Martí y Pérez, José Julián (1853–1895)

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Martí y Pérez, José Julián (1853–1895)

José Julián Martí y Pérez (b. 28 January 1853; d. 19 May 1895) is the father of Cuba's independence. Even if he had done nothing for his native land, Martí would have gone down in history as a great literary figure. But besides being a poet, journalist, and orator of genius, Martí was a revolutionary and a politician, the architect and organizer of Cuba's 1895–1898 war against Spanish colonialism. For this reason he is best known as the apostle of Cuba's independence. Cubans today revere his memory and regard his teachings as the living gospel of the fatherland.


Born in Havana of poor Spanish immigrants, Martí was able to go to high school owing to the support of Rafael María Mendive, an enlightened schoolmaster whose influence outweighed all others on his early youth. Martí was still in school when the first Cuban war of independence, the Ten Years' War, broke out in 1868. Like many of his classmates, he embraced the cause of freedom. In January 1869, aged sixteen, he founded his first newspaper, which he appropriately named La Patria Libre (Free Fatherland). Shortly afterward he was arrested and sentenced to six years of hard labor in a rock quarry, merely because he wrote a letter denouncing a pro-Spanish fellow student as an "apostate." After serving only a few months, however, Martí's sentence was commuted to banishment to Spain, where he arrived early in 1871. That same year he published his celebrated essay El presidio político en Cuba, a passionate indictment of conditions in Cuba's prisons.

After this, his first exile (during which he completed his schooling at the universities of Madrid and Saragossa), Martí revisited Cuba only twice before 1895: in 1877 for less than two months, and again from 31 August 1878 to 25 September 1879. Altogether Martí spent twenty-three years away from the land of his birth, during which period he worked as a journalist in Mexico, the United States, and Venezuela, and as a professor in Guatemala. Nevertheless, for the most part he made his home in New York, which was the center of his activities from 1881 until just before his death in 1895.


It was during this period that Martí gained recognition throughout the hemisphere, partly as a chronicler of life in the United States. He was a keen observer of the grandeur and miseries of the nation during the Gilded Age, and he reported what he saw in his columns for the Opinión Nacional of Caracas, La Nación of Buenos Aires, and more than twenty other Spanish American newspapers. In 1884 Martí was famous enough to be appointed vice-consul of Uruguay in New York. By this time he had become one of the forerunners of literary modernism in Spanish with the publication of Ismaelillo (1882), a collection of poems for his only son. In 1889 Martí delighted Spanish-speaking youngsters with his Edad de Oro, a magazine for children written entirely by him, and in 1891 he published his Versos sencillos, which in many ways marks the culmination of his poetic career. Martí's literary output at this point of his life was enormous and included several translations from English, a not very successful novel, and a romantic play. Nowhere is his genius revealed, though, as in the highly personal style of his articles and essays, his mesmerizing speeches, his political documents, and even his private correspondence. His prose is among the best in the Spanish language.


Martí spent many of his years in exile plotting the independence of Cuba, a Herculean task. Not only did he have to hold in check those who favored the autonomy of the island under Spain or who endorsed its annexation to the United States, but he also had to cope with the threat of American expansionism and the authoritarian proclivities of the veteran generals of the Ten Years' War. Martí maintained that in order to avoid these pitfalls, Cuba's struggle for independence would have to be brief (so as to minimize the chances for U.S. intervention) and conducted with "republican method and spirit" (in order to prevent the island from falling prey to a military dictatorship after independence). Somewhere around 1887 he concluded that he would have to assume political leadership if these ends were to be attained. For this purpose, in 1892 Martí formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party, an essentially U.S.-centered organization through which he subsequently channeled his efforts to overthrow Spanish domination in Cuba. For more than three years, he worked untiringly until, by early 1895, he was ready to launch a new and more formidable rebellion on the island. The veteran generals would still be in command of the expeditions to sail from Fernandina, Florida, but they were now under the authority of the party and its leader.

