by Josè Martí
THE LITERARY WORK
An essay written in New York City in January 1891; published (as “Nuestra América”) in the newspapers La Revista iIlustrada (New York City) on January 10, 1981, and El Partido Liberal (Mexico City) on January 30, 1891.
A seminal work of Latin American nationalism, “Our America” argues for the rejection of European and United States cultural values in the forging of racially harmonious and politically stable Latin American nations.
José Martí was born January 28, 1853, in Havana, Cuba, to lower-middle-class Spanish parents. The man who would become known as the “Apostle,” and adored by Cubans of all political persuasions was only 17 when he was convicted of treason and sentenced to six years’ hard labor for agitating for Cuba’s independence from Spain. Marti spent his adult life in exile, most of it in New York City, a situation that he grew to think of as his “cup of poison” (Ronning, p. 8). While in exile, Marti wrote prolifically for Spanish-language Latin American newspapers, mostly about the United States and the necessity of defending and nurturing Latin American culture, and he organized what he hoped would be the revolutionary army that would at last free Cuba. His essay “Our America” speaks not just to Cuba but to the whole region now known as Latin America. The essay strives to create a new commonality among the people of Latin America, to encourage a sense of unity and self-determination in the face of growing U.S. expansionism. (It should be noted that Marti did not use the term “Latin America,” which would become common only in the twentieth century; rather he spoke of the “Americas” and “Our America.” For clarity, this entry employs the twentieth-century term.)
José Martí: biography
José Martí was born in 1853 in Havana to a Spanish father and mother, Mariano Marti and Leonor Pérez. His father had first come to Cuba with the Spanish army and held minor government posts most of his life. In 1865 Marti was enrolled in the Escuela Superior Municipal de Varones, a boys’ school under the direction of Rafael María de Mendive. Mendive, who believed fervently in Cuba’s right to independence from Spain, encouraged the young Martí s growing revolutionary philosophies. Many members of the Cuban population were, in fact, discontented with Spanish rule. The wealthy plantation owners desired more Cuban political control over Cuban economics, and greater representation in Madrid, Spain, in exchange for their extremely high taxes this class of Cubans, however, did not as a whole support open rebellion. That was the agenda of the island’s smaller planters, who generally resented the superior attitude of the Spaniards sent to govern Cuba, the unfair taxation of Cubans, which Paid for Spanish bureaucracies and war ma-chines in Spain and Puerto Rico, and the continuing enslavement of Africans. (There were as many as 367,350 slaves in Cuba in 1860 [Bethell, p. 21].)
On October 10, 1868, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a small sugar planter in Oriente province, freed his slaves and issued the “Grito de Yard” (Cry from Yara), which launched a major Cuban independence and antislavery insurrection that grew to be known as the Ten Years’ War. Spain reacted by tightening its grip; Mendive and his supporters, in turn, became more vocal in their protests. In January 1869 Mendive underwrote the publication of two patriotic journals that Marti produced. Weeks later, Mendive was arrested and deported for his political views; in October of the same year, Marti was sentenced to six years’ hard labor when he was caught in the act of writing a letter critical of Spanish rule. At age 17 he began his sentence. In chains, under a blazing sun, he toiled in a Havana rock quarry not far from his parents’ home. Within six months, his health was permanently destroyed; authorities commuted his sentence from hard labor to exile, and he was deported to Spain in January of 1871.
In Madrid Marti became involved in Spanish revolutionary politics and studied law at the university. Spain itself was in the midst of social upheaval. Advocates of individual and political freedom came to power, but even they did not seriously consider extending such privileges to Cubans. Marti took his cause to newspapers and leaflets, and once wrote a letter to the Spanish prime minister. None of it came to any avail, and Marti left Spain.
