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Before Miami, NYC Was Home To a Vibrant Cuban Community

By BETH HARPAZ

Think of a U.S. city with a significant Cuban population, and of course, Miami comes to mind. But until 1960, New York remained “the most important U.S. city for Cubans,” according to Professor Lisandro Pérez (John Jay College of Criminal Justice). Pérez has written a new book about the roots of Cuban immigration in 19th century New York called Sugar, Cigars, and Revolution: The Making of Cuban New York.

The New York-Cuba connection originated in the sugar trade. Cubans who made their fortunes off of slave labor on island sugar plantations shipped that sugar to New York to be processed in the city’s large refineries. The Cuban “sugarocracy” held elaborate weddings in New York and sent their children to school here. They also maintained large accounts with New York mercantile houses and invested in New York real estate. “They didn’t want their money in Cuba. They wanted it in New York,” Pérez said in a New Books Network podcast hosted by the Gotham Center for New York City History, which is located at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

New York’s Cuban émigré community had its own businesses, newspapers, and clubs. And working-class Cubans lived here too, often employed as servants or cigar-makers. “Decades before Cuban cigar workers rolled cigars in Tampa,” Pérez wrote, “they were laboring at their craft in Lower Manhattan.”

Sketched drawing of The Diamond Wedding at St. Patrick's Cathedral, October 13, 1859
The Diamond Wedding at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, October 13, 1859. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library.

Pérez starts his account in 1823, when Cuban ports sent 97 ships to New York. The first arrivals included a priest, Felix Varela, who became a leader among New York Catholics. Varela founded two churches and defended Catholic immigrants — mostly Irish — against “anti-Papists.” By 1870, the census counted nearly 3,000 Cuban-born New Yorkers, not including those born here to Cuban families.

An important aspect of Cuban New York was its political activism. Cubans came here “to plot revolution against Spain,” Pérez wrote. The beloved Cuban hero and poet José Martí, who personified the fight against Spanish colonial rule in Cuba, spent most of his adult life in New York. Manhattan’s Central Park is home to a statue of Martí on horseback, and Havana recently got a copy of the sculpture.

New York also helped shape a Cuban identity that Pérez calls “distinctly modernist” and a rejection of old-world European sensibilities. That identity manifested itself culturally, intellectually, and even in sports — which is why Cuba’s public arenas have long been used for baseball, not bullfights.

The book won the 2020 Herbert  H. Lehman Prize, a prestigious award for distinguished scholarship in New York history.

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Sugar, Cigars, and Revolution: The Making of Cuban New York
New York University Press, 2018

Work By
Lisandro Pérez (Professor, Latin American and Latina/o Studies) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools
John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Bonus Content
“‘Sugar, Cigars, and Revolution’ blurb” (Publishers Weekly)
Podcast: “Interview with Lisandro Pérez” (The Gotham Center)

Winner, 2020 Herbert H. Lehman Prize

Related Terms
[Cuba, history, New York City history, Cubans, Jose Marti, colonialism, Spain, Latinx, Latin America, slavery, sugar industry]

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