Filed Under Private Home

José Juan Tablada Bungalow

Literature & the Arts

The Mexican writer José Juan Tablada's house in the Catskills was an expression of his aesthetic vision as well as of his nostalgia for his Mexican homeland. It was here that Tabalada wrote many of his most famous works and indulged his passion for the natural world.

The renowned Mexican writer José Juan Tablada (1871–1945) spent a significant portion of his life in New York State, where he developed a wide-ranging literary career in New York City, publishing journalism, crónicas, short stories, novels, poems, essays, theatrical works, and literary and art criticism. He honed his craft and cultivated his aesthetic vision in the Catskills region, where he regularly spent time at the vacation home that he built in Lake Hill, a hamlet in Ulster County northwest of Kingston. The Nobel Prize-winning Mexican writer Octavio Paz considered Tablada one of the most overlooked and underrated poets of the twentieth century.

Tablada first arrived in New York as a result of the political upheavals leading to and following the Mexican Revolution. A controversial supporter of the dictatorship of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, Tablada was forced into exile after the end of the Porfiriato regime. He arrived in New York City in 1914, where he remained until 1918. As attested by his crónica “Tres artistas mexicanos en Nueva York,” those years were marked by his immersion in the city’s rich artistic environment in the company of other exiled Mexican artists, colleagues, and friends.

The Catskills became an important site for Tablada during his second residency in New York. Having reconciled politically with the Mexican government, Tablada returned to New York from Mexico in 1920, where he lived with his wife, Nina Cabrera, until 1935. In 1920, he opened a short-lived bookstore, La Librería de los Latinos, at 118 East 28th Street, which sold Spanish, Latin American and French literature. When the bookstore closed, Nina Cabrera recalls that one of his debtors, unable to fulfill his obligations, offered instead to transfer the ownership of some land in the bucolic hamlet of Lake Hill. Tablada accepted the deal and immediately began to build a home on the newly acquired property. As Nina describes the plot: 

“El terreno estaba situado en medio de los bosques. Primero tuvimos que limpiar el lugar, donde había toda clase de árboles: arces, ocotes, pinos, oyameles, etc. Después fue necesario reunir piedras para los cimientos, hacerlos, levantar los muros, techar la cabaña. José Juan dirigía la construcción, a la vez que trabajaba en ella junto con dos carpinteros mexicanos.”

Quickly adapting to country life, Tablada and his wife created a home to which they would constantly return in the years to come. The special fondness Tablada had for his Catskills retreat is revealed in a diary entry from July 1923. Explaining that he had escaped the sweltering city, he writes: “Volvi a ver mi bungalow con delicia.” His wife expressed similar sentiments: “Entre los recuerdos que conservo grabados tanto en el corazón como en la mente, figuran los gratísimos de nuestros viajes veraniegos a las montañas de Catskill.”

The still-standing house that Tablada built in the Catskills was a projection of his aesthetics as well as his nostalgia for his Mexican homeland. Built by Mexican carpenters in a Japanese-influenced style, the house had haikus carved on both its front and back doors. Tablada’s separate studio was connected to the main house “por un puente rústico, de estilo japonés, por debajo del cual corría el agua hasta el arroyo.” Painted blue on the outside and whitewashed on the inside, the Tabladas fondly nicknamed their bungalow “hongo azul” and had a large blue mushroom painted on one of the doors, an image also featured in one José Juan's haikus: “Parece la sombrilla / este hongo policromo / de un sapo japonista.” The image was quite apropos, for  while staying in Lake Hill, Tablada hunted for wild mushrooms in the mountains and painted them in rich detail. This hobby became a source for his book Hongos mexicanos comestibles (Micología ecónomica), the first book ever on the subject. He also cultivated corn and aromatic herbs employed in traditional Mexican cuisine, and foraged for wild berries, making his bungalow a veritable source of delicia, or delightful delicacies. Tablada’s poetry reveals a sustained fascination with the natural world, from his youthful interest in insects to his more mature symbolic play with mushrooms, moons, frogs and orchids in his haikus. In the Catskills, outside the metropolis, he could reconnect to this natural world, as well as to scenes and scents of his Mexican motherland, all kindling for his daringly inventive poetic imagination.

