Relevance of José Martí

Posted by Claudio Iván Remeseira | January 28, 2013, at 1:06 a.m. ET.

"I know how to disapear. But my ideas will not disappear"

Every day, thousands walk past José Martí's larger-than-life statue at Avenue of the Americas and Central Park South, New York City, the same city where Martí (January 18, 1853 - May 19, 1895) spent most of his adult life as a political exile from Spanish-ruled Cuba. Anne Huntington’s sculpture depicts the moment of his death in an absurdly unnecesary skirmish, shortly after disembarking in his beloved island with an invading revolutionary army (a constant of Cuban revolutionaries of every political persuasion throughout history). The sculpture looms large between those of José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar, the two greatest South American Libertadores, overpowering them in dramatic intensity and monumentality.

Yet except among a small number of scholars and a few others, Martí’s significance both as a major figure in Latin American culture and as one of the most perceptive observers of American society of the 19th century remains probably as unnoticed in the United States as it was in his own lifetime. Among those who are familiar with his work, the assessment of his political thought—especially its alleged links with Marxism and the Cuban Revolution—remains a matter of controversy.

In 2002, Esther Allen's translation of Martí’s Selected Writings, published by Penguin, helped to fill that gap and straighten out some of the misunderstandings that still today surround Martí's work. Ms. Allen, currently a professor of Latin American literature at Baruch College and one of most important American contemporary translators of Spanish-language authors, rummaged through the 12,000 pages of Martí’s Collected Works and put together a relevant sample of his essays, letters, diary entries, and poetry. With an introduction by Yale's Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature Roberto González Echevarría, a substantial body of notes, and an up-dated bibliography, this is the most comprehensive edition of Martí’s writings currently available in English.

José Martí devoted his life to one single, passionate purpose: the independence of Cuba. He was poignantly aware, however, of the formidable obstacles that thwarted that goal. Those same forces had set the Caribbean island apart from the revolutionary wave that shook the rest of Latin America in the first decades of the 19th century. Indeed, Cuba was trapped in an international power struggle that exceeded the resources of patriotism.

As González Echevarría points out in his introduction, that situation was anything but new. Ever since the Europeans had arrived in the New World Cuba had played a critical role on the chessboard of international politics. The key to the Caribbean, Cuba provided a platform for the expansion of the Spanish Empire in North and Central America. Havana was a hub that connected the most remote points of that Empire, from Seville to the Philippines, and a permanent target for the British Navy. 

Cuba was also at the center of the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation system that had spread throughout the Caribbean basin and the American South since the 1500s. After the Haitian revolution, Cuba took over as the world's first-ranked provider of sugar. The United States inherited Britain’s role as Spain's hemispheric competitor, and by the end of the 19th century, Cuba was as much an integral part of U.S. economy through American investment in plantations, sugar mills and railroads as it was a political colony of Spain.

"Cuba. The great sugar industry--curring and loading the cane on the plantation of Las Cañas."Engraving by Walter Yeager. It appeared in 'Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper' during 1880 just before the abolition of slavery.

That duality ended with the Spanish-American war, which marked the belated demise of the Spanish Empire and the birth of the United States as a global power. The “Splendid Little War” had, thus, an historical impact that was larger than that of the more bloody Latin American wars of independence. This, as González Echevarría suggests, might have strengthened the feeling of being the center of the world, a sentiment that Cubans may have had since colonial times. Something similar happened when Cuba became instrumental in the power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.


Born in the heyday of nationalism, José Martí was a teenager at the outbreak of the Ten Years War, the island’s first attempt to reach independence (1868-1878). The son of a sergeant in the Spanish Army, he gained access to higher education thanks to the patronage of a wealthy landowner. Martí was certainly an extremely talented and precocious young man. By the age of 16 he had already published his first political essays and released the only issue of his own first newspaper, La Patria Libre (Free Fatherland)

This one-shot publication included his poem Abdala, an allegory of Cuba’s fight for freedom. Quite significantly, the Abdala of the title is a black warrior striving against the invaders of his country, Nubia. Through the skin color of his hero, Martíthe offspring of white Spanish immigrantsexposed the relevance of the race problem in Cuban politics. Since the beginning of the 19th century, Cuban liberals had been denouncing the inextricable relationship between Spanish rule and the institution of slavery. The development of the sugar industry increased the flow of African slaves to Cuba, and by the 1830s, the black population outnumbered the white population of the island.

