José Martí's "El presidio político en Cuba"
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
Scroll down for a bibliography of works cited
El presidio político en Cuba
From the time of his arrest for “disloyalty” (“infidencia”) on October 9, 1869, to his first deportation to Spain on January 18, 1871, José Martí was an adolescent prisoner of Spain in colonial Cuba. During this time he endured several months of hard labour at the San Lázaro Quarry before serious injuries to his eyes and legs forced authorities to transfer him to the prison’s tobacco factory. The six-year sentence he received on March 4, 1870, was commuted on September 5, 1870, to confinement on Isla de Pinos, and he was eventually deported to Spain on January 15, 1871. One of his first publications there, a political pamphlet titled El presidio político en Cuba (1: 43-74), appeared in 1871, shortly after his arrival in Spain. Martí published this pamphlet on the presses of Ramón Ramírez, San Marcos 32. The exact date of publication is uncertain. For example, one source (Atlas histórico biográfico José Martí 34) suggests it might be as early as March; another (Toledo Sande, Cesto de llamas 34) suggests July or August.
It is a prison memoir, an impassioned condemnation of Spain’s inhumane treatment of political prisoners in its colony, and a direct appeal to Spaniards and the colonialist government to change these conditions. It remains one of the most important of Martí’s works, comprising twelve parts or cantos of poeticized prose. Parts I to IV are the introduction and historical background which frame and contextualize his portrayal of political imprisonment in Cuba; part V is a direct emotional appeal for empathy from his readers; parts VI and VII describe Castillo and Lino, the two principal portraits within his portrayal of imprisonment; parts VIII to XI portray four sketches of fellow prisoners; and part XII depicts a phantasmagoric conclusion.
Even today some readers might regard El presidio político en Cuba as political testimony, embellished with the art of rhetoric, but more interesting or important for its historical place in the politics of colonial Cuba, while others might continue to read it as “literature” clearly linked to the originating historical circumstances which, however, it ultimately transcends. (In “El presidio político en Cuba, de José Martí,” Isis Molina de Galindo launches her thoughtful stylistic analysis from a historical setting then offers an insightful reading centred around Martí’s poetic subjectivity.)
In fact, it is both literature and political activity, for Martí’s writing is characterized by the convergence of poetry and politics: there is an integral relationship between why he writes, what he writes and how he writes. El presidio político en Cuba is a poem in prose that emerges out of the historical situation it is attempting to change. To separate the political from the literary, or to emphasize one without sufficiently considering the other, would ultimately undermine the convergence of the imaginative and the historical that is one of the essential features of Martí’s emancipatory discourse. This seamless convergence of politics and poetics will be demonstrated through a necessarily meticulous analysis of the rhetorical elements of parts I to V, where Martí introduces his principal arguments, establishes his modes of appeal, and situates his discourse within its precise historical context. A more telescopic study of parts VI to XII will examine the two central portraits and four supporting sketches that comprise the portrayal of prison, as well as the gruesome images that conclude the work.
El presidio político en Cuba appears as a neutral title until the opening allusion to hell introduces a tone of poetic intensity and abruptly conveys that Infinite Pain would be a better title for the piece. (“Dolor infinito debía ser el único nombre de estas páginas” 1: 45) This rhetorical allusion awakens the reader’s understanding of what Martí intends to write about, why he is writing and how he is approaching the task. In addition, the title grounds the discourse in historical reality and focuses attention away from flight into metaphysical fancy. Thus the interplay between history and poetry produces complexity and meaning from the first moment of the work. Having linked political prison to infinite pain, Martí’s next step is to depict the nature of this pain:
Dolor infinito debía ser el único nombre de estás páginas.
Dolor infinito, porque el dolor del presidio es el más rudo, el más devastador de los dolores, el que mata la inteligencia, y seca el alma, y deja en ella huellas que no se borrarán jamás.
Nace con un pedazo de hierro; arrastra consigo este mundo misterioso que agita cada corazón; crece nutrido de todas las penas sombrías, y rueda, al fin, aumentada con todas las lágrimas abrasadoras. (1: 45)
The anaphora (“dolor infinito . . . dolor infinito”) conveys the intensity of the pain and reinforces the poetic tone introduced by the first sentence. Martí heightens this effect by echoing references to pain in “el dolor del presidio” and “los dolores” of the second sentence, and by the repetition of the idea of intense suffering in “todas las penas sombrías” and “todas las lágrimas abrasadoras” in the third. He emphasizes the devastating nature of the infinite pain through hyperbole and repetition in “el dolor del presidio es el más rudo, el más devastador de los dolores,” as well as in “todas las penas sombrías . . . todas las lágrimas abrasadoras.”
Furthermore, in “el que mata la inteligencia, y seca el alma, y deja en ella huellas que no se borrarán jamás,” he uses a series of verbs combined with polysyndeton to describe a process of intensifying actions that show this pain to be continuing and irrevocable. Infinite pain can destroy a human being by disabling the mental faculties and draining the spiritual core of the victim. In the third paragraph, another series of verbs builds up to a similar climactic and overwhelming effect: “Nace . . . ; arrastra consigo . . . ; crece nutrido . . . , y rueda, al fin, aumentada. . . .” Infinite pain is not suffered in isolation, but shared by other victims. It begins with one prisoner’s chain, and as it grows it is intensified by all other pains (“todas las penas sombrías”), and every scalding tear (“todas las lágrimas abrasadoras”). Infinite pain transcends individual experience through sensitivity and empathy with the misery of others. Empathy humanizes the sufferer.
After linking infinite pain and political prison in Cuba, Martí inserts an emphatic one-sentence paragraph which effects a change in rhythm and an adjustment in focus: “Dante no estuvo en presidio” (1: 45). This reference to Dante implies that the misery experienced by political prisoners in Cuba is more intense than that depicted in Dante’s inferno. The reader’s understanding is confirmed immediately by the metaphorical depiction of overwhelming misery in the subsequent paragraph:
Si hubiera sentido desplomarse sobre su cerebro las bóvedas oscuras de aquel tormento de la vida, hubiera desistido de pintar su infierno. Las hubiera copiado, y lo hubiera pintado mejor. (1: 45)
To be in this prison is to experience the dark caverns of life’s torment swirling over one’s head. The series of verbs in the subjunctive mood reinforces the contrary-to-fact situation: “Si hubiera sentido . . . hubiera desistido . . . hubiera copiado . . . hubiera pintado. . . .” Meanwhile, the idea that had Dante been in this prison he would have been able to create a more faithful description of hell is an oblique way of suggesting that political prison in Cuba is hell. And finally, the references to the medium of painting (“pintar,” “copiado,” “pintado”) introduce an image of the writer as painter and cause the reader to anticipate a graphic portrayal of misery.
Thoughts concerning hell lead to a discussion about the existence of God, concepts of good and evil, and the nature of human beings:
Si existiera el Dios providente, y lo hubiera visto, con la una mano se habría cubierto el rostro, y con la otra habría hecho rodar al abismo aquella negación de Dios.
Dios existe, sin embargo, en la idea del bien, que vela el nacimiento de cada ser, y deja en el alma que se encarna en él una lágrima pura. El bien es Dios. La lágrima es la fuente de sentimiento eterno.
Dios existe, y yo vengo en su nombre a romper en las almas españolas el vaso frío que encierra en ellas la lágrima.
Dios existe, y si me hacéis alejar de aquí sin arrancar de vosotros la cobarde, la malaventurada indiferencia, dejadme que os desprecie, ya que yo no puedo odiar a nadie; dejadme que os compadezca en nombre de mi Dios. (1: 45)
The subjunctive mood carries over into the first of these paragraphs, communicating what appears to be some doubt that a provident God exists, for such a God would not have tolerated “aquella negación de Dios,” suggesting, again obliquely, that political prison in Cuba denies God. The reader is uncertain whether Martí is questioning the existence of a provident God or whether he is relying upon the force of exaggeration to expose the inhumane conditions within Spain’s political prison in Cuba. This ambiguity captures the attention but is soon resolved by Martí’s assertion that God exists in the idea of good. He does this through the anaphora (“Dios existe . . . Dios existe . . . Dios existe . . .”) that links the subsequent three paragraphs, and through the use of an emphatic “mi Dios” at the end of the third. We shall see that affirming the idea of good and insisting that a God exists reveal, not merely belief in an absolute being, but his faith that he, Martí, can play a role in changing the course of history.
Martí’s idea of good derives from his humanism and provides an insight into his understanding of his God’s nature and of human nature. This idea also sets up an opposing notion of evil, for it implies that if good is God, those things that deny God are evil. Furthermore, whereas misery and suffering are seen to derive from evil, the belief in good allows for optimism, since even those who perpetrate evil, or whose indifference allows evil, have within them the potential for good. This belief is expressed in the idea that good (“el bien”) watches over the birth of each human being and leaves within that person’s soul a pure tear, the source of empathy or eternal sentiment.
The pure tear symbolizes our essential humanity, for empathy, which derives from good, makes us human. From here comes the image of the cold glass (“el vaso frío”) that encloses the tear in the souls of the Spaniards, making them indifferent to human suffering. From here too stems the contrast between the cold glass of indifference and all the scalding tears (“todas las lágrimas abrasadoras”) of compassionate prisoners connected to each other through infinite pain. And from here comes the idea that infinite pain, by draining the victim’s spiritual resources, withers the soul (“seca el alma”).
Furthermore, a parallelism between infinite pain and eternal sentiment becomes clear, for the existence of the former is contingent upon the presence of the latter. Firstly, the idea that good is the source of humanity’s eternal sentiment implies that we are connected to a greater, continuing unity (“el bien”) that transcends our individual experiences. Secondly, as we have seen, in transcending individual experience, infinite pain involves a compassionate sharing in the pain of others, this compassion being an expression of the eternal sentiment that defines us as human beings. The connection rests in the symbol of the pure tear, the source of compassion and empathy with others. Martí uses this symbol to appeal directly to his Spanish readers and express the purpose of his writing: “yo vengo en su nombre a romper en las almas españolas el vaso frío que encierra en ellas la lágrima.”
Martí’s commitment to the idea of good is reflected in his confidence in his own ability to promote it. The practical expression of this commitment is the writing of El presidio político en Cuba. This text represents his belief that it is possible to change the very historical circumstances that have generated his intention to write. His belief that God exists in the idea of good is also the basis of his refusal to hate his political enemies. For Martí, hate is inherently incompatible with the belief that all humanity is linked within the transcending unity of good. To hate would be to cross the moral dividing line between what is essentially good and what is inherently evil. Within this view, hate towards one’s oppressors translates into hate towards oneself, and, ultimately, towards the idea of good. From here it follows that hate dehumanizes, for it comes to mean a diminishing of one’s essential nature, and, ultimately, a denial of God. He emphasizes these ideas in the closing paragraphs of part I.
Ni os odiaré, ni os maldeciré.
Si yo odiara a alguien, me odiaría a mí mismo.
Si mi Dios maldijera, yo negaría por ello a mi Dios. (1: 45)
The focus on his moral idealism is sharpened by the change in rhythm produced in this segment of prose where the two-part sentence paragraphs are brief, consecutive, and parallel in grammatical structure. In “Ni os odiaré, ni os maldeciré,” parallelism slows the rhythm by inserting a pause in an already short sentence; the effect reinforces Martí’s deliberate and emphatic claim to a hate-free conscience, while the future tense underlines the unwavering certainty of this assertion. In addition, in the two concluding sentences that explain why he refuses to hate, syntactic parallelism supports an understanding of his reasoning as balanced and well-considered, while the contrary-to-fact statements contained in the recurring protasis-apodosis throw into relief the moral idealism that derives from his belief in the idea of good.
