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.

William James Bennett, «South Street from Maiden Lane, New York City, in 1828,» 1834
Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

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].

Federico Martínez, «María Wilson y Mijares,» courtesy Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Havana

«Maybe if I had been a historian,» Pérez says in conversation with Cuban Art News, «I would have been more interested in focusing on the literature thing. But as a sociologist I see everything, including political aspects, as part of a wider reality—a social reality.

First, I want to know something about the community. Not what happened politically, or what’s reflected in the newspapers or essays, but to see who was it that lived here—the demographics and social classes. It was important to treat this as if I were studying a contemporary community.

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.

Cigar store in New York City (no date)
Courtesy New York History Blog

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.

Formal portrait of José Martí
Courtesy Lisandro Pérez

The book mentions some women, but stories of men predominate. Why is that?

Let’s remember, this was a world of merchants and cigar makers, where men predominated. I mention some women, like Emilia Casanova—Cirilo Villaverde’s wife—poet Luisa Zambrano and la Avellaneda [Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda].

I did not include [independence fighter] Emilia Teurbe Toulon, for example, because her story didn’t fit into the narrative very well. And I’m sure you can criticize me for how I present Emilia Casanova. She is a venerated historical figure, especially for feminists, because she didn’t have pelos en la lengua— “ hairs on the tongue.” [In other words, she spoke bluntly and directly].

She was very aggressive by the standards of the time. But she wrote like she talked, with a lot of confrontation. I don’t treat her very well, because it seems to me that she caused many divisions among Cubans during the Ten Years’ War.

Emilia Casanova
Courtesy Lisandro Pérez

What is the Cuban presence in New York like today?

Among Latin Americans, the Cuban community was the most important in New York in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th. Now, there are seven national groups in the city that are more prominent than the Cubans.

Since 1959, a large part of that Cuban presence is in New Jersey. When Cubans began arriving in 1961, there was a relocation process to Miami—although it was not forced. That is to say, the US government allowed Cubans who were arriving in Miami the option of going elsewhere in the country. They went mostly to big cities like New York and Los Angeles, but some returned to Miami. Others returned to Miami for retirement.

It is also true that after Mariel, the most recent waves were much more likely to go to Miami, where 40 percent of Cubans in the US have lived since 1970. Now, 68 percent of Cubans in the US live there.

Is it possible to trace the presence of 19th-century Cubans in New York City today?

Few buildings of historical value survive. Because New York is New York.

If we were talking about Havana, for example, the buildings of the 19th century and before would still be there, like [Historian of the City of Havana] Eusebio Leal, with offices in the 18th-century Casa de Arango y Parreño. But New York is constantly renewed. Only a couple of the buildings that I mention in the book remain standing.

A reader (or «lector») reads to workers at a cigar factory, c. 1900
Courtesy Mashable

New York is full of «historical markers,» but there are very few about Cubans. The most obvious physical trace that is missing—although there’s been some kind of campaign in this regard—is to mark where José Martí’s office stood. What we do have is the statue of Martí in Central Park.

I think the fact that there’s not much recognition [of the Cuban presence in New York] is in part because the story hasn’t been written yet. No one can complain that a history isn’t recognized if they don’t make the attempt to write it. I’m trying to fill that void.

Courtesy John Jay College, CUNY