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José Martí (1853-1895)


Cuban poet, essayist and journalist, who became the symbol of Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain and who promoted better understanding among American nations. "No man has any special right because he belongs to any specific race; just by saying the word man, we have already said all the rights." Martí's three major collections of poems were Ismaelillo (1882), Versos sencillos (1891), and Versos libres, written in the 1880s, but published posthumously in 1913. In his most famous political poem, 'Sueño con claustros de mármol', he takes the reader in his dream world, in which sculptures of dead heroes come alive:

Sueño con claustros de mármol
donde en silencio divino
los héroes, de pie, reposan;
¡de noche, a la luz del alma,
hablo con ellos: de noche!
Están en fila: paseo
entre las filas: las manos
de piedra les beso: abren
los ojos de piedra: mueven
los labios de piedra: tiemblan
las barbas de piedra: empuñan
la espada de piedra: lloran:
¡viba la espade en la vaina!
Mudo, les beso la mano.

José Martí was born in Havana, the son of a soldier of the Spanish garrison who retired to become a watchman. The educational reformer Rafael María Mendive (1821-1886) persuaded Martí's father to allow him to study at secondary school. He attended the Instituto de Havana (1866-69), and worked on the underground periodicals El Diablo Cojuelo and La Patria Libre.  Abdala (1869), a patriotic fable in verse form which he published in La Patria Libre, told about a prince from the imaginary land of Nuvia, who dies for his beliefs. At the age of sixteen Martí was arrested for subversion and sentenced to six years' hard labor in a chain gang, but through the intervention of his father, his sentence was commuted. He was exiled to Spain, where he studied at the University of Madrid (1873) and University of Saragosa, receiving a degree in law in 1873, and a year later a degree in philosophy and letters. In Spain he published El presidio de Cuba  (1871).

Most of his adult life Martí lived in the North and operated in the United States to overthrow the Spaniards from Cuba. Between 1874 and his death, he went to Cuba three times, once under a false name. "The truth is, Fermin, that I no longer live except for my land," he wrote to his friend Fermín Valdés, "but a thousand times I hold back what love for her demands so that it does not seem that I do it out of self-interest or to win renown." Martí moved in 1875  to Mexico, where wrote for Revista Universal. He then taught literature and philosophy at the University of Guatemala and returned to Cuba where he worked in a law office. In 1879 he was again deported to Spain.

I wish to leave the world
By its natural door;
In my tomb of green leaves
They are to carry me to die.
Do not put me in the dark
To die like a traitor;
I am good, and like a good thing
I will die with my face to the sun

(A Morir, 1894)

Because of his political activities, Martí was unwelcome to many countries. In 1881 he moved to New York City, where he worked as an editor, journalist or foreign correspondent for several magazines, including the New York Sun, El Partido Liberal, La Opinión Nacional, La Nación, La República, El Economista Americano, and La Opinión Pública. Martí also served as consul for Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina, and was a Spanish teacher at Central High School. Martí's most influential collection of poems from his mature period, Versos sencillos (1891), was produced during a particularly difficult period in his life. For years he had lived apart from his wife, Carmen Zayas Bazán, and his son José. The couple separated after Carmen briefly visited New York in 1890. His crisis reflects in the poem 23: "Yo quiero salir del mundo / por la puerta natural: // en un carro de hojas verdes / a morir me han de llevar. // No me pongan en lo oscuro a morir como un traidor: // yo soy bueno, y como bueno / moriré de cara al sol." Since 1880 Martí had been romantically entangled with Carmen Mantilla, the wife of a tobacco merchant, who was widowed in 1885. Carmita's daughter María is the protagonist of several "versos sencillos".  Martí was her godfather.

Except for travels, Martí remained in the U.S. until the year of his death. Soon after arriving in New York, he visited Coney Island, which he portrayed as a place  "brimming with people, filled with luxurious hotels", but he saw there also "human monsters, extravagant fish, bearded ladies, melancholy dwarfs, and rickety elephants." Martí published the periodical La patria, which followed events in Cuba, and launched a crusade against the brutality and corruption of the Spanish colonizers. In 1894 he founded the Cuban revolutionary Party and tried to lead a company of revolutionaries from the U.S. to the Island. The plan failed but the next year he succeeded in reaching his native country, landing in a remote beach not far from Guantánamo. Martí died in a skirmish at Dos Rios on May 19, 1895; he was shot by a Spanish sniper. A Cuban scout finished him off with a Remington rifle. Martí  was buried by Spanish soldiers in Santiago de Cuba.

The popular song Guantanamera is based on Marti's poem, which was made famous by the composer Joseíto Fernández. His style is still considered a model of Spanish prose. Martí's collected writings in 73 volumes appeared in 1936-53. The main body of Martí's prose was journalistic in nature, written for newspapers and magazines. Martí always reaffirmed his anti-colonialist and anti-racists beliefs. In the essay 'Nuestra América' (1891) Martí formulated his own pan-Latin-American doctrine. He emphasized the need to come to terms with the continents multi-racial identity and the importance of teaching thoroughly the history of America, from the Incas to the present. During the last fifteen years of his life, Martí sent regular contributions to important Spanish American newspapers. His essays were written in a style, which had a deep influence on the literary prose of every Spanish-speaking nation.