Two purposes converge in part I of El presidio político en Cuba. Firstly, through his poetic portrayal of political prison as “infinite pain,” Martí prepares the reader for a description of real suffering and cruelty far worse than the misery depicted in Dante’s literary inferno. Secondly, by affirming his belief in God and in the essential goodness of humankind, as well as his refusal to hate, he establishes the basis of an ethical mode of appeal and his credibility as an emissary of truth. The anguish underlying his descriptions of infinite pain is balanced with the optimism inherent in his belief in the idea of good. Likewise, his emphatic refusal to hate is balanced against his commitment, based on the idea of good and evidenced by the existence of the text itself, to work actively towards bringing about political changes in Cuba.
The dynamic produced by the interaction between these elements gives the reader an acute sense of the controlled but potentially explosive energy underlying the text. Finally, part I also shows poetry and politics working together within a text without diminishing the poetic intensity of the work or undermining its political purpose.
In part II, the focus is on Spain’s indifference towards the reality of political prison in Cuba.
¿Qué es aquello?
Ser apaleado, ser pisoteado, ser arrastrado, ser abofeteado en la misma calle, junto a la misma casa, en la misma ventana donde un mes antes recibíamos la bendición de nuestra madre, ¿qué es?
Pasar allí con el agua a la cintura, con el pico en la mano, con el grillo en los pies, las horas que días atrás pasábamos en el seno del hogar, porque el sol molestaba nuestras pupilas y el calor alteraba nuestra salud, ¿qué es?
Volver ciego, cojo, magullado, herido, al son del palo y la blasfemia, del golpe y del escarnio, por las calles aquéllas que meses antes me habían visto pasar sereno, tranquilo, con la hermana de mi amor en los brazos y la paz de la ventura en el corazón, ¿qué es esto?
Nada también. (1: 48)
The opening rhetorical question refers the reader back to the experiences of infinite pain (“aquello”) depicted in part I, and the first message conveyed by the dismissive, negative response (“Nada”) is that Spain is unconcerned about Cuba’s oppressive political reality. However, absolute denial of something known to be real is also acknowledgement of its existence through understatement. Therefore, by showing Spain to be denying what the reality of political prison in Cuba is, Martí is at the same time giving ironic emphasis to the fact of its being. This truth is reinforced immediately in the series “Ser apaleado, ser pisoteado, ser arrastrado, ser abofeteado . . .” (my emphasis), where “ser” recurs in combination with past participles, all describing repeated acts of violent physical abuse that are part of the reality of political prison.
In fact, all three passages within the segment quoted above depict prison activity and physical abuse, showing different aspects of this reality in a manner calculated to render it in stark relief. In the first passage (“Ser apaleado . . .”), the beatings and other forms of physical abuse are said to occur on the same street, near the same house, and at the same window where, but a month earlier, the protective reassurance of maternal love was bestowed; yet, “¿qué es? / Nada.” In the second (“Pasar allí . . .”), the uninterrupted hours of forced hard labour under intolerable conditions are a brutal contrast to how those same hours were formerly spent within the comfort and tranquillity of the home, away from the harmful glare and unbearable heat of the sun; yet, “¿qué es? / Nada.” In the third, (“Volver ciego . . .”), the humiliation and physical injury suffered by the prisoner are conveyed through the description of his return at the end of the day, blind, lame, bruised, wounded, to the rhythm of blows and insults, along the same streets where, only months previously, he had experienced the serenity, tranquility and happiness of youth; nevertheless, “¿qué es esto? / Nada también.”
Furthermore, within all three passages, the underlying rhythmic pattern heightens the contrast between the violence of prison and the tranquility previously experienced by the prisoner. In the segments where prison activity is being described, the shorter breath and grammatical groups, along with repetition in the schemes of construction, interrupt the rhythmic flow by creating a staccato effect. Then, changing noticeably, the rhythm becomes smoothly undulating in the segments that describe the prisoner’s recollections of cherished moments from his past: “donde un mes antes recibíamos la bendición de nuestra madre”; “en el seno del hogar, porque el sol molestaba nuestras pupilas y el calor alteraba nuestra salud”; “que meses antes me habían visto pasar sereno, tranquilo, con la hermana de mi amor en los brazos y la paz de la ventura en el corazón.”
These recollections of cherished moments appear as oases of calm which heighten, through contrast, the surrounding violence. Nevertheless, they seem to represent for the prisoner moments of internal peace and spiritual regeneration. Finally, the correspondence between the cyclical structure underlying the segments of prose quoted above (i.e., rhetorical question, negating response, descriptive passage, rhetorical question, negating response) and the daily ritual of the prisoner’s agonizing routine conveys the inescapable cycle of misery and violence which is political imprisonment in Cuba. Thus, through the conceptual and textual processes of writing, Martí responds to Spain’s indifference by giving substance to the reality which that attitude is intended to deny. He also responds with anger, with a series of direct accusations, and with a warning:
¡Horrorosa, terrible, desgarradora nada!
Y vosotros los españoles la hicisteis.
Y vosotros la sancionasteis.
Y vosotros la aplaudisteis.
¡Oh, y qué espantoso debe ser el remordimiento de una nada criminal! (1: 46)
Adjectives acknowledge, through their function, the object they describe, whether that object be the concept of metaphysical nothingness, or a historical reality denied through indifference. Accordingly, the three adjectives in the first line quoted above (“Horrorosa, terrible, desgarradora”) assert emphatically that “nada” is, for through an accumulative description of what it is like, they attribute qualities to the object which make it identifiable. Furthermore, the recurrence in these adjectives of certain consonant and vowel combinations (“rr,” “o,” “a”) heightens the affective meaning of the utterance by creating a slow, deliberate pace and conveying a tone of restrained anger. The reality of what “nada” is (in other words, its substance), is further reinforced by the series of accusations which, in effect, identify it as a crime perpetrated, sanctioned, and applauded by the Spaniards. Here special emphasis is achieved through the use of various schemes of repetition (anaphora, polysyndeton, parallelism) in the structure of the sentences.
Finally, Martí refers directly to the criminality of “nada” in articulating a warning that raises the frightening spectre of remorse. The crime seems to derive from two conditions: the inhumanity and injustice of political imprisonment itself, and the criminal absence of compassion reflected in Spain’s indifference and denial of that reality. Martí passes judgement on Spain’s attitude through a multiplicity of meanings conveyed through the subverted concept of “nada.”
For Martí, Spain’s indifference signifies a denial of the humanity of the prisoner, of the humanity of Spaniards themselves, and, ultimately, of their belief in God. “Nada” also conveys a sense of the deprivation suffered by the prisoner, who is removed from the reassuring environment of maternal love, and who experiences a premature end to the happiness and serenity of youth. In addition, “nada” is a reminder that the prisoner who becomes spiritually numbed by the pain and degradation of his environment can eventually compromise his essential humanity. If compassion and the capacity to suffer infinite pain affirm an individual’s humanity, then the prisoner who begins to feel nothing, or who learns to hate, becomes nothing.
Martí condemns Spaniards for sanctioning and applauding crimes perpetrated by their government and its representatives in the name of Spain. For him, such criminal activity is accounted for in either of two ways—barbarism (that is, inhumanity), or ignorance. By suggesting that they might be ignorant of their complicity, he conveys optimism based on his belief that humankind is essentially good. In so doing, he appeals to those readers whose empathy he might arouse:
Los ojos atónitos lo ven; la razón escandalizada se espanta; pero la compasión se resiste a creer lo que habéis hecho, lo que hacéis aún.
O sois bárbaros, o no sabéis lo que hacéis.
Dejadme, dejadme pensar que no lo sabéis aún. (1: 46)
Clearly a lot hinges upon his optimism being justified; and whether this optimism reflects political naivety or a mature sense of strategy is a matter of conjecture. To be sure, Spaniards’ continuing indifference to the real nature of colonial rule would expose the enormity of the obstacle standing in the way of justice and political freedom in Cuba. This revelation would determine the nature of the struggle for justice and dignity. Historical events soon convinced Martí that armed resistance was the only option for achieving justice and dignity for Cubans.
It is in part II that Martí first introduces the ideas of honour and shame, touching a sensitive nerve by focusing on Spain’s historical preoccupation with questions of honour:
Dejadme, dejadme pensar que en esta tierra hay honra todavía, y que aún puede volver por ella esta España de acá tan injusta, tan indiferente, tan semejante ya a la España repelente y desbordada de más allá del mar. (1: 46)
He stops short of directly accusing Spaniards of being without honour, but suggests that their honour may be at stake by shrewdly making what is, in effect, merely a symbolic distinction between two Spains: “esta España de acá tan injusta, tan indiferente, tan semejante ya a la España repelente y desbordada de más allá del mar.” This comparison, which makes it clear that Spain’s reputation is already sullied by the actions perpetrated overseas in her name, also asserts that injustice and indifference cause the great resemblance between the two. However, his appeal for their compassion restrains him from outright condemnation. Instead, promoting his cause as theirs, he links the question of Spain’s honour to the issue of political prison in Cuba, and attempts to convince Spaniards that their national redemption hinges upon the implementation of political changes in Cuba.
Part II closes with a plea for justice which shows the way toward national redemption:
Volved, volved por vuestra honra: arrancad los grillos a los ancianos, a los idiotas, a los niños; arrancad el palo al miserable apaleador; arrancad vuestra vergüenza al que se embriaga insensato en brazos de la venganza y se olvida de Dios y de vosotros; borrad, arrancad todo esto, y haréis olvidar algunos de sus días más amargos al que ni al golpe del látigo, ni a la voz del insulto, ni al rumor de sus cadenas, ha aprendido aún a odiar. (1: 46)
Martí makes it clear that the integrity of Spain’s honour requires an end to the shameful imprisonment of children, the elderly, and the mentally disabled, as well as an end to the unrestrained violence of vengeful officials whose actions indicate their forgetfulness of God and of Spain. In another strategic and symbolic concession to his Spanish readers, he repeats the idea of two Spains, again dissociating the one from the criminal activity carried out by the other in her name, and also reinforces his ethical mode of appeal by reminding them of his own refusal to hate because vengeance is forgetfulness of God.
Furthermore, he adopts a conciliatory tone to anticipate a positive response that would protect the integrity of Spain’s honour, while the schemes of repetition in the structure of the last three paragraphs of part II communicate the urgent and affective nature of his appeal for justice on behalf of political prisoners in Cuba: “Dejadme, dejadme pensar que . . . / Dejadme, dejadme pensar que . . . / Volved, volved . . . ; arrancad . . . arrancad . . . ; arrancad . . . ; borrad, arrancad . . .”; “. . . tan injusta, tan indiferente, tan semejante . . .”; “. . . ni al golpe del látigo, ni a la voz del insulto, ni al rumor de sus cadenas. . . .” By invoking Spain’s honra, Martí heightens the affective impact of his appeal.
A dramatized narrative tone opens part three. Martí presents a figurative portrayal of history to situate his protest of the treatment of political prisoners and argue the justice of the Cuban cause. In 1871, the publication year of El presidio político en Cuba, the independence war known as La Guerra de Diez Años was in its third year.
The insurrection was headed by Carlos M. de Céspedes and depended on the support of the planters of the poorer eastern provinces who, while fighting for liberation from Spain, and needing the support of the slaves also wanted to ensure that political power within an independent Cuba would rest within their own propertied class. However, the revolutionary army was made up primarily of the disenfranchised lower classes for whom the war of independence was not only to ensure liberation from the tyranny of Spanish rule, but also to secure the political, social and economic reforms which would see slavery abolished and would ensure them a representative share of political power within an independent Cuba.
