A Biography for the Twenty-First Century: José Martí

José Martí

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From The Politics of Letters: José Martí’s Revolutionary Discourse

Thesis for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, University of Toronto, 2006

References to Martí’s work are from Obras completas. 27 vols. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1975

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Beginnings and adolescent prisoner in colonial Cuba

Born in La Habana on January 28, 1853, José Martí—poet, intellectual, journalist, teacher, orator and revolutionary—demonstrated, from his youth, a profound and unswerving commitment to political and cultural emancipation, and justice and dignity for every individual. More than a century after his death on the battlefield in Dos Ríos on May 19, 1895, his contribution to political and cultural development in the Spanish-speaking world remains a legacy that continues to inspire modern-day individuals committed to justice, freedom, creativity, development and progress in human society.

The son of immigrants from Spain (his father was from Valencia and his mother was from Islas Canarias), Martí opposed colonial repression from an early age. He wrote an epic poem, “Abdala,” and a sonnet, “¡10 de octubre!” hailing the fighters for Cuban independence and the outbreak, on that day in 1868, of La Guerra de Diez Años, the first war for Cuban independence.

These works appeared in student publications in 1869 and are early indications of Martí’s literary activism, attesting to his early confidence in his capacity to affect an audience through the power of the printed word. Like the work of his maturity, they are literary pieces oriented towards political action and situated within the specific historical circumstances to which they respond. They are also early evidence of the revolutionary activism that informed the rebellious spirit and creative genius of his emancipatory discourse.

On March 4, 1870, Martí was condemned to six years in prison for a private letter he had written accusing a fellow student of apostasy for having enlisted in the Spanish army. He was seventeen years old. Heavily shackled at the waist and leg, he was forced to labour twelve hours daily at the San Lázaro Quarry, exposed to the broiling sun and the brutality of the guards. Several months in these inhumane conditions caused the lifelong injuries to his eyes and legs that forced his transfer to the prison’s tobacco factory.

Deportation to Spain and activism in exile

Deported to Spain on January 15, 1871, he disembarked in Cádiz on February 1, 1871, and arrived in Madrid by February 16. On March 24, within two months of his arrival in Spain, a Cádiz newspaper, La Soberanía Nacional, published “Castillo,” an article in which Martí describes the suffering endured by a very old prisoner in Cuba. It also appeared on April 12 in La Cuestión Cubana, a Sevilla newspaper.

In Madrid that March, he also published the first of his pamphlets to reach a large public audience, El presidio político en Cuba, a forceful condemnation of Spain’s inhumane treatment of political prisoners in colonial Cuba. This work of intensely poeticized prose provides early evidence of Martí’s profound humanism. It emerges out of his prison experiences but is centred on others, for he transcends his personal suffering to recognize the agony of fellow prisoners, revealing empathy and solidarity with those condemned to the brutality of prison conditions on the island. Inhumane prison conditions and unjust colonial administrators come to represent conditions in Cuba and Spain’s colonial policy.

Notwithstanding his characteristic confidence in the persuasive power of the printed word, Martí, then eighteen years old, certainly would have understood that his Spanish readers constituted a mighty challenge to his rhetorical skills and powers of persuasion. He met this challenge with the eloquence, urgency and moral conviction of one who, having suffered himself and suffered with others, speaks the truth, optimistic that public knowledge of injustice will precipitate the political actions required to end it.

Composed while Martí was still in his teens, the poeticized prose of El presidio político en Cuba, like his adolescent poems, is oriented towards political action. It challenges the traditional limitations of both genre and generation, for it is variously described as a prison memoir or testimony written as a prose poem or in poetic prose in twelve cantos; and although it was produced in Martí’s adolescence, its profound humanism, literary creativity, as well as its focus and purpose—justice for Cubans and the island’s emancipation from Spain—render it essentially coherent with the work of his maturity. It remains one of his most accomplished and important writings.

