Living & Eating Comida Criolla in NYC: An invited talk

This past week I had the pleasure to return to one of my alma maters, Florida International University, to share my ongoing research with Hispanic Caribbean cuisines in New York City. I was hosted by Prof. Jorge Duany, Director of the Cuban Research Institute and Professor of Anthropology at FIU. The talk, titled Living and Eating Comida Criolla in New York City, shared results from field interviews I conducted with Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the city. The talk focused on the Cuban experience in NYC, as an opportunity to gather feedback from the Cuban perspective in Miami, FL:

The talk led to a fruitful conversation with the audience. Such conversation got started with a question on the distribution of Hispanic Caribbean restaurants in New York City, an interesting issue I have partly addressed in a previous post. This motivated questions about the cuisine authenticity, in light of the emergence of high-end restaurants, where these cocinas criollas are being reinvented with a higher price tag. Members of the audience also shared memories from their own migration histories, enriching my ongoing analysis of the Cuban American experience.

 

Selling Cuisines: Cuban and Puerto Rican Tables

Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines are born out of movement, merging Spanish, African and Taino influences. Part of my recent fieldwork has looked into how these communities distinguish each other’s foods. When asked directly, New York City Cuban and Puerto Rican interviewees often have a hard time differentiating. Mostly, they talk about the beans –  in name and color. Simply, while Cubans eat frijoles negros (black beans), Puerto Ricans eat habichuelas rojas (red beans). Since first established in the Caribbean, Cuban and Puerto Rican cuisines have continued to move. These movements have created differences, despite these similarities, in how these cuisines have been perceived and consumed in new homes.

A Yelp search for Cuban and Puerto Rican restaurants in New York City yielded a total of 64 restaurants: forty-eight Cuban and only sixteen Puerto Rican. This disparity contrasts to the proportion of Cubans and Puerto Ricans living in the city, as shown below:

Restaurant and population comparison

These differences are nothing new. In the 1940s, the Federal Writers Project New York Panorama of 1939 described the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities as follows,

On Saturday nights, the Puerto Rican section of Harlem is alive with music and merry-making. There are only about 8,000 Cubans in New York, but it is Cuban music that accompanies the dancing everywhere among the Spanish-speaking people- and indeed has invaded New York’s nightlife in general. A number of cafés and cabarets with Cuban atmosphere have appeared during the last few years.

Cubans are mentioned for their cultural influence. Their music  (and not Puerto Rican music) is listened to in the Puerto Rican section of Harlem (today’s Barrio). In contrast, the Puerto Rican community (and its food) was described in a less flattering manner,

…except for the addition of a few vegetables, [the diet] remains much the same as in their native land: a roll and black coffee for breakfast; for the other meals canned tomatoes, white rice, dried fish, and meat about twice a month.

The excerpts from the 1940s guide shows differences in status perceptions between these communities. These differences can be linked to the contrasting situations of these communities back in the Caribbean. While the 1940s found Puerto Rico as one of the poorest islands in the region, Cuba was striving and marketed as an exotic travel destination.

cuba travel

More than half a century later, the situation is not the same. Puerto Rico’s economic situation improved, while Cuba’s deteriorated. Puerto Rican cuisine strove in the island, while Cuba’s continues to be affected by food supply instabilities. Yet, Cuba’s mysticism and allure remains. Cuban restaurants offer much more than rice, beans and meat. They offer a ticket to the “Cuban experience”: the Copacabana, Hemingway’s mojitos, as well as the excitement of Che’s and Fidel’s revolution. In short, the difference in cuisine popularity go beyond just the food – it can serve as a lens to view the different relationships these islands have with the United States as well as each other, and the resulting contrasting symbolic values attached to these cuisines.

*******
Based on the conference presentation, “Food in Movement: Cuban and Puerto Rican migrations through cuisine representation” part of the panel “Piruetas Transnacionales: Preserving Identity through Eating, Learning and Music Making” at the Latin American Studies Association 2016 Annual Meeting.