NEW YORK, NY -- Many Americans know the story of the Borscht Belt or the "Jewish Alps"—the popular resorts in upstate New York's Catskill Mountains where generations of Jewish families came of age between the 1920s and the 1970s. But few Latinos know about the region's Spanish "Villas" where Spaniards, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other Spanish-speaking immigrants escaped from long work weeks in New York City to reconnect with their families and heritage.
From the late 1920s to the early 1980s, these lost hotels were the places where some of our Latino grandparents and parents learned how to swim, found summer love and danced to the most popular Flamenco, Rumba, Swing and Salsa bands. By 1936, there were at least 20 Spanish resorts in the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains.
Sadly, if you want to visit the Spanish hotels today, you will only find closed and abandoned buildings that have become ruins, reclaimed by overgrown weeds, and in some cases vanished completely after being demolished and removed. But New York University professor James Fernandez and Spanish journalist and filmmaker Luis Argeo have made it their mission to recover this immigrant history. Their ongoing film series and investigations about Spanish immigration in the U.S. aim to show how forgotten family stories can reveal important things about Latinos and America. The two will begin filming a documentary on these resorts next year.
Hotels like the Villa García and Villa Rodríguez recalled the names of small villages in Spain, Cuba and Puerto Rico. For multiple generations of Latinos, vacationing and working at these resorts was like going back home. At a time before refrigerators and air conditioners, Villa guests escaped from hot summer days in the city to enjoy fresh country air and fresh foods—eggs, milk, cheese and vegetables, as well as homemade chorizos and morcillas—blood sausages—from hotel smokehouses.
Far from the luxuries of large hotel chains today, many of the Villas had started off as modest farms without running water and electricity. Spanish immigrants like Severino García and Amor Alvarez Canga, owners of the Villa Nueva, bought their “farma” in 1930 to get away from city life. And soon after, other Spanish immigrants visited Villa Nueva to satisfy their nostalgia for the countryside.
Amor García, daughter of the Villa Nueva owners, recalled how her parents charged friends and neighbors from New Jersey $12.75 per week. The rate included 3 meals per day and a room. "It was in 1930 that my father bought the Villa," said García in a Spanish-language interview, "and with pure hard work and two horses he cleaned everything. Little by little it opened because friends were coming from New Jersey, and they started to charge," she said.
This taste for country life, food and music brought many Latin Americans and Spaniards together.
“In 1930s New York,” said Argeo, “you could go from La Coruña to Sevilla, and Buenos Aires to La Habana, in just 3 blocks. This multiculturalism in the Latino community could only happen in a place like Manhattan, but it helped define the way people live together," he explained.
James Fernández said that living in close proximity made it natural for Spaniards, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and other Spanish speakers to frequent the Villas together because they “saw each other as the same.”
One of the most popular villas was the Rifton Hotel, a 118 acre resort where Latino guests stayed at an elegant 80-room grey stucco building with green and white awnings that looked like a casino. The story of the Rifton is also the story of the early Latino community in New York, where Spanish immigrants, like the founders of Goya Foods and Café Bustelo, established restaurants, hotels and neighborhood shops out of necessity to sustain their families and communities.
While the Villas began as resorts for Spaniards, by the 1950s and 1960s guests and visitors were predominantly Puerto Rican. Dance floors had been crucial for the success of the hotels, and when "borícua" (as Puerto Ricans are also called) families arrived, the Villas had become popular venues for live Latin music.
The construction of the New York State Thruway also put the Hudson Valley and Catskills within a day trip's distance from Manhattan. Busloads of Puerto Ricans, Cubans and other Spanish speakers could then reconnect with their roots at an affordable price, and dance to the rhythms of a new music that eventually became known as Salsa.
By the 198Os, the last Spanish Villas closed. Many Latinos had moved to the suburbs, and could get their own taste of country life in their backyards. Cheaper flights also made it easier to return to Puerto Rico, Latin America and Spain. And Latino teens, who grew up after the Golden Age of big bands and live orchestras, preferred city clubs and concerts to listen to music and dance with their friends.
Visiting the Villas today has become an act of archaeology. Both Fernández and Argeo have been combing the site of the Hotel Rifton like forensic scientists, picking up broken coffee cups and dishes. For them, these artifacts are not just relics from a bygone era, but an important and poignant reminder of the vital role Spanish and Latino families played in shaping New York and its surrounding neighborhoods.