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The Ladies of Nueva York, 1613-1945

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Kudos to the curators of the splendid installation of Nueva York, 1613-1945 at El Museo del Barrio! The Latin ladies were not forgotten, ignored or discarded as is often the case in historical interpretations. Like a banquet table laden with assorted riches, the exhibit presents our past from a comprehensive "American" hemispheric perspective, offering a well-stocked prologue to the present where a third of the city's population claim Latino heritage. Chock full of discoveries, the interweaving of a Hispanic presence into the fabric of the city's evolution since 1613 motivates New Yorkers to confront and incorporate a cataclysmic shift in previously held assumptions about our city's development.

And so it is with the ladies, especially those 19th century Latinas who made homes and raised families in the city's diverse immigrant and cosmopolitan neighborhoods. Forced to modify conventional gender expectations cultivated at their mothers' knees to the realities of life in a teeming urban environment, many Latinas challenged public opinion and the politics of the time through their organizational activities and writings. Among several notables in the exhibit, two stand out, not just for their deeds, but because they have left written documents. Their writings underscore the transnational nature of New York's Latinos and locate their concerns as much in the affairs of their countries of origin as in Gotham.

Emilia Casanova de Villaverde lived in New York from 1854 until 1897. Married to the esteemed intellectual Cirilo Villaverde, de Villaverde championed abolition and Cuban liberation from Spanish rule in her writings. Perhaps the first Latina to address the Congress of the United States, during Cuba's Ten Years' War (1868-1878) she met with President Ulysses S. Grant on more than one occasion to seek U.S. support for the cause.

The Casanova family owned an impressive mansion in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx situated to easily load weapons and ammunition onto Long Island Sound vessels destined for Cuba. (That site and the deserted railroad station nearby bearing the Casanova name are yet to be historically marked). Casanova de Villaverde formed the first women's clubs in New York to support the war effort, help veterans, widows and orphans, and raise much needed funds. With footprints firmly planted in the city, she nonetheless exercised a dual identity that allowed her New Yorker and Cuban selves to flourish without conflict. Her collected letters, newspaper and magazine articles form part of our city's Latino legacy.

Mid-way through the exhibit, an eye-catching exquisite crimson evening gown that might well have adorned Casanova de Villaverde herself, or any of the other club ladies, evokes this bygone era.

In similar fashion, one encounters a computerized image of Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton briefly describing who she was. The first Latina novelist to write and publish in English, Ruiz de Burton lived on the East Coast, including New York City, from 1859 - 1869. Her novels depict a nation in turmoil resulting from the U.S. War with Mexico (1848), the appropriation of Mexican territory, and the impoverishment of a landed elite told from the perspective of the vanquished.

Ruiz de Burton wrote stories that denounced the hypocrisy of northern abolitionists, Anglo-American narrow mindedness, exploitation of the less fortunate, and indiscriminate industrial expansion. Yet her novels were published under the most basic of American freedoms, the right of loyal citizens to dissent. The conventions of the time dictated that authors should be male and not female. Ruiz de Burton concealed her identity using the pseudonym "C. Loyal" for Loyal Citizen.

Like Casanova de Villaverde, Ruiz de Burton responded to the politics of her native country. "The city of New York," she wrote in a letter in 1864, "has the honor of offering asylum to many of our liberals ... and I've had the pleasure of seeing some of them. The family of Sr. Juarez should be arriving from New Orleans very soon." As grounded in the comings and goings of the family of former Mexican president, Benito Juarez, she similarly engaged the American political landscape attending the inaugural ball of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and personally befriending his wife Mary Todd Lincoln.

Both of these women were known for their strident, often caustic opinions, for persevering in their devotion to a cause, and for daring to expose the disastrous effects of political and industrial machinations on powerless communities. They inspire us to look more closely at the ways in which the city may have been changed by their actions and help us to see Hispanic heritage in a clearer light.

Among the many wonders one experiences in this exhibit, it is fitting to give the ladies of Nueva York the attention they deserve.