In addition to the appearance of El presidio político en Cuba and “Castillo” shortly after his arrival in Spain in 1871, in September of that year Martí also entered into an intense polemic on the pages of El Jurado Federal with La Prensa, a Madrid daily that was hostile to the cause of Cuban independence and to Cuban exiles residing in Spain. As one of his biographer’s points out, to appreciate the resonance of the work of ideological dissemination in which Martí excelled, it is sufficient to remember that on November 5, fourteen newspapers in the Spanish capital formed La Liga de la Prensa Española Antifilibustera to confront the activities of the Cuban independence supporters and their sympathizers (Toledo Sande 38). An outstanding feature of this impressive biography is the author’s success in producing a compelling narrative of Martí’s life and times with broad appeal while also offering the academic an informative and systematic critique of the life and work of this exceptional individual.

In November of the following year Martí published El día 27 de Noviembre de 1871, a poetic ode commemorating the first anniversary of the execution of eight medical students in the streets of La Habana; and on February 15, 1873, days after the triumph, on February 11, of the first Spanish Republic, he published La República española ante la Revolución cubana, a pamphlet condemning the double standard of freedom for Spain alongside colonial repression in Cuba. It appeared in Sevilla’s La Cuestión Cubana on April 12. Martí, then twenty years old, forwarded his reasoned defence of Cuban independence directly to the members of the new Republican government.

Confident in his writing and committed to Cuban independence, he seized every opportunity to persuade the Spanish public and their colonialist government towards justice for Cuba, neither overwhelmed nor discouraged by the eminence of public figures or the likelihood of a hostile reception.

In addition to his activism promoting the Cuban cause, Martí also attended the universities of Madrid and Zaragoza, where he read law and philosophy and qualified for bachelor degrees in June 1874. During his first exile in Spain, several events occurred that would have reinforced his conviction that armed insurrection was the only route towards political emancipation in Cuba: in November 1871, the execution of eight medical students in La Habana; in February 1873, the denial, by the short-lived Spanish Republic, of Cuba’s right to independence; and in January 1874, the violent overthrow of the Republican movement.

The exile relocates to Mexico, then Guatemala

His confinement in Spain was lifted in January1875, but he was prohibited from returning to Cuba because the insurrectionists were still at war with Spain. He travelled instead to Mexico, where his family had moved, arriving in the capital by February 10. His career as a journalist and regular contributor to Revista Universal began soon after his arrival, and by the date of his departure from Mexico, December 18, 1876, the pages of this newspaper had recorded ample evidence of his active journalism.

He also contributed articles to El Federalista. Martí’s articles in the Mexican press reflect a keen, informed involvement in the cultural, political, social and economic aspects of Mexico which began to shape his understanding of history and politics in Spanish-speaking America. His active involvement in Mexican life soon earned him a reputation as a respected intellectual, journalist, gifted orator, and advocate for indigenous peoples and workers; however, his dislike for the methods of the Porfiriato regime that had overthrown the Lerdo government eventually affected his willingness to remain in Mexico, a country in which he was an “extranjero.”

He moved to Guatemala after a brief and clandestine visit to Cuba, in January 1877, to help his family resettle there. In Guatemala he was appointed to teach at the Escuela Normal, was later named professor of French, English, Italian and German literatures and philosophy of science at the university, and continued to extend the reputation he had earned as an intellectual, journalist, orator and poet. His love and gratitude for his host country are immortalized in a pamphlet, Guatemala, published by El Siglo XIX in Mexico in 1878: “el pueblo aquél, sincero y generoso, ha dada abrigo al peregrine humilde. Lo hizo maestro, que es hacerlo creador. Me ha tendido la mano y yo la estrecho” (7: 117). [Those sincere and humble people have sheltered the humble traveller. They made him a teacher, which is to make him a creator. They have extended a welcoming hand to me, and I hold it firmly.]

Martí’s writings during this period begin to include references to nuestra América and madre América (4: 98, 105, 111, 174), unifying concepts that suggest his emerging nuestroamericanismo, and which continue to inspire th Americas today. He remained in Guatemala until July 1878, when his principles compelled him to resign his teaching position and, consequently, to leave the country. Perhaps his exit from Mexico after two years and from Guatemala after one year also reflects the restless anxiety of an exile.

Return to Cuba

After more than seven years in exile, Martí returned to Cuba in 1878 following the signing of El Pacto del Zanjón, the treaty that ended La Guerra de Diez Años. He was then twenty-five years old. The war had failed to achieve Cuba’s independence, and the high expectations in many sectors throughout the island that the pact would result in constitutional reforms and genuine improvement in the political and economic conditions in Cuba eventually ended in disillusionment.

