Esther Allen on José Martí’s “Nueva York” and the Power of Connection
The statue is located in a quiet corner of Central Park, near the Artist’s Gate at 59th Street and Avenue of the Americas. In all of New York City, there remains only this single tribute to José Martí, the Cuban writer and revolutionary who dedicated much of his career in journalism to capturing New York, his Nueva York, and played such a large role in the interconnected network of local news outlets in the late 19th Century that we now refer to as “ethnic media.” What does it mean when a city erases the presence of an integral figure like Martí? What does it mean when all that is left is a modest cast iron copy at the top of Avenue of the Americas?
Esther Allen, translator, professor at CUNY, and biographer of Martí, asks these questions to her students, readers, and New Yorkers alike. When she visited Bennington in March to deliver a lecture on Martí and the world of New York’s local ethnic media in CAPA Symposium for Bennington Translates, one of her central points was that any “biography of José Martí is the biography of a New Yorker.”
In Martí’s time, the late 1800s, the Latin American community in New York was miniscule, about 3,000 people in total; Martí was intensely aware of the marginality of his community and his language, and all of the others around him. At that point, Martí was writing for big name English-language papers (like The New York Sun and The Hour), but he was profoundly conscious not only of the Anglophone press, Allen said, but also of the fact that there were newspapers being published around him in many other languages. “This micro-cosmopolitanism is very real to him,” Allen insisted. “He was fascinated by the Chinese in New York, and with good reason, given that there was an increasing Chinese presence in Cuba.” This was a community that was very much under stress, and Martí observed this through their community newspapers and saw the connection between the different ethnic presses. The fact that Martí saw this connection and included it in his portrait of New York makes him unique.
“So he ends up in New York,” Allen said in her lecture, “stays in New York, and becomes one of the great portraitists of the city, which is a fact that remains peculiarly unknown to the city itself. The city itself is blind to this history.”
Fast forward in time. It’s the Fall of 2001. New York City is mourning, New York City is shocked, New York City is angry. And there is a very clear divide between Us and Them. The political climate of fear and uncertainty seemed to be partly fueled by the lack of connection between local communities and therefore, a disconnect in the greater whole; certain perspectives were neglected, namely that of the Muslim community. In October of that year, the website Voices of NY is founded as a direct response to the tragedy that touched, in some way or another, every community in New York City, as a way to connect the city in the face of chaos, erasure, and voicelessness. The website is still running today, with a readership in over 121 different countries. Stories are published in both their original language and an English translation; in one example, Allen cited a story originally appearing on Korea Daily and published in English on Voices about how the signs in Korean on the subway didn’t make any sense. Of course, the Korean community would’ve known this already. But the story in English on Voices means that readers can either link back to the original Korean source or read it in English, and extend it to other communities. Just one of the many instances of local connectedness facilitated by the network of ethnic media.
Perhaps one Allen’s favorite pieces on Voices of NY, titled “Beyond Words: Translating Indigenous Communities” by Zaira Cortés, illustrates the life-saving quality of translation. In April of 2015, Guatemalan immigrant Francisco Guachiac Ambrocio disappeared. “He was,” Allen told us, “arrested, and they simply couldn’t find him in the system.” The reporter went into the New York prison system, went to Riker’s island and eventually found Ambrocio. They had misspelled his name, so nobody could find him, and he didn’t speak Spanish--he only spoke the indigenous language K’iche. Because he spoke a language that the city was not equipped to deal with, he was essentially lost in the system. He was imprisoned on Riker’s Island for eight months before the journalist found him. Cortés wanted the story to be translated into K’iche as well, but they couldn’t find a translator up to the task. Instead, the piece was translated into Chinese. That way, the story reached an entirely different community than it was meant to. It’s a message that has the potential to save lives no matter the language.
In the months post 9/11, there was a boom in local ethnic media and small journals. In the years since, there has been an explosion. And perhaps now, in the era of a president Who Shall Not Be Named, this is more essential than ever. Where division seems to be the new trend of US government, websites like Voices of NY are its antithesis in the best possible way. We need to be connected. It’s preservation. It’s rebellion. It’s how José Martí would’ve wanted his legacy to live. And it’s much bigger than a bronze statue in Central Park South.
Jesse Osborne '19