exhibit visitors gazing with interest at a plastic model of a fritura de malanga, marveling at the combination of a slice of guayaba paste with cream cheese on a cracker. A plate of moros. Imagine. What an exotic world.

Again, I mean no criticism of the exhibit, which is very well done, and I recommend that everyone go to see it. I am just describing how I saw ¡CUBA! through my lens, aware, of course, that I am no doubt quite outside the profile of the target audience.

But let’s talk about the animals, the unexpected, to me, gems of the exhibit. They are there either stuffed or rendered in outstanding replicas. There are even live small reptiles. If you are ethnocentric and believe in Cuban exceptionalism (and what dyed-in-the-linen Cuban does not), this exhibit will puff up your chest like nothing else. These animals are unique to the island and in some cases the ____est in the WHOLE WORLD.


Take the long extinct Cuban giant owl, nearly four feet high, which mostly walked, but had it flown (and we don’t know if it did or not) it would have been the LARGEST flying bird to have ever existed, anywhere. And what about the Bee Hummingbird or Zunzuncito, found only in Cuba, the SMALLEST living bird in the whole world?006

A stuffed Jutía Conga is also there, billed as the largest endemic mammal in Cuba, weighing in at about fifteen pounds. Even larger was the extinct magalocdus rodens, a giant sloth unique to Cuba that is billed as the strangest animal to have roamed (slowly, we assume) the island millions of years ago. Its skeleton is on display. A Cuban sloth. Hmm . . . I’ve met a few of those, but not many.


There are replicas of the extinct and unique Cuban Monkey and Cuban Parrot, and, of course, the emblematic Cuban Crocodile, which is still around. A once thought extinct, but newly discovered, species is perhaps the strangest of all, the Soledonon Cubanus, or Almiquí, weighing in at only two pounds but even so the LARGEST of the family of shrews and hedgehogs. It has a reptile-like feature: it secrets venomous saliva through a groove in its front teeth. A Cuban species that spews venom. (Hmm . . .no, I won’t go there).


There are other segments of the exhibit that are also imaginative and well done. Upon entering it, the visitor walks through a series of vertical banners with quotes by Cubans living inside and outside the island sharing their thoughts on the Cuban condition, including one by my friend and neighbor, Marilú Menéndez. Jorge Segrea Recio, a butcher from the town of Camilo Cienfuegos (formerly Hershey), is quoted as saying: “We can be in any part of the world, but we always have present in our minds the piece of earth where we were born. A Cuban will always tell you: ‘I am Cuban’.”

The next gallery has the obligatory 1950’s Chevy, beautifully restored. The visitor then enters a small theater that shows on a continuous loop a bilingual ten-minute video summarizing the entire sweep of Cuban history. One would expect something rather cursory and superficial, but the video hits all the necessary points within the severe time constraints. Julia Sweig served as the consultant.


There is only one minor error: when the narrator mentions José Martí’s death in combat, up pops a picture of José Martí Zayas-Bazán, Martí’s son, in his uniform as an officer in the army of the Cuban Republic.


I left the exhibit in a reflective mood, pondering how it has come to pass that everything Cuban has acquired this aura of the exotic, or, to use the title of a recent book on an unrelated topic: The Glamour of Strangeness. Would it be possible to conceive of such an exhibit in that other parallel path of history, the one in which relations remain unbroken and normal between the U.S. and Cuba? That parallel history in which every day for the past 57 years planes and ships transited between New York and Miami and Cuba, as they once did, with people who travel freely; a world in which Cuba is thoroughly familiar to Americans, a world that is not forbidden, without throwbacks to the past, without the evident architectural and automotive relics, a place that looks and feels as if it has kept pace with the rest of the world, a place, in short, not frozen in time, not a forbidden destination experienced by only a select few. No, this exhibit can only be understood in the context of Cuba’s extraordinary and even bizarre history over the past six decades, a history that has placed Cuba in the realm of the exotic, giving it the patina of strangeness, of being thoroughly foreign. Like the Kwakiutls.



American Museum of Natural History

Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY 10024-5192
Phone: 212-769-5100

Open daily from 10 am-5:45 pm





That Irrepressible Cuban Creativity

The creativity of Cuban performance artists was on full display this past month in New York City. I attended two concerts/performances that left me shaking my head from the sheer amazement of what Cubans are capable of achieving on a stage. And I mean not only on a stage in New York City, but also on the world’s cultural stage.