From Madrid, he travelled restlessly from France to Mexico, to Cuba (under an assumed name), to Guatemala, and then back to Cuba in 1878. During his prolonged absence, the Ten Years’ war had been waged, at the cost of 50,000 Cuban lives, 208,000 Spanish lives, and $300 million in damage that the Cubans were expected to repay. A “peace” was reached in February 1878, but no Cuban with any nationalist tendencies could live with its terms—which included keeping Cuba under Spanish rule and its slaves in bondage. Marti quickly became a leader of “La Guerra Chiquita” (The Little War), an August 1879 uprising of black and white Cubans, including slaves, against the Spanish. He headed the movement’s central committee in Havana until Spanish authorities found that he was becoming too vocal a critic and deported him once again to Spain. Almost immediately, he returned to the Americas, where he became president of the Cuban Revolutionary Committee in New York City. In New York, he supplemented his activism with a constant stream of writing, largely for Spanish American newspapers, and began organizing the manpower and materials needed for a final, successful Cuban revolution. During this period, he wrote “Our America” and other essays (many on life in the United States) that made him famous throughout the Americas. Marti warned his Latin American readers of rapacious U.S. imperialism, and chastised U.S. politicians and writers for their ignorance and greed concerning Latin America. Always he preached tolerance, justice, and respect. In 1890 both Argentina and Paraguay made him their U.S. Consul, and Uruguay asked him to represent its national interests at the International Monetary Conference, held that year in Washington, D.C.
As of 1891, the year “Our America” was published, Marti began to divest himself of responsibilities not immediately associated with the revolution. He travelled widely through North, South, and Central America, encouraging Cuban exiles and revolutionaries in Cuba itself, drawing together discordant factions, and collecting the money and materials necessary for the planned revolution. In 1894 all seemed finally ready. Marti was practically penniless and quite ill; nonetheless, he travelled to Florida around Christmas to finalize preparations. In mid-January, he and other leaders of the revolution suffered a terrible blow: the U.S. federal government, pressured by the Spanish, seized in Florida three loaded ships, the product of years of work, that were to carry the exiled Cubans to war.
Recovery from such a catastrophe could not have been easy, yet, with what resources they could muster, Marti and his supporters began the insurrection on February 25, 1895, as revolutionaries in Cuba were given the go-ahead to launch simultaneous anti-Spanish actions at sites across the land.
On March 25 Marti and Máximo Gómez, a seasoned Dominican warrior who had long been intimately involved in Cuban revolutionary groups, issued the “Montecristi Manifesto.” This document set out the principles guiding the Cuban insurrectionaries: during the war, peaceful Spaniards would not be harmed, Cuban blacks (absolute emancipation had occurred in 1886) would be welcome compatriots, and private property would be respected in the rural areas. Once the rebellion was complete, the “new Cuba” would enjoy economic prosperity for all and an end to the feudal social structure, in which Cubans labored almost exclusively for the benefit of their Spanish overlords (Simons, p. 159). Marti himself landed on April 11 with his chief military advisors. In the minds of many Cuban nationalist fighters, he was to have been the first president of the free Cuba.
The revolution went badly, however, and was rapidly put down in many areas of the island. Marti died on May 19, riding (some say foolishly) against Spanish soldiers. Although his companions tried to stop them, the Spaniards took his body from the field and buried it in Santiago de Cuba.
The Monroe Doctrine and its aftermath
In 1891, when he wrote “Our America,” Marti could look back upon nearly a century of open U.S. desire to take over the rich but troubled Spanish colony of Cuba and to control trade and politics throughout the Americas.
1808: Thomas Jefferson suggests that the United States would buy Cuba from Spain, if Spain proved unable to maintain its hold on the island.
1823: U.S. President James Monroe asserts what would become known as the “Monroe Doctrine,” signaling U.S. desire to exercise economic and ideological control over the Americas: “The American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers” (Monroe in Foner and Garraty, p. 743).
1848: After winning the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the United States annexes Texas and takes New Mexico and California from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; U.S. President James Polk tentatively offers Spain $100 million for Cuba but is turned down.
1850: U.S. volunteers, especially Southerners anxious to annex Cuba and thus tilt the national scales in favor of slave-owning states, back Cuban revolutionary Narciso López; the attempt fails, U.S. volunteers die or are executed by Spanish authorities, and U.S. citizens speak of war against the Spaniards in Cuba.
1854: U.S. President Franklin Pierce sponsors the Ostend Manifesto, which declares that if Spain refuses to sell Cuba to the U.S., “by every law, human and divine, we shall be justified in wresting it from Spain if we possess the power” (Buchanan et al., in Simons, p. 170).