The majority of Cubans remained disenfranchised, and Spain’s political and economic control of the colony remained unrelentingly repressive. However, the spirit of independence was still alive on the island, and once again Martí, who could be neither co-opted nor coerced into silence, became actively engaged in building support for the position that armed revolt was still the only route to Cuba’s political and economic emancipation.

He began immediately to work with groups that were organizing the renewal of the independence war, and acquired valuable experience in conspiracy and knowledge of the preparations and planning required for a successful war. Years of honing his gift for oratory in Spain, Mexico and Guatemala had prepared him to make effective use of public speaking opportunities to promote the independence of Cuba, even under the watchful eye of the colonial administrators and their sympathizers.

Cintio Vitier states that those innovative, eloquent speeches in La Habana following the Pacto del Zanjón decisively marked Martí’s appearance on the stage of political oratory and inspired Cubans to discover in him a political and spiritual leader (295). Several of these speeches have been preserved, including one he, an independentista, was invited to deliver on April 26, 1879, at a banquet offered by autonomistas to honour their leader, Adolfo Márquez Sterling, at El Louvre in La Habana (4: 175-79).

Once again, under arrest in colonial Cuba, and move to New York

Martí seized the opportunity to oppose the political direction of the autonomists, declaring that Cuba’s problems required immediate, decisive, concrete and heroic solutions. When the revolt that became known as La Guerra Chiquita erupted on August 24, 1879, the Spanish government reacted swiftly with widespread arrests. Martí was arrested on September 17, and on September 25, once again he was deported to Spain. This time, however, his confinement there was brief and his departure in December somewhat clandestine. He made his way from Spain through Paris to New York, arriving there on January 3, 1880.

Based in New York was the Revolutionary Committee in charge of La Guerra Chiquita, the insurrection that was still raging on the island. Martí served as the committee’s sub-delegate, collaborating with the delegate, Juan Gualberto Gómez, who had organized support for the first war among Cuban exiles in Paris, and with whom Martí had previously collaborated in La Habana, following the disillusionment with El Pacto del Zanjón, in organizing support for the renewal of armed rebellion against Spanish colonialism.

Martí’s address to a meeting of Cuban émigrés at Steck Hall on January 24, 1880, shortly after his arrival in New York, initiated his revolutionary oratory in the United States and marked the beginning of his campaign among Cubans émigrés for support for Cuba’s war of independence. The Committee disbanded in September 1880 when the rebellion failed. However, Martí, who had assumed interim leadership of the committee before the end of La Guerra Chiquita and had emerged as a leader of the independence movement among Cubans in the United States, had learned lessons from the previous wars that he would apply to ensure the success of a new separatist uprising.

Literary creativity and cultural activism while in Caracas

He remained in New York until early 1881, when he left for Caracas. He resumed his career as an educator and taught literature and French grammar at the Colegio Santa María, and literature and oratory at the Colegio Villegas. Although his stay in Venezuela was brief, it is the site of two critical landmarks that represent Martí’s contribution to the cultural history of Latin America.

The first is the publication of La Revista Venezolana, wherein he advanced the emancipatory poetics that is recognized as the first manifesto of Spanish American modernism (Toledo Sande 124). Martí proposes a poetics of affiliation that provides aesthetic criteria for the creation and identification of literary works that are vitally and genuinely Spanish American—feeling over artifice, originality over imitation, and artistic freedom over conventional ideas.

The second is Ismaelillo, the collection of poetry that became the cultural event that initiated modern poetry in Spanish America, for Ismaelillo’s poetic practice is characterized by sincerity, which is expressed through language and poetic conceits inspired by the poet’s personal anguish for his absent son, relocating, as Julio Ramos suggests, the “specifically imaginary” away from the traditional forms and established disciplinary discourses and placing it into a discrete discursive space (45). Ismaelillo was written in Venezuela and published in New York in 1882.

Again, however, Martí’s activism set him at odds with the ruling regime and resulted in his involuntary departure from Venezuela. The head of state, President Guzmán Blanco, expelled him in July 1881. In 1886, in a letter from New York to his friend Manuel Mercado, Martí wrote:

“Pero mis instrumentos de trabajo, que son mi lengua y mi pluma, o habían de quedarse en el mismo encogimiento en que están aqui, o habrían de usarse en pro o en contra de asuntos locales en que no tengo derecho ni voluntad de entrar, y en los que, sin embargo, como ya me sucedió en Guatemala y en Venezuela, ni el silencio me es permitido, porque se juzga, cuando y se tiene cierto nombre y respeto, que es censura al gobierno el silencio decoroso” (1: 91).

