Read Redeemers Online

Authors: Enrique Krauze

Redeemers (3 page)

And not only as a journalist. Devoted as he was to the cause of Cuban liberation, Martí had no conscious, aesthetic intention of renovating the language but he did just that through three channels: his columns, his books of poetry, and his letters. Journalism in the Spanish language had never before reached the artistic level Martí achieved and his best-known book of poetry,
predated and anticipated, by nearly a decade, the first modernist currents of poetry in Spanish.

The fifteen poems of
(published in 1882) are inspired by the deprivation he felt after the departure for Cuba of his son, known affectionately as Pepito. The language is simple, elegant, totally free of nineteenth-century romantic rhetoric yet threaded with sudden, often surprising images, looking forward to modernism and back to the Spanish poets of the seventeenth-century Golden Age (
El Siglo de Oro
). Not only his absent and longed-for son, but his quest for political and expressive freedom enter into the verses:


The air is inhabited

by diminutive eagles.

They are ideas soaring up,

their prisons shattered!


Yet everywhere (perhaps even with the choice of a word like “diminutive”) a remembered infant pervades the brief, influential collection:


Is what swathes him

flesh or mother-of-pearl?

His laugh, as if in a cup

of Arabian onyx,

bubbles up in triumph

on his unmarred chest

Here you are! pale bone

here! alive and everlasting.

I am the son of my son!

It is he who renews me!


The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno—who compared José Martí to the high priest of Italian unification, Giuseppe Mazzini—said about Martí that he was “a man of feeling as much or more than a man of thought.” In Martí's letters (to friends and political partisans, and which were published years after his death) Unamuno saw the mark of two illustrious Spanish predecessors in letter-writing as art—the Roman Seneca and St. Teresa de Ávila.

New York would always both fascinate and disturb him. Writing to his most frequent correspondent, the Mexican Manuel Mercado, Martí would say, “Everything binds me to New York, at least through some years of my life; everything binds me to this cup of poison.” Distant from his family and not drawn to the provocative life available to a man alone in the great city, he had to work at meagerly paid and uninspiring jobs for various business houses. The idea of becoming an editor offered him a hope for improving his life, a possibility that seemed to flow naturally from his positive evaluation of the work ethic that surrounded him. He would write, “Here a good idea always finds welcoming, soft, fertile ground. One must be intelligent, that is all. Do something useful and you will have everything you want. Doors are shut for those who are dull and lazy; life is secure for those who obey the law of work.” Martí saw himself as someone who could translate North American culture for Latin Americans and build a bridge of understanding between the two Americas. He had been surprised to see (like the Argentine Sarmiento on his travels in 1847) that everybody here seemed to read, and he thought of inspiring a broader spectrum of Latin Americans to adopt the same practice. He had done a brief stint as editor of a scientific journal (
La América
, where he had published pieces on the advantages of some types of fertilizer and the excellence of certain cheeses). Based on this limited experience, he floated a plan in 1886 to establish, with some of his Mexican friends, “a noble and extensive American enterprise” that would publish “cheap and useful books . . . human and highly topical, to instill character and prepare people for practical work.”

Martí's attempt to create a publishing venture for all Latin America, beginning with Mexico, coincided with a parenthesis in the urgency (though never in the commitment) of his political activity. In the middle of the 1880s, after two failed attempts to overthrow the Spanish colonial government, Martí advised his followers to wait until internal Cuban conditions could mature to a point when the revolutionaries might be received with sympathy and efficiency—to ensure that a war would be conducted with minimum suffering and maximum benevolence, setting the stage for a free and harmonious republic. He was especially disturbed by the personalist
of the men who had led the two previous wars, Antonio Maceo and Máximo Gómez. He had come to know both of them in 1882 in New York. In 1884, he had written to Gómez:


But there is something beyond any personal sympathy that you can inspire in me . . . and it is my determination not to contribute—through blind love of an idea that dominates my life—even an iota toward bringing a regime of personal despotism to my land, which would be more shameful and ill-fated than the political despotism it now endures, and graver and more difficult to uproot, because it will arrive with the excuse of certain values, embellished by the ideas it would incarnate, and legitimized by triumph . . . The fatherland belongs to no one and if it does—this only in spirit—it will be his who serves it with the greatest detachment and intelligence . . . [Such a person] might very likely be you, or it might not be you. To respect a people who love us and place their hopes on us, is the height of grandeur. To make use of their suffering and their enthusiasm for one's own private benefit; that would be the height of ignominy.


