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||José Martí (1853-1895)|
Cuban poet, essayist and journalist, who became the symbol of Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain and who promoted better understanding among American nations. "No man has any special right because he belongs to any specific race; just by saying the word man, we have already said all the rights." Martí's three major collections of poems were Ismaelillo (1882), Versos sencillos (1891), and Versos libres, written in the 1880s, but published posthumously in 1913. In his most famous political poem, 'Sueño con claustros de mármol', he takes the reader in his dream world, in which sculptures of dead heroes come alive:
Sueño con claustros de mármol
José Martí was born in Havana, the first son of Valencian
Mariano Martí Navarro, a sergeant in the Spanish
garrison. He obtained a transfer to the colonial police force, and then
went from one job to another. As a young boy, Martí accompanied him on trips to
the countryside and to the villages surrounding Havana. Until he became a political activist, Martí had a close relationship with his father.
During one of
the trips, Martí allegedly saw how a slave ship unloaded men, women and children on
a shore, and a dead slave was hanging from a tree. Later he wrote
about his early sight of brutality in Versos sencillos
(Simple Verses): "A child saw this and shuddered / with passion for
those who groan; he stood below the corpse and swore / to wash the
crime away with his life." (Selected Writings, edited and translated by Esther Allen, 2002, p. 281)
Both of his parents had chosen to live silently under the
colonial rule. Martí's
mother, Leonor Pérez y Cabrera, was born in the Canary Islands; she
always wanted to protect her son and was alarmed when she saw him
reading radical writers. The educational reformer
Rafael María Mendive (1821-1886) persuaded Martí's father to allow him
to study at secondary school. Expressing a profound gratitude to
his teacher, Martí once said that owing to Mendive he had joy and love
in his life.
From 1866 to 1869, Martí attended the Instituto de Havana. Secretly he worked on the underground periodicals El Diablo Cojuelo and La Patria Libre. Abdala (1869), a patriotic fable in verse form which he published in La Patria Libre,
told about a prince from the imaginary land of Nuvia, who dies for his
beliefs. At the age of sixteen Martí was arrested for subversion and
sentenced to six years' hard labor in a chain gang, but through the
intervention of his father, his sentence was commuted, and sent to the
Isla de la Juventud (or Isle of Youth), then known as the Isla de
Later, in 1871, he was exiled to Spain, where he continued his political activism. At the University of Madrid, he studied law, a favorite subject of revolutionaries from Marx and Lenin to Castro, and moved to the University of Saragosa, receiving a degree in law in 1873, and a year later a degree in philosophy and letters. In Spain he published El presidio de Cuba (1871).
Most of his adult life Martí lived in the North and operated in the United States to overthrow the Spaniards from Cuba. Between 1874 and his death, he went to Cuba three times, once under a false name. "The truth is, Fermin, that I no longer live except for my land," he wrote to his friend Fermín Valdés, "but a thousand times I hold back what love for her demands so that it does not seem that I do it out of self-interest or to win renown." Martí moved in 1875 to Mexico, where wrote for Revista Universal. He then taught literature and philosophy at the University of Guatemala and returned to Cuba where he worked in a law office. In 1879 he was again deported to Spain.
I wish to leave the world
Because of his political activities, Martí was unwelcome to many countries. In January 1880 he moved to New York City, where he worked as an editor, journalist or foreign correspondent for several magazines, including the New York Sun, El Partido Liberal, La Opinión Nacional, La Nación, La República, El Economista Americano, and La Opinión Pública. For the next 15 years, New York was his home. Martí also served as consul for Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina, and was a Spanish teacher at Central High School. Martí's most influential collection of poems from his mature period, Versos sencillos, was produced during a particularly difficult period in his life. For years he had lived apart from his wife, Carmen Zayas Bazán, and his son José. The couple separated after Carmen briefly visited New York in 1890. His crisis reflects in the poem 23: "Yo quiero salir del mundo / por la puerta natural: // en un carro de hojas verdes / a morir me han de llevar. // No me pongan en lo oscuro a morir como un traidor: // yo soy bueno, y como bueno / moriré de cara al sol." Since 1880 Martí had been romantically entangled with Carmen Mantilla, the wife of a tobacco merchant, who was widowed in 1885. Carmita's daughter María is the protagonist of several "versos sencillos". Martí was her godfather.
