About the Exhibit

September 17, 2010 – January 9, 2011
El Museo del Barrio

In an historic partnership, the New-York Historical Society and El Museo del Barrio have collaborated to organize Nueva York (1613-1945), a major exhibition exploring how New York’s long and deep involvement with Spain and Latin America has affected nearly every aspect of the city’s development. The exhibition is on view at El Museo del Barrio while the New-York Historical Society’s landmark building on Central Park West undergoes renovation. The guest curator of Nueva York is Marci Reaven, Managing Director of the cultural organization City Lore. Chief historian of the exhibition is Mike Wallace, Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York and Pulitzer Prize-winning co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

Nueva York is modeled on the New-York Historical Society’s acclaimed two-year initiative that investigated slavery in New York. The exhibition spans four centuries of history and combines a wide range of resources, including hands-on interactive displays, listening stations, video productions, and many rare and historical maps, letters, broadsides, paintings, drawings, and other objects drawn from the collections of the two museums, as well as from other distinguished institutions and private collections. Given the separate mandates of the New-York Historical Society and El Museo del Barrio, the exhibition draws on historical materials and the arts, a combination that enriches the story and gives visitors an unusually wide window into this remarkable history.

Today’s “Nueva York,” the city’s massive and diverse constellation of Spanish-speaking residents, is a relatively recent phenomenon that began with the surge of new arrivals from Puerto Rico in the 1940s. But the city’s relationship with the Spanish-speaking world goes back to its very beginnings, and predates Dutch settlement in Manhattan in the 1620s. Around the time of the American Revolution, immigrants from Spain and Latin America began trickling into the city, and the numbers increased over the 19th and 20th centuries. Contemporary Nueva York thus has deep roots in the city—a history not of decades but of centuries. And the interactions among Spain, Latin America, and New York between 1613 and 1945 had a much bigger influence on shaping the wider city’s development than is generally realized. They left a major mark on contemporary New York’s commercial, cultural, manufacturing, and financial arrangements.

Nueva York (1613-1945) brings these story lines together for the first time, in five galleries organized by theme and time period. 

Gallery 1 – Empires and Revolutions: 1620-1800
The exhibition begins in the early 1600s with the story of Jan Rodrigues, a mixed-race Spanish-speaking sailor from Santo Domingo and the first known non-native resident of Manhattan. The story continues into the colonial period, when the European empires battled for supremacy in the New World and elsewhere. During this period, the Protestant Dutch and English developed a deep cultural antipathy toward Catholic Spain, a bias that carried over into their colonies and later became known as the Black Legend. (The Dutch had extra cause to hate the Spanish: the Spanish monarch ruled the Low Countries.) After Spain aided the colonists during the American Revolution, some of the bias toward Spain softened, at least in the United States. But rebellions against the Spanish were widespread and constant in the Western Hemisphere in the years to come, and the rebels often found supporters among local New Yorkers.

Gallery 2 – Trade with Spanish America: 1825-1900
Their respective revolutions allowed the United States and the countries of Spanishspeaking America to trade freely with each other. The United States also traded extensively with Cuba and Puerto Rico, though these islands were still colonies, and therefore the U.S. had to pay duties to Spain. American traders prospered from this commerce, especially those in New York City. The most valuable commodity was sugar. The cane was grown on the Caribbean islands, partially processed on-site to form a syrup called raw sugar, and then shipped north for further refining. This basic pattern began with the opening of New York’s first refinery in the 1720s, and continued into the 20th century. The northward shipment relocated the profit center from the growing fields to the factories in New York. By 1860, Brooklyn was the world’s center of sugar refining, and the term “sugar barons” entered the American lexicon.

Gallery 3 – Cultural Encounters: 1800s
Trade ties brought English and Spanish speakers into close contact, and this contact fostered a vigorous cultural exchange. Washington Irving and William Merritt Chase both made journeys from New York to Spain, and the romantic work they produced there—books and essays by Irving, Velázquez-influenced paintings by Chase—helped to soften long-held negative feelings toward Spain. Frederic Edwin Church traveled to South America to paint the majestic landscapes that captured the imaginations of his audience in the United States. At the same time, people from Spain and their one-time colonies arrived in New York, among them artists, writers, architects, intellectuals, exiles, and a young student who would become the first Cuban to play professional baseball in the United States. These new arrivals contributed to the ongoing cultural interplay between the English- and Spanish-speaking communities. By 1870, New York’s population included 3,600 people who were from Spain or Latin America, and signs announcing “Se habla Español” were starting to appear in store windows.

Gallery 4 – Political Encounters: 1850-1930 
By 1825, Spain had lost most of its South American colonies. It held onto its plantation islands in the Caribbean but had to fight rebellious stirrings, and full-fledged revolts, for most of the 19th century. Throughout this period, New York City was the crucible for the long battle against Spanish control of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Here, exiles found refuge, published newspapers, and fomented insurrection. From Félix Varela in the 1820s to the failed Cuban mission of Narciso López in 1850, to the fierce Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), to the ultimately successful rebellion begun by José Martí in 1895, New York provided political activists with a home base from which to organize and raise funds. In 1898, the United States intervened in the Spanish-Cuban War that Martí organized, and brought it to a quick end. With the war settlement, Spain was banished from the last of its Caribbean colonies. The U.S. emerged as a colonial power, having acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, and having legislated its right to intervene in Cuba. Once Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship in 1917, they began migrating to New York in greater numbers. By 1920, there were more than 7,000 Puerto Ricans in New York, a figure that would grow substantially over the next decade.

Gallery 5 – New York’s Hispano Landscape: 1900-45
Between the Spanish-Cuban- American War and World War II, immigration from the Spanish-speaking world increased. The 1940 census showed 165,000 people of Spanish and Latin American descent in New York City, living in clusters in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan, especially in East Harlem’s El Barrio. This growing hispano community had an ever-greater impact on the cultural life of New York. It provided the city with a soundtrack that ran from Machito and Xavier Cougat to Tito Puente and the great Latin drummers. As New York became a world art center, artists flocked to the city’s schools, galleries, and museums. The Museum of Modern Art introduced New Yorkers and the nation to the arts and artists of the Americas, including the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. The Hispanic Society of America exhibited the Spanish lusterware produced by Muslim potters from Valencia, and paintings by the Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida. Gallery 5 ends with a short film by Ric Burns that follows the epic immigration to New York after World War II, when hundreds of thousands, then millions arrived from Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, and other locations around Spanish-speaking America to create the Nueva York we recognize today.