By Cristina Pérez Jiménez and J. Bret Maney
From popular culture like the hit Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to coffee-table books on the Borscht Belt, the Jewish Catskills rightfully survive in cultural memory as a site of ethnic identity and American belonging. By contrast, almost no attention has been paid to the longstanding Latino inflection of the Catskills region, variously known as the “Spanish Alps” and, later on, the “Puerto Rican Alps.” Rectifying this erasure while also challenging the tendency to make the city the preeminent, even the sole, context for understanding Latino life in the Northeast, The Latino Catskills is a digital project that resituates the rural Catskills region, located 100 miles northwest of New York City, as a generative space of Latino culture and identities.
As the project will document, from the late nineteenth century through the 1970s, the Catskill Mountains were a popular summer destination for countless Spaniards, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and others of Latin American descent. These Latino travelers took day trips (known as giras), or stayed at private dwellings and the many resorts owned or managed by fellow Spanish speakers, such as the historic “Villas Hispanas” in and around Plattekill, New York, which offered affordable accommodations with typical “Latin” amenities, including traditional foods, drink, and musical entertainment, as well as opportunities for leisure and outdoor recreation, all of which helped shape Latino social life and establish the coordinates of what we’ve conceived of too often as exclusively urban identities.
Generously funded by a 2021–2022 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-US Latino Digital Humanities (USLDH) Grant-in-Aid, our project seeks to illuminate this important, if understudied, aspect of New York Latino history by building a digitized archive of significant Latino Catskills sites with associated primary sources and material objects. A mapping interface will allow web visitors to plot their own virtual itineraries through the region and explore a trove of cultural materials, including advertisements, brochures, photographs, audio recordings, and relevant news coverage related to the scores of now-defunct resorts, hotels, restaurants, and villas that served as a summer vacation network for a Latino clientele. At a later stage of development, this digital map will also connect to a series of multimedia-rich, thematic “exhibits” that interpret and tell the stories of these sites, objects, and people, from everyday Latino holidaymakers to luminaries such as the Cuban patriot José Martí, the Mexican writer José Juan Tablada, and musical virtuosi like Tito Puente and El Gran Combo, who enlivened the remarkable summer music scene that boomed in the area during the 1950s and ’60s. The digital map and accompanying exhibits will render visible the historical and spatial extension, as well as the cultural richness, of the Latino Catskills, while also broadening Latino geographies beyond their dominant urbanscapes.
We expect many users of our digital archive will be surprised to discover the longstanding Latino presence in the Catskills. As Bret, who teaches at CUNY, has put it, for far too long the region, associated with the tales of Washington Irving and the painters of the Hudson River School, has been seen as an exclusively “white-coded” space, sharply contrasting with the usual settings of Latino life in New York City’s barrios. The Latino Catskills project undoes this misleading binary by showcasing a long history of Latinos enjoying the region’s rural life—vacationing and celebrating, hiking and picnicking, playing sports and games, swimming and dancing—and thus cultivating a sense of joyful, collective belonging. In this way, the project aims to recover leisure, rest, and recreation as important social components of the Latino experience that enhance and complement dominant narratives of New York Latinidad, which have traditionally focused on the racialized experiences of urban poverty and toil. Latinos have long contributed to the economic and cultural richness of the Catskills. The Latino Catskills project rightfully reclaims the region’s rugged landscape as part of Latinos’ vibrant history and heritage.
Cristina Pérez Jiménez is Assistant Professor of English at Manhattan College where she specializes in U.S. Latinx and Caribbean diasporic studies. Her research on early-twentieth century Latinx New York has appeared in Revista Hispánica Moderna, Latino Studies, Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, and CENTRO Journal: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, among other venues.
J. Bret Maney is an Americanist, digital humanist, and literary translator with appointments as Assistant Professor of English at Lehman College and in the Digital Humanities Program at The CUNY Graduate Center. He is curator of a digital public humanities project, The Literary Bronx, and translator and co-editor (with Pérez Jiménez) of a bilingual scholarly edition of Guillermo Cotto-Thorner’s Manhattan Tropics/Trópico en Manhattan (Arte Público, 2019), which won a 2020 International Latino Book Award for Best Translation.