José Martí is without doubt one of the most important figures in the cultural history of the Americas. A precocious journalist and poet, an exiled writer in Europe and the United States, a theorist, political activist, and also a soldier towards the end of his life, Martí sums up the spirit of the revolutionary intellectual of late nineteenth century Latin America and the Caribbean. Often referred to as The Apostle and El Maestro [Mentor, Master and Teacher], the national hero of Cuba has become a symbol of the emancipation and resistance of the periphery, facing up to the economic, political and cultural centres.
Martí’s definition of the territories comprehended between the Río Grande and the straits of Magellan as “our America” — introduced in the essay Nuestra América [Our America] (1891) — is key to understanding the past and the present of the diverse, yet historically connected, peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean. His concept pushes geographic and linguistic borders to describe both the cultural abundance and the common cause of the heterogeneous communities resulting from processes of conquest, colonisation and enslavement. This brief, yet complex, essay acknowledges the diversity of the continent while describing historical and cultural facts that give unity to what he considers “our America”, by comparison with the United States of America. Through a critique of the idea of race, Martí’s epithet encompasses continental Latin-America, “the romantic nations of the continent”, and the Caribbean, “the suffering islands of the sea”, unified by a soul that emanates from bodies that are diverse in form and colour.
Born on January the 29th of 1853 in Havana, José Julián Martí Pérez studied in the Colegio San Pablo. In that institution he benefited from the mentorship of the Cuban revolutionary intellectual Rafael María de Mendive, who would support him during further phases of his education in the Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza de La Habana. José Martí published his first political articles in the journal El Diablo Cojuelo on January the 19th 1869, only a few months after the beginning of the first Cuban war of independence. A few days later, the 23rd of January, the young intellectual edited the first and only issue of the journal La Patria Libre, where his patriotic theatre play Abdala appeared. That same year, the sixteen-year old revolutionary was judged by the military Spanish authorities after the finding of a letter signed by Martí himself and his friend Fermín Valdés Domínguez, in which they criticised a colleague who did not stand for the revolution. José Martí was sentenced to an extended period of hard labour in the prison Canteras de San Lázaro, and in January of 1871, was pardoned and banished from Cuba. Exiled in Madrid, Spain, Martí published his memories of the political prison and the colonial situation of Cuba in El presidio político en Cuba [The Political Prison in Cuba] (1871). In 1874, he finished his studies in Law, Philosophy and Letters in the Universidad de Zaragoza, and came back to Latin America in 1875.
After approximately two years of intense cultural activity in Mexico and Guatemala, José Martí returned to Cuba, where he was nominated secretary of the literary section of the athenaeum Liceo Artístico y Literario de Guanabacoa and member of the education section of the Liceo de Regla of Havana. Because of his political speeches and background, José Martí was detained, accused of plotting with the revolutionary intellectual Juan Gualberto Gómez, and deported anew to Spain in April 1879. In January 1880, the Cuban intellectual arrived in New York, where he started collaborating with the Comité Revolucionario, linked to the General mambí, Calixto García, and commenced his political activism amongst the Cuban émigrés. During this period, the journal The Hour commissioned him to complete the series of chronicles “Impressions of America”. By the end of the failed armed revolution leaded by Calixto García, in 1881, Martí was already in Caracas, where he continued his political activity and funded the short-lived journal Revista Venezuela.
Back in New York, the Cuban intellectual started a fruitful collaboration with La Opinión Nacional of Caracas, in September 1881. Both aesthetically and historically valuable, these chronicles were published as part of this association, under the headings “Cartas de Nueva York” [Letters from New York] and “Escenas norteamericanas” [North-American scenes], and also by El Partido Liberal (Mexico), La Nación (Buenos Aires), and La América (New York) until 1891. These journalistic works celebrated the diversity of the peoples of the United States, their dedication to work and the noble origins of the American Republic. Nevertheless, they also alerted their readers to the United States’ economic and political ambitions for expansion to Latin America.
