Tag Archives: Cuban Americans

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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Observations from a Post-Ideology Miami

I have been observing Miami, especially the Cuban community, most of my life, sometimes as a resident, sometimes as a visitor.  As a resident one observes the city as one views a movie, as a visitor one sees it as a sequence of snapshots.  After moving to New York two years ago I am now in the visitor mode.

The advantage or disadvantage of observing through snapshots is that change becomes more evident, perhaps exaggerated. On this summer trip I have been struck by two important changes in the landscape of Cuban Miami.  One is that Miami has entered a post-ideology phase. The other is that there has been a marked improvement in the quality of the fried plantains served in Cuban restaurants in Miami (at least the ones I have visited). A few years ago it seemed one was always served platanos maduros cut too thick, not ripe enough, and undercooked. I am now seeing more platanitos cut into thin, very ripe, well-fried slices that stick together, as they should be:  amelcochados . . .  sorry, I digress . . .  this is not about plantains, but about ideology.

More than twenty years ago I published an essay on the nature and importance of the traditional exile ideology. Among the essential elements of that ideology, I wrote then, is an uncompromising hostility towards the Cuban government, a commitment to “recovering” the homeland, and the primacy of that ideology in determining the political attitudes and behavior of Cuban Americans.

A few years later, my colleagues Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick wrote about what they called the “moral community,” the set of political values that underlies Miami’s Cuban community, providing in effect a guiding and integrative force, a reason for the community’s presence in this country, and a vision of its destiny.

Mural at Casa Lario’s (now Bongos) on Ocean Drive, South Beach

I have been aware for several years of the withering of the anti-Castro “cause” within the ethos of Cuban Miami. I am not referring here to changes in the political attitudes of individual Cuban Americans, although that, of course, may be part of what I am seeing. Changes in attitudes are what my friend and colleague Guillermo Grenier has been tracing for years with the series of FIU Cuba Polls that he has conducted over the past twenty years. To be sure, there have been changes in those attitudes, influenced by intergenerational shifts and new arrivals from the island.

No doubt an overwhelming number of Cuban Americans, when asked, continue to hold negative views of the Castro brothers and of the Cuban Revolution generally. That hasn’t changed much. What I am referring to here, however, is the role of the anti-Castro ideology as a compass, a moving force, in the community. I would argue that even if the attitudes themselves have not shifted much and Cuban Americans of different generations and arrival waves continue to have a negative, even hostile, view of the Cuban government, what may have occurred with the passing of the older exile generation is the loss of the primacy of the Cuba issue in shaping the political agenda of Cuban Americans. In other words, newer generations and perhaps even newer arrivals may at various times exhibit attitudes and behaviors consistent with the traditional exile ideology, but their political agenda is more diversified. Unlike the older generation’s exclusive preoccupation with Cuba, today’s Cuban Americans do not see the world exclusively through the traditional exile lens. It is this development that has turned down the ideological volume of Cuban Miami.

A Miami friend, not Cuban, but also a longtime observer of the local scene, agrees with me that the Cuban cause is no longer a driving force in Miami. He says there are only two causes left in Miami today: David Lawrence’s Children’s Trust and Norman Braman’s efforts to curb what he sees as municipal fiscal excesses. Both of those causes have influential leaders and clear goals and have an impact within and outside their constituencies, something that is now missing from the traditional Cuban cause.

My friend traces the start of post-ideology Cuban Miami to the death of Jorge Mas Canosa in 1997. He may be right. It is undeniable that no one has replaced Mas as a leader in the Cuban community. Despite the fact that I strongly disagreed with what he was doing (and how he was doing it) and I took every opportunity to say so — even to his face in a televised debate in 1989 during his unsuccessful attempt to muscle into Florida International University a research institute controlled by the Cuban American National Foundation — I always recognized his extraordinary ability to project the exile cause both within and without the community in a way that had not been done before (or since).

