In his excellent new book, Hispanic New York, Columbia University’s Claudio Remeseira stays within the five boroughs and yet has achieved something decidedly, and admirably, far-flung. I think of the volume as a biography of New York, a portrait of the city – past, present, and future – as it’s been constituted by Spaniards and Latin Americans drawn to it as early as the mid to late 19th century.
Pulled together in this volume are (among other things) the essays of José Martí on Cuban independence, excerpts from the memoir of the Puerto Rican socialist tabaquero Bernardo Vega, the words of Walt Whitman and musings of Antonio Muñoz Molina. The critical essays, too, enlighten. MOMA’s Luis Pérez-Oramas discusses the evolution of the Latin American collection at the museum; activist and scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner writes on Basquiat; Remeseira offers a revealing sketch of Carlos Gardel’s years in New York.
What I love about the collection is its infusion of translations– some entirely new (to my eyes at least) and some the familiar stuff of the classics. Dan Newland, a phenomenal translator based in Argentina, has ably handled some of the recently written contributions. Juan Flores and Esther Allen, whose translations of Vega and Martí are reprinted here, are of course well known.
The editorial scaffolding of the book is, though, its main strength; it is sturdy and well conceived, a tribute to Remeseira's editing. Reading this book, you are reminded not only that New York is, as Vega put it, “a modern Babylon, the meeting point for peoples from all over the world,” but also that the city was (and perhaps still is) big enough to support other imagined locales. In New York’s ready political and artistic ferment, Latin American visionaries and revolutionaries looked homeward. Some saw their native soil refracted through the “panethnic” life of the city’s Latino community.
As Remeseira explains it: “[T]he experience of New York became crucially important for [Hispanic culture]…especially at a time when no other city in the world could compare to it as a crucible of modern civilization.” That’s one way of putting it. Another, maybe cruder, formulation comes from Martí. “Governor, in a new country, means Creator,” he wrote in 1891, inflecting the political with a literary-biblical ring. It was in New York that Martí populated (so to speak) his vision of an independent Cuba, where he came into his own as Creator. And there’s a statue in Central Park to prove it.