José Martí

History, Literature, Politics, Cuba

José Martí Pérez (1853-1895). Cuban politician, writer and thinker. He organized the Guerra de Independencia (Independence War) (1895-1898). He was one of the most important Spanish language writers and Latin American thinkers.

He was born in Havana on January 28, 1853 and was the first and only son of the Valencian Mariano Martí Navarro, a sergeant of Havana’s Artillery Regiment and a police security guard; and the Canarian Leonor Pérez Cabrera. In 1857, he resided with his family in Valencia, Spain, for two years. After returning to Havana, he attended the school of Rafael Sixto Casado and at the age of nine he went with his father to Hanábana, a mountainous area to the south of the current province of Matanzas, and then to British Honduras, currently Belize. In 1885, he joined the school of Rafael María de Mendive, a poet and journalist, who got him acquainted with Havana’s intelligentsia, hired him as a scribe and paid for his senior high education, which he started in 1886. When the Guerra de los Diez Años (Ten Years´ War) began in 1868, Mendive was arrested and his school was shut down, and Martí had to work at a Notary’s Office to help cover his family’s maintenance costs, until he was also arrested in October, 1869, for being found in the possession of a letter in which he accused one of his schoolmates of being an apostate, after the latter decided to join the Voluntary Corps that supported the Spanish colonial government. He was court-martialed and sentenced to six years in prison and to do forced labor at a quarry where his health was seriously affected. He was pardoned and deported to Spain. He began to study at the university in Madrid and graduated in Law and Philosophy and Letters at the University of Zaragoza.

In 1875, he reunited with his family in Mexico City and enlisted in an expedition heading for Cuba that never made it to the sea. In 1887, he settled in Guatemala, after a brief transit through Cuba, where his family had returned. He returned to Havana in August, 1878, after the war, accompanied by his wife, the Cuban Carmen Zayas-Bazán, with whom he had his only son on that same year. He stood out among the conspirators who promoted the Guerra Chiquita (Little War) (1879-1880) and was arrested and again deported to Spain, from where he escaped to New York to join the Revolutionary Committee that was led by General Calixto García, who left him in charge of that organization after he returned to Cuba to join the struggle. Upon the failure of that movement, Martí traveled to Caracas in 1881, but after six months he returned to New York, where he settled almost uninterruptedly until his final days. He was part of several patriotic initiatives, he confronted the autonomous and annexationist ideas and in 1892 he founded the Partido Revolucionario Cubano (Cuban Revolutionary Party), of which he was elected Delegate, a position he held until his death, and through which he organized the Independence War (1895-1898). He landed in the Island accompanied by the General in Chief, Máximo Gómez, a few weeks after the struggle had begun, and he was killed during his first combat in Dos Ríos, in the province of Oriente, on May 19, 1895. His mortal remains are kept in a mausoleum in the cemetery of Santiago de Cuba. He is considered the Mastermind and the Apostle of Cuba’s independence. Since his teens years he published several poems and after the first war had begun he published several articles and a theater play based on a patriotic theme in the newspapers La Patria Libre and El Diablo Cojuelo, which did not survive for long. In Spain he collaborated with some publications; he wrote his drama Adúltera (Adulterer) and printed the opuscules El presidio politico en Cuba (The political prison in Cuba) and La República Española ante la revolución cubana (The Spanish Republic in the Face of the Cuban revolution). In Mexico he joined the writers’ staff of Revista Universal, where he published hundreds of works (articles, critique, theater plays reviews, parliamentary bulletins, leaflets and short news items) and many poems, and first published his drama Amor con amor se paga (Love pays love). In 1878, he published the booklet Guatemala and in that country his theater play Patria y Libertad (Homeland and freedom) which was an American Indian drama, was put on stage. In New York, he collaborated with English language newspapers by publishing some articles about arts, letters and local customs and in Caracas he published two issues of Revista Venezolana. After returning to New York, he published two books of poems, Ismaelillo and Versos Sencillos (Simple verses). He was the editor and writer of the monthly newspapers La América and El Economista Americano and the children’s magazine La Edad de Oro (The Golden Age). He also published by episodes his only novel, Amistad Funesta (Sad friendship) or Lucía Jerez. For more than ten years, he wrote Escenas norteamericanas (North-American scenes), great chronicles and essays about the United States, which were published in several newspapers and magazines of Spanish America which earned him great recognition in the Spanish language literary world. In 1892, he founded the newspaper Patria to publish information about the struggle against colonialism. His book Versos Libres (Free verses) was left unfinished.

He worked as a professor at different moments during his life: in Guatemala he taught Philosophy and Literature; in Cuba he taught Literature; in Venezuela he taught French, Literature and Oratory; in New York he taught Spanish and several other subjects to Cuban migrant workers. For some months he worked as a lawyer in his homeland, he translated several texts from English and French into Spanish. He worked as a clerk in several commercial offices. He worked as consul of Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay in New York and represented the first of these Republics at the International Monetary Conference held in 1891 in Washington. Since he was young he was concerned about the social and economic development of the Latin American region; he expressed his admiration towards the American aboriginal cultures and concern about the United States expansionist attempts. His stay in Caracas strengthened his knowledge and coincidence with the ideas of Simón Bolívar about continental unity. He consolidated his conviction that the Latin American affairs should be addressed from the region’s own history and reality and that its structural problems dated back to the colonial times and replicated throughout the region. He advocated for an independent republic, ruled by a popular majority, achieved through the concerted actions between the Cubans in the Island and the émigrés. His initial ethical criticism of the mercantilism of the US society was rounded up with an analysis of the meaning of the emerging monopolies and their increasing influence on the country’s domestic and foreign policy aimed at controlling the markets and ensuring control over the territories, particularly in what he called Our America. He proclaimed the need for unity among the peoples of Spanish America to fight back the hegemony of the United States and he stated that the first step would be the independence of Cuba followed by the independence of Puerto Rico. He defended the originality and cultural identity of the region and stated his thesis that it was necessary to abolish the structures inherited from colonial times and create political and social models based on the very continental realities and needs.