His project for producing “cheap and useful books” is never accepted by his Mexican friends. They see no possible market for the venture. Nor does he succeed in getting a Mexican publisher for his translation of the novel
by Helen Hunt Jackson, even though “it is a good book, on a Mexican theme.” The parenthesis of relative political inactivity has begun to close. On the tenth of October 1886, a day on which the Cuban community honored the outbreak of the first unsuccessful war against Spain, Martí returns to giving public speeches, and his words circulate through the Cuban community from New York to Florida. His office at 120 Front Street becomes a meeting place not only for Cubans but for other Latin Americans: “it's come to be like a stock market of nations.” In 1887, his father, the former Spanish army sergeant, dies; Martí admits to having never understood him. To his oldest Cuban friend he writes: “I will die here, Fermín, without being able to put this ardent activity to use, other than indirectly and unhappily.” He meant of course his dedication to the freedom of Cuba: “The truth is . . . I live now only for my country.”

Martí had long been impressed with the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the poetry of Walt Whitman. Like both of these writers (but especially Whitman) he was a man of insight and emotion, not a builder of systems. But both Americans contributed to what became one of Martí's central tenets: freedom is a resource you must secure for yourself. No one else can give it to an individual or to a nation. For Cuba he was concerned (at least as much as for its freedom) with creating conditions that would permit his country to govern itself democratically. And he gave his opinion (in a letter to his friend Gonzalo de Quesada in 1889) on the proposal of José Ignacio Rodríguez for a negotiated and peaceful grant of independence mediated by the United States:


. . . it is guided by the confidence, for me impossible, that the nation that has need of us (for reasons of geography, strategy, property and politics) will pull us out of the hands of the Spanish government and then give us our freedom, so that we may conserve what we did not acquire and that we could use against the interests of those who have granted it to us. Confidence of this kind is a generous feeling but as for its being rational, I cannot concur . . . And once the United States is in Cuba, who will get them out of there?


For Martí there were four problems to be addressed: the danger of
; the methods for winning independence; the pressure toward annexing Cuba to the United States, favored by some Cubans as well as North Americans; and finally the general attitude of the United States toward the island. Martí was compelled to discuss, analyze, and mediate between various, conflicting forces. He knew very well that the Cubans were confronting a bureaucratic Spanish Empire, sclerotic and tyrannous, under whose reign there were no citizens but only subjects. Yet Martí would insist that the struggle was for independence, not a war against the Spaniards: “We Cubans began the war and we and the Spaniards will finish it. Let them not maltreat us and we will not maltreat them. Let them show respect and we will respect them. Steel responds to steel, friendship to friendship.”

The American press was beginning to discuss the pros and cons of annexing Cuba. On the island, many well-off Cubans approved of the idea. Annexation, they believed, would transform them into large-scale businessmen and vastly enhance the value of their landholdings. (They pointed to the example of Texas, where a few decades earlier, barren and unused Mexican land had become highly valued American properties.) The rumors kept spreading, under the growing influence of the “yellow press” powered by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper mogul who could perhaps create a war. Martí immediately recognized the importance of a public discussion. In a letter to New York's
Evening Post
on March 21, 1889, titled “A Vindication of Cuba,” he spoke up for Cuban workers in the United States and their love of freedom:


They admire this nation, the greatest that freedom has ever established; but they do not trust the disastrous elements that, like worms in the blood, have begun their work of destruction in this marvelous Republic. They have made the heroes of this country their own heroes and they yearn for the ultimate success of the North-American Union as the greatest glory of humanity; but they cannot honorably believe that the excessive individualism, the adoration of wealth and the prolonged jubilation over a terrible victory are preparing the United States to become the nation that typifies freedom, which must be a country without opinions based on the immoderate appetite for power or acquisition or triumphs that are opposed to goodness and justice.


