José Martí: A Biographical Sketch

poet, intellectual, journalist, teacher, orator, revolutionary in exile

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Martí’s birth and life place him in the Nineteenth Century.

The early decades of the Nineteenth Century saw the Spanish American independence wars. After Spain’s defeat in 1924, Cuba and Puerto Rico were all that remained of its empire in the Americas.

Cuba was the proverbial jewel in the Spanish crown. Its wealth depended on slavery, which was not abolished in Cuba until 1886. Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, Cuba and Cubans were still in the firm and repressive hold of Spanish colonialism.

Martí was born in La Habana on January 28, 1853, and he died early in Cuba’s second war of independence, on the battlefield in Dos Ríos, on May 19, 1895.

Who was Martí

Martí’s parents were immigrants from Spain—peninsulares: his father, Mariano Martí Navarro, was from Valencia and his mother, Leonor Pérez Cabrera, was from Islas Canarias.

Don Mariano was a low-ranking employee of the colonial regime with a large family. Martí had several sisters. He attended Colegio San Anacleto, but his father couldn’t afford to keep him there.

Rafael María de Mendive, the poet and independence activist who became Martí’s mentor, assumed the cost of his talented pupil’s high school education.

Throughout most of Martí’s life, in Cuba as in exile, poverty was his constant companion.

Early activism and political prison

Martí opposed colonial repression from an early age. Cuba’s first war of independence, La Guerra de Diez Años, broke out on October 10, 1868. Martí was fifteen at the time and he hailed the fighters for Cuban independence in poems that appeared in student publications in 1869.

He was seventeen when he was condemned to six years in prison for a private letter to a fellow student who had enlisted in the Spanish army.

Martí did not approve of the young man’s move, and the colonial regime did not approve of Martí’s letter.

Months of hard labour left him with lifelong injuries. In January 1871, after almost a year in prison, his sentence was commuted to exile and he is deported to Spain, where he remained until 1875.

Exiled in Spain - the revolutionary activist

Martí lived most of his life as a revolutionary activist in exile.

His activism, upon arriving in Spain, is remarkable, especially when we consider that he was eighteen. He arrived in January and by March he has published several significant newspaper articles and a substantial literary work condemning colonial repression. By September he is writing in El Jurado Federal on behalf of Cuban residents in Madrid and debating with La Prensa.

He remained in Spain until 1875, during which time the war is escalating. He participates in political actions and protests. He continues to write and publish, responding to events occurring in Spain as well as in Cuba, while earning degrees in Law, Letters and Philosophy as an extramural student.

El pacto de Zanjón - peace without justice dishonours

After more than seven years in exile, Martí returned to Cuba in 1878 following the signing of El Pacto del Zanjón, the treaty that ended La Guerra de Diez Años. He was then twenty-five years old.

The war had failed to achieve Cuba’s independence, and the high expectations in many sectors throughout the island that the pact would result in constitutional reforms and genuine improvement in the political and economic conditions in Cuba eventually ended in disillusionment. The majority of Cubans remained disenfranchised, and Spain’s political and economic control of the colony remained unrelentingly repressive.

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

He seized the opportunity to oppose the political direction of the autonomists, declaring that Cuba’s problems required immediate, decisive, concrete and heroic solutions.

He began immediately to work with groups that were organizing the renewal of the independence war, and acquired valuable experience in conspiracy and knowledge of the preparations and planning required for a successful war. Under the watchful eye of the colonial administrators and their sympathizers, Martí’s eloquent speeches in La Habana following the Pacto del Zanjón decisively marked his appearance on the stage of political oratory and inspired Cubans to discover in him a political and spiritual leader.

La Guerra Chiquita

When the revolt that became known as La Guerra Chiquita erupted on August 24, 1879, the Spanish government reacted swiftly with widespread arrests. Martí was arrested on September 17, and on September 25, once again he was deported to Spain.

This time, however, his confinement there was brief and his departure in December somewhat clandestine. He made his way from Spain through Paris to New York, arriving there on January 3, 1880.

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

The Committee disbanded in September 1880 when the rebellion failed.

Campaigning for independence among Cuban in exile

Martí’s address to a meeting of Cuban émigrés at Steck Hall on January 24, 1880, shortly after his arrival in New York, initiated his revolutionary oratory in the United States and marked the beginning of his campaign among Cubans émigrés for support for Cuba’s war of independence.

Martí, who had assumed interim leadership of the committee before the end of La Guerra Chiquita and had emerged as a leader of the independence movement among Cubans in the United States, had learned lessons from the previous wars that he would apply to ensure the success of a new separatist uprising.

Unifying support for the Cuban Independence Movement

After La Guerra Chiquita ended in 1880 and other efforts by exiled Cubans and military leaders of the independence wars to reorganize support for another armed insurrection were also unsuccessful, Martí’s revolutionary work focused on building support among migrant Cuban workers in New York and the active, larger Cuban communities in Key West and Tampa for a new independence war.

In 1890, Martí and Rafael Serra found the association La Liga dedicated to the instruction of black Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants in New York.Martí is its honorary president and volunteers as a teacher. He carries out fundraising activities for the Club Los Independientes in New York.

By 1890 Martí had achieved enormous influence among Cuban émigrés in New York, where he had participated in 1888 in the formation of the Los Independientes club and had emerged as leader of the revolutionary movement for Cuba’s independence and socio-economic transformation.