Although it was mainly confined to the eastern provinces of the island, the insurrection was a heavy burden upon Spain’s human as well as economic resources. Furthermore, it did not enjoy the support of all the inhabitants of the colony, particularly in the rich western provinces where the wealthy merchants and the slave-dependent landowning creole aristocracy were almost unanimous in their loyalty to the Spanish government. (For a comprehensive, analytical history of the Cuban struggle for independence, see Foner, A History of Cuba and its Relations with the United States.)
For Martí, historical understanding to contextualize events within the process of history is paramount. Hence he provides his readers with a background against which to regard the impact of current events as the unfolding of a continuing narrative. His primary concern is to make truth and knowledge accessible for his readers to achieve critical awareness. In this endeavour, he is less interested in the pedantic accumulation of verifiable details and more concerned with communicating an historical understanding (meaning) through allusion and the affective power of figurative language, but adhering strictly to truth and reason, for to compromise these would be to undermine the moral integrity of his purpose.
He opens his historical account by depicting a meeting of gruesome men set in striking contrast against the background of an immense, floating emerald:
Unos hombres envueltos en túnicas negras llegaron por la noche y se reunieron en una esmeralda inmensa que flotaba en el mar.
¡Oro! ¡Oro! ¡Oro! dijeron a un tiempo, y arrojaron las túnicas, y se reconocieron y se estrecharon las manos huesosas y movieron saludándose las cadavéricas cabezas.
—Oíd—dijo uno. La desesperación arranca allá bajo las cañas de las haciendas; los huesos cubren la tierra en tanta cantidad, que no dan paso a la yerba naciente; los rayos del sol de las batallas brillan tanto, que a su luz se confunden la tez blanca y la negra; yo he visto desde lejos a la Ruina que adelanta terrible hacia nosotros; los demonios de la ira tienen asida nuestra caja, y yo lucho, y vosotros lucháis, y la caja se mueve, y nuestros brazos se cansan, y nuestras fuerzas se extinguen, y la caja se irá. Allá lejos, muy lejos, hay brazos nuevos, hay fuerzas nuevas; allá hay la cuerda de la honra que suele vibrar; allá hay el nombre de la patria desmembrada que suele estremecer. Si vamos allá y la cuerda vibra y el nombre estremece, la caja se queda; de los blancos desesperados haremos siervos; sus cuerpos muertos serán abono de la tierra; sus cuerpos vivos la cavarán y la surcarán; y el Africa nos dará riqueza, y el oro llenará nuestras arcas. Allá hay brazos nuevos, allá hay fuerzas nuevas; vamos, vamos allá.
—Vamos, vamos—dijeron con cavernosa voz los hombres, y aquel cantó y los demás cantaron con él. (1: 47)
Elements of modernism and magical realism mingle in this segment of prose. Metaphor, imagery and symbolism interpret and reflect forces and conditions in the history of Cuba at the time Martí produced the text, while dialogue, a chorus effect, and the use of the present tense in the third and fourth paragraphs add the immediacy of an unfolding historical drama. Martí portrays the characters as cadaver-like spectres of humanity—men without souls—who meet under cover of night, fully cloaked in black, to decry the risk posed by the insurrection to the institutions (slavery, the slave trade) and economic conditions (plantation economy) that guarantee their personal wealth. Motivated by selfish greed, they recognize and acknowledge each other based on common interests. They represent individuals, social classes and colonialist institutions that oppose the war and believe Spanish control over Cuba would best secure their personal wealth and economic interests. They are seemingly oblivious of the essential attributes of the island which Martí describes as an immense emerald floating in the sea.
We can take it from the deictic and spatial references in the text, that their meeting happens somewhere in the western provinces of the island colony: the insurrection is described as happening “allá bajo las cañas” and viewed in terms of “la Ruina que adelanta terrible hacia nosotros.” They focus on the great distance that separates them from Spain, referring to it as being “Allá lejos, muy lejos.” The emphasis they place on their physical distance from Spain seems to acknowledge a spiritual alienation as well. They give no indication that they view Spain in terms of a motherland, and focus instead on Spain only as the logical source of the physical reinforcement required to protect their interests from the devastation of war. Likewise, their alienation from humanity is evident. They reveal a callous contempt for humankind, perceived by them purely in terms of chattels and slaves affecting their profits and economic interests.
This absence of human empathy is reflected in (a) their references to bones (“huesos”) which cover the earth in such quantities that they impede new growth; (b) the threat perceived in the objectified black and white faces (“la tez blanca y la negra”) that have become united and indistinguishable among the zealous insurrectionists; (c) their perception of reinforcement from Spain—the sons of the Spanish pueblo—as simply arms and strength (“brazos nuevos . . . fuerzas nuevas”) to protect their treasure chests; (d) the cynical view of dead bodies fertilizing the soil worked by live bodies (“sus cuerpos muertos serán abono de la tierra; sus cuerpos vivos la cavarán y la surcarán”); and (e) their contempt for Africans, whose humanity is obliterated by slavery and the slave trade (“el Africa nos dará riqueza”). Their loyalty to Spain, their perception of the war and their vision of the future are thus shown to be formulated, not from humane or patriotic motives, but purely from their vested self-interest.
When these men remove their tunics, they expose bony hands and cadaver-like heads. Martí’s symbolic unmasking of these gruesome characters suggests the absence of spiritual union between the Spanish pueblo on the one hand, and on the other, the colonial institutions and elites who serve their own interests by cynically linking their economic fortunes to the question of Spain’s honour and allegiance to Spain. Martí’s figurative portrayal of history also identifies the central issues of the war in a manner that reinforces the absence of shared interests, values and aspirations between the Spanish pueblo and the colonial elites and institutions. The speaker among the gruesome group alludes to the desperation of the war, the high death toll, and the economic stagnation in the war regions (Oriente).
Certainly, the ill-equipped and militarily disadvantaged revolutionaries were nevertheless effectively frustrating the Spaniards into recognizing that the war would be long and difficult; and the enthusiasm of the popular classes (black and white) for a war from whose victory they expected to reap social and economic benefits posed a threat to the upper classes, particularly since these aspirations included the abolition of slavery, which was the mainstay of the island’s plantation economy. However, these allusions reveal the essentially selfish motives of the upper classes in the rich western regions that, seeing their economic base threatened, express a loyalty to Spain and play upon the chord of honour. Martí’s characters coldly calculate on the sacrificing of Spanish blood in order to secure their personal wealth from the risks of war. Once their interests are protected, they will continue exploiting the lower classes and the African slaves.
The song they sing together is the lyrical expression of their cynical intention to deceive. It reflects confidence in their ability to arouse and manipulate an ignorant people in order to secure the human reinforcement necessary to protect their wealth.
“El pueblo es ignorante y está dormido.
“El que llega primero a su puerta, canta hermosos versos y lo enardece.
“Y el pueblo enardecido clama.
“Nuestros brazos se cansan, nuestras fuerzas se extinguen. Allá hay brazos nuevos, allá hay fuerzas nuevas. Vamos, vamos allá.”
Y los hombres confundieron sus cuerpos, se transformaron en vapor de sangre, cruzaron el espacio, se vistieron de honra, y llegaron al oído del pueblo que dormía, y cantaron.
Y la fibra noble del alma de los pueblos se contrajo enérgica, y a los acordes de la lira que bamboleaba entre la roja nube, el pueblo clamó y exhaló en la embriaguez de su clamor el grito de anatema. (1: 47-48)
Their powers of deception are portrayed figuratively in their ability to merge their bodies and transform themselves into a cloud of blood to traverse the space separating Cuba from Spain. There they don the vestiture of honour and arouse the sleeping populace. Being uninformed and susceptible to manipulation, the people awaken to the chords of honour played on the lyre. The hypnotic and inebriating effect of the music causes them to clamour and to exhale the cry of anathema.
Consistent with his idea that every human being is born with the pure tear of eternal sentiment, Martí portrays the people as being essentially good. Though they condemn the Cuban cause, he is careful to indicate that these sentiments do not emanate from within their soul. They have imbibed them from without. Their noble sentiments of patriotism respond to the familiar chords and external trappings of honour. They are unaware of the deception that has been practised upon them. Martí’s appeal through the text is his attempt to correct this ignorance. There is implicit optimism in the expectation that the noble nature of the people will prevail, but there is also the recognition that not all the cries of anathema can be explained away as ignorance, for even the Liberal intelligentsia adheres to a double standard:
. . . los hombres que sueñan con federación universal, con el átomo libre dentro de la molécula libre, con el respeto a la independencia ajena como base de la fuerza y la independencia propias, anatematizaron la petición de los derechos que ellos piden, sancionaron la opresión de la independencia que ellos predican, y santificaron como representante de la paz y la moral, la guerrra de exterminio y el olvido de corazón.
Se olvidaron de sí mismos, y olvidaron que, como el remordimiento es inexorable, la expiación de los pueblos es también una verdad.
Pidieron ayer, piden hoy, la libertad más amplia para ellos, y hoy mismo aplauden la guerra incondicional para sofocar la petición de libertad de los demás.
Hicieron mal. (1: 48)
The idealism underlying his confidence in the noble fibre of the people is mitigated by the realism reflected in the recognition that this double standard obtains within the sphere of the (supposedly) progressive, self-proclaimed advocates of liberalism, peace and morality. Martí’s criticism of the contradictions revealed by this sector acknowledges the enormity of the struggle for justice in Cuban society. Writing this article is part of his active role in this difficult process. In formulating his criticism of the intelligentsia, Martí makes characteristically succinct historical allusions to their unwillingness to recognize the colony’s right to liberties which they themselves either already enjoy or to which they aspire. (For an imperial power to acknowledge that a colony has rights suggests a contradiction in terms; however, the perception in the colony of those rights and its insistence upon them represent the sentiments of nationalism.)
Cuba, we recall, had attempted to negotiate reforms that would relax the oppressive grip of Spain’s colonial policy on the island. In January of 1865, upon returning to Spain after serving as Captain General of the island, General Francisco Serrano advocated for Cuban representation in the cortes. On November 25, 1865, a Reform Commission known as the Junta de Información de Ultramar was established by royal decree. Reformers constituted the majority of the Cuban representatives elected to the Commission, which began its work on August 11, 1966, and concluded on a positive note on April 16, 1867.
However, in Foner’s words, it “proved to be one of the grimmest farces in Spanish history”; completely ignoring the work of the Commission, without consulting the island’s representatives in any way, and at a time when Cuba was undergoing an unprecedented depression that threatened it with economic ruin, the Spanish government levied a new tax on the colony (A History of Cuba 2: 162-63). It is not surprising, therefore, that in the colony there was little confidence in Spain’s promises, following La Revolución Gloriosa that overthrew of the monarchy on September 18, 1868, that Cuba would share in liberal reforms.
This attitude was justified by the course of events. Captain General Don Domingo Dulce, who arrived in Cuba on January 4, 1869, was completely ineffective in his attempts to govern by more liberal standards. His efforts were frustrated by the voluntarios, whose reign of terror carried out the policy of the war of extermination sanctioned by the Spanish liberals and intelligentsia. Their troops eventually burst into his palace and forced his return to Spain.
The voluntarios were militia cadres that had been formed by Captain General de la Concha against the threat of Narciso López’s filibustering expeditions. They were reorganized at the outbreak of the war of independence, and accepted by the Spanish government, being made up mostly of middle and upper class peninsulares who were able to impose their will upon both the Captain General and Spain. They were, according to Foner, the effective power in the colony (A History of Cuba 2: 176-83).
