Dining in New York with Federico García Lorca

ArticleJames D. Fernández1 Comment

Federico García Lorca’s Poeta en Nueva York is probably the best-known book ever written by a Spaniard in and about New York.  Born in Granada, Spain, in 1898, Lorca was already a successful poet and playwright when he visited the city between June 1929 and March 1930, ostensibly to study English at Columbia University. But when he made the trip to New York, Federico was reeling from a series of profound personal setbacks, and as luck would have it, he arrived to the city just in time to witness the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. Little wonder, then, that his Poet in New York is a bleak and desolate book of poems whose very title points to a radical out-of-placeness. Indeed, in the post-apocalyptic and utilitarian wasteland that is García Lorca’s Nueva York, there would seem to be little or no room for poets and poetry.  Or, for that matter, Spaniards.

So powerful is this poet in New York’s sense of alienation and out-of-placeness, that the naïve reader of this collection of poems could be excused for thinking that García Lorca had been the first and only poet, or the first and only Spaniard, ever to step foot in—and write about—the city, and that the poet’s time in New York had been spent in personal, linguistic and cultural isolation.  And yet. . . .

The 1920s were, without a doubt, one of the most ebullient periods in the history of Hispanic Nueva York.  The city had been home to a small but significant Spanish-speaking community throughout the nineteenth century—primarily Cubans, Spaniards and Puerto Ricans— but the presence of Spanish-speakers within the city and their diverse cultures would only begin to fully blossom during the first decades of the twentieth century.  The multiple crises and opportunities stirred up by the definitive end of the Spanish Empire (1898) and the beginning of the US Empire, are the engines that drive the complex story of Spanish-speaking New York in these early decades of the twentieth century.

In the 1910s and 1920s, the disruptions and displacements caused by US colonial interventions in the Caribbean brought tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans to New York in flight from misery, in search of opportunity.   This Puerto Rican diaspora is, without a doubt, the main episode in this chapter Nueva York history.  On a much smaller scale, in the 1920s, for the first time in its history, New York became home to a significant colony of working-class immigrants from Spain, many of whom had re-emigrated to the city from other points in the Spanish-speaking Americas. In Gotham, these Spaniards would often live and work alongside Puerto Ricans and Spanish-speakers from other countries.  Prudencio Unanue —the founder of Goya Foods—was just one of the thousands of Spaniards who came to New York in this period, after a stint in Puerto Rico. Assisted by his Puerto Rican-born wife, Carolina, Unanue’s downtown import/export business on Pearl Street would prosper, in large measure, thanks to the boom in the city’s non-Spanish population. Gregorio Bustelo is another case in point:  in these same years, this Spanish emigrant came to New York via Cuba.  A traveling salesman at first, Bustelo soon realized, as he called on potential clients in Spanish Harlem and Little Spain, that of all of the items he had to offer out of his sales case, what sold the best were the half-pound packages of dark-roasted espresso-style coffee.  Right around the time of Lorca’s visit to New York, Bustelo would inaugurate his Bustelo Coffee Roasting Company at a modest storefront on Fifth Avenue and 116th Street, in what had quickly become the heart of Puerto Rican New York.  The rest is history.

It’s ironic that the best-known book written by a Spaniard about New York is one that almost completely ignores the city’s bustling Hispanic culture.  Other observers, however, chronicling the city at the same time, and writing in different registers, have left rich accounts of the place of Spaniards within a vibrant, diverse and dynamic Hispanic Nueva York.  The Spanish journalist and humorist Julio Camba, for example, was also in New York in 1929.  Unlike García Lorca, Camba obviously frequented both Spanish Harlem and Little Spain (around the west end of 14th Street), and was intrigued by what he saw there:

