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New York turns 400-years-old in silence and with a Latin accent

The biggest city in the United States is, effectively, a pan-Latin city, with deep roots in the Hispanic world. A good part of New York’s identity is based on the strength of a language whose presence is constantly being renewed

New York Cityscape
A view of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City.Alexander Spatari (Getty Images)

It has been 400 years since the founding of what is now New York City, which took place in the spring of 1624. While it would be logical for the anniversary to be a cause for celebration, the truth is that the occasion is almost going unnoticed. One exception, however, is an exhibition titled New York Before New York: The Castello Plan of New Amsterdam. It’s a tiny display that occupies a corner of the lobby in the New York Historical Society, an elegant neo-Roman style building located in front of the west side of Central Park.

The exhibition includes maps, objects and documents of considerable interest. Among the items is a letter in which an administrator from the Dutch West India Company, Pieter Schagen, informs his superiors about how the founding of the city took place. In 1624, the original inhabitants of the area — those belonging to the Lenape tribe — “agreed” to sell Manhattan Island for 60 florins (or 60 two-shilling pieces) to European settlers, the equivalent of $24. Located at the southern tip of the island, the colonized territory was called New Holland, while the inhabited core was called New Amsterdam. In 1664, when the English took possession of Manhattan, the enclave was renamed “New York.”

Three groups made up the original New York City: the settlers of European origin, the Native Americans and the slaves who were forcibly brought from Africa. The commissioner of New York Before New York — Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World, a magnificent chronicle on the history of the Dutch colony — invited the descendants of the Lenape people to write a letter in response to Schagen, 400 years after the deceptive transaction. In the response — which can be seen in the exhibition — today’s Lenape detail four centuries of devastation, disease, forced displacement, oppression, murder, division, suicides and generational trauma. Other documents show the timid beginnings of a long process of emancipation carried out by the colony’s slaves. Not exactly cause for celebration.

But this is how New York was born, beginning the prodigious history of one of the most powerful and influential cities on the planet. A financial, artistic and intellectual center that, even today, has barely lost an iota of strength. Four centuries later, it can be argued that New York City’s vitality and ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural diversity are unparalleled anywhere else in the world, even though there’s never a shortage of those who strive to find comparable urban spaces.

Throughout all those years, there were traumatic moments that had effects that were felt across the rest of the planet, such as the Wall Street crash that gave rise to the Great Depression of 1929, the destruction of the Twin Towers in September 2001, or the global financial crisis of 2008. But despite these and other catastrophes — such as the fires that destroyed large portions of the city at different points in its history — New York always knew how to pick itself up and be reborn from its ashes (literally and figuratively). It has always managed to be at the global forefront. The clearest measure of its centrality on a universal scale is demonstrated by the fact that the U.N. headquarters — the meeting point of all the nations of the world — is located in Manhattan.

One of the things that the Historical Society’s exhibition highlights is that the personality of New York was clearly defined from the moment of its founding. Over the course of 400 years, the city has experienced innumerable changes, but its spirit has always been the same: wild and voracious, individualistic as well as supportive, presided over by the signs of ambition, ruthless competition, tolerance, breadth of vision and diversity. The situation is complex, and addressing it requires paying attention to nuances, or choosing between them. In this sense, the true measure of the diversity that exists in New York takes place at the linguistic level. In Language City — a book published earlier this year — author Ross Perlin notes that more than 700 languages are spoken in New York, many of them in danger of extinction.

When New York was a colony — first ruled by the Dutch, then the British — the presence of Spanish speakers was virtually non-existent. Things changed gradually, at a very slow pace. By 1890, there were a total of 6,000 New Yorkers from different Spanish-speaking countries, including about 1,500 Spaniards. At the beginning of the 20th century, the immigration process began to accelerate, reaching a point where a third of the 8.5 million New Yorkers are now of Latin American origin.

In this context, the power and vitality of the Spanish language plays a fundamental role. It’s difficult — if not impossible — to walk through the different neighborhoods of New York or take the subway without hearing it. In the biggest city in the U.S. — as in the rest of the country — it’s no longer a foreign language.

If the Historical Society’s exhibition is an invitation to look to the past, the reality of the city invites us to look towards the future. And, in a reconfiguration with deep historical roots — due to Latin American immigration, whose waves don’t cease — New York is, in a very marked way, a pan-Latin city. A good part of its identity is based on the strength of a language whose presence is constantly renewed.

Migrants from all over the Spanish-speaking world converge in New York, which has long been creating a new variety of Spanish, resulting from the encounter between so many different ways of speaking the common language. Nowhere else in the Spanish-speaking world does something like this happen. A good part of the phenomenon is also related to the encounter between Spanish and English. And not everything is reduced to the strict scope of the most recent waves of immigration: in the city, there are consolidated Spanish-language media outlets that wield enormous power, as well as relevant cultural entities, including theaters, radio programs and artistic societies of the most diverse nature.

One demographic reality that shouldn’t be ignored is that, by the middle of this century, the United States will be the country with the largest number of Spanish speakers in the world. And the most populous city in the country will continue to be New York, from whose urban landscape the Spanish language will continue to be a character who is impossible to eradicate.

At certain levels, New York operates as the meeting point between all cultures of Hispanic origin. And this isn’t something new, either. It’s important to point out that no entity or political force can change a fact like this.

Translated by Avik Jain Chatlani.

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