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'Nueva York' Exhibit Tells A South-North Story

When you think of immigration and New York City, it's usually an East-West story: Thousands of Europeans cross the Atlantic and pass through Ellis Island to finally land in New York.

But what about the South-North story? The first Hispanic immigrant arrived in New York City in the 1600s and today, almost 400 years later, Hispanics have become the largest minority in the U.S.

Now, El Museo del Barrio and the New-York Historical Society are collaborating on an exhibit that looks at the city's Hispanic influences from the 1600s to 1945. The show, Nueva York (1613-1945), smashes a lot of preconceptions and makes some pretty shocking predictions -- the most notable of which is, Get ready, America, because you're going to be a Spanish-speaking nation.

Filmmaker Ric Burns, who has made a half-hour documentary for the exhibit, says that’s because the current Spanish-speaking wave of immigration is expected to last about 150 years -- while the peak of the European wave of immigration lasted only about 40 years.

"Sometime in 2060 or 2070, the United States in general will be more Latino heritage than Anglo heritage or non-Latino heritage," Burns says. "And before the end of the 21st century, the United States will be the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. That's just a mind-boggling reality."

Mike Wallace, a professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the exhibit's chief historian, says that even so, immigration from Latin America is a bit under the radar.

Case in point: Many assume that Hispanics didn't start coming to the U.S. until after 1945; but the first known Hispanic immigrant, Juan Rodriguez, actually arrived in New York from the island of Hispaniola in 1613. Many would also place sugar production in the Caribbean, but Brooklyn was also a center for refining sugar from Cuba and Puerto Rico.

The exhibit has examples of Spanish treasure, profiles of art and business leaders, and listening stations where you can get a taste of the Latin music performed in New York from 1916 to the 1960s.

Visitors can learn about St. Peter's, New York's first above-ground Catholic church; the city's still-surviving Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, founded in 1730; Esteban Bellan, the first Latin American to play major league baseball; and how the war for Cuban independence actually began in New York, where writer-revolutionary Jose Marti wrote the order for rebellion in 1895. Marti later died on the Cuban battlefield.

According to Marci Reaven, the exhibit's curator, even the Cuban flag has its roots in New York.

"One thing that happens in 1850 is that the Cuban flag is designed in New York," Reaven says. "It flies for the first time from the corner of Nassau and Fulton."

The exhibit tracks the breaking down of barriers between English- and Spanish-speaking America. But Burns' documentary also touches on how intermarriage and new fusions in art and music have broken down barriers between Spanish-speaking cultures to help bring about a new pan-Latin identity.

In the film, Rossana Rosado, the Puerto Rican-American publisher and CEO of New York's Spanish-language newspaper El Diario La Prensa, uses the song "Nueva York" by Nuyorican salsa musician Willie Colon to speak to this new Latin identity.

"In the song, [Colon] says ... 'On your sidewalks ... I learned for the first time the traditions of my grandparents,' of my abuelos," she recalls.

Rosado explains that, whether Colombian or Dominican, growing up Hispanic in New York means identifying yourself with a heritage you don't actually know for yourself -- and a place that lives more in your heart than in your memories.

"Most of what I know about being Hispanic, I've learned in New York. I'm New York, born and raised -- been here all my life -- and so my Hispanic reality is here," she says. "That is Nueva York."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career
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