The immorality of Spain’s dealings with Cuba is driven home through the language of commination. Martí reminds Spain yet again of the inevitable remorse and suffering that befall entire peoples as consequences of wrongful deeds. He repeats the blood-cloud imagery (“vapor de sangre” and “la roja nube”) to depict Spain’s guilt: “Hicieron mal. / España no puede ser libre mientras tenga en la frente manchas de sangre” (1: 48). This guilt is the burden, not only of Spain’s government, but also of all those who wittingly applaud and sanction its actions.
Martí gives figurative expression to the guilt and dishonour deriving from Spain’s criminal injustice overseas (“allá) in a personified leper-invoking image of Spain dressed in decomposing rags: “Se ha vestido allá de harapos, y los harapos se han mezclado con carne, y consume los días extendiendo las manos para cubrirse con ellos” (1: 48). Spain’s tattered clothing, which mingles with her decaying flesh, is insufficient to cover her, and she spends entire days attempting in vain to conceal her nakedness with her hands. This grotesque image of shame and degradation is another expression of the reality concealed under the vestiture of honour donned by those gruesome characters whose efforts to agitate the populace around the question of honour are consummately successful.
Martí suspends the narrative tone to resume the intimate directness of the yo-vosotros mode. In an ironic twist that associates clothing with dishonour and nudity with virtue (for it bares the truth), Martí again points the way to redemption. He enjoins that Spain overseas be forcibly undressed in the name of honour, compassion, and justice: “Arrancadla sus jirones, aunque la hagáis daño, si no queréis que la miseria de los vestidos llegue al corazón, y los gusanos se lo roan, y la muerte de la deshonra os venga detrás” (1: 48). His commination is mitigated by the implication that it is not too late for the people of Spain to rectify the criminal wrongdoing he unequivocally attributes to their government and intelligentsia.
Martí next addresses the fundamental wrong represented in the cries of “¡Integridad nacional!” resounding within Spain. He identifies the root of the problem as being an absence of knowledge, of the exercise of reason, and of purposeful, mature judgement on the part of Spaniards. And while he describes their outcries as a passing enthusiasm, he has already suggested that Spain’s historic preoccupation with the question of honour makes its people susceptible to manipulation. His response to their clamouring is to formulate an appeal that draws from conditions and events in Cuba’s history.
He presents a perspective of the conflict that attempts to inform Spaniards of the courage, sacrifices, and noble aspirations of the people of Cuba. He refers to the inhabitants of Bayamo who preferred to burn their city to the ground rather than to suffer its occupation by invading Spanish troops. He tells them of the revolutionaries who choose the hardship of the forests and swamps over domestic tranquility in order to free themselves from oppression. He alludes to the double standard in denying freedom to Cubans while ennobling their own similar aspirations: “cuando todo esto ignoráis, hacéis mal en negárselo todo, hacéis mal en no harcerle justicia, hacéis mal en condenar tan absolutamente a un pueblo que quiere ser libre, desde lo alto de una nación que, en la inconsciencia de sí misma, halla aún noble decir que también quiere serlo” (1: 49).
Martí also alludes with considerable irony to their forgetfulness of the history of the relationship between Spain and Cuba: of the former’s iron-fisted colonial policy of oppression; of the latter’s submission, its patience, and its numerous petitions for reform; of the brutal military campaign proclaimed by Count Valmaseda; and of the assassination of Augusto Arango.
Valmaseda commanded in the eastern region, and on April 4, 1869, in a decree which threatened to exterminate all the enemies of Spain who refused to lay down their arms, he proclaimed that all males over fifteen who were away from their plantations without justifiable reason would be shot. The reference to Arango recalls for Spain the memory of the Puerto Príncipe rebel leader who, having undertaken to pursue negotiations with the colonial government in Camagüey, was killed by its agents, despite the safe conduct which he had been guaranteed.
These policies and actions comprise the criminal “nada” which Martí earlier accused them of committing, sanctioning, and applauding. He then declares: “Y cuando todo lo olvidáis, hacéis mal en divinizar las garras opresoras, hacéis mal en lanzar anatemas sobre aquello de que, o nada queréis saber, o nada en realidad sabéis” (1: 49).
Martí’s language conveys an indignation that he cannot entirely contain and which irony alone cannot satisfactorily express. It reveals a rebellious spirit heightened by the political climate in Spain which misrepresents the atrocities it commits overseas as a campaign of honour. It also reflects his frustrations and youthful incredulity: “Porque era preciso que nada supieseis para hacer lo que habéis hecho. Si supierais algo, y lo hubierais hecho, lo vería y lo palparía, y diría que era imposible que lo veía y lo palpaba” (1: 49). The resounding echoes of “¡Integridad nacional! . . . ¡Integridad! ¡Integridad!” (1: 48, 49) seem to increase his anger and to engender an involuntary outburst: “¡Oh! No es tan bello ni tan heroico vuestro sueño, porque sin duda soñáis” (1: 49).
His intense agitation causes him to temporarily suspend his conciliatory attitude. References to the people’s ignorance begin to suggest a wilful lack of knowledge. He conveys his intention to portray the only view of “national integrity” that can be perceived from the other side of the Atlantic: “Mirad, mirad hacia este cuadro que os voy a pintar, y si no tembláis de espanto ante el mal que habéis hecho, y no maldecís horrorizados esta faz de la integridad nacional que os presento, yo apartaré de esta España que no tiene corazón” (1: 49).
Martí sets up an opposition between the two perceptions of “national integrity.” On the one hand, there is the dream reality experienced on the Peninsula where the oppressive nature of colonial rule is mythified through the idealized concept of an indivisible Hispanic territorial empire. Spaniards adhered particularly tenaciously to this idea after the Spanish American Wars of Independence which left Cuba and Puerto Rico as the only two remaining colonies of Spain in the Western Hemisphere.
This mythification, which Martí describes as making divine the oppressive talons of domination (“divinizar las garras opresoras” 1: 49), engendered an increasingly oppressive colonial policy. On the other hand, there is the actually existing political situation in Cuba, political prison being the historical evidence as well as the symbol of this reality. For Martí, this is the true face of “national integrity”; it is the truth that his writing will portray. The way Spaniards respond will be the measure of their humanity.
In the final segment of part III, he assures Spaniards that he is not asking them to be unpatriotic:
Yo no os pido que os apartéis de la senda de la patria; que seríais infames si os apartarais.
Yo no os pido que firméis la independencia de un país que necesitáis conservar y que os hiere perder, que sería torpe si os lo pidiera.
Yo no os pido para mi patria concesiones que no podéis darla, porque, o no las tenéis, o si las tenéis os espantan, que sería necedad pedíroslas. (1: 49)
Martí makes it clear that he considers patriotism to be an honourable attitude and concedes to the people of Spain the noble sentiments related to the concept of patria. He assures them that he is not requesting the independence of a territory they depend on for economic benefits, for such a request would be absurd. Neither is he requesting that they grant concessions to his patria, being well aware that they either could not, or would not want to.
These reassurances may be a practical strategy to project himself as eminently reasonable. Certainly, if his disposition were to appear subversive or anti-imperialist to his readers, his appeal to their humanity would not elicit a compassionate response. It would be a mistake, however, to read any compromise of Martí’s nationalist aspirations for Cuba, or any betrayal of his revolutionary ideals in these statements, for what Martí implies but leaves unstated is that the absurdity rests, not in the idea of Cuba’s independence, but in the requesting of it.
We have already observed that in projecting the Cuban perspective on the conflict between the colony and Spain, his arguments and the figurative language of the text condemn colonial practices, criticize Spain’s indifference, and support the insurrection in the eastern provinces; so his insistence now on loyalty to one’s patria and the absurdity of requesting independence or concessions are consistent with his commitment to Cuba’s liberation. To justify Spanish patriotism is, in effect, to justify Cuban patriotism. This juxtaposition of opposing loyalties represents Cuba as an entity separate and apart from Spain and challenges the notion of “national integrity.”
For Martí’s text to achieve its purpose, he must find common ground on which to connect with his readers. He responds to this requirement by attempting to separate the thorny political question of independence from the issue of political prison in Cuba in order to condemn the inhumane practices carried out in the interest of Spain’s “honour” and “national integrity.” He takes advantage of the link that Spaniards perceive between “national integrity” and national honour and emphasizes this link in order to subvert it. He points to the negative moral impact of “national integrity” on the honour that Spaniards profess to conserve untarnished and relates the issues of humanity, honour, and (assumed) unwitting complicity in criminal injustice:
. . . yo os pido en nombre de ese honor de la Patria que invocáis que reparéis algunos de vuestros más lamentables errores, que en ello habría honra legítima y verdadera; yo os pido que seáis humanos, que seáis justos, que no seáis criminales sancionando un crimen constante, perpetuo, ebrio, acostumbrado a una cantidad de sangre diaria que no le basta ya. (1: 49-50)
The cycle of bloody violence is sanctioned in the name of a perverted sense of honour. The severity of the criminal activities concretizes the abstract concept of crime: it has developed an unquenchable thirst for blood. The people of Spain are apparently unaware of its horrifying anatomy (“su horrorosa anatomía” 1: 50), but he invokes for them the criminality behind the façade of honour as well as the moral responsibility that their ignorance does not escape. A series of images etched into an extended protasis-apodosis construction expresses his frustration that the uninformed Spaniards sanction policies intended to exterminate those whom they perceive as their enemies:
Si no sabéis en su horrorosa anatomía, aquella negación de todo pensamiento justo y todo noble sentimiento; si no veis las nubes rojas que ciernen pesadamente sobre la tierra de Cuba, como avergonzándose de subir al espacio, porque presumen que allí está Dios; si no las veis mezcladas con los vapores del vértigo de un pueblo ávido de metal, que al tocar la ansiada mina que en sueños llenó de miel su vida, ve que se le escapa, y corre tras ella desalentado, loco, erizados los cabellos y extraviados los ojos, ¿por qué firmáis con vuestro asentimiento el exterminio de la raza que más os ha sufrido, que más se os ha humillado, que más os ha esperado, que más sumisa ha sido hasta que la desesperación o la desconfianza en las promesas ha hecho que sacude la cerviz? ¿Por qué sois tan injustos y tan crueles? (1: 50)
Martí reintroduces the idea of vapours of blood in the personified image of red clouds that hang heavily over Cuba as though shame and a reluctance to encounter God keep them from rising to higher space. These vapours of blood are now mingled with vapours produced by the intense agitation of a people crazed by the prospect of losing the source of the metal for which they have an insatiable greed. The avarice for metal that propels them into intense agitation now groups them with the grotesque soul-less men who earlier expressed in one voice their greed for gold (“¡Oro! ¡Oro! ¡Oro!” 1: 47), transformed themselves into a cloud of blood, and set out to deceive the sleeping people of Spain.
Martí implicitly criticizes their misguided response in this image of inebriated passion and desperate agitation fueled by the base motive of greed. The criminal effects of their activities and their consequent guilt are depicted in the vapours that augment the clouds of blood hovering over the island colony. His expressed awareness of their unwillingness to declare Cuba’s independence (“que firméis la independencia . . .” 1: 49) now reinforces his dismay at their willingness to sanction the colonial government’s inhuman policy of extermination (“firmáis con vuestro asentimiento el exterminio . . .” 1: 50; my emphasis).
We have seen that for Martí immorality and shame are inherent in attitudes of hate and vengeance. This belief effectively rules out justifying ignorance as their defence, notwithstanding the exhortations and numerous conditional statements reiterating his willingness to suspend judgement in the interests of promoting a positive and productive dialogue. He expresses dismay at their willingness to so callously dismiss Cuba’s long enduring loyalty and submission to Spain, and suggests that their humanity and familiarity with this history should have been sufficient to prevent their cruelty and elicit from them a more just response towards the revolutionaries. It would appear, then, that notwithstanding Martí’s rhetoric of patience and optimism, he makes it sufficiently clear that the Spanish pueblo and intelligentsia share the burden of responsibility for Spain’s brutal colonial policies.
