To read Guillermo Cotto-Thorner’s novel, Manhattan Tropics, is to immerse oneself in the experience of the post-war Puerto Rican migration to New York City. Originally written in 1951, in the author’s native Spanish, Trópico en Manhattan follows the central character, Juan Marcos, as he moves to El Barrio where previous Puerto Rican migrants had settled. The book was in danger of being forgotten altogether, lost in the jumble of history. Thanks to the efforts of a few people who recognized its significance, it is now recovered and discoverable in a bilingual edition published by Arte Público in Spring 2019.
Cristina Pérez Jiménez, assistant professor in the English department at Manhattan College, learned about the original novel from her graduate school literature professor, the late Juan Flores. She became fascinated with the book and its author and told her colleague Bret Maney about it, suggesting it as a translation project. Bret, an assistant professor in the English department at Lehman College, had theretofore translated technical, not literary, texts. But he entered a selection in a translation competition, won the prize, and the rest is (recovered) history. There’s more to the story, of course, which Bret and Cristina share in this episode.
Cristina wrote the compelling and extensively researched introduction, delving into primary sources at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies/Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at Hunter College, and Bret’s skillful translation (including a Neoyorquismos-Inglés-Español glossary) deftly captures the feel of another time. The novel specifically describes and pays homage to the lives of Puerto Ricans moving to New York in the 1940s and 50s, but its prescience and universality are noteworthy. And in addition to the fascinating and lively details of the time and place, the novel also has a captivating and suspenseful plot. The translation and its introduction are pleasurable as well as educational.
Excerpt from Chapter 6 of Manhattan Tropics
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