[But my working tools, which are my words and my pen would either have remained as constrained as they have been here, or would have had to be used to support or resist local events in which I have not the right nor the will to become involved, and in which, nevertheless, as I experienced in Guatemala and in Venezuela, not even silence have I been permitted, because it is understood, when one has a certain name and is respected, that dignified silence is one way to censure the government.]

El maestro returns to New York

Martí was twenty-eight years old when he returned to New York, where he resided until he left to join the war of independence in Oriente in 1895. Facing difficult economic circumstances following his return to New York, he struggled for several years and worked at tedious commercial jobs to earn a living. It was at least 1887 before his newspaper correspondent work afforded him an adequate income, and even longer before he could dedicate himself entirely to the Cuban cause.

He worked with Rafael Serra, an Afro-Cuban exile, to establish La Liga de Instrucción in January 1890. Organized for the education and advancement of Afro-Cuban exiles, La Liga offered classes and lectures to promote the political and social development of humble exiled workers. Martí’s involvement included community outreach and teaching, a vocation he valued for the opportunity it provided for him “to create”: “Lo hizo maestro, que es hacerlo creador” (7: 117). According to Philip S. Foner, Martí’s weekly lectures inspired patriotic pride in his students at La Liga; a “society for poor people” and a “training school for the revolution,” it was an important development in a revolutionary movement that had to base itself on the poor (p. 17).

As committed as he was to Cuba’s independence, however, Martí’s nationalism transcended the island’s geographic space. In Mexico, Guatemala and Venezuela, his work as a teacher and journalist, and his active involvement in the intellectual and cultural milieu increased his knowledge and influenced his perspective of the political and social realities of Spanish America. His sojourn in those countries and his residence in the United States contributed to his understanding of Spanish-speaking America as nations affiliated through their linguistic, cultural, political and historical commonalities, challenged by similar problems of government, economic development, race and class, and faced with the urgency of resisting the danger of the United States’ territorial expansionism and economic domination.

Nuestra América

Martí’s nuestroamericanismo informs a discourse of affiliation that urges unity among the Spanish-speaking nations of the Western Hemisphere and affirms pride in their national identity while differentiating them from the United States, the other America. His concept of a unifying identity is reflected in his professional work and activities. Uruguay appointed him their consul in New York in 1887, and in 1890 he became consul in New York for Paraguay and Argentina as well as Uruguay’s representative to the American International Monetary Commission, which met between January 7 and April 8, 1891.

Teacher, writer and orator combine purposefully in Martí, “el maestro.” His teaching, writing and oratory reflect his active commitment “to create,” which involved sharing his emancipatory politics and vision of an independent Cuba and an affiliated America. A confident disseminator of ideas from his youth, he demonstrated an early inclination to publicize his views and persuade his audience to participate in their emancipation from colonial rule.

His emancipatory discourse brings the poet’s creativity and aesthetic will together with the political purpose and ethical appeal imposed by the realities of history and the activist’s place in it. It is a discourse of inclusion that recognizes the marginalized sectors and integrates them into the march of human progress. His texts invoke the history of Cuba and the Americas through an emancipatory poetics that combines factual information and poetic expression. Cintio Vitier uses the term imaginización to refer to the rapid, accumulative images and concretized scenes integral to Martí’s concise historical narratives and poeticized prose (307, 309).

Martí’s activism conveys his confidence in the political power of words, not simply to promulgate his vision of nationhood, but to identify common aspirations and generate shared concepts that create and strengthen communities. According to Benedict Anderson, this means to “shape” experience into a “concept” (77) and create an “imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellow-readers” (62) and, we may add, listeners—Cubans and other nuestroamericanos.

In Imagined Communities, Anderson’s argues that journalism has played a critical role in creating the “imagined communities” that contribute to nationalism. When applied to Martí’s discourse, Vitier’s imaginización and Anderson’s “imagined communities” are ideas which represent essential elements of his style and purpose and bring together the emancipatory aesthetic and politics of his praxis.

