| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
The date: January 1880. A few weeks before he turned twenty-seven, José Martí arrived in New York City as yet another Cuban immigrant displaced by the long war for independence on his native island. Already a recognized writer, patriot (who at seventeen was sentenced to a labor camp for his revolutionary activities against Spanish rule), and talented orator, Martí was welcomed as a leader in the community of exiled Cubans in the Northeast. At night he strolled through the streets of lower Manhattan and, in an essay for the newspaper the Hour, described the misery of the "shoeless and foodless" unemployed whom he encountered on one of his nocturnal walks in Madison Square. During a brief stay the following year in Caracas, Venezuela, Martí worked as a teacher and founded a journal to promote his vision of a greater "America" (one in which north and south are unified by mutual respect and understanding).
In the last fourteen years of his life Martí worked in New York as a translator, teacher, and regular correspondent for newspapers in Venezuela, Argentina, and Mexico. He also wrote articles for the New York Sun and frequent letters to the editors of other local newspapers. He was a private tutor and a volunteer teacher of working-class pupils of all colors. Martí wrote poignant essays on the North American cultural and political scene for Spanish American readers. In them he offered the first portraits of Whitman, Emerson, and General Ulysses S. Grant, and he interpreted contemporary events on subjects as diverse as impressionist painting, monetary policy, college education, ethnic conflicts, labor strife, earthquakes, floods, universal suffrage. In early 1890 Martí founded, with Rafael Serra, La Liga, a center for Cubans and Puerto Ricans of color. Martí admired three women—Clara Barton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Helen Hunt Jackson—for their social and humanitarian commitments. He translated Jackson's novel Ramona as well as textbooks on agriculture, logic, and the classical world. He published two books of poetry and a novel, directed several journals, and edited a children's magazine. Most of all, however, Martí worked to unite the rival factions of the independence movement under the Cuban Revolutionary Party. He traveled from New York to Key West and to Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, to promote Cuba's long quest for freedom, which was eventually renewed on the battlefield in 1895. This armed struggle sought to gain independence from Spain and from the United States, to build a just society based on racial equality, without social inequalities. José Martí was killed on the battlefield, in eastern Cuba, on the afternoon of May 19, 1895.
His essay "Our America" is required reading in our days of compulsion for world order, when geopolitical concerns shift from deposits of funds to funds of information, when imperialist expansions emphasize cultural transformations. Martí's ultimate concern is for one "America" based on its Native American uniqueness, without racial hatred; an America that distances itself from Europe and creates requited appreciation (North and South) based on peaceful coexistence and mutual knowledge and respect.
Martí identified the United States as "Anglo-Saxon America," a threat to full Spanish American independence. Martí saw especially during the last two decades of the nineteenth century the developing strategy for the economic and political control of all of America that was taking shape in Washington under the direction of Secretary of State James G. Blaine. For many decades the United States had expressed an interest in buying or, if necessary, gently taking Cuba from Spain. Southern states were particularly interested in gaining territory farther south that would strengthen the rationale for slavery. In the 1850s, filibuster William Walker invaded Nicaragua, declared himself its president, established English as the official language, and even reinstated slavery for the Nicaraguans, all in the quest of a manifest destiny south of the border.
Martí saw in Blaine's Pan-American Conference of 1889-1890 not an opportunity for cooperation among American republics but a United States plan to inherit the previous Spanish colonies as new markets for surplus products. His greatest apprehension was to see this economic and political domination in place before Cuba and Puerto Rico won their independence. Thus, he wrote profusely about the consequences of this brand of Pan-Americanism and what he perceived as Blaine's real objective: political control of the Americas. If Spanish America was to be absorbed economically, politically, and culturally before it had relished the opportunity to gain its true independence by recognizing its indigenous roots, multiracial identity, and knowledge of itself, Martí's greater "America" would be in danger. If the government of the United States proceeded thoughtlessly, without attempting to study the true nature of its neighbors, Martí's greater "America" would be lost. For America could only be one with understanding and knowledge of the other, and by common consent.
Such is the invitation to read José Martí's "Our America," the best of his work. This essay may yet open American minds.
Bryn Mawr College
In the Heath Anthology
La edad de oro
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Biography and photos.
Jose Marti and Martin Luther King Jr: Brothers in Thought
From the Free Cuba Foundation, an essay with linked biographies to King and Marti.
Christopher Abel and Nissa Torrents, eds; José Martí, Revolutionary Democrat, 1986
The America of José Martí: Selected Writings, translated by Juan de Onis, 1954
Inside the Monster: Writings on the United States and American Imperialism, Philip S. Foner, ed., 1975
José Martí's "Our America": From National to Hemispheric Cultural Studies, Jeffrey Blena and Raul Fernández, eds., 1998
José Martí, Major Poems: A Bilingual Edition, trans. by Elinor Randall, 1982
Martí on the U.S.A., Luis A. Baralt, ed., 1966
Our America: Writings on Latin America and the Struggle for Cuban Independence, Philip S. Foner, ed., 1978
Roberto Fernández Retamar, Introducción a José Martí, 1978