Confronted with the new ideology of American expansionism (“We are the Romans of this continent,” said the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes), Martí, always a prudent man, was shedding his original admiration. At first he felt estranged, then wounded, betrayed, trampled by a monster. And he did not know how to reconcile the irreconcilable. The United States had accepted him as an equal, a free man within its public life (an unaccustomed welcome for the wanderer), but the machinery of power was priming to crush his dream of a fatherland without even taking it into account. They seemed about to concede Cuba an existence within a North American agenda but to absolutely ignore the Cuban point of view. “What almost pulls the ground out from under my feet is the danger I see of my land falling bit by bit into hands that must stifle it.” And not only Cuba had to endure this affliction but also “peoples of the same origin and composition as mine.”

In July 1889, a remarkable monthly journal began to appear, directed by Martí. It was called
La Edad de Oro
(The Golden Age) and was his final attempt at salvation through the culture of the printed word. The magazine published stories, parables, poems, and other writings of interest to children. But it lasted only four issues, until Martí rejected his sponsor's insistence on including religious themes. By then, thoughts of departure and death reappeared, as in the poem to his friend and fellow militant Serafín Sánchez:


. . . as if there had entered within me

Storms of silence, precursor

Of that much greater silence

Where all of us are equal. . .

And after baking the bread

With the pain of every day,

The pen gone dead in my hand,

I enfold myself in the hurricane . . .

And about me I have to tell you

That in proceeding I am serene.

Without fear of thunder or lightning,

I am preparing the future.


His pronouncements also grew in intensity, disappointment, and anger: “ . . . the United States, instead of strengthening its democracy and saving itself from the hatred and misery of monarchies, is growing corrupt and diminishing democracy; and hate and misery, with all their menace, are reborn.” At the beginning of 1891, he would write “Our America,” the cornerstone of Latin Americanism in the twentieth century.

He began the piece with a statement of pride in what Latin America had achieved, countries that “with their silent masses of Indians” had advanced to create “compact and progressive nations.” But the future did not lie in imitating the United States or following the fashionable patterns of French-inspired thought. “You cannot parry a weapon thrust at a plainsman's horse with a decree from Alexander Hamilton. A sentence from Sieyès [the philosopher of constitutionalism in the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras] will not loosen the clotted blood of the Indian race . . . Neither the European nor the Yankee book hold the key to the Latin-American enigma.” Martí now uses the word
with a new negative weight. He still feels that the form of a republic is “the logical government” but now he adds, “If the republic does not open its arms to everyone and move forward for the benefit of everyone, the republic will die.”

In April 1892, he joined with other Cuban leaders in founding the Cuban Revolutionary Party. Among them was Máximo Gómez, the general to whom Martí had written his letter rejecting
. (Gómez was a Dominican who had joined the cause of Cuban liberation, just as many Latin Americans would transcend national boundaries to enter revolutionary movements in the twentieth century.) The party's statement of basic principles, written by Martí, contained a commitment to “the absolute independence of the Island of Cuba” and support for the independence of Puerto Rico. The necessary war for independence must be brief and “generous”; all factions must unite to create, “through a war of the spirit using republican methods,” a durable nation that would attend to the well-being of its citizens and be “duly conscious of its difficult . . . geographical situation.” And after winning the war, the party was not to stay in power and mimic “the authoritarian spirit and bureaucratic composition of the Colony” but encourage the development of “a new country, sincerely democratic,” aware of the need for a “balance of social forces” and “the dangers of sudden freedom in a society created by slavery.”

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