García Lorca’s Arrival to New York, by J.D. Fernández

Excerpted from “The Discovery of Spain in New York, circa 1930”  in Edward J. Sullivan (ed.) Nueva York:  1613 – 1945 (New York: Scala, New York Historical Society, 2010)

Federico García Lorca, Self-portrait in New York

From June 1929 to March 1930, the great Spanish poet and playwright, Federico García Lorca, visited New York.  The main tangible legacy of that trip is a book of poems –Poeta en Nueva York–  whose very title seems to name an almost ontological out-of-placeness.  For it would seem that in the capitalist and utilitarian wasteland that is García Lorca’s Nueva York, there is absolutely no room for poets and poetry.  Or, for that matter, Spaniards.

García Lorca’s Nueva York presents a strange, desolate, almost post-apocalyptic landscape, and the singular, lonely, and out-of-place poeta of the title, comes across like a Jeremiah-like denouncer of the violence and emptiness of the fallen city.  In a troubled and troubling representation, García Lorca seems to find the city’s only sign of authentic life in its African-American community: a community with which he, as poet, identifies, and which he aligns with a primitivist jungle-like nature of monkeys and serpents, zebras and crocodiles; a telluric community which somehow seems to predate –and somehow seems to have survived—the apocalypse of numbers and right angles that is modern New York.

To be fair, Poeta en Nueva York is a brilliant work of experimental poetry, not a sociological treatise; it would make little sense to find fault –on ethnographic grounds– with García Lorca’s choice of subject matter or his sources of inspiration. Scholars and biographers have attributed Lorca’s peculiar and dismal view of New York in these poems to a combination of factors, that are personal (he came to New York in flight from a series of profound personal crises), historical (he witnessed the stockmarket crash and the deprivations of the start of the Great Depression), and poetic (in the wake of the extraordinary success of his neo-traditional Romancero gitano, he was searching for a non- romantic and stridently vanguardist poetic voice).  Still, it is striking to realize that what is arguably the best known book written about New York by a Spaniard, a book written precisely at a time when others  (like Bercovici and the unnamed chronicler of the New York Times) were struck by the booming presence of Spaniards and Spanish- speakers in the city, is probably the work that most completely effaces the city’s Hispanic presence.  The naive reader of Poeta en Nueva York might be forgiven for thinking that García Lorca had been the first and only Spaniard ever to step foot in the city, and that the poet’s time in New York was spent in painful and alienated isolation.

Nonetheless, García Lorca’s letters from New York, and the painstaking research of his main biographer, Ian Gibson, allow us to piece together quite another story.  To begin with, when Federico disembarked from the RMS Olympic on June 25, 1929, a group of distinguished Spaniards was there on the docks to greet him.  If we were to trace on an atlas the trajectories that brought these men to the point of standing on that pier, we would see a recognizable if dense web of imperial and post-imperial sojourns, with an already thoroughly Spanish/Hispanic Nueva York as the principal knot.

Among the people on the docks awaiting García Lorca was León Felipe.   Born in the province of Zamora, Spain in 1884, this pharmacist, actor, fugitive, poet and adventurer had travelled to Mexico in the summer of 1923, with the intention of making his way to New York.  While in Mexico, he met Berta Gamboa, who had a job as a Spanish teacher in New York, and was, at the time, vacationing in her native Mexico.  León Felipe would accompany Gamboa back to New York in the Fall of 1923, and soon after the couple would get married in Brooklyn.  Felipe taught at New York’s Berlitz School until he met Professor Federico de Onís of Columbia University, who convinced him to enroll in  graduate school. After completing his studies at Columbia, he would go on to teach at Cornell and to translate Walt Whitman and Waldo Frank.

There too on the White Star Line piers to greet García Lorca was Angel del Río. Born in Soria in 1900, del Río had become a professor of Spanish at Columbia in 1926, after a stint at the University of Puerto Rico, where he had met and married the young Puerto Rican writer, critic and Vassar alumna, Amelia Agostini.  Del Río, a distinguished scholar, would go on to become a respected interpreter of the hispanic world for an “anglo” audience, and vice-versa.  Also forming part of the welcoming committee was an old friend of García Lorca: the printer, graphic designer and painter, Gabriel García Maroto (Ciudad Real, 1889) who had moved to Mexico in 1927 with his Mexican wife, Amelia Narezo. In Mexico, García Maroto became an early critic of Diego Rivera and Mexican muralism, before coming to New York in 1929. In a letter to his family, García Lorca would describe the effusive surprise encounter of these two old friends: “You’ll never guess who was there!  Maroto, who wildly hugged and even kissed me! He’s just arrived from México and is making good money as a painter and graphic designer.”