Having circumvented the political questions of independence and concessions to draw attention to the violent conditions in Cuba, Martí now makes a direct emotional appeal, suspending the prevailing need for the exercise of reason which he had earlier expressed (“Cuando el conocimiento perfecto no divide la tesis, cuando la razón no separa, cuando el juicio no obra detenido y maduro, hacéis mal en ceder a un entusiasmo pasajero” (1: 48).), in favour of the more urgent need for human compassion:
Yo no os pido ya razón imparcial para deliberar.
Yo os pido latidos de dolor para los que lloran, latidos de compasión para los que sufren por lo que quizás habéis sufrido vosotros ayer, por lo que quizás, si no sois aún los escogidos del Evangelio, habréis de sufrir mañana. (1: 50)
Underlying this exhortation, to which the Spanish Civil War will lend an uncanny prescience, is Martí’s belief in the transcending unity of humankind within a continuing historical process. For Martí, injustice and dishonour reflect ruptures in the unifying bonds of human nature, while justice and honour reside within the people’s will to redeem their essential humanity. Their redemption requires their active and responsible participation in shaping the process of history, a consciousness that would undermine the seemingly inevitable and continuous cycle involving ignorance and inhumanity.
Having suggested that “national integrity” is an illusion that promotes ignorance and injustice and conceals historical reality, he now distinguishes between integrity of land (“esa integridad de tierra que no cabe en un cerebro bien organizado; . . . esa visión que se ha trocado en gigante” 1: 50), and integrity of honour (“la integridad de la honra verdadera, la integridad de los lazos de protección y de amor que nunca debisteis romper” 1: 50). He rejects the myth of “national integrity,” the standard behind which Spanish patriots unite, as an unreasonable belief in an indivisible territorial empire, while recognizing that this idea is fuelled by the passions it generates. Spaniards deceive themselves into believing their honour is linked inextricably to the preservation of their colonial territorial possessions.
This delusion exists, says Martí, notwithstanding the fact that the history of Spain’s relations with Cuba reveals that Spaniards themselves are responsible for severing the ties of protection and love that should exist between Spain and Cuba. While Martí might appear to be idealizing the relationship between colonial master and enslaved colony, his unifying view of humanity and his empathy with the Spanish pueblo are consistent with the idea that Spaniards and Cubans are united through historical, cultural and human bonds. These empathetic ties, which have been severed by Spain’s despotism, are distinguishable from those linkages forged by political domination. Spaniards should acknowledge their historical role and redirect their passion toward recovering their integrity, not through the maintenance of colonial possessions, but through a willingness to bring justice and compassion to bear upon Spain’s relationship with Cuba. In other words, they should redeem their essential humanity.
In part IV, Martí narrates Spain’s colonial history from a point of view that identifies insurgency as the inevitable outcome of Spain’s despotic rule over its possessions in America. He begins by reasserting that injustice and untruth characterize Spain’s dealings with Cuba. He emphasizes this message through the use of hyperbole by representing the people of Cuba as the most cruelly crushed and most painfully sacrificed race on earth. The idea of victims sacrificed to double standards is expressed figuratively as their immolation upon the altar of seductive words.
Martí reminds Spaniards of the hypocrisy of rejecting Cubans’ aspirations outright, while ennobling those very aspirations when claiming them for themselves. Drawing from religion, he uses the familiar language and imagery of sin and remorse to communicate and reinforce a political message of morality. He follows the idea of an unjust sacrifice by calling upon Spaniards to atone for their actions in order to recover from the ground the scattered pieces of their honour: “. . . gemid por vuestra honra, llorad ante el sacrificio, cubríos de polvo la frente, y partid con la rodilla desnuda a recoger los pedazos de vuestra fama, que ruedan esparcidos por el suelo” (1: 51). The particular experiences of Spanish injustice suffered by Cuba are the basis from which he launches his account of Spain’s history in America. He introduces his narrative with two rhetorical questions
¿Qué venís haciendo tantos años hace?
¿Qué habéis hecho? (1: 51)
that situate Spain’s treatment of Cuba within a broader historical context. His figurative rendering of this history juxtaposes time past when the sun never set upon the Spanish empire, to the time of writing when scarcely a ray of sunlight illumines her faraway colonies, as though the very sun, personified, is ashamed to shine upon Spain’s diminished empire because of the shame attached to her colonial history. It will become clear that this shame derives, not from the diminution of her territorial possessions per se, but from the exploitation and repression of her colonies which, after centuries of imperial domination, unleashed a furious and inexorable war of liberation from Spanish rule. Martí presents a figurative synthesis of the historical crown-colony relationship:
México, Perú, Chile, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nueva Granada, las Antillas, todas vinieron vestidas de gala, y besaron vuestros pies, y alfombraron de oro el ancho surco que en el Atlántico dejaban vuestras naves. De todas quebrasteis la libertad; todas se unieron para colocar una esfera más, un mundo más en vuestra monárquica corona. (1: 51; my emphasis)
An understanding of the exploitation and repression inherent within the structure of this relationship underlies Martí’s figurative portrayal of the glorious days of empire. With eloquent conciseness, he describes the grandeur of the homage-paying American possessions, the wealth and glory these provided to the Spanish crown, the wide gold-carpeted wake created in the Atlantic by Spanish ships bound for Spain, and Spain’s denial of liberty to the colonies.
What might at first appear to be leading to a romanticized view of empire comes to suggest an attempt on Martí’s part to reshape the mind-set of his readers. This reshaping is essential if his appeal to them is to succeed, for the people of Spain perceive themselves as sharing the actual or illusory benefits derived from the colonies and have imbibed a mythified history of Spanish colonialism and an ill-founded patriotic credo: “national integrity.” Martí alludes to the conflicting views of empire perceived by colonizer and colonized by drawing a parallel between Rome and Spain (“España recordaba a Roma” 1: 51).
He also represents the conquistadores, in their thirst for glory and delirium of ambition, as bits and pieces of a conquering Caesar returned to the world (“César había vuelto al mundo y se había repartido a pedazos en vuestros hombres, con su sed de gloria y sus delirios de ambición” 1: 51). He then conveys the long-enduring subjection of the colonies to Spanish domination in a one-sentence paragraph (“Los siglos pasaron.” 1: 51) which is emphatically brief, but also reflects the passage of time in the rhythmic continuity created by vowels combined with mostly lateral and fricative consonants. This reminder of Spain’s centuries-long enjoyment of the unilateral benefits of colonial empire is followed by a starkly drawn portrayal of the nature of the exchange between Spain and her territorial possessions in America:
Las naciones subyugadas habían trazado a través del Atlántico del Norte camino de oro para vuestros bajeles. Y vuestros capitanes trazaron a través del Atlántico del Sur camino de sangre coagulada, en cuyos charcos pantanosos flotaban cabezas negras como ébano, y se elevaban brazos amenazadores como el trueno que preludia la tormenta. (1: 51)
Martí uses parallel structure to heighten the contrast between the golden northbound wake created in the Atlantic by treasurer-laden ships on their way to Spain, with the bloody southbound path created on their return to America with their cargo of Africans whose enslavement generated the wealth shipped out to Spain. The contrasting imagery emphasizes the cycle of exploitation and the unequal exchange between metropolis and colony, exposing the cruelty and inhumanity that characterize the history of Spain’s relations with her colonies.
Martí likens the defiant arms raised above the black heads floating in the swampy waters to thunder heralding a storm. They presage the just retribution that, consistent with Martí’s moral view, will befall Spain as a consequence of the inhumanity of its colonial practices. Thunder and storm obey the natural laws of the atmosphere; insurgency is an inevitable outcome of the conditions of empire: “Y la tormenta estalló al fin; y así como lentamente fue preparada, así furiosa e inexorablemente se desencadenó sobre vosotros” (1: 51).
Martí’s choice of the slave trade to represent the immorality of colonial practices and of the Africans’ rebellion to represent insurgency against Spanish rule is not capricious. His historical focus is defined most sharply by the Cuban experience, where slave plantations and a flourishing slave trade were the basis of the island’s wealth, and the concern of the wealthy hacendados to preserve the institution of slavery was Spain’s best protection against an uprising on the island. (See Foner, A History of Cuba 1: 78-128; Bray and Harding, “Cuba” 586-590.)
When the mainland colonies unleashed their fury against Spanish domination in 1810, fifty-six percent of Cuba’s population was of African origin; forty-one percent was enslaved. Although no one reason can account for Cuba’s failure to join the insurrection, according to Foner, “most important was the fact that the vast majority of the creole landowners, whose economic interests were so dependent on slavery, hesitated to support a movement that might lead to emancipation of slaves. They were frightened of the consequences that separation and independence might bring in their wake” (A History of Cuba 1: 83).
Choosing Spanish domination over independence, given the likelihood of emancipation, they overcame their differences with the peninsulares, uniting with them to protect their slave interests and to assist Spain’s attempts to quell the insurrection. Mainland Creole hacendados, on the other hand, being less dependent on a slave economy than their Cuban counterpart, welcomed the participation of slaves in the insurrection against Spain, although “they made sure to maintain control of the independence movements and to play down the demands of the masses” (Foner, A History of Cuba 1:88). Nevertheless, the Africans’ emancipation from slavery remains an appropriate symbol for the mainland colonies’ liberation from Spanish rule. In the case of Cuba in 1871, the powerful symbolism of slavery is surpassed only by its grim historical reality. Slavery was not abolished there until 1886.
While it was mostly their dependence on slavery and the slave trade that inspired powerful Cuban merchant and slave-owning classes to align themselves with Spain during the independence wars, Spain also required Cuba as a base of operations and principal source of revenue. This cordial and mutually beneficial relationship not only generated economic prosperity for the island while the mainland colonies were at war, but also earned for Cuba a reputation for loyalty among the people of Spain. It became known as “the ever faithful isle.” Martí creates a characteristically concise literary memento of that page in history:
Venezuela, Bolivia, Nueva Granada, México, Perú, Chile, mordieron vuestra mano que sujetaba crispada las riendas de su libertad, y abrieron en ella hondas heridas; y débiles, y cansados y maltratados vuestros bríos, un ¡ay! se exhaló de vuestros labios, un golpe tras otro resonaron lúgubremente en el tajo, y la cabeza de la dominación española rodó por el continente americano, y atravesó sus llanuras, y holló sus montes, y cruzó sus ríos, y cayó al fin en el fondo de un abismo para no volverse a alzar en él jamás.
Las Antillas, las Antillas solas, Cuba sobre todo, se arrastraron a vuestros pies y posaron sus labios en vuestras llagas, y lamieron vuestras manos, y cariñosas y solícitas fabricaron una cabeza nueva para vuestros maltratados hombres. (1: 51)
Martí is consistent in his uncompromising portrayal of insurrection as a just and legitimate struggle for freedom. There is a matter-of-fact realism in his literary portrayal of the insurrection: the colonies bit and opened deep wounds in the hand which rigidly controlled the reins of their freedom; the beleaguered forces fighting to preserve Spanish domination are described as weak, tired and ill-treated; their involuntary cry of pain (a singular “!ay!") precedes the sounds of continuous blows that resonate lugubriously upon the block as the rough justice of war is meted out against an unjust adversary. It is only when he portrays the decisive military and moral victory of the liberating armies over a humiliated Spain that his description reaches epic proportions: the head of Spanish domination rolled across America, across her plains, mountains and rivers, finally to fall to the bottom of an abyss, never again to be raised over the continent.
