CUNY’s La Habana at 500 Explores the Ties Between New York and Cuba

CUNY’s La Habana at 500 Explores the Ties Between New York and Cuba

CUNY’s La Habana at 500 Explores the Ties Between New York and Cuba

“To anyone who has been in New York and has spent time in La Habana, there’s something familiar about the Cuban capital.” —John Gutiérrez

The history of Cubans in the United States often focuses on Florida, its dynamic cigar-making communities, and post-revolutionary migration. But, according to the City University of New York’s (CUNY) La Habana at 500 series, New York City played an early and important role in the advancement of Cuban wealth, political movements, and the creation of a new identity—that of the Cuban-American. “To anyone who has been in New York and has spent time in La Habana, there’s something familiar about the Cuban capital,” said John Gutiérrez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Latin American and Latinx Studies (LLS). During the “La Habana and New York City, an Enduring Relationship” panel at John Jay, Gutiérrez spoke of the similarities between the two cultural hubs. “It’s bustling spirit, its fast-talking denizens, its rich cultural life, its history as a center of commerce, its rich immigrant tradition, its history of racial segregation, and increasingly, its growing chasm between the ‘haves and have nots,’” he said, acknowledging that CUNY was the perfect host for such an event. “It makes sense that CUNY, New York’s flagship public university, would be the place to reflect and examine this more than two-centuries-long back-and-forth, and more significantly, the men and women from Cuba who made New York their home.”

Gutiérrez introducing the panel of speakers
Gutiérrez introducing the panel of speakers

Establishing Ties in New York City
Providing some historical context for the audience, John Jay College LLS Professor Lisandro Pérez explained that the origins of New York’s Latinx community is primarily a Cuban story, and the story of Cubans in New York is one of commerce. “Like any New York story, it starts with the ports, and like any Cuban story, it starts with sugar,” he said. When the British occupied Cuba between 1762 and 1763, they established commercial ties with what was then the British North American colonies. Ships were going in and out of La Habana’s port, strengthening the capital’s role as a commercial hub. “Two other events followed that would impact Cuba. The slave rebellion in the French colony of Saint-Domingue [Haiti], which destroyed the sugar production of that colony; and at the same time, in Louisiana, the granulation of sugar by Jean Étienne de Boré,” said Pérez, noting that the granulation of sugar made growing sugarcane profitable on a larger scale. “Both of these things make it attractive for the aristocracy in La Habana to start investing in sugar. The sugar revolution in Cuba meant that La Habana was no longer just a hub to move things in and out of, now La Habana had something to sell.”

The cover of Lisandro Pérez’s book Sugar, Cigars and Revolution: The Making of Cuban New York
The cover of Lisandro Pérez’s book Sugar, Cigars and Revolution: The Making of Cuban New York 

“New York starts replacing Spain as that other place in the Cuban consciousness. The place you look to when you live on an island and you look for style, ideas, and a model for society.” —Lisandro Pérez

Pérez went on to say that regular shipments of Cuban sugar went primarily to New York City, increasing the wealth of the aristocracy, or “sugarocracy” in La Habana, and giving them buying power in New York. “Very early on, Cubans have this image of New York. The elite sugarocracy begin to send their kids to New York, sending them to the commercial counting houses where their [financial] accounts are kept, enrolling them in boarding schools, and buying them clothes,” said Pérez. “New York starts replacing Spain as that other place in the Cuban consciousness. The place you look to when you live on an island and you look for style, ideas, and a model for society.” By 1850, there’s a massive increase of Cubans living in New York, from the elite to the working class, notes Pérez, “there are more passengers arriving to New York from Cuban ports, than there are from all other Latin American and Spanish ports combined.”

Pérez during his presentation
Pérez during his presentation

New York was also the setting for the launch of politically-driven newspapers, unions, and social clubs that pushed for Cuba’s independence, and in subsequent years, other Cuban-led political movements, according to Pérez. In the 19th century, Cubans coming to the city established newspapers, such as La Verdad (The Truth), El Mulato (The Mulatto), and La Revolución (The Revolution) to help share their political thoughts with the masses. “Annexationism is rooted here in New York, and La Verdad, one of the first newspapers by Cubans in New York, is a pro-annexation publication,” said Pérez citing an example of how published writings helped push forward political agendas. The Cuban flag, conceived of and made in New York City, was first flown on the corner of Fulton Street and Nassau Street in Lower Manhattan, before it appeared in print in an 1850 edition of New York City’s The Sun newspaper—a paper that supported the annexation movement. And, the Cuban Revolutionary Party—founded by José Martí, a key figure in Cuba’s revolution for freedom, and founder of the newspaper Patria (Homeland) in New York—called New York City its home. “What you see is the power of words in action; it unites Cubans and propels their movement forward.” 

