When the half-century Cold War between Cuba and the United States came to a dramatic conclusion in December, a dour Raúl Castro made the announcement sitting in a drab office, dressed in his four-star verdes olivos, reading from a sheaf of papers. He could well have been reciting a weather report, not breaking his country’s biggest news story since 1959. There was just one concession to stagecraft to signify the import of the moment: a portrait of José Martí, the iconic poet-saint of Cuba, that hung over Raul’s head. Nor did President Obama miss the opportunity to invoke Martí in his speech announcing the historic rapprochement: “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest.”
With the exception of Simón Bolívar, the Great Liberator, no one rivals Martí in importance to Latin America. And because of his prolific writings — muckraking journalism, trenchant essays, impassioned speeches, exquisite letters and some heartbreaking poems, Martí is arguably the more beloved.
And yet, though he was a household name in Latin America during his lifetime, Martí is probably less known (at least among non-Hispanics) today than his compatriots Desi Arnaz or Gloria Estefan.
Alfred J. López, a Cuban American scholar at Purdue University who previously wrote a book on Martí and nationalism, hopes to remedy that with a new biography of this titanic, quixotic figure heralded as the Apostle. Moreover, he declares at the outset of his comprehensive study, “José Martí,” an even more ambitious goal: to wrest Martí from “the selective blindness” of a century of hagiography and mythmaking.
A revolutionary, poet and martyr, Martí serves as the icon for every side of the Cuban debate: Fidelistas, exiles, Marxists, Miami capitalists — all claim him as their own. His face and name are ubiquitous throughout Cuba and South Florida, engraved and emblazoned on Havana’s airport, a chain of Miami schools, parks, institutes, think tanks, libraries, coffee shops and gas stations.
Martí articulated a political ideology and culture that rejected European hegemony of the Americas and celebrated the hemisphere’s multiracial and indigenous identity. Moreover, he presciently foresaw that once freed from Spanish rule, Cuba would face a far thornier foe: the United States.
Though a great admirer of the United States and its democratic institutions, Martí was wise to its expansionist appetite and designs on Cuba. “I have lived inside the monster and know its entrails,” he famously wrote in his last letter.
Few have appropriated Martí as strategically as Fidel Castro, who deftly co-opted the poet’s credo of nationalism to justify decades of anti-Americanism. Indeed, Castro’s preferred location for delivering his many speeches was the Plaza de la Revolucion, standing beside a massive statue of Martí.
A child prodigy, fluent in English and French, Martí was born in 1853 in Havana, 350 years after Spain declared Cuba a colony. By the age of 16, he was a fervent revolutionary, publishing poems and tracts — and that guaranteed his arrest. Although he spent just a year in custody, four months of hard labor marred his health forever and cultivated a yearning for self-sacrifice bordering on martyrdom. Prison, he wrote to his doting mother, “has given me many lessons for my life, which I foresee will be short.”
Early release from jail, secured by his family, may have saved him but came at an immense price: exile from Cuba. Martí lived in Spain, France (where he met his idol Victor Hugo and translated his work) and New York City, where he spent close to 15 years.
There were political asylums in Mexico, Guatemala and Venezuela, all of which began with the rosy optimism of postindependence but ended with Martí confronted by a new political beast: homegrown caudillos — dictators bent on perpetuating their power and wealth. Had he lived in another century, Martí would undoubtedly have had the same collision with Fidel Castro.
By 25, Martí was a marquee name in Latin American politics, journalism and literature. Though he married into a prominent Cuban family, his wife never embraced his revolutionary zeal. It likely didn’t help that Martí was an unreformed Lothario.
Estrangements with his wife were frequent and bitter, notwithstanding a son.
Martí found a far happier union in Manhattan with fellow exile Carmita Mantilla, with whom he had a long affair and possibly a daughter. If so, Martí was the grandfather of the actor-heartthrob Cesar Romero.
After years of exhausting fundraising and dashed hopes, Martí returned to Cuba in 1895 to lead an insurgency. Although partnered with Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo, the two hero-generals of Cuba’s Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), the venture was doomed from the outset. Pinkerton agents retained by Spain infiltrated the rebels, who were beset with internecine quarreling and all manner of mishaps. Complicating matters were Martí’s precarious health and military inexperience.
Every Cuban child is taught that on the afternoon of May 19, 1895, Martí, astride an eye-catching white horse, rode into a Spanish ambush in Dos Rios. López, however, suggests the possibility of a less-heroic finale. Parsing and challenging accounts of Martí’s final day, López questions the heroism and responsibility of all present — and those who were not.
Nevertheless, he does little to dispel that it was Martí’s disposition toward martyrdom that carried the day. “For the cause of Cuba,” Martí declaimed just a few hours before his death, “I would be crucified.” And so his deification began.
The life, the history and the facts are all here in López’s volume. It is thorough, compelling and a generally lively account, though not without a few repetitions. Martí’s next biographer might add more commentary about his contributions to modernismo, the Spanish-language literary movement. Regrettably, Martí’s seminal work of poems, “Versos Sencillos” (“Simple Verses”), is poignant in Spanish but can at times sound like Hallmark cards in English translation. Still, few describe the anguish of exile better than Martí: “Dos patrias tengo yo: Cuba y la noche.” (“Two countries have I: Cuba and the night.”) Indeed, the popular Cuba anthem “Guantanamera” is adapted from Martí’s verse.
“My sling is the sling of David,” Martí wrote. It was a trope beloved by Fidel Castro, who spent five decades honing the role of the righteous David defying the imperialist American Goliath.
For his part in the historic rapprochement with the United States, Raúl Castro might invoke another cherished refrain of the Apostle: For both friend and foe, wrote Martí, “I nurture a white rose.”
Bardach is the author of “Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington” and “Cuba Confidential,” and is the co-editor of “The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro.”
A Revolutionary Life
By Alfred J. López
Univ. of Texas. 410 pp. $39.95