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Authors: Enrique Krauze

Redeemers (2 page)


José Martí


The history of the modern ideas of revolution in Latin America begins with the life, work, and martyrdom of a New Yorker named José Martí. He was born in 1853 in Cuba, an island that, along with other islands (Puerto Rico and the Philippines), was the last bastion of the Spanish Empire. Both of his parents were Spanish. His father, from Valencia, was a sergeant in the army and his mother had been born in the Canary Islands. He had endured poverty as a child and exile since his adolescence. “I have learned how to suffer,” he wrote from the prison of La Criolla, at the age of sixteen, to Rafael María de Mendive, a teacher who had inspired his political awakening. Martí's prison time was spent at hard labor in a quarry, which left him with a permanent and often painful inguinal hernia for the rest of his life. His precocious commitment to the cause of Cuban independence had landed him behind bars. Some months earlier, he had expressed his newfound faith in a one-act drama, adolescent in style, premonitory for its content. In
, a Nubian warrior confronts the Egyptian Empire for the purpose of redeeming his people:


I am Nubian! All my people

await me, to defend their liberty!

A foreign people treads our land

and threatens us with vile slavery.

they boldly display their powerful pikes

and honor commands us and God commands us

to die for the fatherland, rather than see it

a cowardly slave to the barbarous oppressor!


And with his mother, Espirta, Abdala debates a vital question: What is the deepest kind of love?


: And is that love greater than what your mother awakens in your breast.

: Perhaps you believe there is something more sublime than the fatherland?


Abdala's words would resound along the course of Martí's life. They would be an essential part of his myth, but the myth would also obscure the luminous side of his personality, as a masterful poet; a bold, original, and surefooted writer of prose; a man of limitless energy and curiosity and a heart overflowing with creative delight and love, above all love.

Deported to Madrid, he took a degree in law and published
El presidio político en Cuba
(The Political Prison in Cuba), demonstrating that freedom of speech was much greater in Spain itself than in its American colony. He wrote a poem on the execution of medical students in Cuba falsely accused of subversion and, when the first Spanish Republic was proclaimed in 1873, a prose piece titled
La República Española ante la revolución cubana
(The Spanish Republic Compared to the Cuban Revolution), referring to the failed Cuban revolt of 1868. And there for the first time he applied his idea of the Republic and his conception of liberty to the criticism of imperial domination:


And if Cuba proclaims its independence through the same right that the Republic has proclaimed itself, how can the Republic deny Cuba its right to freedom, the very same it has exercised in order to exist? How can the Republic deny itself to itself? How can it dispose of the fate of a people, imposing a condition upon it where its complete and free and most evident will does not enter?


The words impressively anticipate the statements of American anti-imperialists in 1898—men like Carl Schurz, William James, and Mark Twain—faced with the American annexationist war in Cuba and the occupation of the Philippines. A republic cannot suffocate another republic, without denying its own essence. The idea of the Republic is a constant refrain in Martí's concept of revolution. From 1873 on, he would always be a classic republican, committed to democracy, to civilian (not military) rule, and a sworn enemy of tyranny and personalist power (

His concept of revolution was a legacy of the American Revolution and the later Latin American wars of independence against Spain. Years later Martí would write, with passion and sympathy, about the Martyrs of Chicago (the execution of innocent anarchists after the “Haymarket Riot,” when a bomb-throwing incident in 1886 killed a policeman). And earlier, in 1883, he mourned, discreetly, the death of Karl Marx, but never applying partisan terms nor the concept of revolution itself that would later become common usage. And he would use the occasion to warn against violence:


Karl Marx is dead. He deserves honor, because he stood with the weak. But he does not do well who points to harm and burns with generous anxiety to relieve it, but rather he who teaches a gentle remedy for that hurt. The task of launching men against men is frightening. Turning some men into beasts for the good of others is unworthy. But one has to find an outlet for indignation so that the beast may halt in its tracks, before it leaps, and be frightened away.


