Tag Archives: New York City

José Martí and The Greatest Showman

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

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

 

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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.

PoloGrounds2

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