Discovering Catalan America

By Mary Ann Newman


As I think about this article, the voice on WQXR announces “songs by the Catalan composer, Frederic Mompou, as played by his finest interpreter, Gonzalo Soriano, who often accompanied the great Catalan singer, Victoria de los Angeles.” To my surprise, the announcer pronounces Mompou correctly. For years I had cringed on hearing broadcasters, assuming the composer was French, pronounce the name Mom-poo.

This may seem trivial, but it is not. Its significance lies in the lifting of the obscurity that used to surround the origin of the Catalan composer. In this case, the shroud was French; in most others, it is Spanish. Familiarity with Catalan culture is growing day by day. But there are still many aspects of Catalan history in America that are hidden in plain view, and must be uncovered, like pronunciation of the name Mompou.

Take, for example, David Farragut. There are Circles named after him in Washington, D.C., and in Sacramento, California, a Farragut neighborhood in Brooklyn, Farragut naval academies in Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina… David Farragut is the son of Jordi Ferragut i Mesquida, who immigrated to New Orleans from Minorca, via Barcelona, in March 1776, and fought in the American War of Independence. His son, David, after whom all the real estate is named, was the first Admiral of the U.S. Navy. But how many in the U.S. know that this man buried in Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx is the descendent of a nobleman who fought alongside Jaume I the Conqueror?

And so it goes. The Free Company of Volunteers of Catalonia, aka the Miquelets, roved up and down the western coast of North America, from Vancouver to Mexico. Some know the name of Gaspar de Portolà, Governor of California, but what about Pere d’Alberní i Teixidor, who, while building barracks and gun batteries, compiled a glossary of 630 words from the native language of the people of Nootka, in British Columbia, earning their respect and esteem. And what of the 1,400 Minorcans who went from Minorca, under British rule, to Florida, under British rule, in 1777, and left traces of the Catalan language in St. Augustine?

As their generation died out, a new infusion of Catalan ingenuity and energy was arriving. Artur Cuyàs founded and edited the Catalan review, La Llumanera de Nova York, from 1874 to 1881. One of the most significant legacies of Catalan culture took root in the U.S. with Rafael Guastavino, who moved from Valencia to Barcelona at 17, studied engineering, worked for some 20 years, leaving a substantial architectural legacy–the Batlló Factory, the Teatre La Massa in Vilassar–, and moved on to the United States in 1881. In New York, he took the Catalan vault, a traditional Mediterranean building technique, perfected it with 19th century innovations, such as Bessemer steel, and patented it. Guastavino was essential to the institutionalization of North America. Struck by the soaring beauty and practicality of his structures–inflammable in a country where wood construction led to continual fires–no university, municipality or concert hall worth its salt could go without a Guastavino. He and his son built 1000 buildings in the United States, over 230 of them in New York.

Àngel Guimerà’s Maria Rosa was directed by Cecil B. DeMille at the Metropolitan Opera House; the audience would not let Geraldine Farrar leave the stage. Josep Maria Sert left his mark on Rockefeller Center, replacing Diego Rivera’s scandalous homage to Marxism with an allegory of labor more acceptable to David Rockefeller. His nephew, Josep Lluís Sert, exiled after the Spanish Civil War, brought the principles of the GATCPAC to the Harvard School of Design.

Salvador Dalí dreamed the “Dream of Venus” at the 1939 World’s Fair, and established an ongoing tertulia at the St. Regis Hotel. Miró spent periods in New York as well. Less well-known artists, such as Josep Bartolí, illustrated the covers of Holiday magazine, and Xavier Cugat brought the rhythms of Cuba to an American audience that never suspected he was from Girona.

Enric Granados died in transit after a triumphal concert at Woodrow Wilson’s White House. Victoria de los Angeles, Montserrat Caballé, Joan Pons and Josep Carreras all have devoted, even fanatical, audiences. And, eventually, all this art and music give way to gastronomy and Ferran Adrià, whose appearance on the cover of the Sunday Times magazine was a true game-changer.

I will get to the point. Catalans did not immigrate en masse to the United States; there is no “Little Catalonia” as there is a Little Italy or a Chinatown. Catalan-speaking people came, from the Principate, the Balearic Islands, and Valencia, as individuals, or in groups small enough to be integrated. But they came with a creative passion and enterprising spirit to match the energy of the country that received them.

Catalan culture in the U.S. must not be interpreted only as the work of big names; the urban breakthroughs of Barcelona and the role of the city as the capital of the Mediterranean are rising values in the States. The thousands of post-docs and La Caixa scholars who establish lifelong ties with the American science community, play a role alongside scientific leaders such as Joan Massagué and Valentí Fuster.

Many trends contribute to the proper pronunciation of Mompou. Finally Americans are catching on to soccer, and if Messi and Guardiola are not quite household names, Rafael Nadal and Pau Gasol are. The economic crisis has taken Catalan awareness beyond art and food to dollars and cents. The peaceful and joyful September 11 independence demonstration offered a new perspective and Americans are, in general, sympathetic to the Catalan dilemma.

Americans have begun to “see” Catalan culture. But we see it like the blind men see the elephant: each describes only the part he touches. Californians know the missions; soccer fans know Barça; opera fans know Caballé; political junkies know independence. But the big picture escapes us. Perhaps the next step is to write it all down in one place.

Published originally in the In-Transit Magazine (22.3.2013).