The Catskills region offered Tablada a conducive site for work during a prolific period of his career. In July 1923, Tablada wrote to a friend from Lake Hill, explaining “tuve que venirme a las montañas, a 2 horas de Nueva York, para poder trabajar, pues el calor me amenazaba con una crisis del riñón y tengo tan buenas oportunidades para trabajar para México, que tuve que aprovecharlas a toda costa.” The Catskills provided him with a break from the heat and the endless distractions of the city, allowing him to throw himself into his writing. During these years, Tablada wrote journalism, cultural criticism and crónicas for a wide array of English and Spanish-language publications across the country and the hemisphere. He published his second book of haikus in 1922. He also worked on a collection of his numerous New York crónicas under the title La Babilonia de Hierro and a poetry collection titled Intersecciones. In 1928 he published in New York the ingenious poetry collection La Feria with illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias, Matías Santoyo y George Pop Hart. La Feria, like his home in the Catskills, was an irreverent blend of Mexican folklore and Japanese-inflected surrealism. Tablada’s letter and diaries from these years reveal his constant trips to and from the city to the Catskills, especially during the summer and fall months, as he juggled multiple projects and continued to write prolifically.

Beyond a source of inspiration and focus for his work, the Catskills were for Tablada and his wife an important site of relaxation and socialization. In August 1923, Tablada wrote to a friend noting how the Catskills had granted him, as he put it, “el primer descanso en 5 años.” Photographs from the 1920s and early 1930s show a relaxed Tablada hiking and picnicking with Nina and others. The bungalow’s windows, in Nina's recollection, “se abrían a la inmensidad del bosque, que nos traía, aun en los días más calurosos, una deliciosa frescura. Allí gozábamos de aire puro y de paz, bajo el cielo azul.” Upstate, moreover, they developed a community with other Latin American writers and artists who also vacationed in the region. Friends and colleagues from the city would come up to visit them, including figures like Mexican artist and illustrator Miguel Covarrubia and the urban modernist photographer Sherril Schell. In the Catskills and New York City, Tablada served as an unofficial cultural ambassador for Mexican modernist art and culture and was at the center of a circle of Latin American writers and artists.

Images

Bryarcliffe, Summer of 1923
Bryarcliffe, Summer of 1923 "My study in the bungalow. Nena brings me flowers and the dog Jackie follows her. On the left my bedroom, on the divan my Saltillo sarape." Date: 1923
The Tablada Bungalow
The Tablada Bungalow A photograph of the Tablada bungalow as it looks today, shown in a recent AirBnB listing. Date: 2022
Detail from the Interior of the Tablada Bungalow
Detail from the Interior of the Tablada Bungalow As shown in a recent AirBnB listing. Compare Tablada's pen and ink sketch of his study, picturing this stone fireplace, in "Bryarcliffe, Summer of 1923."
Hongos mexicanos comestibles (Micología economica)
Hongos mexicanos comestibles (Micología economica) The cover of his treatise Hongos mexicanos comestibles (Micología económica) inspired in part by his mushroom-gathering jaunts in the Catskills.
José Juan Tablada y Nina Cabrera de Tablada
José Juan Tablada y Nina Cabrera de Tablada Black & white photograph. On the back, there is written the following note in pencil: “My husband /and I up/ in our place/ in Catskill.”
José Juan Tablada y Nina Cabrera de Tablada at home in the Catskills
José Juan Tablada y Nina Cabrera de Tablada at home in the Catskills Black & white photograph. In English, the caption reads "José Juan Tablada and his wife on the stairs of their home in the Catskill Mountains."

Location

Lake Hill, NY 12448 | Private Property

Metadata

Cristina Pérez Jiménez, “José Juan Tablada Bungalow,” Discover the Latino Catskills, accessed June 14, 2024, https://discover.latinocatskills.com/items/show/23.