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An Open Letter to President Obama about José Martí

An Open Letter to Obama about José Martí
04/04/2016 07:39 pm ET
Alfred J. López
Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Purdue

Dear Mr. President:

Although the media commotion over your visit to Cuba has diminished, I’m
sure that Cuba will continue to hold your attention in the coming
months. So I thought this would be an opportune moment to write you
about someone who was apparently much on your mind during your historic

As you noted in your press conference with Cuban President Raúl Castro,
José Martí is indeed worthy of our admiration for “not only his role in
Cuban independence, but the profound words that he wrote and spoke in
support of liberty and everywhere.” Your own profound words
about Martí, and especially your visit to his memorial in Havana,
brought much-deserved recognition to someone who, despite being an icon
in Cuba and across all of Latin America, until very recently remained
unknown to most (North) Americans.

But it would be easy for Americans discovering Martí through your words
and gestures to see him as a strictly Cuban figure—and one who endorses
through his silent presence the Cuban state that claims him, in Fidel
Castro’s words, as its “intellectual author.” To reduce Martí in either
of those ways—to a single country or ideology—is to do a great
disservice to one of the Western Hemisphere’s true intellectual giants.
In this short space I can note some important facets of Martí’s life and
work that most Americans don’t know, but should.

1) José Martí was a great American writer

It’s easy enough to make a case for Martí as one of the great poets and
political writers of his time, indeed as one of the half-dozen most
important Latin Americans of the 19th century. Lost in that assessment,
however, is the fact that he produced nearly all of his most important
work as a resident of the United States—more specifically, as a New
Yorker. He is best known for masterworks of poetry, such as Ismaelillo
(1882) and Simple Verses (1891). But Martí’s work as a U.S. foreign
correspondent also appeared in South America’s most respected newspapers
of the 1880s, and stand today among the most important journalism of the
Gilded Age in any language. It would be no stretch to call Martí Latin
America’s first syndicated columnist, as untold thousands of
Spanish-language readers received their first real glimpse into North
America through his eyes and words.

More importantly, his engagement with North American politics,
literature, and culture was as broad as it was profound. From political
trials to Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge, from modern art to music
to U.S. Presidential elections, the plight of poor immigrants and the
rise of a new American financial elite, Martí watched and wrote about a
new America rising from the ashes of Reconstruction into the Gilded Age.
He read and wrote about many canonical U.S. authors, including Ralph
Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Helen Hunt Jackson, whose novel Ramona
he translated into Spanish. In short, Martí’s writings during the last
15 years of his life place him in the top echelon of American authors,
as crucial for a full understanding of 19th-century America as Emerson
or Whitman or Mark Twain—not just a great Cuban or Latin American, but a
great American writer. As Martí scholar and translator Manuel Tellechea
puts it:

“From the death of Whitman in 1892 to his own death in 1895, Martí was
the greatest poet, Anglo or Hispanic, in the United States at that time,
a fact not known by many then or now. But since he wrote and published
almost all his books in [the U.S.], in concert with, and often ahead of,
the progress of American culture and literature, it is impossible not to
consider him also a part of the U.S. literary heritage and certainly the
greatest Hispanic contributor to it.”

2) Martí was both an admirer and critic of the United States

Martí first learned of the United States’ history of revolution and
independence as a 12-year-old schoolboy in Cuba, under the auspices of
his teacher and mentor, Rafael María de Mendive. The influential
headmaster’s first tangible impact on young Pepe appeared in the form of
a hemp bracelet, which he and many classmates wore the week following
the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, who Mendive greatly
admired. More importantly for the future revolutionary, Mendive also
embraced the America of Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson as the model
of a people that had succeeded in shaking off the colonial yoke and
becoming a free nation.

The adult Martí recognized in 1880s New York a population uniquely
suited to the entrepreneurial and transformational work of building a
nation, a people whose innate energy and intelligence had outgrown its
European ancestry. But he also saw America’s creeping spiritual
impoverishment and materialism, which paradoxically deteriorated the
nation’s character even as it grew ever wealthier and more powerful.

Toward the end of his life Martí began to fear that the greatest threat
to Cuban independence was no longer , but a nascent American empire
that was greedily eyeing the rest of the hemisphere. Although Martí
never lost respect for the American Founding Fathers and American ideals
of democracy generally, his denunciations of the administrations of
Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland grew increasingly sharp. By the
time of “Our America,” Martí’s most celebrated essay, the U.S. has
become in his eyes the looming “seven-league giant” against which Latin
American republics must defend at peril of their very existence.

