Carlos Rodríguez Martorell, writing for the New York Daily News, looks at the recently published anthology Hispanic New York, edited by Claudio Remeseira (pictured above). [Disclorure: I have an essay in the book with my colleague Margarite Fernández Olmos, so I am personally pleased that the book is getting attention.]
There’s no question that the city of J.Lo, A-Rod, and Tito Puente has a big Latin component, but just how big is it?
“New York is the most Latin American city in the world,” says Argentine journalist and scholar Claudio Remeseira.
“Whoever comes from the Hispanic world, including Brazil and Portugal, will find a connection with their country here,” he adds. “No other city – not Madrid or Mexico City or Havana – has this kind of resonance with the 20 or so countries that sprang from the Spanish and Portuguese empires.”
To prove this, Remeseira has edited “Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook,” an anthology of writings documenting the Hispanic presence in the city over the past six centuries.
Just a sampler: In 1526, a Portuguese explorer christened the Hudson the San Antonio River. The first Spanish-speaking New Yorkers were also the first Jews, a group of Sephardic immigrants who arrived from Brazil in 1645. The first Spanish grammar book in New York was published in 1741, and, by then, the city already had three Spanish newspapers.
“Hispanic New York” – published by Columbia University, where Remeseira teaches – boasts a wide range of documents, ranging from memoirs (early 20th-century Puerto Rican activist Bernardo Vega) to journalistic reports (Roberto Suro’s account of Dominican Washington Heights) to academic articles on art, literature and social relations, not only in New York but in the rest of the U.S.
The most revealing text might be “The Spanish Element in Our Nationality,” written in 1883 by American poet Walt Whitman, in which he hoped that the “Spanish character” he found in the Southwest would bring its values – “patriotism, courage, decorum, gravity and honor” – to the “composite American identity of the future.”
“Whitman’s idea of a melting pot is more relevant to today’s America than back then,” says Remeseira, 50, who considers it an essential part of his tome.
Another century-old article has a timely ring. Much of “A Vindication of Cuba,” in which patriot José Martí bemoaned the racism and prejudice toward Cuban immigrants, “could have been written today about Mexicans in Arizona,” says Remeseira.
Frank Figueroa’s “Latin Music Landmarks” maps iconic places such the Palladium, the Cheetah or Rafael Hernández’s store, where, legend has it, he wrote his “Lamento Borincano.” Frances Negrón-Muntaner explores the Puerto Rican heritage of art superstar Jean-Michel Basquiat.
For Remeseira, who edits the blog Hispanic New York Project, the book also helped explain the many Latin references he encountered when he moved to the city in 2000.
One such landmark, a statue of El Cid Campeador in front of the Hispanic Society – identical to one in his native Buenos Aires, led him to write an essay about Archer Milton Huntington, founder of the society. He also chronicled tango legend Carlos Gardel’s stay in New York in the 1930s.
On the whole, the 547-page anthology is an imposing testimony to the sheer vibrancy of the city’s Hispanic community.
“Everything is changing as we speak,” Remeseira says, noting that a reference to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was included at the eleventh hour. “This book could be outdated pretty soon.”