José Martí, journalist and correspondent

While in the United States, Martí wrote articles for Spanish and English language New York newspapers: La Revista Ilustrada de Nueva York, La América, The Hour and The Sun. He edited and contributed articles to Patria, the publication of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano. He also wrote Versos sencillos and most of the poems of Versos libres as well as poems, stories and articles for four volumes of La edad de oro, a magazine to educate and encourage young readers to experience pride in their Spanish American identity.

In addition, he was a regular contributor to several major newspapers with a readership throughout the Spanish-speaking world: Caracas’s La Opinión Nacional, Mexico’s El Partido Liberal and Buenos Aires’s La Nación. Ramón Becali suggests that most of Martí’s writings were produced through journalistic militancy—“militancia periodística” (49). He states:

“Martí inquieto, rebelde, en trasiego constante, encuentra en su rol de corresponsal el cargo ideal para sus fines revolucionarios” (15)

[Martí, restless, rebellious, constantly on the move, finds in working as a correspondent to be idéal for his revolutionary goals].

Similarly, in Colonialism and Culture, Iris M. Zavala, who positions early Latin American modernism and modernists as agents of social and cultural change, situates Martí within the “liberationist imaginary” of modernism’s “anti-colonial narrative.”

For Becali, Martí’s work as correspondent reflects the character and principles that define his intellectual activism:

“capacidad de observación, aprensión visoauditiva, rebeldía, sinceridad y precision en sus testimonios, inteligencia verbal, adaptabilidad interpersonal, amor inquebrantable por la justicia y vocación infinita por el bien común” (28).

[keen observation, auditory and visual perception, sincerity and précision in his testimony, verbal intelligence, interpersonal adaptability, unbreakable love for justice, and infinite dedication to the good of all].

Journalism was an integral part of Martí’s political activism. More than a means of providing a livelihood and like teaching, it provided opportunities for him to create a knowledgeable and vigilant reading public, to share his vision, and to inform and inspire his audience throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Resistance and emancipation are thematic currents in his articles.

In his essay, “Nuestra América,” Martí’s writes: “Los pueblos han de tener una picota para quien les azuza a odios inútiles; y otra para quien no les dice a tiempo la verdad . . . . Pensar es servir” (6 : 22). [The people should have a pillory for those who foment useless hate and another for those who don’t tell the truth in time. . . .To think is to serve.]

Martí exhorts his readers to value and defend the political, economic and cultural independence of the Spanish-speaking countries of America. He urges them to have pride in their identities, govern in the interests of their people, develop in harmony with their autochthonous elements, maintain their integrity, protect their sovereignty, and safeguard their independence from external aggression. He informs and influences them on a wide range of subjects of cultural, political and historical significance.

He addresses topics ranging from philosophy, art and literature to politics, history and economics, always conveying an enthusiasm for creativity, a passion for justice and a keen awareness of the historical circumstances that occasioned each instance of writing. His wide-ranging writings on the United States provide readers in the Spanish-speaking world with biographical sketches of outstanding personalities, depictions of scenes and cities, descriptions of cultural events and new technologies, analyses of politics and racial inequalities, reports on the conflicts between capital and labour, and warnings against the menace of United States imperialism.

Many of his writings, including those that chronicle the nature and effect of modernization on people and institutions in the United States, convey the nuestroamericanismo through which Martí emphasizes affiliation and the importance of preserving the culture, values, uniqueness and independence of nuestra América. For example, in Divergent Modernities, Ramos’s reading of Escenas norteamericanas emphasizes them as “the context in which Martí elaborates his Latinoamericanista thought—the discourse on us that culminates in ‘Our America’ and Versos sencillos”.

The articles published by Argentina’s La Nación, occasioned by the Pan-American Congress that convened in various sessions from October 2, 1889, to April 19, 1890, are urgent calls for Spanish America to assert its independence. This vigilance found its ultimate expression in Martí’s essay, “Nuestra América,” published in New York and Mexico in 1891.

Familiarity with José Martí’s life and work inspires admiration for his creative genius and extraordinary capacity for work. His participation in cultural and political organizations, his newspaper articles that chronicle society and events in the United States, his critiques of the nation that his prophetic eye perceived as the emerging imperialist hegemon in the region, and his activities in defense of nuestra América’s uniqueness and its quest for independence all offer evidence of his unrelenting political activism.