At the last minute, however, U.S. authorities seized the boats and the war materials that Martí had clandestinely procured, and he could only join the fighting that had already started in Cuba on the sufferance of the military leaders. His leadership role declined as a result of the Fernandina fiasco. Once in Cuba, the generals challenged the principle of civil supremacy so dear to him, and he began to think of returning to the United States in order to cope with the threat of military authoritarianism that he had long feared. Thus, he was in a somber mood when he was killed in a skirmish of little consequence. The struggle continued, but his political doctrine had very little influence on subsequent developments. After the war ended, there were very few who thought that his statue should be erected in Havana's Central Park.


Gradually, however, Martí became better known in Cuba. In 1905 the state sponsored a presentation of the first national statue of Martí. When the island was swept by a shock wave of nationalism in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he emerged as the political, moral, and spiritual mentor of a new generation of Cubans. It was at this time that the cult-like Cuban attitude toward Martí and his preachings took on its present form and substance.

Martí was so prolific that it is nearly impossible to offer an adequate insight into his thought. Often what may be considered as representative ideas are offset by completely different or even contradictory ones. For this reason he appears to be ambivalent on many subjects, while in other cases it seems that he simply refused to record an opinion. We look in vain, for example, for a passage stating his political program, the political system he preferred, or his constitutional doctrine.

It is not surprising, therefore, that leftist scholars and politicians should have found a Marxist slant in his writings. But Martí rejected the notion of the class struggle as well as the high level of violence employed by some of the labor leaders of his time. Furthermore, he condemned the idea of entrusting to the state the satisfaction of man's material needs. Therefore, while Martí may have sympathized with Marx's concern for the worker, he certainly was no Marxist.

Martí was not anti-American, nor did he ever intend to make an enemy of the United States, despite his well-known anti-imperialist stance. If anything, his view of the country, which he chose as his haven in exile, was critical, in the strictest sense of the word. He was aware of the sordid facets of life within its boundaries—and denounced them. But Martí also proclaimed his admiration for the dynamism and industry of Americans as well as his esteem for American thinkers and writers and "the wonderful men who framed the constitution of the United States of America." As Martí himself once said, he loved the land of Lincoln as much as he feared the land of Francis Cutting (a nineteenth-century adventurer who once tried to annex northern Mexico to the United States).

Although Martí was a pugnacious nationalist, when he worried about Cutting-like predators he was thinking not only about Cuba, but about Spanish America as well. He envisioned Spanish America as forming, from the Rio Grande to Patagonia, one single, colossal nation, which he called "our America," and which in his view would have a great future, "not as a conquering Rome but as a hospitable nation." Like Simón Bolívar, therefore, he thought in hemispheric terms, and that is no doubt the reason why Rubén Darío, the great Nicaraguan poet, said that he belonged not to Cuba alone, but to "an entire race, an entire continent."

Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, politicians across the political spectrum used the writings and images of Martí to promote their agendas. Fidel Castro, who led Cuban Revolution in the late 1950s, emphasized in his speeches Martí's desire for social and racial equality and labeled Martí a revolutionary. Cuban exiles, who vocally oppose Castro's Communist regime, have cited Martí's writings in their protests. The United States government funds Radio Martí, which critiques the Communist government in its broadcasts to Cuba.

See alsoCuba: The Colonial Era (1492–1898); Cuba, Political Movements, Nineteenth Century; Literature: Spanish America.


Peter Turton, José Martí: Architect of Cuba's Freedom (1986)

Christopher Abel and Nissa Torrents, eds., José Martí: Revolutionary Democrat (1986).

Additional Bibliography

Guerra, Lillian. The Myth of José Martí: Conflicting Nationalisms in Early Twentieth-century Cuba. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Lolo, Eduardo. Después del rayo y del fuego: Acerca de José Martí. Madrid, Spain: Editorial Betania, 2002.

Zanetti, Susana. Legados de José Martí en la crítica latin-oamericana. La Plata, Argentina: Facultad de Human-idades y Ciencias de la Educación, Universidad Nacional de La Plata, 1999.

                                    JosÉ M. HernÁndez

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Martí y Pérez, José Julián (1853–1895)

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