Tag Archives: Cubans in New York

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]




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.

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.

The First Cuban New Yorker: The Case for Félix Varela y Morales

As we already know from previous blogs on the search for the first Cuban New Yorker, Fr. Félix Varela was not chronologically the first. But he was almost the first one (only missed it by months), and there are a lot of things about him that make us want to think that he was the first.  First of all, unlike many Cuban New Yorkers, he was not a slave owner; in fact, he opposed slavery, even when most of his students (including Cristóbal Mádan) were from slaveholding families. Varela was also an early and active proponent of Cuban sovereignty (as Martí wrote much later “he taught us how to think”). But most importantly, he is the first Cuban New Yorker to have had a significant and demonstrable effect on the city through his selfless pastoral work among Irish immigrants and the many ways in which he strengthened, institutionally, the New York Catholic diocese at an especially difficult time in its history.

Varela was also, like the poet José María Heredia, an early model of the “reluctant migrant,” the émigré who never intended to spend most of his life outside his native country, but ended up doing so, even dying without ever returning. That’s a story that has been repeated with an abject monotony among Cubans since Varela’s time. When he arrived at a South Street pier aboard the Draper, on December 15, 1823, he thought he was just passing through on his way to Cuba. He had been in Madrid as part of a delegation before the Spanish parliament seeking relaxation of the strict controls under which Spain governed its colony. But when Fernando VII was restored to the throne he unleashed a wave of persecution against liberal reformers. Varela barely escaped to Gibraltar, where he boarded the first ship out: the Draper bound for New York.

No doubt he thought when he arrived that his stay in the cold city (during December and January) would be temporary (he did not initially seek an appointment with the Diocese), but he underestimated the Spanish Crown’s vindictiveness. The priest was sentenced to death in absentia. There was no return to Cuba, and Varela would stay in his new accidental city for the next twenty-seven years. He would finally leave it already in ill health, but not for Cuba, but St. Augustine, where he died in 1853, a month after José Martí was born in Havana.

Varela’s years in New York have been fairly well documented, although many gaps still exist, perhaps because there has not been enough digging in the local archives to flesh out many aspects of his life in the city. There are several biographies of him, but most are derivatives of the first one (still the best), José Ignacio Rodríguez’s  Vida del presbítero Don Félix Varela, originally published in 1878 in New York (available in Google Books).  I have the 1944 second edition published in Havana. Rodríguez, a Cuban New Yorker who arrived in 1869 wrote the biography from Varela’s writings and from interviews with those who knew Varela and were still around (Mádan, for example).

It was probably Mádan who was the source of a cloak-and-dagger story, perhaps a legend, about Varela in New York, one that showed how impossible was Varela’s return to the island. The Spanish Governor in Havana, Francisco Vives, decided to apply Varela’s death sentence in New York, dispatching one of his thugs, el tuerto (one-eyed) Morejón of the Havana police to assassinate him. By that time Varela had built a loyal following among his Irish parishioners, who were no friends of colonialists, and they foiled the plot by warning Varela and intimidating the would-be assassin. A one-eyed Spanish-speaking stranger wandering around an Irish neighborhood in lower Manhattan would have been noticed. In any case, Morejón returned to Havana, presumably without earning the 30,00o pesos Vives had offered him.

Despite offers to relocate to warmer and more hospitable environments, such as Mexico, Varela decided to stay in New York and become another parish priest in

St. Peter’s Church, on the corner of Barclay and Church, where Varela first served as a priest in New York.

a diocese that was growing rapidly due largely to the Irish influx. As with many other Cubans who arrived later in New York, he deemed it the closest place to Cuba due to the busy ship traffic with Cuban ports, especially Havana. But the climate and the language, which he found difficult to learn, tormented him: “The whistling sound of English,” he wrote, “rings in my ears like impertinent flies, making it hard to write comfortably in Spanish.”

But he eventually mastered English, transforming his newly found voice and pen into vibrant defenders of the rights of Catholics in a hostile environment where nativists and anti-Papists threatened, even physically, the survival of Catholicism in the city. Varela witnessed an incident in which some 500 parishioners of the old St. Patrick’s Cathedral (still there, on Mott and Prince Streets) surrounded the Church in anticipation of an attack by a mob intent on burning the building. Bloodshed was narrowly averted when the municipal authorities intervened. Varela wrote that religious tolerance exists only legally in the U.S., otherwise “it is an abominable hypocrisy to pretend to have tolerance.”

