Re-Site: historical silencing
Veronica A. Perez
Veronica A. Perez
Thames Street/ Eastern Promenade Trail
This isn’t meant to be pretty or assuage your guilt.
Arms reaching out for help and nothing is there.
Left in its place – hair- a stark reminder of the event.
Evidence of a body.
A photo of a child on a beach in Turkey.
A photo of Mothers and children running away from smoke bombs and gunfire at the Mexican border.
A photo of a pregnant woman in Brazil on the front lines of protests.
Immovable, like the ocean.
The sugar is gone but the hair remains.
The body remains.
The fight remains.
For this piece, I referenced the histories of the trade between Portland and Latin America and the West Indies. The trades that took place between Portland and Latin America and the West Indies in the 1800-1900s were crucial to growth and expansion monetarily and culturally in Maine – molasses, sugar and rum were the goods traded.
During this time, some Latinx folx did make Portland their home, however, it was difficult as they were met with disdain and aversions from the founding community.
From his book, Creating Portland, History and Place in New England, David Carey writes “the historical silencing of Latin American and Caribbean influences in Portland obscures both the local Latino community and an understanding of Portland as a global city.” I additionally learned in this book that there were US border patrol sweeps in the Portland Latino and Somali communities in 2004. After the sweeps, which deported 10 people, Reverend Virginia Maira Rincon says, “You don’t see Latinos. We are invisible. But some don’t want to be visible for two reasons. They are afraid of discrimination and they are here to work and not bother people, so they keep a low profile.” Invisibility silences the contributions that Latinx folx made and continue to make to Portland’s economic, social, and cultural life.
Learning about the importance that Latinx folx played in the growth and expansion of Portland as a global trade port – and subsequently learning about the silencing and treatment of Latinx folx around 1890s and 2000s – the words silencing and invisible came up and out a lot.
For this work, I created 15 sugar sculptures of hands and arms reaching up out of the water where the trades took place. As they deteriorate, it reflects on the quiet silencing that Latinx people suffered through in the 1890s and now.
A note on historical narratives
The histories that ground the Re-Site have been cultivated from primary and secondary sources, accessible with thanks to the on-going efforts of collecting organizations and libraries, community members, and historians. The stories that define people and place shift in the currents that pull our socio-cultural priorities: they ebb and flow. Our knowing is reliant on those who have preserved records and have previously woven those pieces together, but we must always be mindful of the records not archived, the voices obscured and silenced, and the perspectives we have neglected and forgotten. History is happening right now.
Site History: Waterside Wharf
A site along the waterfront of Portland offers a space to examine the early- to mid-nineteenth century relationship between Maine and Cuba, and more broadly with Atlantic trade. In the early- to mid-nineteenth century, Portland surpassed Boston as one of the main ports importing sugar and molasses in the United States. More broadly, Portland’s role in international trade includes the exchange of Maine and New England goods such as lumber, ice, and produce with spices, sugar, and West Indies produce from Cuba and the Caribbean region. The history of the Atlantic trade and Columbian exchange is complex and provides many entry points for examining capitalism, labor and slavery, and its legacy in our city, state, and country. The history of Commercial Street and its creation–built upon old wharves to support the railroad and the connection between waterfront and inland economy–further represents Portland’s history of supporting a working waterfront and interdependence on communities beyond its borders.
Portland and Cuba Trade Relationship
According to the research of scholar David Carey, thanks to the near monopoly that Portland merchants had developed with Cuba, in 1853 the city was importing nearly three times as much sugar and molasses as Boston. Portland’s trade continued to expand and focus on Cuba in the 1850s and 1860s. Between 1856 and 1861 only 17 of the 1,040 lumber cargoes from Portland went to any other place than Cuba, and from 1862 to 1864 about 1,000 vessels a year traveled from Maine ports to Cuba. The Portland Board of Trade Journal claimed, “Portland had the largest trade with the West Indies, of any port on the Atlantic Coast.” Although Portland vessels serviced most of the Caribbean islands, merchants and sea captains developed a special affinity for Cuba. Indeed, the island was Portland’s primary connection to Latin America from the 1820s to the 1860s. Because sales were all but guaranteed, Portland merchants offered “liberal advances” on consignments of merchandise from Cuba. In turn, Cubans increasingly demanded the best of Maine’s lumber as well as boxes and casks for sugar, and hogsheads barrels for molasses.