Whereas earlier he had revealed the essentially selfish motives behind the wealthy landowners’ loyalty to Spain during the Cuban independence war commenced in 1868, when he refers to the loving attentiveness afforded the war-weary and defeated Spaniards, Martí seems to be glossing over history in an idealized portrayal of Cuba’s devotion to Spain during the mainland independence wars. Perhaps he sees some strategic justification in contrasting the Spain-Cuba relationship at different historical and textual moments.
Having previously focused at close range on the deceit practised by colonial elites on the sleeping Spanish pueblo during the Cuban independence war, he now presents a panoramic view to remind his readers of Cuba’s historical allegiance to Spain during the Spanish American independence wars. Cuba’s loyalty acquires symbolic value within an essentially figurative history that relies on hyperbole, affectivity, and contrast for a heightened rhetorical effect, for Cuba’s loyalty is rewarded by Spain’s betrayal. Martí narrates the process of Cuba’s disillusionment:
Y mientras ella reponía ciudadosa vuestras fuerzas, vosotros cruzabais vuestro brazo debajo de su brazo, y la llegabais al corazón, y se lo desgarrabais, y rompíais en él las arterias de la moral y de la ciencia.
Y cuando ella os pidió en premio a sus fatigas una mísera limosna, alargasteis la mano, y le enseñasteis la masa informe de su triturado corazón, y os reísteis, y se lo arrojasteis a la cara.
Ella se tocó en el pecho, y encontró otro corazón nuevo que latía vigorosamente, y, roja de vergüenza, acalló sus latidos, y bajó la cabeza, y esperó.
Pero esta vez esperó en guardia, y la garra traidora sólo pudo hacer sangre en la férrea muñeca de la mano que cubría el corazón.
Y cuando volvió a extender las manos en demanda de limosna nueva, alargasteis otra vez la masa de carne y sangre, otra vez reísteis, otra vez se la lanzasteis a la cara. Y ella sintió que la sangre subía a su garganta, y la ahogaba, y subía a su cerebro, y necesitaba brotar, y se concentraba en su pecho que hallaba robusto, y bullía en todo su cuerpo al calor de la burla y del ultraje. Y brotó al fin. Brotó, porque vosotros mismos la impelisteis a que brotara, porque vuestra crueldad hizo necesario el rompimiento de sus venas, porque muchas veces la habíais despedazado el corazón, y no quería que se lo despedazarais una vez más. (1: 52)
Indeed, the cordiality between Spain and Cuba ended soon after the mainland wars of independence. Foner maintains that the overthrow of Spanish liberalism by the “Holy Alliance” in April of 1823 ushered in renewed despotism into Cuba, accompanied by an increased financial burden to compensate for the loss of revenues to Spain from her former possessions on the mainland (A History of Cuba 1: 100-23, 170-83). By May, Cuba’s Captain General had completely censored the press and prohibited the possession of liberal literature and political tracts. These conditions resulted in strong independence movements. They were supported by small farmers in Oriente who could not afford the taxes, and by the middle and lower classes who derived no benefit from slavery.
Spain, meanwhile, recognizing that it would not reconquer the mainland colonies, increased its despotic rule to intensify its hold on Cuba. In May of 1825, a Royal Order established a military tribunal to repress conspiracy. The facultades omnímodas (which continued until 1878) were also decreed, investing the Captain General with almost unlimited power to govern under what, effectively, was martial law. When, in 1836, the Spanish liberals restored the Constitution of 1812, there was optimism within the Cuban hacendado class that Spain would relax its iron grip on the island and that reforms would ensue.
This optimism, however, was short-lived, for the liberal government rescinded the provision that granted Cubans equal rights with Spaniards in the peninsula as well as representation in the cortes, and replaced it, in 1837, with a Royal Decree providing for leyes especiales by which Cuba would be governed. As already noted, the Cuban reform movement suffered another disillusionment following La Revolución Gloriosa of September 18, 1868, the year of the historic Grito de Yara that heralded the outbreak of La Guerra de Diez Años.
For Martí therefore, the rebellion in Cuba, like the mainland wars of independence, was the direct outcome of the injustices that dishonour the pages of Spanish colonial history. Furthermore, he had perhaps already arrived at the understanding that since the notions of honour that serve to adorn Spain’s mythified rendition of its colonial history leave little room for truth and reason, prospects for change were dim. Restrained anger and frustration would then account for the sharp ironical edge evident in his rhetorical questions: “. . . si os parece cuestión de honra seguir escribiendo con páginas semejantes vuestra historia colonial, ¿por qué no dulcificáis siquiera con la justicia vuestro esfuerzo supremo para fijar eternamente en Cuba el jirón de vuestro manto conquistador? . . . ¿por qué en la comprensión no empezáis siquiera a practicar esos preceptos ineludibles de honra cuya elusión os hace sufrir tanto?” (1: 52).
Notwithstanding the anger and frustration apparent in these lines, the optimism inherent in his belief in the idea of good will prevail. He urges his readers to safeguard both their dignity as a nation and their capacity for compassion for the pain of others, thereby appealing to their humanity in order to effect political and economic changes in Cuba.
Part V heightens this emotional appeal to all Spaniards. On the verge of describing experiences until now suppressed by the pain of recollection, Martí appeals for human empathy and invokes readers to weep:
Las que habéis amamantado a vuestros pechos al niño de rubios cabellos y dulcísimos ojos, llorad.
Las que habéis sentido posarse en vuestras frentes la mano augusta de la imagen de Dios en nuestra vida, llorad.
Los que habéis ido arrancando años del libro de los tiempos para cederlos a una imagen vuestra, llorad.
Jóvenes, ancianos, madres, hijos, venid y llorad.
Y si me oís, y no lloráis, la tierra os sea leve y el Señor Dios tenga piedad de vuestras almas.
. . . gemid vuestra vergüenza, postraos de hinojos, lavad la mancha que obscurece vuestra frente . . . . (1: 53)
Martí heightens the emotional effect of this invocation through schemes of repetition: anaphora (“Las que habéis . . .”) in the first three paragraphs, and epistrophe (“llorad”) in five paragraphs above. The invocation to weep conveys his appeal for human compassion and recalls the earlier figurative expression of his intention: “yo vengo . . . a romper en las almas españolas el vaso frío que encierra en ellas la lágrima” (1: 45). He appeals to their humanity while reminding them that their national honour is at stake.
So far we have undertaken a close examination of textual detail to reveal the coherence, consistency, and complexity of Martí’s poeticized prose. Our heuristic procedure has been to discuss his ideas in their historical context, demonstrate the characteristic synthesis of politics and poetry in his discourse of resistance, and establish that parts I to V constitute an ethical and historical frame of reference brought into relief through figurative language.
Our reading of parts VI to XII will view Martí’s rendering of political prison in Cuba from a more distanced perspective. His recollections are the substance of the depictions of prison that constitute parts VI to XI of El presidio político en Cuba. Parts VI and VII, the sections devoted to describing Castillo and Lino, provide the principal focus for these portrayals. Memoria, recuerdos, recordar and verdad are keywords reflecting the process of thought that generated his representation of experience as an infierno.
As memories of prison begin to unfold, evident at the outset are the verifiable historical data, the attention to detail, the conscious measurement of time, the immediacy of dialogue, and the conspicuous concern with truth, which are important elements of his narrative. This circumstantiality reinforces the historical base of the work and promotes Martí as a trustworthy witness whose commitment to declaring the truth is a principal motivation for writing. In addition, the meticulous exactness of a detail or event he describes often reveals the painful intensity of his prison experience, his acute sensitivity and compassion for the pain of others, and the impact of prison experience on the development of his political and moral outlook.
Evident too is his thoughtful optimism as he reconciles the seeming contradiction between a prison that surpasses the horrors of hell (“Los colores del infierno en la paleta de Caín no formarían un cuadro en que brillase tanto lujo de horror” 1: 55) and a provident God: “Presidio, Dios: ideas para mí tan cercanas como el inmenso sufrimiento y el eterno bien. Sufrir es quizás gozar. Sufrir es morir para la torpe vida por nosotros creada, y nacer para la vida de lo bueno. . . . Nunca como entonces supe cuánto el alma es libre en las más amargas horas de la esclavitud. Nunca como entonces, que gozaba en sufrir. Sufrir . . . es verdaderamente vivir” (1: 54). Such an inward-looking moment might well lead a writer into contemplating his soul’s metaphysical anguish, thereby separating off his own experiences and individuating his subjectivity.
For Martí, however, the fortitude and spiritual renewal he draws from introspection direct him outward. He identifies a place for himself within a fraternity of prison-mates: “. . . mis grillos eran demasiado fuertes para que no fuesen lazos muy estrechos que uniesen pronto a aquellas almas acongojadas a mi alma” (1: 58). He moves the focus away from himself to recognize the suffering experienced by other political prisoners: “Castillo, Lino Figueredo, Delgado, Juan de Dios Socarrás, Ramón Alvarez, el negrito Tomás y tantos otros, son lágrimas negras que se han filtrado en mi corazón” (1: 69). Their persecution and suffering are the real and existing circumstances that serve as the work’s historical centre. Among the prison portraits, descriptions of el anciano Nicolás del Castillo and el niño Lino Figueredo are rendered in more detail.
Martí’s article, “Castillo” 4: 351-55, was published in Madrid on March 24, 1987, and in Sevilla on April 12, 1871; it appeared before El presidio político en Cuba, and may have been the core around which the latter was developed.
The old man evolves from historical prisoner to symbolic figure to personify suffering in the history of Cuba: “Los hijos de Cuba deben escribir en las primeras páginas de su historia de dolores: Castillo” (1: 56). At seventy-six years of age, he is condemned to ten years of hard labour in political prison because the voluntarios declared him to be an insurrectionist. His figure emerges against a background of human misery as Martí becomes introduced to “los tristes de la cantera” (1: 55). An adolescent prisoner, Martí had awaited the return of his prison-mates with childlike eagerness (1: 54). It is April 5, 1870, his first day in prison, and the day he loses his innocence:
Vinieron, dobladas las cabezas, harapientos los vestidos, húmedos los ojos, pálido y demacrado el semblante. No caminaban, se arrastraban; no hablaban, gemían. Parecía que no querían ver; lanzaban sólo sombrías cuanto tristes, débiles cuanto desconsoladoras miradas al azar. Dudé de ellos, dudé de mí. O yo soñaba, o ellos no vivían. Verdad eran, sin embargo, mi sueño y su vida; verdad que vinieron, y caminaron apoyándose en las paredes, y miraron con desencajados ojos, y cayeron en sus puestos, como caían los cuerpos muertos del Dante. Verdad que vinieron; y entre ellos, más inclinado, más macilento, más agostado que todos, un hombre que no tenía un solo cabello negro en la cabeza, cadavérica la faz, escondido el pecho, cubiertos de cal los pies, coronada de nieve la frente. . . . un rayo de paciencia iluminó su cara. . . . Lenta agonía revelaba su rostro, y hablaba con bondad. Sangre coagulada manchaba su ropa, y sonreía. (1: 55)
Yo lo vi, yo lo vi . . . ; yo lo vi sonreír en medio de su pena. (1: 56)
Vi una llaga que con escasos vacíos cubría casi todas las espaldas del anciano, que destilaban sangre en unas partes, y materia pútrida y verdinegra en otras. Y en los lugares menos llagados, pude contar las señales recientísimas de treinta y tres ventosas. (1: 57)
This funereal procession of human misery marks Martí’s initiation into the fraternity of suffering souls. It is a moment of naked truth. He recalls it in a graphic and evocative description that recreates visual, tactile, auditive, and olfactory details that bring the images and the text to life. He portrays the physical and spiritual condition of prisoners whose physical form and movements reveal their pain and dejection. The interplay between the imagery of a deepening nightmare and the palpable reality conveyed through an accumulation of what Martí terms “repugnant details” (1: 58) evokes our dismay and creates a growing tension that heightens our response to his initiation into the horrors of prison conditions. This dynamic interplay between nightmare and reality conveys the increasing impression of these horrors on Martí’s sensitivities as well as his growing recognition of the world to which he has been abruptly awakened.