1857: U.S. President James Buchanan’s inaugural speech includes the following expansionist rhetoric: “[W]e have never acquired any territory except by fair purchase or, as in the case of Texas, by the voluntary determination of a brave, kindred, and independent people… . No nation shall have a right to complain if we shall still further extend our possessions” (Buchanan in Smith, p. 1047).
During the years leading up to the U.S. Civil War, discussions about when and how—rarely whether—to conquer or annex Caribbean and Central American nations were commonplace in U.S. journals and newspapers. Both pro-and anti-slavery factions were eager to extend U.S. territory southward. Even after the 1861-65 Civil War—many years after, in fact—the issue consistently surfaced. Marti responded angrily to one such article, entitled “Do We Want Cuba?” which appeared in the Philadelphia Manufacturer on March 16, 1889, and was reprinted in the New York Evening Post. The article concluded that, no indeed, the U.S. should not take Cuba, despite its riches, because, among other things, Cubans were lazy and effeminate and unworthy of the honor: “The only hope we could possibly have to equip Cuba for the dignity of being one of our United States is to Americanize it totally, covering it with people of our own race” (Philadelphia Manufacturer in Kirk, p. 54). Martí s six-page reply, “Vindication of Cuba,” published in the Evening Post on March 21, 1889, castigates U.S. imperialism and arrogance, and marks a turning point in Marti’s attitude toward the United States. Whereas before he was annoyed by its selfish foreign policy and alarmed by its encroachments into Latin America, in the spring of 1889, “Marti’s frustration with the United States finally exploded” (Kirk, p. 54).
IN THE ENTRAILS OF THE MONSTER
On March 18, 1895—the day before his death—José Martí began a letter to his friend Manuel Mercado, in which he explains that the Cuban revolution that he leads will not only overthrow the Spanish, but, equally importantly, will thwart US. expansion in Latin America, Thus “David” will bring down “Goliath”:
[E]very day now î am in danger of giving my life for my country and my duty (I understand this and I have the courage to fulfill it) to prevent in time—with the independence of Cuba—the United States from spreading throughout the Antilles, and with this added strength falling then on our Latin American countries. All that I have done until today, and all that I will continue to do, is toward this goal. … Our objective is to close off this route, which we are stemming with our blood, preventing the annexation of the nations of our America by the unruly and brutal North which despises them, I lived in the monster and know well its entrails—and my sling is that of David.
(Marti in Kirk, p. 170)
International conferences: 1889-91
In the two years immediately preceding his writing of “Our America,” Marti attended two important international conferences, both of which firmed his resolve to fight U.S. imperialism in Latin America. The first, the inaugural Pan-American Congress, was held in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and—at the invitation of the United States—was attended by representatives from nearly all American nations. The congress was convened to discuss issues such as banking, common currency, and common systems of law, including a tribunal to arbitrate disputes between American nations. Marti was deeply suspicious of this conference’s underlying rationale; he believed that close ties with the United States would not, contrary to U.S. assurances, be beneficial to Latin America nations. Marti wrote a series of five articles on the Congress for the prestigious Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación. In the third of these articles, published on December 19 and 20, he wrote:
For all of Latin America, from independence to the present, there was never any matter that required as much good sense, and vigilance, or that demanded a more minute, thorough examination, than this invitation of the United States… . The invitation is to the other, less powerful nations of Latin America … and its intention is to form a cartel against Europe and the rest of the world. Spanish America was able once to save itself from the tyranny of Spain. Now, after seeing with judicial eyes the antecedents, causes, and purpose of this invitation, it is necessary to say … that the time has arrived for Spanish America to declare her second independence.
(Marti in Kirk, pp. 56-57)
Marti perceived the Pan-American Congress to be a glorified public relations stunt for the United States, by which that country, with its wealth and power, would woo the smaller Latin American nations into its sphere of dominance. In his opinion, to be thus seduced would mean the end of Latin American sovereignty and self-determination.
In 1891 Washington again hosted an international congress, the International Monetary Conference; Marti represented Uruguay. This time, the United States was trying to convince the Latin American nations to accept the premise of “bimetallism,” by which silver would be circulated as money on the same terms as gold. The United States produced more silver than any other nation in the world, and the basic idea seems to have been to encourage Latin America to break off its ties with Europe (which, of course, opposed bimetallism) and trade almost exclusively with the United States. Marti was on two important committees during this conference, at which the United States’s bimetallist project failed.