In the [Spanish-language stage and screen theater in East Harlem called the]Teatro de San José, the audiences are delighted not only by the respective accents of the gallego, the catalán or the baturro.  Right next to them on stage appear the “jibaro” from the Antilles, the “pelado” from Mexico, the “atorrante” from Argentina, etc.  The dance numbers include jotas and sones, sardanas and rumbas, pericones and muñeiras, peteneras and jarabes.  The instruments played include the guitar, the cajón, the clave, the güiro, the tambourine and the ariba.  Flamenco is sung next to songs from the pampas; alalas are followed by vidalitas, malagueñas by corridos.  And the restaurants, for their part, wouldn’t be considered Spanish restaurants if on the menu, next to Valencian rice or catalonian escudella, we can’t find tamales, churrasco, mole de guajolote, chile con carne, barbacoa, sibiche [sic], el chupe de camarones and other Hispanoamerican platillos (dishes) or antojitos (appetizers).  

Camba goes on to claim that this diversity of Hispanic accents, musical styles and cuisines makes New York “a miniature version” of the former Spanish empire.  Be that as it may, one thing is clear: by the time Julio Camba and Federico García Lorca visited in 1929, New York had emerged as a major site of Hispanic cultural production. Gotham, more than any other city in the Spanish-speaking world, was home to a large and diverse community of Spanish-speakers from many different countries, who lived, worked, danced, and cooked together in close proximity.

n 1920s Spain, it would have been highly unlikely for a native inhabitant of Galicia to have a Valencian as a neighbor, or for the menu of a restaurant in La Coruña to feature paella beside caldo gallego. In New York, however, this kind of co-mingling was the norm. I once interviewed an elderly Galician restaurateur in New York who told me that he did not speak Spanish before arriving to New York (only his native Gallego). In effect, it was in New York that he became “Spanish”.   This was probably not an uncommon sentiment among Spanish immigrants in New York in the early twentieth century.  And, as Camba points out, what is true for La Coruña and Valencia is also true for Barcelona and Mexico City. In 1920s New York, a Catalán could easily live next door to a Chilango, just as escudella could quite naturally appear on a menu beside tamales.

But the presence of a booming and diverse Spanish-speaking community in New York is just one part of the evolution of Spanish cuisine within the city. The place occupied by “Spain” in the imagination of non-Hispanic New Yorkers also played a key role in how Spanish cuisine gets recreated in the city.  It stands to reason that then, as now, there were immigrant restaurants that mainly served an immigrant population. Some of these restaurants, however, eventually managed to attract a hybrid clientele of both immigrants and “outsiders.”  A Spaniard trying to attract an American clientele to his Spanish restaurant almost certainly would have been tempted to “perform Spanishness” for their customers.  “Give them what they want” and “the customer is always right” are two core maxims of US business culture.  This performative aspect of the ethnic restaurant business– the intricate dialogue between producer and consumer, between culinary traditions and diners’ expectations— ought not be underestimated, particularly in the case of the representation of Spanish cuisine in New York.

The first decades of the twentieth century were the scene of an unprecedented episode of Hispanophilia or “Spanish Craze” throughout the United States, and particularly in New York.  To be sure, a strain of Hispanophilia has existed in US culture almost since the birth of the Republic. Think: Washington Irving.  (At the same time, we must remember that a not-unrelated strain of Hispanophobia has also existed, and for just as long.) But in the early years of the twentieth century, after Spain had been definitively expelled as a sovereign power from the hemisphere and once the US had begun to imagine itself as the seat of a benign and enlightened empire, many Americans and New Yorkers seemed to develop an insatiable appetite for all things Hispanic.  All sorts of acquisitions, appropriations and performances of “Spanishness” were the order of the day.  From the establishment of Huntington’s vast Spanish Museum (Hispanic Society of America) in Audobon Heights in 1904, through the unprecedented boom in enrollments in Spanish classes that took place during the teens and twenties in New York’s high schools and colleges, to the apotheoses of trend-setting celebrities like the sultry chanteuse Raquel Meller who visited the city in the early 1920s. It seemed as if New Yorkers just could not get enough of “Spain.”  And the world of food was no exception.  An article titled “Spanish Cuisine in New York,” appearing in a food magazine in Spain right around the time that Lorca and Camba were in the city (1930), lists several dozen Spanish restaurants in Gotham, and proudly reports that “the fame of Spanish cuisine is growing not only among the numerous Spaniards [“hispanos”] who live in New York, but also among the Hispanics [“hispánicos”] from the different American republics, and even among the Yankees.”