José Martí, revolutionary and orator

An unwavering supporter of Cuban independence who recognized armed resistance as a radical but necessary solution to colonial repression, he was always among those individuals and groups that worked actively to heighten the spirit of revolution and to organize, mobilize and support armed rebellion against the colonial regime. His independentista oratory, an important part of his literary and political legacy, played a key role in his revolutionary activism among the Cuban communities in the United States.

His speech to Cuban émigrés in New York’s Steck Hall in January 1880 was the occasion to rally their support for La Guerra Chiquita, the new revolt that had erupted in August 1879 and was raging on the island. In portraying the rebellion as a new phase in the continuing war to secure an honourable peace and Cuba’s independence, he invokes the heroism and sacrifices characteristic of the Guerra de Diez Años, interweaving references to the current insurrection to convey a continuing narrative of Cuba’s epic struggle for independence that unites dead martyrs and living insurgents in one heroic revolutionary movement. He reflects on “aquella década magnífica” [that magnificent decade] and the disappointing nature of the negotiated peace that ended it, reminds his audience of the support and contribution made by humble Cubans to the revolution, and conveys optimism that the lessons from the past would engender the ideological preparedness, military organization and unified support required for a successful war.

His disposition for analysis and reflection had, perhaps, enabled him to already foresee that La Guerra Chiquita was not fated to succeed. After it ended in 1880 and other efforts by exiled Cubans and military leaders of the independence wars to reorganize support for another armed insurrection were also unsuccessful, Martí’s revolutionary work focused on building support among migrant Cuban workers in New York and the active, larger Cuban communities in Key West and Tampa for a new independence war.

As the movement strengthened, his work as leader, organizer, writer and orator intensified. His speeches to the tobacco workers in Florida in November and December of 1891—“Con todos y para el bien de todos” [With All and for the Good of All] (November 26, 1891, in Tampa), “Los nuevos pinos” [The New Pines] (November 27, 1891, in Tampa), and “Las águilas y las palomas” [The Eagles and the Doves] (December 25, 1891, in Key West)—are masterpieces of revolutionary oratory. They played an important role in heightening the workers’ spirit of revolution, garnering their support for a new revolutionary party, and building material support for a new independence war.

After approval by all immigrant centers of its bases and estatutos, the Partido Revolucionario Cubano was formed under Martí’s political leadership on January 5, 1892. Significant changes distinguished it from previous attempts to organize external support for Cuban insurgency: its orientation acknowledged the interests and involvement of all races and classes in the independence struggle, and the organization of its leadership took control of the revolution out of the hands of the military generals and rich landowners and placed it in civilian hands more representative of the popular support for the revolution.

Martí discontinued his newspaper correspondent work to devote himself entirely to the Cuban independence cause, working successfully to broaden and strengthen support for the revolutionary forces both outside Cuba and on the island, where Juan Gualberto Gómez became responsible for coordinating political activities within the island on behalf of the revolutionary party. Martí’s unwavering commitment to the cause of Cuban independence and his unrelenting political activity culminated in his martyrdom, at the early age of forty-two, on the battlefield in Dos Ríos, on May 19, 1895, three months after the outbreak of the war for Cuban independence in Oriente on February 24.

In an unfinished letter to his Mexican friend, Manuel Mercado, dated the eve of his death, May 18, 1895, Martí wrote:

“. . . ya estoy todos los días en peligro de dar mi vida por mi país y por mi deber . . . de impedir a tiempo con la independencia de Cuba que se extiendan por las Antillas los Estados Unidos y caigan, con esa fuerza más, sobre nuestras tierras de América. Cuanto hice hasta hoy, y haré, es para eso” (20: 161).

[“. . .already each day I’m in danger of giving my live for my country and in doing my duty. . . to prevent, with the independence of Cuba, the United States from expanding over the Caribbean, and with that added force, over our nations of America. What I have done until now, and will do, has been for that reason.]

Nevertheless, when in 1898 Cuba appeared on the verge of achieving its independence from Spain, the United States wrested that victory from Cuba by declaring war on Spain, which it easily defeated, and taking control of Spain’s remaining empire.