Also there on the docks at Chelsea Piers to greet Federico García Lorca was José Camprubí, the owner of La Prensa, New York’s most important Spanish-language daily.  Camprubí was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1879, the son of an Spanish engineer who at the time was working for the Spanish colonial government, supervising the construction of the Ponce-Coamo road.  Camprubí was educated at the Jesuit School in Barcelona, the Hotchkiss School, in Connecticut, and Harvard University, where he took a BS in Civil Engineering in 1902. After a series of positions as an engineer in the US and abroad, in 1918 Camprubí purchased La Prensa, at the time a struggling weekly publication.  He converted La Prensa to a daily, and by the time García Lorca would arrive to New York in 1929, the paper was thriving, having become the newspaper of record of the city’s burgeoning Spanish-speaking community.

The head of this unofficial welcoming committee –the knot of the knot—was Federico de Onís.  A descendant of the Onís who oversaw the sale of Florida to the United States, Federico was born near Salamanca in 1885. A disciple of Miguel de Unamuno, de Onís had been tapped in 1916 by Columbia University president Nicholas Butler Murray, (on the advice of  Unamuno via Archer M. Huntington) to head up Columbia’s newly formed Department of Hispanic Studies and the university’s “Spanish Institute in the United States.”  With Europe once again busy devouring itself in the Great War, and with the Panama Canal just recently opened for business, the old Pan-American dream of North-South hemispheric unity had reached an new pitch of intensity in the US.  The result was an unprecedented boom in interest in the Spanish-language, and in the Spanish-speaking world.  High school and college enrollments in Spanish classes skyrocketed.  Although the engine of this boom was the prospect of North/South hemispheric unity, for a complex set of reasons, Spain and Spanish literature and culture would come to occupy a remarkably prominent place in the high school and college Spanish curricula.Spain had produced a young generation of brilliant linguists, historians and philologists who were well positioned to lead the creation and expansion of Spanish Departments in the US.  By 1929, Federico de Onís was at the helm of the flagship enterprise of American Hispanism at Columbia University.

Three Spanish men of culture –Felipe, del Río, and García Maroto—who had traveled to Spanish America, married Spanish American women, and converged on Nueva York in large part because of the opportunities generated by the remarkable Hispanic cultural effervescence that was brewing in that city; the Puerto Rican-born son of a Spanish colonial official who now for over a decade has owned the most important daily newspaper of the city’s Spanish-speaking community; the descendent of a Spanish imperial official who was heading up the establishment and professionalization of  Hispanic Studies in New York, and, in many ways, throughout the United States:  this snapshot of the greeting party that went to the docks to welcome García Lorca to the city offers a rich, if partial view, of Spanish “Nueva York.” As teachers, translators, publishers and/ or interpreters of cultural difference, as Spaniards with extensive experience in Spanish America, these men were perfectly positioned to operate as intermediaries in the Spanish/Hispanic boom in the city.

In many ways, and pace the vox clamantis in deserto pose of Poeta en Nueva York, both Federico García Lorca and the distinguished members of his dockside entourage were both promotors and beneficiaries of the intense Hispanophile climate of 1920s New York.  During his relatively short stay in New York, García Lorca would be able to attend concerts by guitarist Andrés Segovia and pianist José Iturbe; dance performances by La Argentina and Argentinita; lectures by Dámaso Alonso and Ignacio Sánchez Mejías.  Lorca himself, a charismatic and talented musician, gave impromptu piano and guitar performances of traditional Spanish music at many parties in the city, to great acclaim, according to his own immodest reports to his family.

In New York, moreover, García Lorca seemed constantly to “run into” or re- encounter friends he had made in Spain, like the young British stockbroker Colin Hackforth-Jones, or the journalist and Hispanist, Mildred Adams, both of whom García Lorca had befriended in Granada some years before. Adams and her family would become assiduous companions and host to García Lorca in New York; Mildred even threw a party to introduce the Spanish visitor to her American friends, where, García Lorca reports to his parents, “a rather good pianist played music by Albéniz and Falla, and the girls wore mantones de Manila [the bright shawls worn by Andalusian women, particularly flamenco dancers].  In the dining room –Oh, divine surprise!—there were bottles of sherry and Fundador brandy.”  (Federico was no fan of Prohibition.)  Another of García Lorca’s closest New York friends was Henry Herschel Brickell, a literary critic and publisher who had also been to Granada where, according to Ian Gibson, he practically stalked the great composer, Manuel de Falla, hoping to catch a glimpse at the maestro.  Brickell and his wife threw a party for Federico on his Saint’s Day (July 18) and 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.  These are not random run-of-the-mill New Yorkers; they have made the Washington Irving pilgrimage to Granada; they collect Manila shawls and Talavera ceramics; in the midst of Prohibition, they have stashes of Spanish sherry and brandy; they invite or employ musicians to play Spanish contemporary classical music at their soirees. They would seem seem to be the priests of New York’s Spanish craze.

