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New York Latino Pioneers in the Nineteenth Century

For over two centuries now, New York City has been both final destination and gateway for migrants and exiles from Latin America, especially the Caribbean. Ever since the late 1700s, when the Spanish Empire’s grip on its colonies in the New World started to loosen under the pressure of war and competition from other European powers, its colonial subjects opened up to trade and other types of exchange with the United States. Export/import opportunities and the need for credit required natives from the Caribbean islands to travel to the ports on the U.S. eastern seaboard, notably New York. Entrepreneurs from Puerto Rico and Cuba had established a merchant association in New York City by 1830. It was called Sociedad Benefica Cubana y Puertorriquena, or Spanish Benevolent Society. Thus, some businessmen thought New York a sufficiently important market in which to set up permanent representation. Such steps helped prepare the way for the growing economic interaction thereafter, for in the second half of the nineteenth century the United States, and New York in particular, became the

main trading and financial partners of the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Little by little the sugar, tobacco, and coffee from these islands found in New York and other eastern ports their main markets. By 1897, for instance, 60.6 percent of Puerto Rican sugar exports went to the United States, compared with 35.4 percent exported to Spain.3

Many a patriot of the campaigns to end the Spanish Empire’s control over the Caribbean islands ended up making New York their transient or permanent home. Inspired by South America’s war of liberation in the early 1800s and the victory of the Dominicans during the War of Restoration (1861-1865) against the annexation of the republic to Spain, Cubans and Puerto Ricans started seeking alternatives to the detested status quo. They could be divided into three groups: those who wanted more autonomy from Spain (autonomistas); those who wanted to separate from Spain and be annexed to the United States (anexionistas); and those who aspired to wrest the islands from Spain and make them independent republics (independentistas). Puerto Ricans fled their island nation in increasing numbers, especially after the Spaniards suppressed the Lares uprising of 1868; Cubans also headed for New York after El Grito de Yara the Cry of Yara, which marks the beginning of the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878) in Cuba. For example, the census of 1870 found that there were already 1,565 Cubans residing in New York City.4 Achieving independence from Spain was the overriding goal pursued by political exiles converging in New York City during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Renowned personalities such as Emeterio Betances, Eugenio Marla de Hostos, Sotero Figueroa, and Francisco Gonzalo Pachin Marin hailed from Puerto Rico, whereas from Cuba came heroes of past and future combats for that nation’s sovereignty such as the Apostle Jose Marti, Antonio Maceo, and Maximo Gomez. In those agitated times, New York City was where intellectuals, politicians, and adventurers from the Americas and even Spain held their rendezvous. In 1895, Cuban political exiles formed a branch of the Cuban Revolutionary Party; several of their associations were oriented to the cause of Antillean independence. The Liga de Artesanos and the Liga Antillana were male and female organizations, respectively, bringing together intellectuals and working-class activists to support the cause of independence. For this purpose, organizations such as the ligas conducted fund-raising events, conferences, and educational pursuits.

Besides Washington, DC, New York was also a destination for Latin Americans from the 15 republics born after the independence wars that ended in 1825, from Mexico to Argentina. They came to New York, for short or long stays, to serve on diplomatic missions, to raise funds for political campaigns or economic development, or to sit out political crises in their home countries. Sailors, too, jumped ship in New York and became a common source of migrants for the city. But all in all, migration in the nineteenth century trickled. There were artisans and skilled

workers, such as cigar makers, among the migrants, but this was a period during which businesspeople and political exiles predominated. Children of upper-class families were also sent to study in New York State’s colleges and boarding schools. In the latter part of the 1800s and during the first decades of the 1900s Chelsea was called Little Spain (Pequena Espana), dotted with Spanish and Latin American restaurants, cafes, grocery stores, bookstores, social clubs, and cigar factories especially along 14th Street, its main artery.

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