From his final, unfinished letter, written from the battlefields of
Cuba in May 1895, comes one of Martí’s most oft-quoted sentences: “I
lived inside the monster, and know its entrails—and my sling is
David’s.” Yet the mixed Biblical metaphors reveal the ambivalence of
Martí’s relation to the “brutal” North he could never bring himself to
hate. If the David and Goliath reference depicts Martí’s view of himself
as a confident, if outgunned, insurgent, his nod to Jonah and the whale
reveals a much more complex relation to the American “monster.” As
Jonah, who defies God’s order and attempts to escape his judgment,
remains a grudging instrument of divine will even after his deliverance
from the whale’s belly, so Martí fought against U.S. domination yet
retained the idea of America as a foundational model of democracy and

3) Martí ≠ the Cuban Revolution

As a preeminent public figure of our time, Mr. President, you are
certainly no stranger to the idea of politicians validating their
ideologies through the (carefully chosen) words and images of past
heroes. Surely you also know that in the coming years, plenty of
politicians will wrap themselves in your words—often in the service of
ideas you would not have wanted.

But Cuba and Martí make a special case. As I’m sure you noticed (I don’t
see how you wouldn’t), one cannot swing a palm frond in Cuba without
hitting a Martí statue, shrine, or document of some kind. Aside from his
name adorning the Havana where you landed and the plaza where
you laid your memorial wreath, Martí’s name and image appear on Cuba’s
national library and its one-peso note. Smaller statues, tributes, and
christenings abound all over the island, from his birth place to the
site of the where the teenage Martí did time, to town squares and
baseball stadiums and even private shrines in Cuban households.
Likewise, the study and dissemination of Martí’s words is something of
cottage industry in Cuba, as the state-run Centro de Estudios Martianos
has since 1977 churned out thousands of pages dedicated to the portrayal
of Martí as a Marxist revolutionary in keeping with government’s own
Marxist-Leninist ideology. These are all part of a decades-long effort
by the Cuban government to mold a Martí in its image, in order to
portray itself as Martí’s rightful heir and the keeper of his vision.

Of course the Cuban-American community doesn’t exactly share that
sentiment, as you may have gathered during your most recent visit to
Miami—and in particular your conversation with Fr. Juan Rumin
Domínguez—back in May. And of course Miami has its own impressive
collection of Martís, including José Martí Park and monuments in Miami
Beach and (of course) Little Havana, and even a chain of private schools
(Lincoln-Martí Schools). In short, the fifty-plus years of ideological
combat between the Cuban Revolution and its diaspora has produced two
politically incompatible Martís: one an atheist Marxist revolutionary,
the other a pro-U.S. capitalist.

The truth is more complex than either of those caricatures. But although
Martí had a deeply ambivalent relationship to the U.S., his engagement
with the U.S. was a long and substantial one. The same is not true of
Karl Marx, whom Martí mentions a scant half-dozen times in a Collected
Works numbering 26 volumes. Given the Marxist Cuban state’s virtual
identification with Martí, it is remarkable how little he actually had
to say about Marx and his work. His only sustained discussion of Marx
occurs in an 1883 article covering a New York memorial shortly after the
philosopher’s death, in which Martí’s praise for the deceased Marx as
standing “on the side of the weak” is tempered by deep distrust of the
angry masses assembled in his name. “The steel spur,” he concludes, “is
not well-suited to be a founding hammer.” Undaunted by this reality, the
Cuban Revolution has nevertheless been claiming Martí’s endorsement of
Marx—and by extension, of its own Marxist revolution—for over half a
century. So, Mr. President, the next time you see Raúl Castro, please
ask him to show you where and when exactly José Martí declared himself a
Marxist. I’m sure you’ll find his response very entertaining.

I could go on and on about Martí—I’m Cuban, after all—but I’m sure you
have plenty of more important matters awaiting your attention. But if
you ever find yourself in a particularly Caribbean mood one of these
days, this Cuban would be delighted to have a nerd conversation about
Martí with you. Perhaps over a couple of Cuba Libres, or as my dad used
to call them, “mentiritas”—little lies.

Source: An Open Letter to President Obama about José Martí –

2 Responses to An Open Letter to President Obama about José Martí

  • An interesting summary of the work and life of Jose Marti. I will overlook the section about the USA “overthrowing the colonial yoke” which is strictly for US nationalist consumption, but otherwise a well written and entertaining article.

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