On a visit to New York City recently, I went to see “Nueva York,” the new exhibition that was developed collaboratively by the New-York Historical Society and El Museo del Barrio. The exhibition traces the history of Spanish and Latin American peoples in New York City from 1613 to 1945 and explores the important social, cultural, political, and economic connections that existed among Spain, the Caribbean, and North and South America. Interesting history, yes, and I learned a lot from its well-researched labels. For me, however, this exhibition had a personal connection that was just as important as the broader historical narrative.
My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was from Galicia in the North of Spain (the little bit that is above Portugal), and my great-grandmother was from Cayey in Puerto Rico. I knew both of them when I was growing up, and my Spanish and Puerto Rican heritage has always been important to me. Both of them came to New York City, and they raised my grandmother there.
What was crucially important to me about this particular exhibition was the fact that it focused on Hispanic migrants to New York City in the period before 1945. So often the history of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States begins with the post-1945 mass migration of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and other groups, or it emphasizes the long history of Mexican-American migration. Given the size and significance of these migrations, this emphasis is understandable. However, my great-grandparents were part of a wave of migration that scholars and pundits rarely discuss. They arrived after World War I—either in the late nineteen-teens or the early 1920s, I’m not exactly sure—in a period when anti-immigrant bias had reached a fever pitch. My great-grandfather was actually what we would today call an “illegal immigrant,” jumping ship in New York after first working in Cuba. My great-grandmother did not face such a hurdle, because in 1917 Congress had made Puerto Ricans citizens of the United States. Still, she undoubtedly faced many challenges as a young Puerto Rican woman in New York. Together, however, they were able to raise a family and both had long, prosperous lives.
Seeing this exhibition at El Museo del Barrio made me feel that their history was now a part of the broader history of Latinos and Hispanics in New York City. Taking nothing away from the profoundly significant migration of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and other groups in the post-1945 period, I hope the exhibition encourages scholars, artists, museum professionals, and activists to take the full range of this history into account when discussing the vital role Hispanics and Latinos have played in shaping this city, country, and continent.