In the letters that García Lorca sent from New York to his family in Spain, one can find traces of the Spanish craze at almost every turn.  Remarkably, however, Federico himself shows little awareness of the phenomenon, and tends to attribute the extraordinarily warm welcome he received in New York to his own charm, talents and charisma, which were, by all accounts, including his own, truly formidable.  But if, on June 25, 1929, there was a remarkably distinguished welcoming committee of Spanish cultural figures and academics there on the Chelsea Pier docks waiting to greet Lorca as he arrived aboard the SS Olympic, it was at least in part because those men “happened to be” in New York, promoting, and benefitting from, the “Spanish craze”.  Among them, for example, Federico de Onís who had been brought to Columbia University from the University of Salamanca to oversee the skyrocketing enrollments in Spanish classes; José Camprubí who had purchased La Prensa, New York’s most important and fastest growing Spanish-language newspaper, and León Felipe, who was teaching Spanish at Berlitz.

Lorca was in New York on his parents’ dime, and supposedly to learn English; it is almost comical to see how in his letters to his parents, this thirty-one year-old exaggerates his progress in the study of English, talking a great deal about the time he spends with his “American” friends. Though it turns out that in New York, García Lorca was constantly “running into” friends he had already made in Spain, such as the young British stockbroker Colin Hackforth-Jones and the journalist and Hispanist Mildred Adams, both of whom García Lorca had befriended in Granada some years before. Adams and her family became assiduous companions of, and hosts to, García Lorca in New York; Mildred even threw a party to introduce the Spanish visitor to her American friends, where, he reported to his parents, “a rather good pianist played music by Albéniz and Falla, and the girls all wore mantones de Manila [the bright shawls worn by Andalusian women, particularly flamenco dancers].”

“In the dining room,” Federico remarks, “—Oh, divine surprise!— there were bottles of sherry and Fundador brandy.” (Lorca was no fan of Prohibition.) Another of García Lorca’s closest American friends was Henry Herschel Brickell, a literary critic and publisher who also had been to Granada, where, according to Ian Gibson, he practically stalked the great composer Manuel de Falla, hoping to catch a glimpse of the maestro. Brickell and his wife threw a party for García Lorca on his Saint’s Day (July 18) and also organized a Spanish-themed Christmas Eve party in his honor. Before heading off to midnight mass, the guests made wishes while lighting candles set out on a kind of altar made of Talavera tiles. Many of García Lorca’s American friends had made the Washington Irving pilgrimage to Granada; they collected Manila shawls and Talavera ceramics; in the midst of Prohibition, they had stashes of Spanish sherry and brandy; and they invited or employed musicians to play Spanish contemporary classical music at their soirees. These were not random run-of-the-mill New Yorkers with whom Federico might have practiced his English; rather, they seem much more like priests and priestesses of New York’s Spanish craze.

Perhaps García Lorca did not perceive the “Spanish Craze” because he was so fully immersed in it.  But in many ways, and despite the vox clamantis in deserto pose of Poet in New York, Lorca was, without a doubt, both a witness to, and a beneficiary of, the intense Hispanophile climate of 1920s New York.  During his relatively short stay in the city, he would have the opportunity to attend concerts by guitarist Andrés Segovia and pianist José Iturbe; performances by La Argentina and Argentinita; lectures by Dámaso Alonso and Ignacio Sánchez Mejías.  Lorca himself, a talented musician, organized a recital of Spanish song performed by a chorus that he directed at Columbia, and gave impromptu piano and guitar recitals of traditional Spanish music at many parties in the city, to great acclaim, according to his own immodest reports to his family.

