Many Latinos this week will celebrate the birthdays of two founding fathers from the Caribbean: Dominican patriot Juan Pablo Duarte (born January 26, 1813) and Cuban national hero José Martí (born January 28, 1895).
Both independence movement leaders have statues in New York. But very few New Yorkers (and Americans) today know that in the 3.7 miles (roughly) between both statues is a big story linking the United States with Latin America.
New York has always been complicit in overthrowing the Spanish Empire from the Americas. Motivated by political and economic interests, New Yorkers joined the fight against Spain as early as 1806, when approximately 180 volunteers sailed from the Big Apple to Venezuela with the revolutionary leader Francisco de Miranda.
And around the same time, Aaron Burr – former New York politician and third vice president of the United States, whose political career collapsed after he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel – tried to organize an invasion of Mexico.
Other Latin American patriots like Félix Varela, a precursor to Cuban Independence, and then later José Martí, found support in New York to carry on fighting from exile. That is why decades later the same city that backed Latin American independentistas in their fight for freedom would rename one of its Manhattan streets the Avenue of the Americas. But when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia supported the name change as an expression of “love and affection… for our sister republics of Central and South America,” he unintentionally divided the city.
Sixth Avenue officially became the Avenue of the Americas on October 2, 1945. But critics calling for the restoration of the old name described the change as “propaganda.”
According to a New York Times article published one day later, opponents challenged Mayor La Guardia by asking him if the city was ready to change 1,700 subway car markers, 10,000 subway maps, paint new station signs, and force 4,600 firms to add the new name to their addresses on letterheads and telephone books.
This was not the first time the name had been changed. Before 1811, Sixth Avenue was called West Road, evoking the frontier character of early New York. And in a way, the Avenue of the Americas became a new frontier again where the old and new city competed against each other, just like immigrants and New York natives, American revolutionaries and British loyalists, had done generations before fighting to establish and maintain themselves in a place that is always changing.
Opposition escalated again four years after the name change when Mayor William O’Dwyer was asked to confirm whether he supported spending $495,000 for two statues of Latin American founding fathers – Venezuelan general Simón Bolívar and Argentinean general José de San Martín.
“It seems to me that the people are entitled to know whether or not the… administration proposes to waste these capital funds in fantastic, ornate pedestals,” said Oren Root, a candidate for Borough president of Manhattan, the New York Times reported on September 12, 1949.
In spite of this opposition, officials ultimately transformed Sixth Avenue into a “street of nations” that symbolically united the Western Hemisphere. The city adorned 300 lampposts from Canal to 59 Streets with shields representing the countries of Latin America, the United States and Canada. And on the birthdays of Juan Pablo Duarte and José Martí this week, the statues of these Latin American patriots could remind New Yorkers, and Americans, how ideals have the power to elevate and unite people.
“Every human being has within him an ideal man, just as every piece of marble contains in a rough state a statue as beautiful as the one that Praxiteles the Greek made of the god Apollo,” Martí said without knowing that his own equestrian statue would stand in Central Park today as a symbol of virtue.