Who Was the First Cuban New Yorker?

It’s an important question without a clear answer. I’m using three criteria to try to answer it:

1.    Chronology, of course: Who was the first Cuban in New York? But chronology shouldn’t be the only factor. It should be considered, I argue, in light of the other two criteria below.

2.    The first Cuban New Yorker should be a clearly identifiable Cuban, not just someone born in Cuba. I’m sure there must have been Cuban-born persons traipsing through Manhattan not too long after Henry Hudson’s Half Moon entered New York harbor in 1609 (especially when you consider La Habana was already nearly a century old by then). But the first Cuban New Yorker should be someone who gave every indication that he thought of him/herself as a Cuban, not as a Spaniard, and certainly not as a loyalist of the Spanish Crown.

3.     The first Cuban New Yorker should be a New Yorker, that is, someone who lived in the city and not simply a sojourner passing through.

With those criteria in mind, I have two candidates, both arrivals in Manhattan in 1823: Cristóbal Mádan y Mádan and Félix Varela y Morales. Mádan was a

New York City as seen from Brooklyn, ca. 1824

teenager that year and he would not even be competing with the venerable Varela for the honor of the first Cuban New Yorker, except that, well, he did arrive a few months before the priest. In fact, it was “Cristobalito” who served as Varela’s one-person welcoming committee, finding a rooming house for his former teacher and getting him oriented around the city. José Luis Rodríguez, the author of the excellent 1878 biography of Varela, describes how Mádan would hold Varela’s arm, steadying him as the two strolled around lower Manhattan until the priest could get used to walking on his own on the icy streets, a totally new experience for him (Varela arrived in New York on December 15thof that year, reportedly during a blizzard).

William Street, ca. 1820

I am not considering some prominent Cubans who meet criteria one and two, but, not, as far as I can tell, criterion three. One of the first Cuban exiles in the city was José Aniceto Iznaga, a young man from a wealthy landowning family of Basque origins that had established itself in Trinidad, in southern Cuba, in the early part of the eighteenth century. The young Iznaga had run afoul of the authorities in the island for his subversive activities against Spanish rule and moved to New York in 1819. Together with his brother Antonio and a young Cuban student named Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros (he will later figure prominently in Cuban history), Iznaga hatched plans for wresting Cuba from Spain with the support of Simón Bolívar.

Two months before Varela arrived in the city, Iznaga and his co-conspirators boarded a ship for the northwest coast of South America for their meeting with the famed liberator. Obviously, nothing came of the initiative, and it is not clear if the group returned to New York. Little is known of Iznaga’s days in New York and there is no evidence that he remained in the city beyond his relatively brief stay as an exile.

So here’s what I am proposing to do. In a subsequent blog post (not necessarily the next one) I will make the case for Mádan as the first Cuban New Yorker. In another post, I will make the case for Varela. Frankly, I have not made up my mind, so I will invite readers of CNY to weigh in and maybe we can reach a consensus (or maybe not).  But two things are certain: 1) we’ll learn something about the beginnings of Cuban New York; and 2) neither candidate will get upset if he is not picked.

9 responses to “Who Was the First Cuban New Yorker?

  1. First, I like that you have a rubric set up for who qualifies, and it’s a simple solution to a potentially thorny problem: people are considered Cuban if they say they are.

    Reminds me of the ethnic self-selection of the census.

    I’m a little surprised the question is in doubt at all considering what a towering, famous figure Fr. Felix Varela is.

  2. How long did Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros lived in New York and when? I understand he went to school there and wrote for a newspaper in the city, I am interested because he was my great great grandmother´s (tatarbuela) brother. Maybe it was in the early 1830`s …

    • I’ll try to find the answer to your question, which is not an easy one. Betancourt Cisneros appears at various points in the history of Cuban New York, especially through his participation in several events in the 1840s. But it is difficult to establish when and where he actuially lived in the city and what he was doing here.

  3. Jose Aniceto Iznaga Borrell went to NY in 1819 and lived in NY and also Paris till 1860 when he died. In 1823 he went to see Simon Bolivar to ask for help in liberating Cuba from Spain. He became a US Citizen 8/31/1824, ( dual citizenship was very advantegeous) and went again in 1827 to see Bolivar and had dinner and a meeting with him. Bolivar was going to send an army to liberate Cuba but couldnt later because of an insurrection in Peru.
    Jose Aniceto Iznaga along with others designed the Cuban Flag.

    “Historia de la isla de Cuba ” – Page 77
    by Carlos Márquez Sterling, Manuel Márquez Sterling – History – 1975 – 392 pages
    … Narciso López, el poeta Miguel Teurbe Tolón , José Aniceto Iznaga Borrell, su sobrino José Maria Sánchez Iznaga, Cirilo Villaverde y Juan Manuel Macías, confeccionaron la bandera de Cuba, que es hoy el pabellón oficial: 2 franjas blancas, tres azules,un triangulo rojo y una estrella solitaria. Sobre ella juraron luchar y ofrendar la vida por hacer Cuba independiente.( Junio de 1849).

    En junio de 1849, reunidos en una casa de huéspedes en la calle Warren en Nueva York, Narcizo López, el poeta Miguel Teurbe Tolón, José Aniceto Iznaga, su sobrino José María Sánchez Iznaga, Cirilo Villaverde y Juan Manuel Macías, confeccionan la bandera de Cuba, que es hoy el pabellón oficial: dos franjas blancas, tres azules, un triángulo rojo y una estrella solitaria. Sobre ella juraron luchar y ofrendar la vida por hacer de Cuba una república libre e independiente. Esta bandera fue izada en las oficinas de los hermanos Beach, dueños del periódico The Sun, situadas en las calles de Fulton y Nassau.
    see http://www.iznaga.webs.com for further info.

    Jorge A. Iznaga Diez

    • Thank for your comment, Mr. Iznaga. Descendants of historical figures are always great sources of information on their forebearers. Thank you also for anticipating for the readers of CNY such an important episode in the history of Cuban New York: the design, crafting, and premiere of the Cuban flag in Manhattan, an event that will no doubt be covered in a future blog. As I mentioned in my blog, the early presence of José Aniceto in the history of Cuban New York is evident. What I have not been able to establish in the decennial censuses is his continuous residence in New York. I imagine he was a transnational figure who lived between New York, Europe, and, whenever he could, Cuba.

  4. Jose Aniceto Iznaga Borrell also was known as Aniceto Yznaga, Jose A. Yznaga and wrote articles on the independence of Cuba from 1819 to 1840 under the pseudonym Ignacio Tenasa. Here are some instances I was able to find he was registered in Boston in 1823 and NY in 1837 plus he started a company with his nephew Antonio Iznaga del Valle trading sugar , molasses Yznaga & Etuliane, Yznaga del Valle Co. See below.
    Boston Directory – 1823
    Yznaga, A. A. merchant 23 Longwharf.
    Longworth’s American almanac: New-York register and city directory 1837
    Yznaga, Joseph A. 37 Broad
    NY Times – Marine Intelligence 11/20/1851- Yznaga & Etulian
    NY Times – Marine Intelligence – 8/23/1855 – Yznaga del Valle Co.
    Regards, Jorge Iznaga
    ps City Directories are available at ancestry.com

    • Thank you, Mr. Iznaga. This is rounding out what we know about Cuban forebearers in the United States. It is not easy to pull fragmentary evidence together and try to piece together a (hi)story, so appreciate your efforts.

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