About 400 years ago, Juan Rodriguez, a mulatto from Hispaniola, arrived in today's Manhattan, becoming probably the first Hispanic to emigrate to New York City and its first foreign-born resident.
From that first arrival in 1613 until 1945, New York businesses flourished because of Cuban sugar producers, Latin American liberators sought out support for their causes while visiting the city and many Hispanic artists and immigrants left their marks. An exhibition opening at El Museo del Barrio on Friday seeks to reveal these long-buried roots of Hispanic influence and contact with the city.
"New York's role in the history of the United States has been conceived, and accurately so, as a connecting link between European money, European immigrants, European political ideas, European fashion and the like," said Mike Wallace, the lead historian behind the exhibition called "Nueva York," organized by the New York Historical Society and El Museo del Barrio.
"But when you turn the focus 90 degrees and you think about the north-south links rather than only the east-west links you realize that there is a whole other story going on and that's the story that I thought would be a critical background for New Yorkers, both Hispanics and not Hispanics, to understand," he continued.
Wallace, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on the history of New York, said the idea for the exhibit came about when he began to see the city through the eyes of his wife, Carmen Buollosa, a Mexican poet. That's when he realized there was an entire side of history that was known only to a few people.
The exhibition, which lasts through Jan. 9, is timed to coincide with Latin American independence bicentenary celebrations, said Louise Mirrer, president of the New York Historical Society. She said it was equally timely because nearly a third of the city is Hispanic.
Visitors to the galleries at El Museo del Barrio are welcomed by Diego Velazquez' "Portrait of Philip IV," an attempt to represent the enormous Spanish presence in the American continent in the 17th century.
From there, through the next five galleries, the story of "Nueva York" is told through interactive exhibits, and some 200 maps, letters, paintings, drawings and other objects: original documents related to the failed liberation mission of Francisco de Miranda to the Venezuelan coast; photographs about Moses Taylor and William Havemeyer, New York magnates whose fortunes were boosted by their Latin American business ventures; and a display on Esteban Bellan, a Cuban who became the first Latin American to play professional baseball. One area is dedicated to Latin music.
One of the most interesting works on view is an installation titled "From here to there," by Puerto Rican artist Antonio Martorell, about immigration from his native island to New York.
The work is a type of airplane, with chairs dressed in clothes from various moments in history, in which visitors can sit down and watch a documentary. The windows show photographs of immigrants, in which passers-by are reflected.
"The intention is to bring visitors close to the experience of Puerto Rican immigration," the artist explained.
Marci Reaven, the show's curator, said that it had become critical to tell the story of demographic change in the United States as the country debates immigration reform.
"There is so much debate right now about who belongs in America," she said. "It seemed like an important political statement to say that in New York that people from Latin American have had a long history here and they've been here for many centuries, not just for decades."