Varela was not intimidated by the violence against Catholics in New York.  Whatever New York’s anti-Catholics could muster against him paled in comparison to what he had already experienced: narrowly escaping Fernando’s troops in Spain and an assassin in New York, not to mention the executioner that awaited him in Havana. “I am perfectly cured of the malady of fright,” he wrote.

Varela’s courageous defense of the Church rapidly made him the intellectual leader in the New York diocese and he became a favorite of the new Bishop, the French-born Jean DuBois, who appointed Varela as Vicar General of the Diocese. But Varela’s most lasting contribution to New York Catholicism was the founding of two downtown parishes, greatly expanding the number of parishes to accommodate the growing influx of Irish immigrants.

The two parishes were actually the successors of the original one that Varela founded in 1827, Christ Church, in Ann Street.  When Christ Church burned down in 1835, the Diocese decided to replace it with an imposing Romanesque church built on land it acquired on James Street, between Madison and Chatham Streets, in the vicinity of the Five Points area. It was officially named Christ Church, but became known as St. James. Both the building and the parish survive to this day, and a plaque in front of the church recognizes Varela as the founder of the parish.

But the parishioners of the old Christ Church considered the new location of their parish to be too far north and east. Although he was to be transferred to St. James once it was built, Varela wanted to remain with his congregation. So with the financial backing of one of his staunchest supporters, the Swiss restaurateur Giovanni Delmonico (yes, that Delmonico), Varela bought the old Dutch Reform Presbyterian Church building on Chambers Street, just east of Broadway, and established the Church of the Transfiguration of our Lord, which opened on March 31, 1836, months before St. James was completed. Varela installed himself as the pastor of Transfiguration Church and moved into the Church’s residence and rectory, a modest house he purchased just around the corner from the Church, at 23 Reade Street, where he would live for the rest of his years in New York.

The Chambers Street Transfiguration Church and the residence/rectory are, of course, no longer standing. In May 1853, Transfiguration Parish moved from Chambers Street into yet another former Protestant church building, on Mott

Church of the Transfiguration on Mott Street

and Park Streets, where it now serves a predominantly Chinese congregation with both a church and a school. A plaque on the front of the Church honors Varela.

Transfiguration on Mott Street has become the site most associated with Varela’s presence in New York. In fact, it was there in 1997 where the U.S. Postal Service chose to launch the postage stamp bearing Varela’s image. It was the parish that Varela founded and served for the longest time. Yet, it is almost certain that Varela never celebrated a single Mass there: the parish moved there three months after he died, and three years after he moved permanently to St. Augustine.

I am sure that I will have more on Varela in future blogs. For now, however, I propose him as the first Cuban New Yorker. He was a mensch, long before that became a New York word.

Who Was the First Cuban New Yorker? The Case for Cristóbal Mádan

Cristóbal Mádan y Mádan meets the criteria I set out in my June 21st blog post for identifying the first true Cuban New Yorker. He was already in the city when Félix Varela arrived. He was involved in movements to sever Cuba from Spain, so he thought of himself as a Cuban, and he certainly had an enduring (if not always continuous) presence in New York City that possibly spanned as many as seven decades.  In fact, Mádan is a Zelig-type of figure in the history of Cuban New York. Or perhaps he is closer to Forrest Gump.

I don’t mean by that comparison that he was a comic figure (and I certainly do not mean any disrespect). What I mean by the comparison is that, like Forrest Gump, or Zelig, Mádan was a fairly nondescript low-profile sort of guy who was not among the most prominent historical figures, yet managed to be connected with all the major players of his day, his name surfacing almost unexpectedly at various critical points from 1823 all the way to the 1870s. In other words, he was a recurring background figure in the story of Cuban New York.

I suspect that in large measure he had a low profile because he preferred it that way. He published his political essays under a pseudonym, for example. As with most behind-the-scenes personages he was not doubt a much more important player than what the historical record reveals. But the fact is that I cannot post here a drawing, painting, or a photograph of him because I have not been able to find one, nor do I know exactly when or how or where he died or where he is buried. [If anyone can fill those gaps I would appreciate hearing from you].

The Mádans originated in Waterford, Ireland, where the name was probably spelled Madden. Cristobal’s grandfather migrated to Havana by way of the Canary Islands around the time of the British occupation of the city, the right moment to get in on the ground floor of the sugar boom. The family lived in Havana, but their mills were in the Matanzas region.

