06/23/2010 03:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How a Little History Sweetens the Immigration Debate

This is the story of a Spanish-speaking immigrant--one of nine children in his family, who grew up plowing fields in Spain and eventually made his way to this country from Cuba in search of a better living. Manuel Rionda was just 16 years old when his family sent him to Portland, Maine, to take a job in a sugar refinery. He was 20 in 1874 when he arrived in New York--a city where some of the wealthiest people had built their fortunes in the sugar trade.

By the time Rionda died in 1943, he was one of these people. He had founded one of New York's most important sugar brokerages--a vast international enterprise--had been central in establishing large American investments in Cuba, and from 1898 on had played a key role in virtually every American policy decision relating to the sugar economy of Cuba.

One of the pioneers in the sugar business internationally and one of the most successful, Manuel Rionda had started as an immigrant and finished as a New Yorker, with his headquarters on Wall Street.

Rionda was extraordinary in his success--but in some ways he was typical as an immigrant of his era, and perhaps of our own. He went through multiple relocations, stove for an education (spending four years at a school in Maine before coming to New York) and worked tirelessly for his money.

He also typified a model of running a business that was very common in the 19th century. In a period that gave us firms with names such as Brooks Brothers, Brown Brothers, Coudert Brothers and Lehman Brothers, Rionda trusted only family members to work for him. He never had children--so he deployed his nephews to run his sugar plantations and mills in Cuba and to join him at his New York headquarters. After he died, his nephews inherited the business, which continues to tower over its industry today, with family members still predominating. Among them is Pepe Fanjul, the great-great-nephew of Manuel Rionda, whose recollections of stories told by his grandfather, Higinio Fanjul, have been crucial to reconstructing this chapter of history.

But if Manuel Rionda's story is both typical of its era and remarkable for its success, then why isn't it as well known as those of other 19th century immigrants such as Carnegie who made it to the top?

The answer, according to historian Mike Wallace, is that Spanish-speaking people have until now been written out of the story of New York and its immigrants:

The history of the city is usually conceived as an East-West affair. The focus is Eurocentric (though with relatively little attention paid to Spain), with the lens recently widened to embrace Africa as well. Scholars have always been aware of New York's relations with Latin America, but seen them out of the corner of their collective eye, as they did not fit comfortably into the predominant narrative. Turning the optic ninety degrees, and adopting a North-South perspective that privileges things Spanish, reveals formerly peripheralized actors to be major players in a different narrative.

So Wallace writes in the catalogue for Nueva York, a new exhibition that the New-York Historical Society and El Museo del Barrio are jointly preparing to open.

There are many lessons that the rich and complex Nueva York can teach us. One of them is that Spanish-speaking immigrants were central to the growth and prosperity of New York, long before America's greatest city reached its current milestone of having a population that is almost one-third Latino.

And another is a lesson we can learn from the story of Manuel Rionda. At a moment when Spanish-speaking immigrants like him are once more at the center of a national debate, we can learn that a little taste of history just might sweeten the discussion.