By 1890, José Martí was not only the leader of Cuban revolutionaries in the United States, but also a cultural representative of Latin American authorities, through his roles as consul of the Argentinian and Paraguayan governments. His activism led to the creation of the political journal Patria in March of 1892 and to the foundation of the political organisation Partido Revolucionario Cubano (PRC) in April of that same year. The new political organisation integrated different social classes and sectors in heterogeneous clubs united by the common purpose of obtaining the independence of Cuba. As elected delegate of the PRC, José Martí continued his labour of coordination of the actions and contributions of both members and sympathisers across Cuba, Mexico, and the United States, mainly in Tampa, Cayo Hueso, and other localities of Florida. In September 1892, Martí travelled to Santo Domingo and met with Máximo Gómez, one of the leaders of Cuba’s Ten Year’s War (1868-1878), to communicate to him the intention of the émigré of naming him General in Chief of the upcoming armed revolution. In October of that year, the delegate of Cuban revolutionaries visited Haiti and Jamaica, where he found enough support to create clubs of the PRC in those countries. In April 1895, Martí arrived in Cuba to join the independence war that had started in February, and was killed in his first incursion into the battle field, on May 19th.
Rafael Rojas (11) has described how during the first decades of the twentieth century, the evocations of Martí by intellectuals and politicians acquired religious nuances. According to this study, topics such as the apostolate, sanctity, sacrifice, immolation, guidance, paternity and martyrdom, have informed the cult of The Apostle since his last years in New York and, especially, from the moment of his death. José Martí’s vital cosmopolitanism and universalist localism are intertwined with both his political activism and his writing. In the four issues of the journal La Edad de Oro [The Golden Age] (New York, 1989), reprinted in book format in 1905, the Cuban intellectual showed his regard for children’s and young people’s education, by writing, translating and compiling a wide range of literary texts for the new generations of Latin-Americans. In Martí’s poems and essays, the voice of a subject deeply rooted in the homeland, yet shaped by diverse cultures, and projected onto a transnational scene, expresses the contradictory and abundant nature of the Modernist literary subject of the Americas. His formally and aesthetically diverse poetic work, which includes, amongst others, Ismaelillo (1889), Versos Libres [Free Verses] (1882), Versos Sencillos [Simple Verses] (1891), was considered by poet Rubén Darío as the main influence on the consolidation of literary Modernism: “Antes que nadie, Martí hizo admirar el secreto de las fuentes luminosas. Nunca la lengua nuestra tuvo mejores tintas, caprichos y bizarrías.” [Over anyone else, Martí cherished the secret of the luminous sources. Our language has never had a better exponent of words, whims or oddities] (Darío, 159).
Fina García Marruz and Cintio Vitier (1969) pointed out the relevance of Martí’s reforming literary spirit, expressed through his adaptation of language to new topics embedded in Americanist imaginaries. His use of neologisms, his experimental approach to punctuation, and the poetic style of his journalistic works, transformed the framework of reference for writing in Castilian language. Ángel Rama (2015) has highlighted Martí’s study of reality and its plurality reflected in both the social and the natural world, and has stated that, for the Cuban poet, intellectual and artistic creation could not be dissociated from politics, sociology and morality. José Martí’s literary works, activism, and life, illustrate the universalisation of the rich local cultural expressions of the diverse territories of the Americas.
Darío, Rubén. Los raros. Barcelona: Red Ediciones,
García Marruz, Fina; Vitier, Cintio. Temas martianos. La Habana: Biblioteca José Martí, 1969.
Martí, José. El Presidio Político en Cuba. Madrid: Print Ramón Ramírez, 1871.
—. Ismaelillo. New York: Print Thomson & Moreau, 1882.
—. La Edad de Oro. Publicación mensual de recreo e instrucción dedicada a los niños de América. New York, 1889.
—. “Nuestra América”. La Revista Ilustrada, 1891.
—. Versos sencillos. New York: L. Weiss Co, 1891.
—. Versos Libres. In G. de Quesada y Aróstegui (Ed.), Obras XI. La Habana, 1913.
—. Nuestra América. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 2005.
Rama, Ángel. Martí, modernidad y latinoamericanismo. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 2015.
Rojas, Rafael. Essays in Cuban Intellectual History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Citation: Jerez, Yairen . "José Martí". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 02 August 2018 [https://staging.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=13470, accessed 01 June 2023.]