Very much in the same way as it occurred in the American South, memories of the black revolt in Haiti strengthened the status quo in Cuba. Catholic priest Félix Varela (1787-1853), a precursor of Cuban independence, soon came to the conclusion that the political reforms that he and other liberals claimed for their country could only be achieved if they were accompanied with broad social reforms, especially the end of slavery. Father Varela was forced to exile in the United States (as Martí, he lived for many years in New York, where he became Vicar General of the local Catholic diocese), but his creed influenced a good number of Cuban intellectuals. Among them was Rafael María de Mendive, the director of the Havana Municipal School, where José Martí was a student.

Arrested in 1869 for his revolutionary activities, Martí was sentenced to hard labor in a stone quarry. At that time he suffered a lesion in his groin {that affected him for the rest of his life. After six months he was granted clemency and deported to Spain. Soon after his arrival in New York, he wrote Political Prison in Cuba, a testimony of his own ordeal. In Spain he studied law and philosophy, and participated in the ebullient political life of the country. In 1874, after visiting Paris and other European cities, he embarked for Mexico. It was during a layover on that trip that he visited New York for the first time. 

After failed attempts to settle in Mexico (where he was married), Guatemala and Venezuela, he set up housekeeping in New York in 1881. Except for his political rallies around the country, in South America and in the Caribbean, he remained in New York until 1895, when he left to lead the invasion of Cuba. He had only returned to his homeland once before, right after the end of the Ten Years War, but he was deported once again in 1879.


Politics and literature are inextricably mingled in Martí’s work; yet far from being pamphleteering, his prose ranks among the most dazzling productions of the Spanish language. “He figures securely in the canon of Latin American literature on his own merits as poet, orator, essayist, and chronicler,” says González Echevarría. Besides those essays written in the vein of an op-ed article, such as “Our America”, or “A vindication of Cuba”, or “My race” (whose opening sentence “No man has any special rights because he belongs to one race or another; say ‘man’, and all rights have been stated”, echoes the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States), Martí wrote literary criticism, art reviews, and children literature, not to mention his 3,000 pages of chronicles on the United States. 

Usually considered the link between Romanticism and Modernismo, the movement that renewed Spanish-American letters at the turn of the century, his work had a deep influence in Latin American culture. Through an essay published in 1887 by the Argentine daily La Nación, Martí introduced Walt Whitman to the Spanish-speaking world. Quite predictably, he also admired Ralph Waldo Emerson, on whom he wrote another of his groundbreaking essays.
Cuban workers at a tobacco factory or tabaquería, c. 1900

Following a tradition that harkens back to the Enlightenment, Martí was convinced that both the written and spoken word must be a vehicle for social reform; yet at the same he was fully aware of the demands of literary craftsmanship. It is this balance between moral and artistic concerns that makes his prose unique. His three collections of poems (only two of them were published during his lifetime) are now considered one of the cornerstones of Spanish poetry. Interestingly enough, the word “Cuba” appears only once in those collections.

Most of that work was written in New York City. Back in those days, New York, Tampa and Key West, were the havens of Cuban migration to the United States. The booming tobacco industry provided both the financial aid and the people’s support that Martí needed to carry out his revolutionary plans (a highly inspirational orator, he was loved by the tobacco workers) He earned his living as an occasional diplomat, as a teacher of Spanish, and, above all, as a journalist. 

He was a steady contributor to the most important Latin American papers of his day, and also to some English-speaking publications such as Charles A. Dana’s The Sun. Writing in the dawn of the mass-press era, Martí was instrumental in making the social, political, economic and cultural reality of the United States known to vast audiences throughout Latin America. Indeed, his “North American Scenes” comprises one of the most insightful descriptions of the Unites States ever written by a foreign observer.

Unlike de Tocqueville’s sociological strain or Lord Bryce's analytical disaffection, Martí had the perspective of an ethnographer. He put a magnifying glass over the most highly varied aspects of American life and rendered every detail with minute circumspection. He described the deprivation of the working class and the splendor of high society, as well as the violence of the social struggles and the outbursts of racial hatred of the day. He profiled the most famous public figures, from Thomas Alva Edison to Jesse James and Buffalo Bill. He left behind him a sweeping portrayal of American political institutions, from the intricacies of Election Day to the pomp of a presidential funeral.