Portland’s place in the Atlantic world was to a large extent the product of nineteenth-century West India trade, but shortly after the Civil War, Portland’s position as a major port declined. Even though some commerce shifted to South America in the 1880s, the city slowly became more isolated and provincial. Nonetheless, the foundations for cultural, social, and economic exchange had been laid.
Commercial Street is built on filled land and its earliest buildings began going up in 1851, initially in the more restrained Greek Revival style and, later, in the prevailing Italianate style of the third quarter of the nineteenth century. In 2008, it was named one of the ten best streets in the United States by the American Planning Association.
Latinx Community in Portland and Maine
With the prolific trade relationship between Portland and Cuba in the 19th century, there is evidence of Cuban and other Hispanic and Latinx people making Portland their home. Mary Lancaster Tompson (1802-1890) owned a private school in Portland that taught pupils “from the best families in the City” and had a number of Hispanic students enrolled in the 1850s and 1860s. Ernesto Ponce, a Cuban-born entrepreneur established himself in Portland: At age 16, Ernesto Ponce (1844-unknown) learned how to make cigars and eventually opened his own cigar manufacturing business in Cuba. After ten years of success, he moved to Portland and established a cigar manufacturing business on Exchange Street where he sold high quality cigars and pipes. He also acquired land and a hotel on Long Island, then a part of the Portland municipality. Ponce Street in Portland is named for Ernesto Ponce.
According to the latest data available from the Census, 1.8% of Mainers identify as HIspanic or Latinx. From a 2002 study, the greatest number live in Cumberland and York counties; Androscoggin and Cumberland counties have the highest reported proportion of Latinx residents.
American Planning Association. “Commercial Street.” Accessible online: “https://www.planning.org/greatplaces/streets/2008/commercialstreet.htm
Balinger, Roy. The History of Sugar Marketing through 1974. Washington, DC: GPO, 1978. Accessible online: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/40532/aer-382.pdf?v=0
Business Letters Describing the Financial Market in Cuba (J.B. Brown Company), finding aid and digital surrogates of letters. University of Florida Smathers Libraries. Accessible online: http://www.library.ufl.edu/spec/manuscript/guides/cubamarket.htm
Carey, David. “Comunidad Escondida: Latin American Influences on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Portland” in Creating Portland. Edited by Joseph Conforti. Durham, NH: UNH Press, 2005. (Available via local library)
Carey, David, and Atkinson, Robert, eds. Latino Voices in New England. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. (Available via local library)
Maine Historical Society. “Trade and Transport,” exhibition. Maine History Online. Accessible online: https://www.mainememory.net/sitebuilder/site/885/page/1296/display?page=3.
“Portland Waterfront (Old Port) Historic District.” City of Portland, Maine. Accessible online: http://www.portlandmaine.gov/1611/Portland-Waterfront-Old-Port-Historic-Di#:~:text=Commercial%20Street%20is%20built%20on,and%20distinct%20vocabulary%20of%20detail.
Spicer, Ruby and Paul Kuehnert. Health status and needs assessment of Latinos in Maine : final Report. Augusta, ME: Bureau of Health, 2002. Accessible online: https://www1.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/phdata/non-dhp-pdf-doc/health-status-needs-assessment-latinos-2002.pdf
Torres, Andres. Latinos in New England. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006. Excerpt available online: http://tupress.temple.edu/uploads/book/excerpt/1814_ch1.pdf
Veronica Antoinette Perez was born in 1983 in New Jersey. Perez works mostly in the mediums of sculpture and photography. Usually utilizing hair, fake flowers, and kitschy materials in her pieces, Perez creates intense personal moments by means of hybridization, ideals of beauty, nostalgia, while fragility echoes sentiments of a lost identity, and at the same time paralleling contemporary Latinx tensions.
Photo credits: Justin Levesque