Cristóbal was named after his maternal grandfather, who was also his father’s uncle. Cristóbal’s father, Joaquín, had married a first cousin, Josefa Nicasia Mádan (not unusual among landed elites everywhere, like, say, Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton). Joaquín and Josefa had six children, of which Cristóbal was the youngest and the only male. After his wife died, Joaquín married yet another first cousin, Josefa’s sister. They had no children.

As with most of the newly-rich sugarocacy, the Madans sold their sugar in New York, where the “counting houses” that lined South Street acted as the selling agents, keeping accounts for them and investing their money. When he was about to turn sixteen, in the summer of 1822, Cristobal was sent to New York to learn English, study, and gain experience in the city’s mercantile world. Arrangements were made for him to intern as a clerk in the counting house of Jonathan Goodhue at 44 South Street, just south of Maiden Lane. Goodhue was

“View of South Street, From Maiden Lane,” by William James Bennett, 1827

a New Englander who was engaged in importing sugar from the mills of the Madans and other Cuban producers. It was there that “Cristobalito” greeted his former teacher, Father Félix Varela, when the priest arrived in Manhattan on December 15, 1823. One week later, Mádan also welcomed to the city a friend from Matanzas: the poet José María Heredia. Cristóbal helped both of those prominent Cubans find housing and establish a foothold in the city.

José María Heredia

Heredia would address him facetiously as “My Dear Consul,” referring in a letter to Mádan to the “laborious and sterile job the Republic has entrusted to you” in New York (a “Republic” that at that time existed only in the thoughts of Varela and Heredia).

But an independent Cuban Republic was probably not in the mind of Cristóbal Mádan. By the time he was in his forties he emerged again in the history of Cuban New York as a committed advocate of Cuba’s annexation to the United States. The 1850 U.S. Census found him living in the fashionable Madison Square Park area with his second wife Mary, six children, and eight servants. That same year he also became a U.S. citizen. That is not to say that he

lived continuously in New York. Mádan led what we would call today a transnational life, dividing his time between New York, Havana, and Matanzas. All of his children, for example, were born in Cuba.

Cristóbal Mádan played an important behind-the-scenes role in the movement that so many of his fellow sugar producers favored: annexationism. The sugarocracy believed it was in their best interest for Cuba to join the Union as a slave state. Cristóbal wrote anonymously for the annexationist newspaper in New York, La Verdad, which he probably also helped to bankroll. And he was

also responsible for connecting his fellow sugarocrats with influential Americans who favored annexing Cuba. It is not difficult to see why he was the point man for that connection. His second wife Mary was a New York Irish-American named Mary O’Sullivan, the sister of John L. O’Sullivan, an influential New York Democrat and a committed expansionist who is credited with coining the term “Manifest Destiny.”   O’Sullivan convinced President James Polk to make an offer to Spain to buy Cuba, an offer that was, of course, roundly rejected by Madrid.

Cristóbal emerges again in New York among the refugees from the war for independence that started in 1868. Already in his sixties, his economic situation was in a tailspin with the embargo of properties that the Spanish leveled against Cubans who left the island. The war had created a large community of displaced Cubans in New York, and Cristóbal returned to his role as the city’s “unofficial Cuban Consul,” using his longstanding contacts with city officials and with the Catholic archdiocese to help Cubans in need.

Mádan probably returned to Cuba after the end of the war in 1878 to try to recover his embargoed properties, something many other Cuban New Yorkers also tried to do, with no success. The treaty that ended the war guaranteed amnesty and a safe return to exiled Cubans, but was silent on returning embargoed properties.

Cristóbal probably lived out his life in Havana attending to his law practice, which also tied him to the next stage in the development of Cuban New York. His law office once hired a young teenaged intern by the name of José Martí.

So the case for Mádan as the first Cuban New Yorker is a strong one. He arrived before – in fact greeted – two of the towering figures of Cuban New York: Varela and Heredia. He had a deep and abiding, if not always permanent, connection with the city his entire life. His political activities make clear that he identified not as Spanish, but as Cuban. Of course, he did not have the impact that Varela had on New York. And we would need to be reconciled to the idea that the first Cuban New Yorker was an annexationist and a slave owner.

In a future blog, the case for Varela.