Cuban community at Key West
José Martí had been a lifelong supporter (and instigator) of Cuban independence. However, he was appalled by the personal aspirations of certain Cuban military leaders, both on the island and in exile, and dedicated himself to the formation of a civil (as opposed to military) egalitarian Cuban state; Marti had removed himself in 1884 from the revolutionary planning of Antonio Maceo and Máximo Gómez because he could not support their preference for military control of Cuba. He incurred much anger and resentment for his action—as leader of the Cuban exiles in New York City, his support was crucial, and there would be no revolution in 1884 because of his resignation from the effort. He spent the next seven years writing and teaching, and planning a revolution based on the principles of democracy, racial equality, and social justice. In 1891, the year in which he wrote “Our America,” he traveled to Florida to speak with the emigré communities there. In Tampa, Florida, where many anti-Spanish, exiled Cuban tobacco workers lived, he and leaders of the Cuban community drafted the “Resoluciones tomadas por la Emigración Cubana de Tampa” (“Resolutions taken by the Cuban Emigrants of Tampa”); two months later, in Key West, Florida, home to the largest Cuban community in the United States (more than 7,000 out of a total of 25,000), these resolutions were solidified as the basic tenets of the Cuban Revolutionary Party. In April 1892 Marti was elected “Delegate” (meaning President) of the Party. The Cubans of Key West were as much responsible for the formation of the Revolutionary Party as was the famous Marti. The city had for years been the eye of the revolutionary storm; its inhabitants were relatively well-off, thanks to the thriving cigar industry, could afford to support revolutionary activities, and included many experienced and influential soldiers. Cuba was physically nearby, and the Florida revolutionaries were in close proximity to other Cuban communities scattered throughout the Caribbean and Central America. In contrast to the Cuban community in New York City, which consisted largely of political refugees from Cuba (especially intellectuals and artists like Marti), Key West Cubans had fled largely for economic reasons; many of them were black or mulatto factory workers and therefore highly receptive to Marti’s focus on class rights and racial equality. The Key West emigré community was the most tightly knit of the major refugee centers, as historians point out (Ronning, p. 23). In the words of a key Cuban military man, Marti chose to establish his revolutionary base there because “the legendary Key was already consecrated by the history of patriotism, as the cradle of our liberties, because all the caudillos (military men) had proclaimed it as the patriotic center of the greatest power” (Figueredo in Ronning, p. 38). Less poetically, in Key West Marti found a community eager to hear his message of hope: the new Cuba would be a brotherhood of dignified workers, joined by love and a common desire to build a nation of racial harmony on sturdy Latin American foundations.
“Our America” begins by ringing an alarm: “What remains of the village in America must rouse itself. These are not times for sleeping in a nightcap, but with weapons for a pillow … weapons of the mind, which conquer all others” (Marti, “Our America,” p. 84). The nations of Latin America (“our” America, as opposed to the United States of America) must unite as brothers against the threat of unidentified invaders, “giants with seven-league boots” (“Our America,” p. 84).
Against this giant, all of Latin America must “go forward in close order, like silver in the veins of the Andes” (“Our America,” p. 85). To do this successfully, Latin Americans must ship back to Europe those born in America who are ashamed of the mother who reared them “because she wears an Indian apron” (“Our America,” p. 85). The first step in guaranteeing sovereignty is to encourage pride in what is indigenous to Latin America, and to create a system of government that grows naturally from the specific history of the place. Foisting the legislative apparatus of U.S. or French systems of government, for example, on Latin American nations can lead only to failure, to economic and political stagnation. “The government must originate in the country. The spirit of the government must be that of the country. Its structure must conform to rules appropriate to the country” (“Our America,” p. 87).
