Nueva York, the new exhibit at El Museo del Barrio, explores Gotham's relationship to Latinos and Spanish-speaking countries from 1613 to 1945. It's a fine show that will have you thinking "I didn't know that" soon after you enter and "tell me more" by the time you reach the end of the exhibit.
Most international understandings of New York are oriented on an east-west axis. Alter this to north-south, as historian and curator Mike Wallace observes, and a different perspective emerges. (Full disclosure: I'm a friend of Mike and the exhibit's main curator, Marci Reaven.) In this view of things, New York becomes a center for trade with the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean during the 18th century, a center for Latin American patriots plotting to liberate South America from Spain in the early 19th century, and a home for Latino writers, artists, immigrants and activists by the early twentieth century.
There are many things to be learned from Nueva York, but none more important than how the growth of the imperial United States changed the city's relationship to Latin America. Before the Spanish American War, and the U.S. rise to power in the Caribbean, Gotham was a city where Latin Americans worked to advance their own liberation and economic interests. After the Caribbean became an American lake, New York was more of an imperial city in a hemispheric empire. The relationship between less equal, more lopsided. Thus were some of New York's best traits as a city compromised by its presence in the larger United States of America. But not forever.
As the ending of the show and an afternoon walk around almost any part of New York makes clear, the migration of Spanish-speaking residents of the American empire to New York City since 1945 has transformed the culture and population of Gotham. While the show anticipates these changes, they really call out for an exhibit of their own.
Nueva York, produced in a collaboration with El Museo del Barrio and the New-York Historical Society, is a fine show that deserves a post-1945 sequel. The exhibit is on display at El Museo del Barrio until January 9, 2011.