Caribeños at the Table: Setting Hispanic Caribbean Tables in New York City

The following excerpt is from “Setting Hispanic Caribbean Tables in New York City” in Melissa Fuster’s Caribeños at the Table: How Migration, Health, and Race Intersect in New York City. People in Hispanic Caribbean communities in the United States present high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases, conditions painfully highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both eaters and dietitians may blame these diseases on the shedding of traditional diets in favor of highly processed foods. Or, conversely, they may blame these on the traditional diets of fatty meat, starchy root vegetables, and rice. Applying a much needed intersectional approach, Fuster shows that nutritionists and eaters often misrepresent, and even racialize or pathologize, a cuisine’s healthfulness or unhealthfulness if they overlook the kinds of economic and racial inequities that exist within the global migration experience. Fuster’s book was also featured on our recent “National Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month” reading list.

Bernardo Vega left the inland Puerto Rican town of Cayey early one morning in 1916. He left for the capital, the port of San Juan, where the steamboat Coamo(named after another inland Puerto Rican town) awaited to take him to a new life in New York City. He arrived along with hundreds of fellow tobacco workers, all dreaming of a new life in the big city and the improved life their families would have back home. The voyage took four days, and Bernardo finally saw the lights of New York City peeking from behind the morning fog. The iconic Statue of Liberty came into view, along with skyscrapers he had seen only on postcards. As he landed in lower Manhattan, “the jaws of the iron dragon” opened for him and his fellow passengers as they entered the immense urban landscape that is New York City (Vega 1994, 23).

Bernardo arrived in a booming city, a melting pot of global food cultures. He settled in a growing Puerto Rican neighborhood alongside East Harlem, bordering the then Italian area. Plantain bunches hung at entrances of local businesses. Viandas and vegetables were readily sold on the sidewalks. Spanish was audible in the streets and the stores (Vega 1994). The smell of arroz con gandules and carne guisada permeated the streets. Bernardo had joined a burgeoning Puerto Rican community, the result of a gradual but steady influx of caribeños before him.

The presence of caribeños in New York City dates to the start of the city itself. Juan Rodríguez, a Dominican mulatto, arrived on Manhattan Island in 1613 aboard a Dutch ship, working as a translator. He stayed behind, becoming the first immigrant (and first person of both African and European heritage) to settle in Manhattan (Stevens-Acevedo, Weterings, and Álvarez Francés 2013). Cubans and Puerto Ricans have been settling in the city in sizable numbers since the nineteenth century. The islands were the last remaining colonies of Spain in the Americas. During the dwindling years of the Spanish empire, Cubans and Puerto Ricans developed close commercial connections with the United States, particularly New York City. Many, like Bernardo, came to work in the tobacco industry. Cubans and Puerto Ricans worked alongside one another in these factories, rolling cigars. 

Many were also linked by the fight for independence from Spain, with New York serving as the headquarters to plan insurgencies in the Caribbean (Baker 2002).

While there was unity in these early years, differences in socioeconomic status were already being applied to Cubans and Puerto Ricans. A significant number of Cubans who arrived in New York City in the mid-nineteenth century were either wealthy merchants coming for business or vacation, or the offspring of wealthy merchants coming to further their education. Cuba had also become a prime tourist destination for Americans, with a thriving culinary scene. These factors combined to create an image of opulence associated with Cuba and its community in the States (Pérez 2018). This stood in sharp contrast with the image associated with Puerto Ricans. While some were from higher socioeconomic strata, most were members of the working class and of mixed racial heritage (Vega 1994), lowering their status compared with Cubans.

The Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898 further solidified the connections between New York and the Caribbean. After Cuba became a sovereign country in 1902, close ties to the United States remained.1 For instance, in the early 1900s, U.S. companies controlled 80 percent of Cuba’s exports and owned most of the sugar and cigarette factories (Cantón Navarro 2000). Puerto Rico, on the other hand, became a territory of the United States in 1898, and the island inhabitants became statutory U.S. citizenship in 1917.2 Puerto Rico became the target for Americanization and intervention. U.S. authorities made concerted efforts to assimilate Puerto Ricans to U.S. values and customs, including shifting education from Spanish to English, spreading Protestantism, and redirecting the island’s foodways toward sugar and tobacco production, while the production of other foods diminished. The situations on the islands in this period of transition created distinct migratory flows in the early twentieth century that became the base of how the communities were perceived (and stereotyped) in later years.

More than a century has passed since caribeños like Bernardo Vega arrived at the shores of New York City looking for a better life. Yet their stories continue to have relevance today, as the same status differentials experienced at the turn of the century persist. The differences are, of course, reflected in how these cocinas caribeñas have traveled and been received in the city. This chapter outlines the distinct trajectories of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans between the Caribbean and New York City. This history serves as a tablecloth in which caribeños set their distinct tables in the city, framing how these comidas caribeñas (and its eaters) are perceived today. How these caribeños gradually built their traditional foodways in New York City provides a lens for understanding their experiences in the city and the resulting socioeconomic and health condition of these communities.

Melissa Fuster is associate professor of public health nutrition at Tulane University.