Accordingly, in Latin American nations the Europeanized white elite must give way to “the natural man” (the Indian, the African, the mestizo), who knows how to govern better than anyone the land that produced him. National institutions—governments, universities, the media—must encourage people in the knowledge of what is specifically Latin American: “The European university must bow to the American university. The history of America, from the Incas to the present, must be taught in clear detail and to the letter, even if the Archons of Greece are overlooked… . Nationalist statesmen must replace the foreign statesmen. Let the world be grafted onto our republics; but the trunk must be our own” (“Our America,” p. 88).
Martí proceeds to reflect on the Latin American colonies’ bid to achieve nationhood, mentioning the revolutions in Mexico, Central America, Venezuela, and Argentina, and the bitter and prolonged in-fighting that immediately followed. As Marti’s essay states, “Hate was attempted” (“Our America,” p. 91). The essay alludes to the way in which factions in leading cities fought for power, while in the countryside regional strongmen, like Argentina’s Facundo Quiroga, for example, exercised autocratic rule. The essay also discusses the unsatisfactory aftermath of nationhood across Latin America, when, all too often, “[t]he bookworm redeemers failed to realize that
BARBARITY AND CIVILIZATION
In the early parts of “Our America,“Martí states that the struggle between “the natural man” and “learned, artificial men” is “not between civilization and barbarity, but between false erudition and Nature” (Our America,” p.87). in this statement he is no doubt referring to the ideas of Domingo Sarmiento, an Argentine writer and politician who wrote Facundo (1845; also covered in Latin American Literature and its Times), a sociological examination of what Sarmiento saw as the constant Argentine struggle between civilization and barbarism. To Sarmiento, who was Argentina’s president from 1868 to 1874, civilization was represented by urban culture that allied itself with Europe, barbarism by the rural mestizo and Indian culture*Facundo in part tells the story of a gaucho-outlaw who turned into a politician, Facundo Quiroga, the so-called “tiger of the plains.” It is from this image that Marti draws the image of the tiger of violent opposition that “lurks behind each tree, lying in wait at every turn” (“Our America,” p. 90).
Such strident rhetoric aside, it is important to note that Martí himself was to a large extent involved with the Europeanized elite against which he seems to write in Our America/’ Many of the points that he makes in the essay—from the grin-and-bear-it drinking of sour-tasting wine made from the homegrown bananalike plantain, to the rejection of Greek history in favor of American history—are meant to be read metaphorically. ‘The wine is made from plantain, but even if it turns sour, it is our own wine!” writes Marti (’Our America,” p. 92). Since Chile and Argentina grew grapes at the time, it would have been possible to suggest using them, but the effect would have been less dramatic.
the revolution succeeded because it came from the soul of the nation”; the “soul” the essay refers to is the non-European rural, or natural, population (“Our America,” p. 89). Marti’s writing posits that, to protect the new nations from familiar oppression by new leaders, it is necessary to change the spirit, and not merely the form of the government. Replacing one oppressor with another, home-grown though he be, is not what the Latin American revolutions were about. The predatory tiger, which represents the power-hungry violence lodged most prominently in colonialism, must be killed. The best way to kill that tiger, according to Marti, is to “try love” (“Our America,” p. 91). This solution seems only logical for fledgling Latin American nations that fell into the traps of intra-national struggle when they adopted European or U.S. models of government. They are a people “[exhausted by the senseless struggle … between the city and the country, weary of the impossible rule by rival urban cliques over the natural nation tempestuous or inert by turns (“Our America,” p. 91). Out of this exhaustion comes a kind of brotherhood and a commitment to innovate, to leave behind the tired and useless institutions that led to such an antagonistic state in the first place.
Marti comes now to the moral high point of the essay, exhorting Latin Americans to attend to the needs of the poor and downtrodden, to heal one another’s wounds, and to create a Latin American culture for and by Latin Americans: “Playwrights bring native characters to the stage. Academies discuss practical subjects. … In the Indian respublics, the governors are learning Indian” (“Our America,” p. 92). Having painted a portrait of Latin American nations at peace with themselves and other nations, Marti returns to the issue of danger from without. Latin America must work to counter the “tradition of expansion or the ambitions of some powerful leader” of North America, by which Marti means the United States (“Our America,” p. 93). A Latin America divided, at war, unsettled, is prey; strong and confident, no longer burdened by colonial institutions and divisive political theories, Latin America can “confront and dissuade” the possibility of U.S. aggression (“Our America,” p. 93). Marti insists that “[t]he scorn of our formidable neighbor who does not know us is Our America’s greatest danger… . Through ignorance, it might even come to lay hands on us” (“Our America,” p. 93).