In an oscillation somewhat emblematic of García Lorca’s entire stay in New York, on both Thanksgiving Day and Christmas eve of 1929, the poet would eat dinner among his Spanish hosts at Columbia, and then rush off to dessert and postprandial festivities with his well-to-do American friends, the Brickells.  Of these American friends, García Lorca would write to his parents:  “they are very wealthy and influential, and in their house I’ve met people with high-profiles in art and literature and finance… In their house I have an even better time [than with the Spaniards], because it’s a different society and I feel like a foreigner.”   Now García Lorca was undoubtedly a prodigiously talented, charming and charismatic man, but surely his entree into the drawing rooms of New York had something to do as well with the Spanish craze that gripped the city, and that generated unprecendented interest in, and curiosity about, Spain and Spaniards.  Be this as it may, the fact that in New York this Spanish poet and playwright could, in the space of a few hours, enjoy both domestic intimacy among a sizeable group of compatriots, and the adoring attention of Hispanophile New Yorkers who must have seen him as something of an exotic native informant, tells us a great deal not only about the make-up of García Lorca, but also about the fabric of the city in the late 1920s.

Even during his two summer escapes from the city into  the American “wilderness,” García Lorca never fully left the orbit of Hispanophilia.  He traveled to Eden Mills, Vermont, to visit a young friend he had previously met in Madrid’s Residencia de estudiantes: the budding writer, translator, and teacher of Spanish, Philip Cummings. In Vermont, their primary activity seems to have been the translation into English of García Lorca’s first book of poems.  From there García Lorca traveled to the Catskills, in the mid-Hudson valley, where he visited first Angel del Río and Amelia Agostini, in their rented cabin in Bushnellsville, and later, Federico de Onís, in his house near Newburgh, on the Hudson.  In the farmhouse in Newburgh, García Lorca would help de Onís with the preparation of his vast Antología de la poesía española e hispanoamericana (1883 – 1932), published in 1934.  One of the goals of García Lorca’s parentally sponsored trip to New York was to learn English, and in his letters he frequently updated his parents with exaggerated reports of his progress in that language.  Judging by García Lorca’s itinerary, even in 1929, as now, it was quite possible to live in Spanish, from Vermont to New York.

One Response to García Lorca’s Arrival to New York, by J.D. Fernández

  1. Paco Mazo says:

    My interest in your article was Lorca’s visits with Don Federico DeOnis who was a close friends of our family. Don Federico’s son, also Federico, bought a farm down the road from where we live and joined us every Friday night to watch boxing. Federico was very bohemian, living in a big farm house on the banks of the Wallkill River in the town of Gardiner. The house must have been part of the Underground Railroad as it had in the stone part of the house , a fireplace that filled the wall, narrow longer, and taller than ours that has some depth and is smaller. This house dates back to the 1770’s and I’m sure Federico’s was similar in age. Why I mention the Underground Raiilroad is because above the floor in front of the fireplace there was hanging on the ceiling a ladder that went up into a loft. I can’t say that I ever explored the loft, however, with Sojourner Truth in these parts, I could sense it was a place slaves were hidden. He and my parents both bought land at the same time and since there weren’t many Spaniards in the area, our families spent lots of time together. Frederico raised sheep, taught Spanish somewhere in Jersey, He had the first VW I ever encountered and in the summer, just farmed and let his beard grow.
    Don Federico was like a grandfather to me as I never knew my grandfather who lived in NY however returned to Spain when it was safe. I imagine that the association with the Onis’ may have been through El Club Salmeron that was founded by expats in Park Slope ,Brookllyn, from predominately the region of Almeria, especially the small town of Alhama where Nicolas Salmeron was born. He was the president of the first Republic of Spain, not a politician but scholar. D. Federico taught Spanish there to the children and helped keep the Spanish culture intact to the generation of children that grew up in this country because of the Spanish Civil War. I am one of them. I have a picture of myself, my twin brother , sister and mother in D.Federico’s garden at his home on Gardnertown Road. Also in the picture is Harriett, D. Federico’s wife. I treasure the picture as I imagine it is where Lorca sat and spoke, wrote with D. Federico. Did he write his poems about the Hudson River or did the view from the garden give him inspiration to write. This note is getting long, it’s late yet seeing your article excited me. I was just readingJose Luis Cano’s book on Lorca.There’s more to my story but not being a geek, I don’t know where this is going or if it has any interest to you. Bueno, ha sido un placer para me compartir.
    Paco Mazo
    pmazo48@gmail.com

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