Cuban communities in Key West and Tampa, Florida

New York, however, was but one émigré centre. Many tobacco factories moved to Florida in the 1860s when the United States raised the import taxes on Havanas. Economic conditions on the island and the independence wars had caused a massive exodus and immigration of Cubans and there were larger communities of Cuban émigrés in Key West and Tampa.

Active in patriotic clubs that brought together supporters of the independence movement, tobacco workers in Key West and Tampa were aware of Martí’s emergence as a revolutionary leader based in New York.

In November 1891, Néstor Carbonell, president of the Ignacio Agramonte Club in Tampa, invited Martí to participate in the club’s artistic-literary benefit celebration, an invitation which occasioned Martí’s first visit to Tampa, an opportunity he used to forge links between the Florida clubs and those in New York.

Martí founds La Liga there.

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

El Partido Revolucionario Cubano

After unanimous approval by all immigrant centers of its bases and estatutos, the Partido Revolucionario Cubano was formed under Martí’s political leadership on January 5, 1892.

Significant changes distinguished it from previous attempts to organize external support for Cuban insurgency: its orientation acknowledged the interests and involvement of all races and classes in the independence struggle, and the organization of its leadership took control of the revolution out of the hands of the military generals and rich landowners and placed it in civilian hands more representative of the popular support for the revolution.

Martí discontinued his newspaper correspondent work to devote himself entirely to the Cuban independence cause. He travels back and forth between New York and Florida organizing the revolutionary forces, working successfully to broaden and strengthen support for the revolutionary forces both outside Cuba and on the island, where Juan Gualberto Gómez became responsible for coordinating political activities within the island on behalf of the revolutionary party.

The second war for Cuban Independence - The Spanish Cuban War

The military members of the PRC choose Máximo Gómez as Chief of the Ejército Libertador. Martí meets with him in the Dominican Republic and offers him the supreme leadership of the war.

By 1893 Martí was organizing for the independence movement at a hectic pace and in spite of continuous health problems. He travels extensively throughout the United States and abroad: Haiti, Panama, Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica, where he meets Rubén Darío. He meets again with Gómez and later with Antonio Maceo

In 1894, Martí meets with Gómez in New York. Together with the General’s son, he travels to several cities in the United States to gather support for the war. He meets with Antonio and José Maceo in Costa Rica and travels to Panama, Jamaica, and Mexico, where he meets with President Porfirio Díaz.

Martí sends to Juan Gualberto Gómez in Havana the Plan de Alzamiento, signed by Martí and José María Rodríguez representing Gómez and Enrique Collazos. The insurgency plan is named Plan Fernandina.

The Plan de Fernandina fails after information is leaked to the United States, whose authorities detain the boat transporting weapons.

In 1895, Martí writes a new Orden de alzamiento.

The Cuban Independence war against Spain begins on February 24.

Martí arrives in Cuba on April 11, and is appointed General Major of the Ejército Libertador by its officers shortly after. He joins José Maceo’s forces.

Three days later Martí and Gómez sign a document stating that the war should be conducted without hatred. Martí, Gómez and Maceo discuss and agree on the general plan for the revolutionary campaign.

He signs, with Gómez, the Proclama a los jefes y oficiales del Ejército Libertador on May 14. Martí is killed in combat by Spanish forces who take his corpse to Santiago de Cuba.

In 1898 Cuba appeared on the verge of achieving its independence from Spain.

The United States intervenes and historians record Cuba’s war of independence as the Spanish-American War.

The United States annexes Puerto Rico and makes Cuba a protectorate.

By 1899 the United States had written Cuba’s first Constitution and assumed effective control over its society and economy.

His ideas and legacy

But Martí’s life and work were not forgotten. His immense contribution to Cuba’s national independence struggle, his power to inspire revolutionaries, and his enduring influence on Cuban political consciousness surfaced dramatically with the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

He continues to inspire Cubans inside and outside of Cuba, and his message of political, economic and cultural emancipation continues to shape cultural and political institutions today.

History justly records him as an incorruptible revolutionary whose unwavering commitment to autochthonous and indigenous values, racial equality, and human rights was uncharacteristic of his contemporaries, transcended the boundaries of his era and anticipated the ideas and writings of later revolutionaries.

His work through La Liga and among Cuban workers in New York and Florida was an important part of his active commitment to ensuring that an independent Cuba would bring about dignity, equality, social justice and enfranchisement for all Cubans.

His life and work exemplify the intellectual activist whose contribution to human progress is founded on the principle that self-development, freedom, justice, and dignity for everyone are achievable through social, political and historical transformation.

For Martí, the foundation of that achievement is self-knowledge and self-development, an awareness of the connectedness between individuals and groups of individuals in society, an awareness of the relations of power, and an understanding of history.

Justice and an honourable peace

To Martí it was very clear that colonialism prevails in the forms and norms of political, economic, social and cultural institutions. Therefore, even after political independence, these have to be transformed before nations and their people can become truly independent and free.

For Martí, economic progress and development must also mean human development, social justice and equality.

His life is defined by his commitment to political independence, cultural emancipation, justice and dignity for every individual: “con todos y para el bien de todos,” with all and for the good of all.

For Martí when war is necessary to achieve these objectives, it must be brief and without hatred.

Peace without justice dishonours.

This is as true for Cuba as it is true for the Americas and for the world.


Copyright 2006 Pamela Barnett