“Our America” closes with an ecstatic vision of peace and unity. Racial hatred is not really possible because souls have no color; in “the justice of Nature,” “man’s universal identity springs forth from triumphant love and the turbulent hunger for life” (“Our America,” p. 94). The project of nation-building, however, encourages acquisitiveness and greed; the United States, “the continent’s fairskinned nation,” is not evil inherently, but does not understand its southern neighbors and therefore thinks it can dominate them unopposed (“Our America,” p. 94). The “immediate unity in the continental spirit” will help solve this problem; indeed, “the hymn is already being sung … from the Rio Grande to the Straits of Magellan” (“Our America,” p. 94).
“Our America” opens with a warning: Latin America must be attentive to dangers that threaten it from the outside. “Giants with seven-league boots,” the essay begins, recalling a pan-European fairytale motif, are on the verge of falling upon the parochial and complacent Latin American people (“Our America,” p. 84). The image of the booted giant or the monster recurs throughout Marti’s work, invariably in reference to the United States of America. Much has been written on the subject of Marti’s anti-U.S. stance (notably by post-revolution Cuban communists). When he first arrived in New York in 1880 Marti was liberal in his praise of U.S. democratic traditions and the morality of the nation’s founding fathers; over time, however, his view soured, thanks mostly to the U.S. “tradition of expansion [and] the ambitions of some powerful leader” (“Our America,” p. 93). His missives to Latin American newspapers and journals regularly warned of the U.S. imperialist designs on Latin America, and grew so vehemently critical of the U.S. domestic and foreign policies that some of those papers edited his work severely or simply refused to publish his articles at all. Marti did not change his opinions, but he did soften his tone. Thus, the warning that opens “Our America” is not of a new danger but of a renewed threat. The U.S. tradition of desiring to dominate or annex Latin American nations continues unbroken, and it is time for those nations to put a decisive end to it. Marti was especially sensitive to the issue because the United States had long dreamed of annexing Cuba, his homeland.
Exactly how Marti felt about the United States is open to debate. Critics on both sides of the political divide have claimed him, arguing that he was openly hostile to the nation or that he was warmly receptive to many of its philosophies. Part of the problem is that Marti occupied both positions at different times in his life, and his political reservations did not necessarily extend to U.S. culture in general; he was a deep admirer of the scholar Ralph Waldo Emerson and the poet Walt Whitman, for example. Certainly
MARTÍ ON RACE
Throughout “Our America,” José Martí emphasizes that there should be no place for racial hatred in the new Latin American nations, or anywhere, for that matter: “Whoever foments and spreads antagonism and hate between races, sins against humanity” (’Our America/’ p. 94). The theme is an old one with Marti. At age nine, he went to live with his father in the small Cuban town of Hanábana and saw something there that profoundly affected him for the rest of his life. Hanábana was surrounded by plantations dependent on the labor of African slaves, and the young boy witnessed the cruel treatment meted out there: “And the blacks? Who has ever seen a friend physically whipped and does not consider himself forever in that man’s debt? I saw it, i saw it when Í was a child, and I can still feel the shame burning on my cheeks” (Marti in Kirk, p. 24). Martí, who is as famous for his poetry as his prose, published a verse collection, Versos Sencillos, in 1891, the same year that ‘Our America” appeared. One of the poems in this volume conjures what he had witnessed at the plantation, and its lasting effect on him:
El viento, fiero, quebraba
Los almacigos copudos Andaba
la hilera, andaba, de los esclavos desnudos.
Rojo, como en el desierto
Salió el sol al horizonte:
V alumbró a un esclavo muerto,
Colgado a un seibo del monte.
Un niño lo vio: tembló
De pasión por los que gimen:
jY, al pie del muerto, juró
Lavar con su vida el crimen!
[The fiery winds were breaking up the bushy plantation trees; and the line of naked slaves was moving, moving …
Scarlet as in the desert, the sun rose in the horizon; it shone upon a dead slave, hanging from a mountain ceiba.