Don Nicolás del Castillo (portrayed in part VI) emerges against this background as a central symbolic figure in the work. His physical description reveals his advanced age and fatigue, his ailing and unwashed body, and the cruelty and neglect he suffers. His portrait also reveals the purity of conscience, the goodness of soul, and the agony of this unfortunate Nazarene (“nuestro Nazareno infortunado” 1: 56) whose persecutors are Spain’s administrators in colonial Cuba. Castillo is goodness sacrificed to hate, innocence victimized by vengeance. For Martí, his persecution is sacrilegious abuse of an aged Christ-like figure whose Gethsemane and Calvary are the prison house and quarry. Their existence and Castillo’s persecution are Spain’s eternal shame as well as the negation of noble principles and great ideas in its national life (1: 56). The recurring imagery of blood and institutionalized brutality reinforces this message.
More than a league separates the quarry from the prison proper. A league is a varying measure of travelling distance, usually about three miles. Martí laboured in the La Criolla section of the San Lázaro quarry. It was located some two kilometers from the prison, but to get there the prisoners had to walk across very difficult terrain.
“Los tristes de la cantera” set out each morning at four thirty and labour there, under a sun that has no conscience (“Si el sol tuviera conciencia, trocaría en cenizas sus rayos que alumbran al nacer la mancha de la sangre que se cuaja en los vestidos, y la espuma que brota de los labios, y la mano que alza con la rapidez de la furia el palo, y la espalda que gime al golpe como el junco al soplo del vendaval” (1: 54-55), until six in the evening. Martí’s detailed description of the place is unrelentingly realistic:
Es la cantera extenso espacio de ciento y más varas de profundidad. Fórmanla elevados y numerosos montones, ya de piedra de distintas clases, y de cocó, ya de cal, que hacíamos en los hornos, y al cual subíamos, con más cantidad de la que podía contener el ancho cajón, por cuestas y escaleras muy pendientes, que unidas hacían una altura de ciento noventa varas. Estrechos son los caminos que entre los montones quedan, y apenas si por sus recodos y encuentros puede a veces pasar un hombre cargado. Y allí, en aquellos recodos estrechísimos, donde las moles de piedra descienden frecuentemente con estrépito, donde el paso de un hombre suele ser difícil, allí arrojan a los que han caído en tierra desmayados, y allí sufren, ora la pisada del que huye del golpe inusitado de los cabos, ora la piedra que rueda del montón al menor choque, ora la tierra que cae del cajón en la fuga continua en que se hace allí el trabajo. Al pie de aquellas moles reciben el sol, que sólo deja dos horas al día las canteras; allí, las lluvias, que tan frecuentes son en todas las épocas, y que esperábamos con ansia porque el agua refrescaba nuestros cuerpos, y porque si duraba más de media hora nos auguraba algún descanso bajo las excavaciones de las piedras; allí el palo suelto, que por costumbre deja caer el cabo de vara que persigue a los penados con el mismo afán con que esquiva la presencia del brigada, y allí, en fin, los golpes de éste . . . . Esto, y la carrera vertiginosa de cincuenta hombres, pálidos, demacrados, rápidos a pesar de su demacración, hostigados, agitados por los palos, aturdidos por los gritos; y el ruido de cincuenta cadenas, cruzando algunas de ellas tres veces el cuerpo del penado; y el continuo chasquido del palo en las carnes, y las blasfemias de los apaleadores, y el silencio terrible de los apaleados, y todo repetido incansablemente un día y otro día, y una hora y otra hora, y doce horas cada día: he ahí pálido y débil la pintura de las canteras. Ninguna pluma que se inspire en el bien puede pintar en todo su horror el frenesí del mal. (1: 59)
This picture is topographically precise and acutely affective. The details of time, space and geology are historical circumstances included with the unwavering certainty of one who paints from a picture that experience has etched painfully and permanently into his memory. The physical description of the quarry is conveyed through the details of toil and troubles that condition the prisoners’ experience of the elements. The unaccommodating harshness of the terrain and the unrelenting cruelty of the sun are surpassed only by the unconscionable burden of work and the flagrant brutality of the guards. The oppressed silence of the prisoners is background to the rattle of chains, the cracking of whips, the shouting of blasphemies, and the tumbling of rocks that fall from the overladen boxes carried on the shoulders of men who are driven like beasts along narrow and precarious paths.
This inferno of rocks (1: 70) is where a prisoner, Delgado (portrayed in part XI), attempts suicide on the very first day that he is forced to work there. It is where, in Castillo’s words, he goes to die (1: 59). Condemned to this vertiginous cycle of violence, the old man collapses from exhaustion. Martí describes his Christ-like endurance in a manner reminiscent of that other narrative of persecution and suffering:
. . . porque sus pies se negaban a sostenerle, porque sus ojos no abrían, el brigada golpeó su exánime cuerpo. A los pocos golpes, aquella excelsa figura se incorporó sobre sus rodillas como para alzarse, pero abrió los brazos hacia atrás, exhaló un gemido ahogado, y volvió a caer rodando por el suelo.
Eran las cinco y media.
Se le echó al pie de un montón. . . . Llegaron las seis de la tarde. Entonces dos hombres fueron al montón a buscar el cuerpo que, calcinado por el sol y penetrado por la lluvia, yacía allí desde las horas primeras de la mañana. . . .
Y esto fue un día y otro día, y muchos días. . . . Vivía y trabajaba. Dios vivía y trabajaba entonces en él.
Pero alguien habló al fin de esto. . . . Se mandó a don Nicolás que no saliese al trabajo en algunos días; que se le pusiesen ventosas. Y le pusieron treinta y tres. Y pasó algún tiempo tendido en su loma. Y se baldeó una vez sobre él. Y se barrió sobre su cuerpo. (1: 62)
The atmosphere of violence, of which the guards are a key component, has rendered them immune to human suffering, and thus bereft of the essential sentiments that would characterize them as human beings. Even the respite eventually accorded Castillo is disrespectful of his fundamental human dignity. It is another humiliation he must endure until he recovers just enough to again toil and perish with “los tristes de la cantera.”
Perishing alongside the old man is the child, Lino (portrayed in part VII). He is twelve and condemned to ten years in political prison. Martí first sees him on a surprise assignment to the prison tobacco factory. Lino’s delicate cheeks and small body reflect the innocence and fragility of youth. His eyes survey his prison clothes and irons with fear and childish curiosity, while terror of the whip compels his little arms to work the pump. As the hours pass, his youthful bloom disappears. Fatigue registers on his pale cheeks, in his listless eyes, and in the belaboured movement of his weakened arms. Watching Lino, Martí struggles to maintain his sense of equilibrium:
Hasta allí, yo lo había comprendido todo, yo me lo había explicado todo, yo había llegado a explicarme el absurdo de mí mismo; pero ante aquel rostro inocente, y aquella figura delicada, y aquellos ojos serenísimos y puros, la razón se me extraviaba, yo no encontraba mi razón, y era que se me había ido despavorida a llorar a los pies de Dios. (1: 63)
He tries to console Lino that evening. The child is bemused by the abrupt interruption of his serene existence: “. . . Yo estaba con taitica y mamita, y vino la tropa, y se llevó a taitica, y volvió, y me trajo a mí. . . . ¿Qué habré hecho yo para que me traigan aquí, y no me dejen estar con taitica y mamita?” (1: 64)
Lino is condemned to the brutality of work and violence at the quarry. He is joined by Ramón Rodríguez Alvarez (portrayed in part X), a child of fourteen who is also serving a ten-year sentence in political prison. Being more frail, Ramón is slower than Lino and faints under the weight of the boxes. When the guards are not looking, Lino helps him by loading his box more quickly, by carrying some of his cargo, and by lending him a supporting shoulder to save his friend from an inevitable clubbing. On one occasion Ramón faints and Lino attempts to revive him with water:
. . . el brigado pasó, el brigada lo vio, y se lanzó sobre ellos, y ciego de ira, su palo cayó rápido sobre los niños, e hizo brotar la sangre del cuerpo desmayado y el cuerpo erguido aún, y pocos instantes pasaron sin que el cajón rodase de la cabeza de Lino, y sus brazos se abriesen hacia atrás, y cayese exánime al lado de su triste compañero. (1: 71)
Even more cruel, perhaps, is the suffering that accompanies Lino’s smallpox infection. “Verdinegra sombra rodeaba sus ojos; rojas manchas apuntaban en su cuerpo; su voz se exhalaba como un gemido; sus ojos miraban como una queja” (1: 65). A brusque “¡Anda, anda!” and a clubbing are the only response to his complaint of illness. It is only when his collapse at the quarry created fear of contagion in the prison guards that he is sent to the prison hospital, “otro infierno más real aún en el vestíbulo de los mundos extraños” (1: 66). He is discharged from this inner infierno a few days later, his infection at its peak, by a doctor who pronounces him to be well enough to work (“Este médico tenía la viruela en el alma” 1: 67). He languishes unattended before he is returned to hospital. Days later he is again discharged and made to resume his place among the brutalized workers at the quarry:
Y Lino trabajó así. Lino fue castigado al día siguiente así. Lino salió en las cuadrillas de la calle así. El espíritu desconocido que inmortaliza el recuerdo de las grandes innatas ideas, y vigoriza ciertas almas quizá predestinadas, vigorizó las fuerzas de Lino, y dio robustez y vida nueva a su sangre. (1: 67)
Memories of the hospital that accompany the recollection of Lino’s smallpox infection take Martí’s thoughts back to the horror relating to an unnamed Chinese, victim of a cholera epidemic. He recalls parenthetically, with intense irony and jarring realism, that the prisoner was in the throes of death before he was considered ill enough to be removed to the hospital. Only after a compatriot had pricked the dying man’s vein, which yielded one drop of black coagulated blood, was he officially declared ill.
Younger than Lino is el negrito Tomás (portrayed in part IX), an eleven-year-old bozal (A slave newly arrived from Africa; and older than Castillo is Juan de Dios Socarrás (portrayed in part VIII), whom Martí describes, perhaps figuratively, as being more than a hundred years old. In Socarrás, senility has overtaken reason and instinct has replaced intelligence, but his essential humanity remains intact: “el sentimiento vivía únicamente entero en él” (1: 69).
Prison is not the first exposure to violence for this now senile slave, notwithstanding his fond reminiscences of the past and his frequent recounting of the trust and gratitude with which he feels his señor repaid his affection and loyalty. In fact, Socarrás confuses the chronology of his life and the genealogy of his masters, but he can draw a precise layout of all the haciendas of Puerto Príncipe. This patch of clarity suggests that he derives a clearer sense of his identity from the land than from his relationship with his masters.
Nevertheless, the latters’ recognition is, for him, a necessary acknowledgement of his own humanity. Feeblemindedness and a capacity to laugh at adversity are now his principal resistance to the cruelty of political imprisonment which reawakens in him the suffering he experienced from the inhumanity of slavery: “Los golpes sólo despertaban la antigua vida en él. Cuando vibraba el palo en sus carnes, la eterna sonrisa desaparecía de sus labios, el rayo de la ira africana brillaba rápida y fieramente en sus ojos apagados, y su mano ancha y nerviosa comprimía con agitación febril el instrumento del trabajo” (1: 69).