In one letter to his family, García Lorca writes of a meal taken at a Spanish restaurant with two Spanish performers who, like Federico, were in New York wowing crowds:

Yesterday I ate with two famous Spanish women, La Argentina [the dancer Antonia Mercé Luque], and Lucrecia Bori [the opera singer Lucrecia Borja González de Rianebo] . . . They are both delightful. They invited me and it was just the three of us eating at a small restaurant near the Hudson River.  We drank Anís del Mono, and they were enthusiastic and pleased; but I noticed that we were being served a counterfeit liqueur —‘Anís del Topo’. When I told my hosts at the end of the meal, they made such a scene, I was afraid they were going to assault the owner, who was a very funny and sly gallego.

But not all consumers of things “Spanish” during New York’s Spanish craze were as concerned with authenticity as García Lorca’s friends seem to have been.  Julio Camba is particularly insightful on the thorny question of authenticity in the context of the “Spanish Craze” that gripped New York in the 20s.  As we have seen, Camba interprets the organic diversity of Hispanic cultural forms that live side by side in parts of New York as a kind of miniature version of the once great Spanish empire.   But at the same time, Camba sees in New York another kind of diversity, which is not so much the organic product of lived, historical experience, but rather an inauthentic and ill-conceived potpourri, driven by, and catering to, ignorance and stereotypes.   To make his point, Camba conjures up the image of “one of those [New York] restaurants called Granada, Valencia, Chateau Sevilla, Alcázar, etc . . . :”

Some terra cotta roof tiles at the entrance, inspired by the California missions; a little bit of wrought iron; a calf’s head, not on the menu (where, a la vinagreta, it would be most appealing), but rather on the wall, pretending to be a bull’s head.  Castanets.  Waitresses, supposed to be morenas, are mulatas, just to be sure.  Combs. Mantillas.  Spanish yellow rice; chile con carne, frijoles negros, gallegan broth or caldo gallego, etc. etc.  All with background music from Carmen, performed by a band of blacks dressed up like bullfighters. […] The truth is that for America, Spain will always be a confusing mix of the Inquisition, arroz con pollo, the Catholic Kings, General Sandino, Seville, Antofogasta, Salvador de Madariaga, la Pastora Imperio, bullfights, rhumba, Christopher Columbus and Sir Niceto Alcala Zamora.

In his characteristically humorous and provocative way, Julio Camba, has already mapped out, by 1929, the territory on which Spanish restaurateurs in New York would have to work for the better part of the next century.

At one extreme of this territory, these Spanish restaurateurs can see themselves as heirs to, as well as curators and adaptors of, a set of culinary traditions that, even without going beyond the borders of the Iberian peninsula, are astoundingly diverse.  The fact that many of them came to New York after more or less prolonged stints in other parts of the Spanish-speaking Americas only adds to the potential diversity of their culinary repertoire, as does the existence of a heterogeneous and tight-knit community of potential Hispanic clients in New York from all over the Spanish-speaking world.  These are the conditions that, according to Camba, make for an authentically diverse “Spanish” cuisine in New York.

t the other extreme, Spanish restaurateurs in New York– and enterprising non-Spanish ones too— may be tempted to cater to a vast potential client base of non-Hispanic customers, many of whom often harbor fanciful notions about the geography, history, cultures and cuisines of the Spanish-speaking world.  Camba humorously calls attention to the inauthentic and “confusing mix” that one can find in those “Spanish” restaurants in New York which yield to this temptation, just as he ridicules the notion of a “Spanish craze” in the US:

The owner of one of these places is an American woman of Irish descent, Miss MacDougal, who owns a chain of exotic restaurants in New York, which excuses some of her equivocations, like, for example, having people eat an asturian fabada while listening to the strains of the Bulgarian national anthem.  In general, though, these places are run by Greeks who are in control of the food business.  So, just because a compatriot from Venizelos serves you a Nicaraguan dish in a more or less Californian place in New York, are you going to think that Spain is in fashion in the US?