While its historians recorded Cuba’s war of independence as the Spanish-American War, the United States annexed Puerto Rico and made Cuba a protectorate. By 1899 the United States had written Cuba’s first Constitution and assumed effective control over its society and economy. But Martí’s life and work were not forgotten. His immense contribution to Cuba’s national independence struggle, his power to inspire revolutionaries, and his enduring influence on Cuban political consciousness surfaced dramatically with the 1959 Cuban Revolution. He continues to inspire Cubans inside and outside of Cuba, and his message of political, economic and cultural emancipation continues to shape cultural and political institutions today.

Martí’s moral standards, principled beliefs, and exemplary conduct in both the public and private dimensions of his life have inspired an immense hagiography along with some attempts to undermine it. History, however, justly records him as an incorruptible revolutionary whose unwavering commitment to racial equality, human rights and autochthonous values was uncharacteristic of his contemporaries, transcended the boundaries of his era and anticipated the ideas and writings of later revolutionaries.

His work through La Liga and among Cuban workers in New York and Florida was an important part of his active commitment to ensuring that an independent Cuba would bring about dignity, equality, social justice and enfranchisement for all Cubans. His life and work exemplify the intellectual activist—whether orator, poet, journalist, teacher, artist or revolutionary—whose contribution to human progress is founded on the principle that self-development, freedom, justice, and dignity for everyone are achievable through social, political and historical transformation. The foundation of that achievement is self-knowledge and self-development, an awareness of the connectedness between individuals and groups of individuals in society, an awareness of the relations of power, and an understanding of history.

Martí’s essential humanism is consistent with a progressive view of scientific and technological development. Genuine progress is informed by social and historical consciousness and characterized by social justice and development. He valued technological progress that produced economic and social benefits for all, and rejected the cult of wealth which exacted high human and social costs. He opposed ideas of progress that depended on importing technologies and methods incompatible with the character and values of Spanish American societies and detrimental to the material and spiritual well-being their people. He believed that subservience to foreign ideas, which are often valued precisely because they were foreign, inhibits the development of local solutions for widespread local benefit.

Concerned about inequitable economic relations, he cautioned that unequal international partnerships served foreign interests, created dependency, and provided national benefits enjoyed only by sectors of the local elite. For Martí, economic growth without development in social welfare is not genuine human progress; likewise, creativity without social awareness is not authentic.

Originality and creativity - Martí's emancipatory aesthetic

His humanism, the foundation of his revolutionary activism, also informs his emancipatory aesthetic as well as his understanding of the role of artists and intellectuals in society. Their understanding of self and others, their responsibility for expressing a people’s collective identity and aspirations, their part in effecting cultural liberation, and their role in the nation’s historical transformation are key ideas brought together within an emancipatory aesthetic that recognizes the power of authentically creative works of art to effect cultural emancipation and historical transformation.

Martí was prolific on the subject of art and literature and wrote several critiques of artists and their works, but this body of writing is not the subject of our study. Most of these articles are in his Obras Completas, vols. 5, 13 and 15. There is always room for sustained enquiry into this area of his praxis, but significant contributions have been made to understanding Martí as a literary critic.

José Antonio Portuondo’s José Martí, crítico literario is still one of the most important analyses of Martí as critic. The numerous studies published in the Anuario del Centro de Estudios Martianos by the Centro de Estudios Martianos in La Habana are particularly valuable in suggesting points of departure for analyses of a more extensive and systematic nature. Angel Rama’s La ciudad letrada is a pivotal study that explores the historical place of writing and the changing roles of writers in nineteenth century Latin America.

Ramos builds on Rama’s analysis in Desencuentros de la modernidad en América Latina por el siglo XIX. Ramos traces the intellectual genealogy of latinoamericanismo and studies Martí’s role in inaugurating the literato as a new intellectual subject.

Iris Zavala also provides insights into the “modernist imaginary”—lyrical poetry as a convergence of the understanding of self and the world, and the liberating function of literature and criticism—and contributes significantly to understanding the integral relationship between armed rebellion and writing in Martí. She associates modernist writers with a liberating mission and a conscious commitment to social change.

Her view differs from a more traditional understanding of literary modernism and modernists as relatively distanced from social concerns or unintentional agents of change. For example, Angel Augier suggests that modernists were agents of change but not fully aware of the historical conditions determining their cultural production (247). In El activismo creador de Martí, Víctor Massuh’s analysis of Martí’s creative activism essentially overlooks its interplay with the activism inherent in his writing.

