José Martí

José Martí. (Credit:  Cuba. Secretaría de Instrucción Pública y Bellas Artes / Wikimedia Commons)

José Martí. (Credit: Cuba. Secretaría de Instrucción Pública y Bellas Artes / Wikimedia Commons)

It is fitting that these Cuban posts will end one day before the birthday (January 28, 1853) of José Martí. We have had occasion in the past to speak of him. But we have not told how on that day, as if following a silent and sacred call, Cuban school children would deposit notebooks, pencils, rulers and other school supplies at the foot of the monuments in honor of the Maestro. And all of them would have learned the rhymes from the Simple Verses:

When I die

without a country, but without a master over me,

I want on my gravestone a branch of flowers

and a flag.

For most of his life he was a banished wanderer. At 17 he was sentenced to political imprisonment with hard labor in the rock quarries of San Lázaro, in Havana. He was pardoned and deported to Spain in 1871, where he studied Law, Philosophy and Literature. In Spain, Martí brought attention to the horrors of political imprisonment by relating his own story in his first book, Political Prison in Cuba (1871):

This and the vertiginous racing of fifty men, pale, emaciated, quick although wasting away, harassed, agitated by blows, dazed by shouts; and the noise of fifty chains, some of them criss-crossing the body of the prisoner three times; and the constant thud of the clubs on the flesh, and the blasphemies of the abusers, and the terrible silence of the beaten ones, and all this repeated tirelessly day after day, hour after hour, twelve hours a day; this is a pale and weak painting of the quarries.

In 1880 he settled in New York, where for the next 15 years of indefatigable journalistic, political and poetical work, he produced the most incisive cultural commentary on late 19th century North America in print; helped to launch Spanish-American Modernism with two books of poetry—Ismaelillo (1882) and Simple Verses (1891)—and set in motion, through his political activism and organizational genius, the forces that would bring about the cherished dream of a previous generation of Cubans: independence from Spain.

In 1892 he founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party (“Soul of the Revolution”) which proposed independence for Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spanish rule. His goal for Cuba never wavered: “a serious revolution, imposing and compact, worthy enough for honest men to lend a hand in.”

For this, Martí intended a sacrificial ritual when he landed with Máximo Gómez in the province of Oriente in 1895. He had not seen Cuba in 17 years. Now he found himself in the Cuban manigua, among Nature and peasants, in the midst of rebellious mambí armies who hailed him as President, at the center of the whirlwind he had conjured, and the rebellion he had inspired. A famous passage in his last, unfinished letter to Manuel Mercado reads:

Every day now I am in danger of giving my life for my country and my duty … in order to prevent, by the timely independence of Cuba, the United States from extending its hold across the Antilles and falling with all the greater force on the lands of our America … I lived in the monster, and I know its entrails—and my sling is the sling of David.

The accounts of his final moments are conflicted. All agree that at Dos Ríos, the army of General Máximo Gómez was surprised by a Spanish column. Martí and his bodyguard, called Angel de la Guardia (Guardian Angel), galloped towards the line of fire in spite of instructions by Gómez to remain at the camp. He was thrown from his horse by a hail of bullets.

Generations later, the ghost of José Martí still haunted Cuba’s unending struggles for political freedom. The Apostle, the great Teacher of all Cubans, had become a martyr and a saint—our Washington, Lincoln and Walt Whitman all at once.


(Credit: Cuba. Secretaría de Instrucción Pública y Bellas Artes / Wikimedia Commons)

(Credit: Cuba. Secretaría de Instrucción Pública y Bellas Artes / Wikimedia Commons)


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