Tag Archives: Félix Varela

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.

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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.

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.