La Habana Group

“The history of Cubans in New York is one that must take into consideration Afro-Cubanidad, because annexation cannot be studied without the politics of whiteness.” —Nancy Raquel Mirabal

Highlighting the Role of Afro-Cubans
Providing insight to some of the unknown history of Cubans in New York City, Nancy Raquel Mirabal, Director of the U.S. Latina/o Studies Program at the University of Maryland, spoke of the working class that helped shape the Cuban-American identity in the early part of the 20th century. “Often times, the story of Cubans in New York ends in 1898 when Cuba gained its independence, and the question is what happens afterward?” said Mirabal. That question, and the search for its answer, led to her book Suspect Freedoms: The Racial and Sexual Politics of Cubanidad in New York, 1823-1957. Mirabal found that after Cuba gained its independence, many Cubans returned to the island or settled in Florida, while working class Cubans, more specifically Afro-Cubans, stayed in the city. “For me, the history of Cubans in New York is one that must take into consideration Afro-Cubanidad, because annexation cannot be studied without the politics of whiteness,” said Mirabal, noting that there was an underlying anti-blackness rhetoric at the time.

Nancy Raquel Mirabal’s book Suspect Freedoms: The Racial and Sexual Politics of Cubanidad in New York, 1823-1957
Nancy Raquel Mirabal’s book Suspect Freedoms: The Racial and Sexual Politics of Cubanidad in New York, 1823-1957

In doing her research, she learned that Afro-Cuban social clubs sprung up throughout the city in the early half of the 20th century as a way of combatting racism, and empowering the Afro-Cuban community. These clubs, like Rafael Serra’s La Liga Sociedad de Instrucción y Recreo (The League Society of Instruction and Recreation), created a space for Afro-Cubans to create and publish their political writings, organize movements, educate their communities, and fight for their rights. “Why are these clubs important?” asked Mirabal. “It’s important because it gives us insight into what Cubans did after 1898. How did they create community in New York and what did that community look like?” She learned that Afro-Cubans found incredible allies in African-Americans who understood their struggle for freedom and plight against racism. “That alliance is one that dates back to the 1850s when El Mulato, a Cuban newspaper, published by Cubans in New York was read by African-Americans like Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany. El Mulato was against slavery—at the time there were half of million slaves in Cuba, propelling Cuba’s sugar revolution—and opposed Cuba’s annexation to the U.S.,” explained Mirabal. “Douglass and Delany read El Mulato and get very involved with Cubans, specifically when it comes to race. In New York, they create the Cuban Anti-Slavery Society in hopes of ending slavery in Cuba,” said Mirabal. “And so, what you see is a history of African-Americans, like Douglass, working side-by-side with Afro-Cubans in New York and it’s a connection and solidarity you still see today.”

Mirabal
Mirabal highlighting the role of Afro-Cubans

Connecting Cuba and Puerto Rico in New York
Helping to link Cuba’s push for independence with other nations, Orlando Hernández, Professor Emeritus at Hostos Community College, spoke of how similar to African-Americans, Puerto Ricans also joined the Cuban cause. Like Cuba, Puerto Rico belonged to Spain and wanted to be free from colonial rule. And it was in New York, that these two groups would come together to strengthen their alliance. Eugenio María de Hostos, a Puerto Rican educator and independence advocate, had traveled all of South America writing in the press and organizing rallies in support of Cuba. “You may wonder what Hostos is doing here in this conversation today. He’s not a Habanero. He never even set foot in Cuba. His decision to work with the Cubans was one of choice,” said Hernández, noting that Hostos’ fight for Cuban independence was at the same time a fight for Puerto Rican independence.

Hernández
Hernández discussing how Puerto Ricans and Cubans worked together

“Hostos came to New York with a purpose of supporting Cuba’s revolution for independence and organizing an uprising against the Spanish Colonial regime in Puerto Rico.” —Orlando Hernández

When Hostos arrived in New York City in the 1890s, his connection to the cause only grew stronger. “Hostos came to New York with a purpose of supporting Cuba’s revolution for independence and organizing an uprising against the Spanish Colonial regime in Puerto Rico.” It was while he was in the city he was published in a number of Cuban newspapers, including La Revolución de Cuba y Puerto Rico (Cuba and Puerto Rico’s Revolution). “In defending Cuba and Puerto Rico, Hostos was pursuing a strategy to recognize how colonial administrations had impoverished these two islands. The distribution of wealth was completely lopsided,” explained Hernández, recognizing that is was this experience of oppression that bonded Cubans and Puerto Ricans most. The bonds were so tight there was even a Puerto Rican section of the Cuban Revolutionary Party. “Hostos highlighted the need to recognize both Cuba and Puerto Rico, and subsequently reject colonialization,” said Hernández. “He believed the only way that mission could be accomplished was through physical fighting and the forces of intellectuality to bring down the regime.” In 1898, the mission was accomplished when Cuba received its freedom from Spain following the end of the Spanish-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The treaty however, did not grant Puerto Rico its independence, instead, it ceded the island to the United States.

Following the presentations, the speakers sat down for a panel discussion and answered audience questions. Afterwards, everyone in the room enjoyed a networking event, where they mingled, took photos, listened to music, and enjoyed the delicious food and beverages provided. Then it was on to Havana Jam at Hostos Community College to enjoy an all-star salute to Cuban music.