A child saw him and shook with passion for those that suffer. And beneath the dead man he swore to expiate with his life the crime.]
(Marti in Fernández Retamar, p. 4)
Martí was too complex a man to opt wholeheartedly for either a positive or negative attitude. It is worth noting, however, that, in the last piece of writing we have before his death, the letter to his friend Manuel Mercado, he refers to the United States as a “monster,” and declares that he has dedicated his life to ensuring that it does not trample upon Latin America (Marti in Kirk, p. 170).
Sources and literary context
Marti claimed that the most important political influence on him was that of the Venezuelan nationalist Simón Bolívar, whom he called “father of the Americas” (Marti in Fernández Retamar, p. 2). Bolívar was born in 1783 in Caracas and educated in Spain. In Europe, he became acquainted with the Enlightenment (an eighteenth-century European movement that focused on the individual’s power to reason and on a person’s natural rights, including the rights to life and liberty). Bolivar returned to Venezuela and advocated freedom for its people. In 1811, urged by Bolivar as well as others, Venezuela declared its independence, but the Spanish monarchy refused to give up its hold on the land and Bolivar was forced to flee. Although he realized it was unlikely, he was hoping to unite all of Spanish America into a single nation, and travelled widely across South America, urging different Spanish colonies to band together. He failed in his hopes and died young, of tuberculosis, at age 47. Bolivar is famous for having said: “Do not adopt the best system of government, but the one which is most likely to succeed” (Bolivar in Skidmore and Smith, p. 30). Giving an address to the Hispanic American Literary Society in October 1893, Marti said of Bolivar: “He burned with our own desire for freedom; he spoke with the voice of our own natures, his zenith was our continent’s finest hour, his fall strikes at the heart” (Marti, pp. 98-99).
Three years earlier, Marti had written a dramatic piece about his 1881 trip to Venezuela in the children’s journal, La Edad de Oro (which he himself published), demonstrating the depth of Bolivar’s influence on him:
They tell how a traveller arrived one day at Caracas at dusk. Without shaking off the dust of the road, he did not ask where he could eat or sleep, but how he could find the statue of Bolivar… . [He] wept before the statue, that for him seemed to come to life, moving just as a father when his son comes near. The traveller did well, because all the peoples of the Americas must love Bolivar as a father.
(Marti in Fernández Retamar, p. 2)
Martí is Cuba’s most famous political and cultural essayist, but the island produced at least three other important nineteenth-century practitioners of the genre. Félix Várela y Morales (1787-1853), a Catholic priest, was a proponent of Cuban independence in the 1820s. Condemned by the Spanish to death, Father Varela, like José Martí some 50 years later, fled to the United States. Between 1824 and 1826 he published the newspaper El Habanero, a pro-independence journal that was smuggled into Cuba. The other two best-known Cuban essayists are José Antonio Saco (1797-1879), who wrote in support of the abolition of slavery, and José de la Luz y Caballero (1810-62), who lobbied for Cuban independence.
“Our America” has been compared to another landmark essay, “Ariel” (1900), by the Uruguayan writer José Enrique Rodó. Both urge Latin Americans to beware of the United States and to assert their separateness. Rodó’s essay, however, foresees a European-style Latin America, without a mix of contradictory beliefs and lifestyles, while Marti’s asks Latin America to stop perceiving life through the eyeglasses of France or the United States. “Our America” instead advocates acknowledging the region’s distinctiveness; in a highly rhetorical moment in the essay, the European-educated Marti, who himself knew a great deal about ancient Greek civilization and the European tradition that it stands for, writes that it is preferable for Americans to study the Incas, even if that means ignoring classical Greece.
The Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral once wrote in the autograph book of a Cuban girl: “Don’t forget, if you have a brother or son, that the purest man of our Latin race, José Martí, lived in your country. Try to form your little friend in the image of Marti, at the same time a fighter and as pure as an archangel” (Mistral in Kirk, p. 166). Other Latin American writers have joined Mistral in their praise of Marti. For example, Rubén Dario, the Nicaraguan poet, wrote that all Cubans should emulate Marti, and lamented his death as a loss to all Latin Americans: “Oh, Cuba! … [T]he blood of Marti was not yours alone; it belonged to an entire race, to an entire continent; it belonged to the powerful young that loses in him the first of its teachers; he belongs to the future” (Dario in Fernández Retamar, p. 1). Manís writings and public performances greatly influenced generations of Latin Americans; an observer of his Key West speeches noted: “[Marti] continued more and more to fire the patriotic spirit in his oratorical displays, with phrases so touching that the people believed them as an article of faith… . And since all people create their own idol, it was Marti whom they worshipped as the Indians worshipped the sun” (Arnao in Ronning, p. 136).
