Review of “Sugar, Tobacco & Revolution: Cubans in New York”

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Lidia Hernández Tapia reviews Lisandro Pérez’s Sugar, Tobacco & Revolution: Cubans in New York for Cuban Art News. As Hernández Tapia explains, the book uncovers “Cuba’s hidden history in 19th-century Manhattan.” Here are excerpts:

Delve into the archives of 19th-century New York businessmen and the Cuban sugar bourgeoisie, and a relationship emerges that goes beyond mere buying and selling. In Sugar, Cigars & Revolution: The Making of Cuban New York (2018, NYU Press), Lisandro Pérez explores how, for Cubans of that era, New York replaced Spain as a paradigm of modernity, and how that in turn helped form Cuban national identity.

In the book, Pérez—a professor at the City University of New York’s John Jay College—traces in detail how Cubans became the most influential Latin American immigrant group in New York in the 1800s. The city became a refuge for intellectuals like Father Félix Varela, poet and novelist Cirilio Villaverde and his wife, political activist Emilia Casanova, and José Martí. They were joined by others who fled the war in Cuba or who, for their political positions, were forced into exile.

Pérez unfurls stories of families and individuals, drawing on myriad details: wedding dates, how and when individuals arrived in New York, purchases of real estate and properties, buildings and neighborhoods where Cubans lived. Census data are interwoven with letters, business files, other historical texts, along with fragments of newspaper articles and essays.

The 1870 census provides key information that Pérez uses to narrate the passage of Cuban artists through the city, especially painters and musicians. After the war began in 1868, artists like Federico Martínez arrived. Three of Martínez’s portraits are in the collection of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana; one of them, of María Wilson y Mijares, was painted in New York. Two musicians, Emilio Agramonte and Pablo Desvernine, also fled the war. Desvernine became a piano teacher to young Edward MacDowell, who went on to become a prominent musician and composer [and for whom the MacDowell Colony, an artists’ retreat in New England, was named].

[. . .]

In terms of Cuban historiography, there hasn’t been much research done on this era. How much material is out there and accessible?

I started this project knowing that not much had been written. But I discovered more material than I thought I would, and I found that the Cuban presence in New York was more important than I’d imagined. The book was intended to cover the period up to 1959, but I stayed with the 19th century because I found so much material. Maybe in the future I’ll focus on the 20th century.

Did you discover anything that surprised you?

I was surprised by what I found about Martí. He breaks the mold of immigration activism. His business was not simply to raise money and send an expedition to Cuba. He realized that we first had to establish an entire party, a civil movement—and then, as a second part, comes the military aspect. He recognized that funding from the wealthy was very capricious and not to be counted on.

I realized that Martí was a rather isolated man in New York. And since he had had a conflict with [military leaders] Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo, there were many people, especially veterans of the Ten Years’ War [1868–78], who did not consider him. That’s why he had to go to Tampa and Key West, where he organized the movement, and then he is recognized. That surprised me, because I was predisposed to attribute great feats to Martí. But I rediscovered it with this book.

When one sees it in its context and sees the history that preceded him, and what happens after his death, he really did extraordinary things. [. . .]

For full review, see https://cubanartnews.org/2019/03/06/sugar-cigars-revolution-cubans-in-new-york/

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