Until the moment (in 1882) when he chose to settle down in New York City, Martí was a wandering Cuban across “great America.” He was a short, slender man, with a passionate and hyperactive temperament. He considered living in Mexico or Guatemala, where he wrote for journals, gave lectures, and collected admiration and fame. In both countries he left loyal friends, evasive or enamored women (one who languished and died when he moved on), but he left both countries behind, disdaining their dictators or their local luminaries, men always uneasy with the presence of a man without a country who proclaimed himself the citizen of a greater country, the “country of America.” Martí then thought he might go to Honduras or to Peru. “It's very hard, wandering this way, from land to land, with so much anguish in my soul,” but in that same soul a certainty “was seething”: “In my head I carry my unhappy people and it seems to me that one day their freedom will depend on a breath from me.”

In Mexico, he met (and would later marry) Carmen Zayas-Bazán, a Cuban of aristocratic descent. And Martí decided to return to Cuba with her. It was a discreet return, using only his middle name and his matronymic as a semi-pseudonym (he would enter Cuba as Julián Pérez). He tried, briefly, to settle into his native land, where his son, José Francisco, was born in November 1878. But the call of his conscience drew him rapidly into conspiracy against the government and he was deported again to Spain, where he remained very briefly.

In 1880 he came to New York and began to solicit funds for a second Cuban attempt at independence, the so-called “Little War” (
La Guerra Chiquita
). With a force of twenty-five men, General Calixto García set sail for Cuba, only to meet with another defeat. Martí remained in New York, as interim president of the Cuban Revolutionary Committee.

He was living at 51 East Twenty-ninth Street, in the home of Manuel Mantilla, a Cuban exile who was very ill and would die a few years later. With Mantilla were his wife, María Miyares, a Venezuelan, and their two children. When his own wife and son arrived from Cuba, Martí rented a house in Brooklyn. But Carmen never comprehended nor came to terms with her husband's political passion (her father thought he was a “
”). In October she returned to Cuba. One month later, María Miyares de Mantilla gave birth to a daughter she named María. Her father was not Manuel but José Martí, who became the girl's godfather. Martí then spent a brief time in Venezuela, María's native land, where he founded an ephemeral publication (the
Revista Venezolana
) and announced “I am a son of America . . . Give me, Venezuela, a way to serve you; in me she will have a son.” But the supremely vain Venezuelan president, Antonio Guzmán Blanco (disgruntled because Martí had not mentioned him in a public speech), decided to expel him. Martí returned to New York. His mother requested, his wife demanded that he come back to Cuba. He would write to Carmen,


You say I should come back. If it meant dying when I arrive, I would gladly give up my life! I don't have to force myself to go, but rather to not go back . . . That you don't value it [Martí's political work], that I know. But I don't have to commit the injustice of asking you to value a grandeur that is merely spiritual, secret and unproductive. . .


It was a marital tension that could not be resolved: Carmen did not understand his mission and would never support it.

The contours of the drama were established. Exiled from his country in order to serve the revolution, estranged from his wife and bereft of the son he adored, consoled by his secret affair with a married woman and walks in the park with his “goddaughter,” Martí would live only thirteen years more. Carmen and his son, José Francisco, would still alternate long periods in Cuba with time in New York until the final break in August 1891, after which he would never see his son again. All through that decade he would lessen his personal anguish with the dedicated passion of his work, as an active strategist, ideologue, orator, prophet, and, in the end, moral
of the Cuban independence movement. He would publish short, beautiful books of poetry. He would translate novels, edit books and journals; and he would let himself be carried away by a voracious desire to understand and make others understand the marvels of this strange and dizzying city that had accepted him.

New York was now his home, or at least his home away from home. Dealing with this environment into which he had settled, “struggling to dominate the beautiful and rebellious English language,” Martí would become the innovator, in Spanish, of the journalistic column in the form of an extended letter. As he wrote to Bartolomé Mitre, editor of the major Argentine newspaper,
La Nación
, he wanted to write from New York neither to denounce nor to praise but to offer a lively and intelligent vantage point from which to observe a reality that was important for Latin Americans to understand.