In my Cuba courses I have always tried to balance my coverage of political history with an appreciation of cultural expressions. To focus exclusively on the former is to dwell on the dismal, but the latter is a story of extraordinary achievement, not just now, but always. I tell my students that if there is ever a final judgment day for the world’s cultures, the Cubans could never claim, say, contributions to better governance. But my people would be at the front of the line of those claiming to have made world-class contributions to the performing arts, especially music. That engagement on the world’s stage, dating back to the nineteenth century, continues undiminished to this day. It’s a hell of a run.

Anyone who thinks that I am just being the usual hyperbolic –exagerado – ethnocentric Cuban did not attend the two events I attended in New York City in the past few weeks. Those were not quaint folkloric performances. They were performances that, in a uniquely Cuban way, push the envelope in the universal genres of jazz and modern dance.

May 16, Friday, the stage of the Appel (née Allen) Room of Jazz at Lincoln Center was the site for a gathering of five virtuosos that had not previously played together as a group. With Columbus Circle, 57th Avenue, and Central Park as the


backdrop in that beautifully designed hall, the mostly Cuban group delivered an original set of ten compositions by the performers under the title “Nuevo Jazz Latino.” All the Cubans in the quintet started their careers in the island’s musical institutions and arrived in the U.S. in the late 1990s: Yosvany Terry, saxophone (Camagüey); Dafnis Prieto, drums (Santa Clara, see my previous blog on Dafnis); Elio Villafranca, piano (Pinar del Río); and Pedrito Martínez, percussion (La Habana). The fifth performer was Carlos Henríquez, acoustic and electric bass (Nuyorican, born in the Bronx).

Dafnis Prieto
Dafnis Prieto
Pedrito Martínez

Pedrito Martinez



Each musician contributed two of his own compositions for the concert. It was a varied and intense concert, played without an intermission and with a minimum of interruptions. The ten pieces collectively represent a milestone in Latin Jazz, pushing the boundaries of the genre in different directions. There was not a weak spot, but I especially liked the opening “Back and Forth” by Dafnis; “Keep Talking,” by Martínez, based on an African canto; the danzón-inspired “Tula’s Dream,” by Henríquez; and Terry’s “El Noticiero,” the finale.  It was in that final number that the group was joined on stage by Eladio (“Don Pancho”) Terry, Yosvany’s father, violinist, legendary leader of a charanga orchestra in Cuba, and perhaps best known as a master of the chekeré, which he brought with him in a case and played it throughout “El Noticiero” with great gusto.

It was an evening that ended triumphantly with a standing ovation. Too bad the New York Times’ reviewer Jon Pareles left the hall after the performance by the New Jazz Standards Quintet at the Appel Room earlier that same evening. In his review of that performance, Mr. Pareles noted that “the [New Jazz Standards] quintet is an all-star group of composers whose daunting task was to come up with 21st-century jazz standards.”  Had he stuck around for Nuevo Jazz Latino, he might have heard (and reviewed) another all-star quintet of composers and performers whose work may well become part of the new jazz “standards” of this century.

Another New York Times reviewer, however, did attend a performance of MalPaso, a dance company from Cuba, who performed, in their first tour outside of Cuba, at the intimate Joyce Theater in Chelsea from May 27th to June 1st. Liza and I went on the last day’s matinee performance and found it truly electrifying. The New York Times reviewer, Siobhan Burke, heaped praise on it: “It’s impossible to choose favorites among the dancers, many of whom studied at Cuba’s National Ballet School. They have the pristine technique but none of the


rigidity that comes with that kind of training, as comfortable on the ground — in coiling, capoeiralike flips and tricks — as they are in the air. They’re both humble and sparklingly present — and remarkably strong all around, with the men and women doing equal lifting.”


The company was founded by Osnel Delgado Wambrug and Dailé Carrazana González, two gifted dancers and choreographers who are joined on the stage by six other equally talented dancers. The program featured two pieces, divided by an intermission. The first was “24 horas y un perro” and the second “Por qué sigues.”  Liza liked the second one, an energetic piece with African musical motifs and movements derived from Yoruba folk dancing. But I preferred


the first one largely because it had live music, composed and arranged for the piece by Arturo O’Farrill and performed right next to the stage by O’Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble. Besides, I really liked the “dog” theme, chronicling an eventful day using a canine allegory.  I know literally where they’re coming from: after visiting Havana many times, I have developed a little theory about the behavior of street dogs in that city. But that’s for another blog post . . .


Even the dogs are creative . . . 🙂







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.


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.