His controlled rage suggests that its explosive force will not be forever restrained. His reaction to beatings recalls the African arms raised in defiance of slavery and the slave trade, practices that, as we have noted, represent the inhumanity of colonial institutions. Socarrás’ long history of suffering makes him, like Castillo, a symbolic figure in the history of Cuba. He personifies the just cause of rebellion and the inevitable course of insurrection: “Y los ojos brillan, y los huesos rompen, y la lágrima pesa en el cuello, y la masa rueda . . . detened la masa, detenedla . . . las lágrimas de los mártires suben en vapores hasta el cielo, y se condensan; y si no la detenéis, el cielo se desplomará sobre vosotros” (1: 74).
Martí’s prison revelations substantiate his assertion that “national integrity” is a dream that is neither beautiful nor heroic. The fundamental opposition between good and evil contained within his ethical frame of reference carries over into his descriptions of the political prisoners and their keepers. Their moral standing is conveyed through the presence or absence within their souls of the metaphorical pure tear of eternal sentiment.
The prisoners retain their essential humanity. Good, God, or the unknown spirit (“el espíritu desconocido”) resides within them, providing physical and spiritual strength to resist their infinite pain (1: 61, 65, 67, 73). Only their generosity and compassion towards each other assuage their intense suffering (1: 68-69).
By contrast, their keepers are characteristically brutal. Hate, vengeance, and an indifference to suffering—attitudes that dehumanize—have replaced their human sentiments. Their inhumanity is the cruel and ugly outcome of Spain’s stubborn commitment to the myth of “national integrity.” Their moral degradation represents the condition toward which Spaniards are headed should they not, through empathy with the prisoners’ suffering, redeem their essential humanity and influence changes in the practices of their colonial government. Martí insists on this point through numerous ironic reminders interwoven, chorus-like, between his prison descriptions (“Bello, bello es en sueño de la Integridad Nacional. ¿No es verdad que es muy bello, señores diputados?” 1: 66;’ “Dancen ahora, dancen” 1: 68; “Canten también, aplaudan también los sancionadores entusiastas de la conducta del Gobierno de Cuba” 1: 70; “Canten, canten, loen, aplaudan los diputados de la nación” 1: 70; “Importa a su honra, importa a su fama cantar y aplaudir” 1: 72, etc.) He also makes this point through the representation of a horrifying fantasy inserted after his portrayal of Lino:
Lino Figueredo está allí. Allí; y entre los sueños de mi fantasía, veo aquí a los diputados danzar ebrios de entusiasmo, vendados los ojos, con vertiginoso movimiento, con incansable carrera, alumbrados como Nerón por los cuerpos humanos que atados a los pilares ardían como antorchas. Entre aquel resplandor siniestro, un fantasma rojo lanza una estridente carcajada. Y lleva escrito en la frente Integridad Nacional: los diputados danzan. Danzan, y sobre ellos una mano extiende la ropa manchada de sangre de don Nicolás del Castillo. Y otra mano enseña la cara llagada de Lino Figueredo. (1: 68)
Martí builds upon the grotesque imagery used to represent the reality concealed beneath the façade of honour and loyalty to Spain in the conclusion of El presidio político en Cuba, a phantasmagoria of gruesome personifications and sensory distortions that expand upon this dance macabre:
Ante mí desfinal en desgarradora y silenciosa procesión espectros que parecen vivos y vivos que parecen espectros.
Mirad, mirad. (1: 72)
Cholera is first. Satisfied and happy, laughing his terrible laugh, he has exchanged his scythe for the prison whip. Over his shoulders he carries a bundle of chains. From time to time a drop of blood oozes from that shapeless mass that makes an infernal sound. A snow-covered head is next. It droops from a moaning neck that cannot support it. Purulent matter seeps through this figure’s miserable rags. A cumbersome chain rattles heavily at his feet. He smiles, always. Following him is smallpox, hell incarnate in a tear. Loathsome and foul, he laughs a horrifying laugh. He carries a living body on his severely humped back. He throws it into the air, catches it on his back, hurls it to the ground, and dances around it shouting "¡Lino! ¡Lino!” The body raises itself up, the whip vibrates, and Lino works.
Next is a wide black mouth that laughs and laughs. His back supports a hundred years. His curled wool has already turned white. Memory has folded its wings within his brain and disappeared.
The quarry is last. It is an immense mass. Many decorated arms are pushing it. It rolls and rolls. At every turn a mother’s desperate eyes glisten in a black disk and disappear. Men linked to the arms keep laughing and pushing. The mass keeps rolling vertiginously. At every turn a body is crushed, a chain clangs, and a tear springs from the stone to fall on the neck of the men who laugh and push. The eyes glisten, the bones break, the tear weighs down on the neck, and the mass rolls on. This phantasmagoria represents Martí’s perception of “national integrity”: yet again in history, the metropolis’ dream is the colony’s nightmare.
El presidio político en Cuba condemns the inhumane conditions that are its raison d’être in an attempt to change them. The prisoners depicted in this prison memoir reflect a racial cross-section of mostly lower-class Cubans. Martí attempts to evoke an empathetic response to their suffering by portraying the institutionalized brutality of political prison in colonial Cuba, and connecting these conditions to the question of Spain’s honour and Spaniards’ uncompromising adherence to their idea of “national integrity.” Ironically, he was able to reach a public audience in Spain, whereas the repressive nature of Spanish colonialism would have prohibited the publication of El presidio político en Cuba in the island colony.
The decree of May 28, 1825, invested the colony’s Captain General with “facultades omnímodas”: “the whole extent of power granted to the governors of besieged towns.” It lasted until 1878 and gave him “full and unlimited authority” to “detain, punish, banish from the land, and confiscate the goods of whomever he wanted” on suspicion of conspiracy (Foner, A History of Cuba 1: 104). Another Royal Decree of April 25, 1837, declared that the colony would be governed by “leyes especiales” that included an express provision forbidding freedom of the press. “The Captain General was granted discretionary power to censor all written material, and especially to watch the admission of material printed in other countries” (177).
In the 1870s, Spain’s national culture was at a very low level (“un nivel bajísimo”), with 75% of its population being illiterate (Aullón de Haro 451). In fact, Martí’s revolutionary realism preceded the publication of José María de Pereda’s first novels (El buey suelto 1878, Don Gonzalo González de la Gonzalera 1879, De tal palo tal astilla 1880) and Juan Valera’s first novel (Pepita Jiménez 1874). Literary realism in Spain reached its ultimate expression in Galdós, whose first novels (La fontana de oro 1868 and El audaz 1871 appeared “en la inmensidad del desierto literario que le rodea” (Aullón de Haro 491) and whose major period began with La desheredada in 1881.
Nevertheless, the distribution of Martí’s pamphlets would have targeted a specific reading audience. Until research has determined the distribution of and published responses specific to Martí’s pamphlet, our knowledge of Martí’s strategic activism justifies this conjecture. Deported at eighteen, he arrived in Spain on February 1, 1871, published “Castillo” in Cádiz’s La Soberanía Nacional on March 24 and in Sevilla’s La Cuestión Cubana on April 12 before publishing Presidio in Madrid. By September he was engaged in an intense polemic on the pages of Madrid’s El Jurado Federal and La Prensa. Another pamphlet circulated in Madrid in November 1872 to commemorate the first anniversary of the execution of eight medical students, and following the triumph of the first Spanish Republic on February 11, 1873, he distributed another pamphlet in Madrid—his essay “La República española ante la Revolución cubana” (dated February 15 and later reprinted in La Cuestión Cubana on April 12)—which he forwarded to the members of the new Republican government as well as to the Junta Central Revolucionaria (cubana) of New York (Toledo Sande, Cesto 33-42, Atlas 34).
Martí addresses himself directly to Spaniards, consciously situates himself in a discursive situation with his audience, and attempts to influence them through ethical, rational, and emotional modes of appeal. Firstly, he conveys an absence of resentment towards his persecutors as well as his optimism in the potential for goodness within the nature of all human beings. Secondly, he separates the Cuban independence cause from his humanitarian appeal, resting his case on experience and verifiable testimony set against the background of a compelling historical narrative. Thirdly, he invokes a compassionate response to the injustices and intense suffering described in his portrayal of real prison conditions.
"The colonized man who writes for his people,” says Franz Fanon, a twentieth-century revolutionary whom Martí anticipates, “ought to use the past with the intention of opening the future, as an invitation to action and a basis for hope” (The Wretched 232). This work shows that the young Martí is keenly aware of the fact that by understanding the past we can change conditions in the present to create a future for the benefit of humankind. In the adolescent writer we can already recognize the humanist values of the mature Martí.
Martí combines historical circumstantiality, poetic intensity, rhetorical schemes and tropes and his powers of persuasion to create an inspired text that shows an uncompromising use of his literary genius for political ends. His condemnation of the treatment of political prisoners and his appeal to Spaniards to end these injustices constitute political activity undertaken to achieve political objectives. Notwithstanding his emphasis on humanitarian concerns and the strategic repositioning of Spain’s concern with honour and national integrity, Martí’s attempt in El presidio político en Cuba to communicate “truth” and produce new “knowledge” in order to effect institutional changes did not succeed, for it required the willingness of Spaniards to redefine their national identity, reconstruct the bases of honour and national integrity, and reconsider their relationship with Cuba.
This work, we have noted, was not an isolated moment in Martí’s efforts to change conditions in Cuba, for Martí’s views were published in El Jurado Federal in September 1871, as part of an intense polemic with another Madrid daily newspaper, La Prensa, which was hostile to Cuban independence; and significantly, on November 5 of that year, fourteen Madrid newspapers formed the Liga de la Prensa Española Antifilibustera to oppose Cuban revolutionaries and their sympathizers, in direct response to the power of Martí’s discourse (Toledo Sande, Cesto 38). While such a response could not have been entirely surprising to Martí, it was certainly opposite to the desired outcome of his appeal, but he did not retreat.
Fanon suggests that the nationalist intellectual begins by producing work directed toward the oppressor, whether to charm, denounce or appeal to his audience, but then “progressively takes on the habit of addressing his own people” (Fanon, The Wretched 240). Martí was eighteen in 1871. By the end of the 1870s, says Ramos, Martí had distanced himself from the traditional “legalistic rhetoric of allegation” represented in both El presidio político en Cuba and La República española ante la Revolución cubana (Ramos 53). Viewed as legalistic allegation, Martí’s direct appeal to the colonialist politicians and people of Spain suggests optimism regarding the possibility of a just and rational response that would achieve justice and dignity for Cubans and redeem Spain’s humanity.
The recognition that history and existing reality negated the possibility of the desired outcome being achieved by peaceful means will have contributed to a radical change in strategy that will be reflected the revolutionary discourse of his maturity. It would account for the radicalization evidenced in his conviction that justice and dignity for Cubans could be achieved only through a just, necessary and inevitable war of independence. That war becomes the conceptual centre of the writings and speeches that united and strengthened the Cuban revolutionary movement that fought for Cuba’s emancipation from colonial despotism.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983
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.
Portuondo, José Antonio. José Martí. Crítico literario. Washington: Unión Panamericana, 1953.
Ramos, Julio. Divergent Modernities. Culture and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Latin America. Trans. John D. Blanco. Durham: Duke U. P., 1996.)
Toledo Sande, Cesto de llamas. Biografía de José Martí. (My Translation, Basket of Flames: A Biography of José Martí. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2000).
Vitier, Cintio. “Los discursos de Martí” Anuario Martiano 1, 1969: 293-318.
Copyright 2006 Pamela Barnett