Similarly, although there are excellent stylistic analyses of Martí’s writing, at time of my writing, they have not systematically, if at all, addressed its political purpose. For example, Giovanni Meo Zilio (9-94) provides a superb stylistic analysis of Martí’s writing, but without any systematic attempt to reconcile it with his political activism. Fernández Retamar, of course, describes the essential nature of Martí’s writing as political action in, for example, “Cuál es la literatura que inicia José Martí” (26-50).

A discussion of the revolutionary aesthetic informed by Martí’s humanism is a necessary introduction to the study of the convergence of poetics and politics in selected texts and a discussion of their purpose, audience and effects, to make possible a shared understanding of this aspect of his creative genius. His life and work exemplify the intellectual activist whose contribution to human progress is founded on the principle that self-development, freedom, justice, and dignity for everyone are achievable through historical transformation. His writings occupy a central place in the “literature of combat” in the new political and economic era that emerged in the final decades of the 1800s. They place him alongside radical revolutionary thinkers for whom humanism is the necessary foundation of the political and social consciousness required to transform nations into independent and just societies, and for whom also moral progress is as important an indicator of national development as material accumulation and technological growth.

Martí’s humanism is the foundation of his revolutionary activism. His commitment to human progress and nation-building generates his creative impulse and forges an integral link between writing and his other political activities. The transformative spirit of Martí’s creativity and aesthetic will brings together the activist and the inner poet and gives form to distinctive texts that challenge literary boundaries and mark significant contributions in the struggle to create, legitimize and establish authentic, original literature in Spanish America. It is exemplified in El presidio político en Cuba, his revolutionary oratory and “Nuestra América,” works I studied and critically evaluated in The Politics of Letters: José Martí’s Revolutionary Discourse (Doctoral Thesis, University of Toronto: 2006).

Martí’s revolutionary discourse incorporates the link between the aesthetic and political dimensions of America’s transformation and brings the poet’s creativity and aesthetic will together with the political purpose and ethical appeal imposed by the realities of history and the activist’s place in it. It is a discourse of inclusion that recognizes the marginalized sectors and integrates them into the march of human progress.

His emancipatory poetics combines factual information and poetic expression in the poeticized prose, figurative language and proliferation of images that characterize his style. In the politics of letters, Martí’s excels in the employment of the rhetorical arts to inspire leaders, mobilize the people, and convey truth in the service of the nation through the rational appeal of facts and arguments strengthened by power of the schemes and tropes of poetic language to speak to people’s souls and intellects and move their passions.


Bibliography of Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983

Augier, Angel. Acción y poesía en José Martí. La Habana: Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1982, p.

Barnett, Pamela. The Politics of Letters: José Martí’s Revolutionary Discourse. Doctoral Thesis, University of Toronto: 2006.

Foner, Philip S. Our America by José Martí. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977.

Martí, José. Obras completas. 27 vols. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1975.

Massuh, Victor. El activismo creador de Martí. Montevideo: Fundación de cultura universitaria, 1969.

Meo Zilio, Giovanni. “José Martí. Tres estudios estilísticos.” Anuario Martiano 2 (1970): 9-94.

Portuondo, José Antonio. José Martí. Crítico literario. Washington: Unión Panamericana, 1953.

Rama, Angel. La Ciudad Letrada. Hanover, N.H.: Ediciones del Norte, 1984. The Lettered City. Trans. John Charles Chasteen. Durham: Duke U. P., 1996.

Ramos, Julio. Divergent Modernities. Culture and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Latin America. Trans. John D. Blanco. Durham: Duke U. P., 1996.

Fernández Retamar, Roberto. “Cuál es la literatura que inicia José Martí.” Anuario del Centro de Estudios Martianos 4 (1981): 26.50.

Toledo Sande, Cesto de llamas. Biografía de José Martí. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2000.

Vitier, Cintio. “Los discursos de Martí” Anuario Martiano 1, 1969: 293-318.

Zavala, Iris. Colonialism and Culture: Hispanic Modernisms and the Social Imaginary. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana U. P., 1992.

Copyright 2006 Pamela Barnett