Everything astonished him. His copious accounts are a primary source for the study of a decade of life in the United States, not only of the transition from a more or less peaceful application of the Monroe Doctrine to active and militarily aggressive imperialism but also and mainly about everyday matters and national events: the trial of President Garfield's assassin, the inauguration of President Cleveland (and the trousseau of his fiancée), the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, the bustle of a Sunday at Coney Island, the fashions of Fifth Avenue, diversions (dances, sleigh rides, regattas, boxing matches, baseball games), the crimes and criminals of New York, the death of Jesse James, the wonderful bouillabaisse served by Madame Taurel in Hanover Square, which was then the center of the financial district; art exhibitions, openings of plays, details of the Oklahoma land boom and the wars out west against the Sioux. And in one of these long epistolary pieces, written for
La Nación
in 1886, on the installation of the Statue of Liberty in New York Bay, he writes the kind of encomium that generations of immigrants would feel, though less eloquently, as their ships slowed down to enter the great harbor of the Land of Hope:


There she is finally, on her pedestal higher than the towers, magnificent as the tempest and as kind as the sky! Any dry eyes in her presence once again learn what tears are. It seemed that souls were opening and flying up to shelter themselves in the folds of her tunic, whisper in her ears, settle on her shoulders to die, like butterflies in the light! She seemed alive; smoke from the steamboats enveloped her: a vague clarity crowned her. She was truly like an altar, with the steamboats kneeling at her feet! . . . She has been created by all the skill of the universe, as freedom is created from all the sufferings of men.


He saw the faults and the virtues of the Colossus of the North. And the dangers for Latin America. The overwhelming emphasis on money did not seem to him “a sound basis for a nation, this exclusive love, vehement and uneasy, for material fortune that ruins people here, or polishes them only on one side, giving them the appearance of being simultaneously colossi and children.” And stemming from these values, “a cluster of avaricious thinkers” yearned for expansion at the cost of the territories of “our America.” Certainly it seemed to him that it was “a deeply painful thing to see a turtledove die at the hands of an ogre.” But one should not confuse “a circle of ultra-‘eagleites' [
—a word Martí coined from the symbol of the eagle and applied to American chauvinists]” with the thought of a “heterogeneous, hard-working, conservative people, occupied with itself, and because of these same varied strengths, well-balanced.” And faced with the cultural inertia of Spain in America, Martí felt an urgent need to explain the United States “to bring into the light all its magnificent qualities, and to highlight, with all its positive strengths, this splendid struggle of men.”

For a decade, Martí's columns appeared every week in
La Nación
and later in as many as twenty Latin American newspapers. Although he was an electrifying speaker, the orator's quality of rousing rhetoric barely appears in his articles. An observation he made in 1881, about a single interesting word, reflects his sense of the proper style for his innovative journalism: “The bare word, vigorous, colloquial, natural, colorful, the sincere word, candid, simple, the word ‘yankee,' this was the word used by Henry Ward Beecher.” And, in fact, it was in New York that Martí began to change the language of Latin American Spanish, shifting away from what he termed metaphors replete with “suffering and victimhood,” expressions like “to write our history with blood,” toward descriptions and structures that rely on demonstrative logic. In the North American press and literature he discovered a freedom without fear and without the need to harangue. Speaking up, writing, publishing cease to be merely forms of rebellion and become a profession, “lively, simple, useful, human conversation,” a public discussion. Martí has stopped thinking in abstract terms or delivering lessons from on high. He speaks directly with the reader. He pours the old wine of the highest Spanish literary tradition (the poets and dramatists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Golden Age, which he knew in vivid detail from his period in Spain) into the new wineskins of North American journalism. Viewed from that perspective, Martí was the first modern writer of Latin America.

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