The modern cult of Marti
After his death at the Battle of Dos Ríos on May 19, 1895, José Martí suffered a period of obscurity for some 25 years. Since that time, however, he has emerged as the most influential symbol of Cuban nationalism for future generations. As one critic states, Marti plays a “sacramental role” in Cuban politics: “Cubans in and outside the island revere Marti as the very spirit of their national identity, and they search in his works, as they would in a sacred text, for the keys that either justify the current revolutionary government or make sense of the reality of exile” (Santi, p. 14). Fidel Castro, the communist dictator, has made it amply clear, both in his speeches and in the official government propaganda that his regime sponsors, that Marti is his hero, his intellectual role model; whether or not this stance is merely politically expedient is not as clear.
As John Kirk points out, the name of Marti is ubiquitous throughout the island. The Havana airport is officially named the Aeropuerto José Martí; the national library is the Biblioteca José Martí; the city’s central square is the Plaza José Martí; Martí’s face appears on postage stamps and on Cuban currency; his portrait hangs in every school; and almost every village has erected some sort of public monument to the man (Kirk, p. 3). In Cuba interpretation of his substantial body of writings—27 volumes—has varied widely through the decades. Marti has served, at various times, as an idol of anti-U.S. sentiment, a confirmed Marxist, and, more recently, as a “democratic revolutionary” (Kirk, p. 16). Outside Cuba the situation is not much different. Exiled Cubans in particular have tended to keep alive the image of Marti that flourished in Cuba before 1959; in this view, Marti was a prophet of peace, harmony, and freedom: a second Christ. Despite volumes of work to the contrary, the Cuban exiles in the United States have sometimes tried to gloss over Martí s anti-U.S. writings. The truth lies somewhere between the two interpretations. What is certain is that Marti’s life and writings have been a battleground of ideology on both sides of the 1959 Revolution, as demonstrated by the following example:
The Marxist regime of Fidel Castro heralds [Marti] as the ideological author of its revolution and accords him a veneration not second to that given the founders of Marxism-Leninism itself, whilst at the other end of the political spectrum, Marti’s name has been appropriated by a Florida radio station set up by the [1980s] Reagan administration to churn out anti-Castro propaganda.
(Turton, p. 1)
Bethell, Leslie, ed. Cuba: A Short History. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Fernández Retamar, Roberto. “The Modernity of Marti.” In José Martí: Revolutionary Democrat. Eds. Chrisopher Abel and Nissa Torrents. Durham, N. C: Duke University Press, 1986.
Foner, Eric, and John A. Garraty, eds. The Reader’s Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Kirk, John M. José Martí, Mentor of the Cuban Nation. Tampa: University Presses of Florida, 1983.
Martí, José. “Our America.” In Our America by José Martí: Wñtings on Latin America and the Struggle for Cuban Independence. Ed. Philip S. Foner. Trans. Elinor Randall, with additional translations by Juan de Onis and Roslyn Held Foner. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.
Ronning, C. Neale. José Martí and the Emigre Colony in Key West: Leadership and State Formation. New York: Praeger, 1990.
Santi, Enrico Mario. “José Martí and the Cuban Revolution.” In José Martí and the Cuban Revolution Retraced. UCLA Latin American Studies. Vol. 62.
Los Angeles: UCLA Latin American Center Publications, 1986.
Simons, Geoff. Cuba: From Conquistador to Castro. London: MacMillan, 1996.
Skidmore, Thomas E., and Peter H. Smith. Modern Latin America. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997
Smith, Page. The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-bellum Years. Vol. 4. New York: Penguin, 1984.
Turton, Peter. José Martí: Architect of Cuba’s Freedom. London: Zed Books, 1986.