Above all, he was a chronicler of New York City, from the inauguration of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty to the account of life in the city's streets, parks, beaches, and slums. He left a vivid document of the multicultural society that was taking shape in the City as a result of the Great Immigration. A contemporary of Joseph Pulitzer, Horace Greeley, Mark Twain and Jacob Riis, Martí developed a style that combined the factual and the poetic, the statistical and the conversational, the compassionate love for a suffering humankind and the celebration of the most banal details of everyday life.

As the planning of the revolutionary war in Cuba became more time-consuming, his contributions to Latin American newspapers came to an end. He was particularly worried by the outcome of the First Pan-American Conference, held in Washington, D.C., between 1889 and 1890. Martí grew deeply disillusioned with the delegates of the Latin American countries to that Conference for their lack of support for the cause of Cuban independence. At the same time, there was an increasing danger of annexation. The US Senate was considering a law that would have authorized President Benjamin Harrison to negotiate with Spain the purchase of the island. (Spain had turned down a similar offer from the US government in 1848). 

This project was fuelled by Secretary of State James Blaine (to whom he dedicated Blaine’s Night, one of the most extraordinary descriptions of American political machinery ever written) and by the Annexionistas Party of Cuba. Those schemes filled him with despair. Martí was convinced that only Cuban independence could prevent the United States “from extending its holds across the Antilles and falling with all the greater force on the lands of our America,” as he wrote to his Mexican friend Manuel Mercado on the eve of Martí’s death.

In the next years, Martí work strenuously to weave the political alliances that would make that independence possible. The task was not easy, considering the strong divisions within the Cuban camp. Martí himself had publicly broke ties in 1884 with the most prestigious military leaders of the Ten Years War, Dominican Máximo Gómez and mulatto hero Antonio Maceo, after a disagreement over the future government of the island. Both men looked down on Martí because of his lack of military experience, and Martí questioned their militarism. 

Fermín Gómez Toro, his son Francisco and Martí. Cayo Hueso, Florida, 1894

Up to the end of his life, Martí remained an ardent believer in liberal democracy and a critic of Latin American caudillos. Even in the midst of his most acerbic invectives against the expansionism of the United States, he never failed to praise its democratic system — even despite the rampant corruption of the age, of which he also made note — and to hold it up as an example to be followed by the Latin American countries. (See, for example, The Cutting Case and The Truth About the United States.)    

All of these efforts led to the foundation, in 1892, of the Cuban Revolutionary Party. Martí was elected chairman of its political board. Finally, in February 1895, an ill-prepared expeditionary corps, under the military leadership of Gómez and Maceo, disembarked on the eastern tip of the island. On May 19, José Martí, the would-be first president of a free Cuba, was killed in a skirmish with the Spanish Army at Dos Ríos. He was 42. 

Just three years later, the United States would step into the conflict. Martí’s worse fears were to a great extent confirmed. The first article of the Treaty of Paris established the independence of Cuba, but the Platt Amendment turned that newly born Republic into a virtual protectorate of Washington. The next two decades were probably the most turbulent period in the relationship between the United States and Latin America.  


Martí’s tragic death kindled the mystical aura that made him known as the Apostle of Cuban Independence. Very much as with his much admired Abraham Lincoln, his memory is shrouded in a Christ-like light. Both Cubans on the island and in exile regard him, with an almost religious piety, as a symbol of the fatherland. Martí certainly nurtured that image with his writings and speeches, where he identifies himself with the history of Cuba, and in his personal life, through a self-sacrificial commitment to his patriotic mission. 

In the end, he embodied the Romantic cult of the national Hero, the gallant warrior that offers his life in the shrine of his country’s freedom. There is some evidence to suggest that he consciously looked for his death, after reaching the conclusion that it was the only means of bringing unity to the divisive Cuban camp. “I know how to disappear,” he wrote to Manuel Mercado the day before he recklessly charged against a Spanish platoon at Dos Ríos.

According to Enrico Mario Santí, director of the Department of Spanish Literature at the University of Kentucky, Martí actually disappeared. Santí’s father, the architect who built the hero’s mausoleum in Santiago de Cuba, told him that due to a defective design of the tomb, the coffin was exposed for years to an underground stream. “When my father discovered this error,” says Santí, “he hurriedly opened the coffin to check the condition of the corpse, only to found that the coffin was empty.” The stream had flushed out Martí’s remains, fusing them forever with the Cuban soil.

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