On September 5, 1929, while both Lorca and Camba were in New York discovering or creating their own “little Spains,” Benito Collada celebrated the grand re-opening of his Spanish restaurant and nightclub, El Chico, in the heart of Greenwich Village.  An immigrant from Avilés, Asturias, Collada had first opened El Chico in 1925 at 245 Sullivan Street. But when the swanky “Shenandoah” tower was inaugurated four years later on the corner of Grove and West 4th Street, Collada moved his club into the ground floor of this new fourteen-story apartment building.    Apparently a colorful and larger-than-life character, Collada had travelled a great deal as a young sailor, having visited the Philippines, Mexico, South America, Puerto Rico and Cuba, before settling in New York.  He was involved in the opening of the Sevilla-Biltmore Hotel in Havana, as well as the Hotel Gloria in Río de Janeiro.  El Chico became something of a museum of Collada’s life, filled with objects and souvenirs that gave rise to legends:  a stuffed parrot that supposedly once belonged to Pancho Villa; a guitar, inscribed to Collada by the legendary Raquel Meller, a bell used to announce the start of the stage show which allegedly had been “salvaged” from a convent during the Spanish Civil War.

One of the most successful and long-lasting Spanish restaurants in New York, El Chico occupies a complex place on the continuum traced by Julio Camba between authentic diversity on one extreme and inauthentic hodgepodge on the other.  The name “El Chico” was originally a reference to the nickname of the last Moorish king of Granada, Boabdil el Chico, and some elements of the original décor were probably meant to evoke Moorish Spain.  But eclecticism— or perhaps Spanish kitsch— is probably the best characterization of the décor, with its mosaic tiles relating the adventures of Don Quixote, its coats of arms celebrating Spain’s different regions, bullfight posters and souvenirs, and, of course, colorful murals of Flamenco dancers (These murals, or at least some of them, have been preserved behind plexiglass panels and can still be seen in the 82 Grove Street location, which is currently occupied by a gay club called the Monster Bar).

Collada also worked as an impresario, booking stage shows with local Hispanic artists as well as with performers he personally recruited from Spain, Argentina, Mexico, and the Caribbean.  His second wife, Rosita Berrios, was a gifted Puerto Rican guitarist and singer who would often perform and serve as MC at the club.

El Chico’s tagline was “As Spanish as Spain,” though this in no way prevented Collada from featuring a wide range of Latin music in his floor shows or from featuring a vast array of dishes on his menus, such as chile con carne or Puerto Rican pasteles, alongside paella valenciana, caldo gallego and other staples of the diverse cuisines of the Iberian peninsula.  The restaurant was frequented, moreover, by a mix of Hispanic and non-Hispanic clients, and many credit Collada and El Chico with helping introduce the Afro-Cuban “rumba” into New York’s musical culture.

El Chico, whose doors stayed open into the 1960s, is just one of at least three Spanish venues in the West Village during this period that were founded by Spaniards more or less for Spaniards, but that eventually managed to “cross over” and enjoy remarkable longevity by attracting a broad non-Hispanic clientele.  The other two were Jai Alai on Bank Street, established in 1917 by the Basque immigrant Valentín Aguirre and remaining open well into the 1970s, and El Faro, on Horatio Street, founded in 1927 by two Galician immigrants, Eduardo Cabaña and Manuel Rivas.   In 1929, Federico García Lorca and Julio Camba, with differing sensibilities and levels of awareness, were witnesses to a unique set of circumstances:  the presence of a sizeable Spanish immigrant community within the city that was part of a much larger and very diverse Hispanic colony, and the fanciful appetite of non-Hispanic New Yorkers for certain “flavors of Spain.”  These conditions helped give rise to an identifiable and peculiarly New York version of Spanish cuisine. Though there still may be some vestiges of New York Spanish cuisine here and there, the recent demise of El Faro pretty much brings to an end this century-long chapter of the fascinating story of Spanish food in the city.