Except for travels, Martí remained in the U.S. until the year of his death. Soon after arriving in New York, he visited Coney Island, which he portrayed as a place "brimming with people, filled with luxurious hotels", but he saw there also "human monsters, extravagant fish, bearded ladies, melancholy dwarfs, and rickety elephants." Martí published the periodical La patria, which followed events in Cuba, and launched a crusade against the brutality and corruption of the Spanish colonizers. In 1894 he founded the Cuban revolutionary Party and tried to lead a company of revolutionaries from the U.S. to the Island. The plan failed but the next year he succeeded in reaching his native country, landing in a remote beach not far from Guantánamo. Martí died in a skirmish at Dos Rios on May 19, 1895; he was shot by a Spanish sniper. A Cuban scout finished him off with a Remington rifle. Martí was buried by Spanish soldiers in Santiago de Cuba.
The popular song Guantanamera is based on Marti's poem, which
was made famous by the composer Joseíto Fernández. His style is still
considered a model of Spanish prose. Martí's collected writings in 73
volumes appeared in 1936-53. The main body of Martí's prose was
journalistic in nature, written for newspapers and
magazines. In articles published all over Latin America, he wrote
about figures such as Buffalo Bill, Jesse James ("gran bandido"), Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Walt Whitman, Mart Twain, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Louisa May Alcott. Especially Emerson, "one of those to whom Nature opens and reveals herself," had a deep influence on his thinking. (José Martí's "Our America": From National to Hemispheric Cultural Studies, edited by Jeffrey Grant Belnap and Raul A. Fernandez, 1998, p. 209)
He also wrote about Henry Highland Garnet, an African-American
abolitionist, whose "eyes evinced honesty, his lips truth, his whole
person respect." (Inside the Monster: Writings on the United States and American Imperialism by José Martí, 1975, p. 69)
Martí always reaffirmed his anti-colonialist and anti-racists beliefs. In the essay 'Nuestra América' (1891) Martí formulated his own pan-Latin-American doctrine. He emphasized the need to come to terms with the continents multi-racial identity and the importance of teaching thoroughly the history of America, from the Incas to the present. During the last fifteen years of his life, Martí sent regular contributions to important Spanish American newspapers. His essays were written in a style, which had a deep influence on the literary prose of every Spanish-speaking nation.
For further reading: José Martí: Cuban Patriot by Richard B. Gray (1962); Introducción a José Martí by Roberto Fernández Retamar (1978); José Martí: Mentor of the Cuban Nation by John M. Kirk (1983); José Marti: Revolutionary Democrat, ed. Christopher Abel and Nissa Torrents (1986); Nuevos asedios al modernismo, ed. Iván A. Schulman (1987); José Martí and the Emigré Colony in Key West by C. Neale Ronning (1990); Relecturas martianas: Narración y nación by Iván A. Schulman (1994); José Martí in the United States: The Florida Experience, ed. Louis A. Pérez (1995); José Martí's "Our America": From National to Hemispheric Cultural Studies, edited by Jeffrey Grant Belnap and Raul A. Fernandez (1998); Jose Martí: An Introduction by Oscar Montero (2004); The Influence of Emerson and Whitman on the Cuban Poet Jose Marti: Themes of Immigration, Colonialism, and Independence by Georg Schwarzmann (2009); José Martí, Cuban Apostle: A Dialogue by Cintio Vitier and Daisaku Ikeda (2013); Syncing the Americas: José Martí and the Shaping of National Identity, edited by Ryan Anthony Spangler and Georg Michael Schwarzmann (2017) - See also: Che Guevara - Other 19th century writers criticizing colonialism: Herman Melville, Multatuli