Jorge Mas Canosa in President Reagan’s face when he hosted the President’s visit to Miami in 1983

Those that now seek to lead Cuban Americans are apparently doing so through the ballot box, getting elected to local offices, the state legislature, and even the U.S Congress. As Mas recognized, however, those are not ideal positions from which to most effectively push the Cuban cause (he never ran for public office), because elected officials must attend to a variety of issues that have nothing to do with Cuba. As with most leaders of causes, Mas’ political focus was exclusively on Cuba, and that was part of the reason for his success in keeping the exile agenda at the forefront of Cuban Miami.

That is not to say that the Cuban Miami gang in the U.S. Congress has been unsuccessful in advancing the traditional hardline agenda of keeping U.S. Cuba policy frozen in the Cold War. [Given the likes of David Rivera in that group, I feel justified in using the term “gang”.]  On the contrary, they have been quite successful (together with their New Jersey compatriots) in keeping U.S. Cuba policy unchanged. But that is a different ball game. To the extent that the leadership of the anti-Castro cause has defaulted to the Washington gang, it means that the stage has shifted from Miami to D.C., and that it is less about ideology and more about electoral politics and succeeding as a politician. To be sure, Mas Canosa lobbied in Washington, but he was always careful to tend to his ideological base in Miami, making sure it stayed focused and committed to la causa.

In this visit, I have seen symptoms everywhere that Miami has now fully transitioned to a post-ideology stage. There seem to be only scattered remnants of what had been a cause capable of being the major driving force in the political landscape of Miami. Let’s look at the media. The AM radio dial, formerly on fire with inflammatory political rhetoric and call-in programs expressing outrage about the Cuban regime, is now largely devoted to music, infomercials, religious programs, and ads and commentaries about local politicians and local politics. Only in Radio Mambí, la grande, la más potente, are there a few hours of programming a day devoted to castigating the Castro brothers in programs with long-standing formats and longtime participants that now sound pitifully decrepit.

And where are the periodiquitos, the fly-by-night free tabloids devoted to the cause that once proliferated in the stands of restaurants? The ones I have been able to find now are entirely devoted to advertisements or to stories lauding one or another political candidate or declaiming on a local issue.

There used to be at least two primetime talk show programs on Spanish-language cable channels that were devoted to stoking the flames of anti-Castroism, Miami versions of Cuba’s dogmatic Mesa Redonda where only the party line is presented. Now only one survives and it has diversified its format to include non-Cuban topics.  The rest of the programming on those channels is devoted to telenovelas or to incredibly inane “comedy” programming.

Public demonstrations against the Cuban government on one issue or another manage to assemble only a few dozen participants (as a recent one on the death of Payá Sardiñas), a distinct change from the marches that Mas Canosa would convene, filling S.W. Eight Street.

The change in the quality of the platanitos is a good thing. The change in the ideological landscape of Cuban Miami is, well, what it is. I certainly do not mourn the passing of much of the intolerant and intransigent discourse that always characterized the climate in the community, a discourse that seems to survive primarily in some fringe sites in the blogosphere. And on a personal level I do appreciate that there are fewer venues, at least venues that matter, in which I can be accused, as I have been in the past, of being a Castro agent, an inflitrado, a communist, a dialoguero, un mal cubano, and a few other things. My point is that if I were to be accused of those things now, few people would notice or care (especially me).

But I must say that I strangely miss the effervescence that existed in Miami over Cuban issues. The community is without a compass. This was not the plan: the struggle for recovering the homeland was to be followed, in exile lore, by the effort to rebuild Cuba. None of that has happened, so there is a suspension of purpose, a loss of guideposts.

I have observed during my trips to Cuba that the same thing has happened there. Only the political elites (as here) are unwilling to abandon the historical struggle. The ideological hardline discourse finds fewer echoes in a population intent on adapting to new realities and going on with their lives. Too much time has passed, too many things have happened while, essentially, not enough has happened. Exhaustion takes its toll.

Havana and Miami have always been, in political terms, mirror images.