For further reading: José Martí: Cuban Patriot by Richard B. Gray (1962); Introducción a José Martí by Roberto Fernández Retamar (1978); José Martí: Mentor of the Cuban Nation by John M. Kirk (1983); José Marti: Revolutionary Democrat, ed.  Christopher Abel and Nissa Torrents (1986); Nuevos asedios al modernismo, ed.  Iván A. Schulman (1987); José Martí and the Emigré Colony in Key West by C. Neale Ronning (1990); Relecturas martianas: Narración y nación by Iván A. Schulman (1994); José Martí in the United States: The Florida Experience, ed. Louis A. Pérez (1995); Jose Martí: An Introduction by Oscar Montero (2004)   - SEE ALSO Che Guevara  - OTHER 19th century writers criticizing colonialism: Herman Melville, Multatuli

Selected works:

  • Abdala, 1869 - Abdala (in Selected Writings, ed. and tr. Esther Allen, 2002)
  • El Presidio Político en Cuba, 1871
  • La República Española ante la Revolución Cubana, 1873
  • Adúltera, 1874
  • Amor con amor se paga, 1876 - Love is Repaid by Love (tr. Willis K. Jones, 1947)
  • Guatemala, 1878
  • Nuestra América, 1881; Emerson, 1882; Whitman, 1887; Bolivar,  1893 (essays)
  • Ismaelillo, 1882 - Ismaelillo ( (in Selected Writings, ed. and tr. Esther Allen, 2002; Tyler Fisher, 2007)
  • Amistad funesta, 1885 (under the pseudonym Adelaida Real)
  • La Edad D Oro (magazine), 1889 - José Martí's The Golden Age (tr.  Maria Elena Hart, Miguel Maranda, 1984) / The  Golden Age  (in Selected Writings, ed. and tr. Esther Allen, 2002)
  • Versos Sencillos, 1891 - José Martí: Major Poems: a Bilingual Edition (contains selection of poems from Versos Sencillos, tr.  Elinor Randall, 1982) / Versos Sencillos=Simple Verses (tr.  Manuel A. Tellechea, 1997) / Simple Verses  (in Selected Writings, ed. and tr. Esther Allen, 2002) / Versos Sencillos (tr.  Anne Fountain, 2005)
  • Obras completas, 1918-20 (8 vols., Nestor Carbonell Rivero)
  • Versos Libres, 1913 - Free Verses  (in Selected Writings, ed. and tr. Esther Allen, 2002)
  • Poesías, 1928 (ed.  Juan Marinello)
  • Versos de Amor, 1930 (ed. Gonzalo de Quesada y Miranda)
  • Artículos desconocidos (1883-84), 1930
  • Epistolario, 1930-31 (3 vols., ed.  Félix Lizaso)
  • Flores del destierro, 1933 (ed.  Gonzalo de Quesada y Miranda)
  • Adultera: Drama inedito, 1935
  • Obras completas, 1936-47 (70 vols., ed. Gonzalo de Quesada y Miranda)
  • Diario, 1938
  • The American José Martí: Selected Writings, 1953 (tr.  Juan de Onis)
  •  Obras Escogidas, 1953 (ed.  Rafael Esténger)
  •  Poesías Completas, 1953 (ed.  Rafael Esténger)
  • Obras Completas, 1936-53 (74 vols., ed.  Gonzalo de Quesada y Miranda)
  • Obras Completas, 1954 (27 vols.)
  • Páginas de José Martí, 1963 (ed.  Fryda Schulz de Mantovani)
  • MartÍon the U.S.A., 1963 (ed. and tr.  Luis A. Baralt)
  • Obras Completas, 1963-66 (27 vols.)
  • Martí, 1970
  • Sus mejores páginas, 1970
  • Escritos Desconocidos, 1971 (ed.  Carlos Ripoll)
  • Ensayos sobre arte y literatura, 1972 (ed.  Roberto Fernández Retamar)
  • Nuestra América, 1974 (ed.  Hugo Achúgar)
  • Inside the Monster: Writings on the United States and American Imperialism, 1975 (tr.  Philip S. Foner and Elinor Randall)
  • Prosa Escogida, 1975
  • Discursos Selectos, 1977
  • On Education, 1979 (ed.  Philip S. Foner, tr.  Elinor Randall)
  • Our America: Writings on Latin America and the Struggle for Cuban Indepencence, 1979 (ed.  Philip S. Foner, tr.  Elinor Randall)
  • Nuevas Cartas de Nueva York, 1980 (ed.  E. Mejía Sánchez)
  • On Art and Literature, 1982 (ed.  Philip S. Foner, tr.  Elinor Randall)
  • Major Poems, 1982 (tr.  Elinor Randall)
  • Poesía Completa, 1985 (ed. Eliana Dávila)
  • Ideario, 1987
  • Antología poética, 1987 (ed. Maria Esther Cantonnet)
  • Political Parties and Elections in the United States, 1989 (ed.  Philip S. Foner, tr.  Elinor Randall)
  • Epistolario, 1993 (ed.  Luis García Pascual and Enrique H. Morena)
  • Ensayos y crónicas, 1995
  • Thoughts: On Liberty, Social Justice, Government, Art, and Morality, 1995 (tr. Carlos Ripoll)
  • Doctrines, Maxims, and Aphorisms: A Bilingual Anthology, with a Concordance=Doctrinas, máximas y aforismos: antología bilingüe, con una concordancia, 2000 (tr.  Carlos Ripoll)
  • Selected Writings, 2002 (ed. and tr. Esther Allen)
  • The Complete Poems of José Martí=Obra poetica completa, 2003 (tr.  Jack Agüeros)

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