JOSÉ MARTÍ, WARRIOR OF WORDS Magda Montiel Davis
Step into a Cuban classroom of this century, of two centuries past, and a child stands, her back to the blackboard, reciting the works of José Martí, 19th-century revolutionary hero and literary icon of my island homeland.
Martí’s passion for the written word sprung hand-in-hand with his quest for Cuba’s freedom from Spanish colonial rule. At the age of fifteen, on the day after a massacre of unarmed protesters at a Havana theatre, he published a play in a newspaper he had founded about an adolescent boy in a fictional country who dies defending the homeland from foreign attack. This, and a letter he sent to a classmate chastising him for joining the Spanish volunteer militia, prompted his arrest for treason. At sixteen, he was sentenced by a Spanish military tribunal to six years of hard labor. Waist and leg shackles that he was made to wear during the length of his incarceration left life-long stigmata where the iron dug into his flesh.
Wounded and sick, he was deported—repatriated, the Spanish called it—to Spain to renew his loyalty to the mother country. He enrolled in law school pursuant to dispensation by the Spanish authorities. But there, he made more revolution, engaging the press, finding other Cuban deportees with whom to join forces and publishing several essays, some reprinted in New York’s La República, some about the threat of U.S. expansionism into Cuba. The ones against colonialism, he sent to the Spanish Prime Minister. Evading national surveillance, he left for Paris, where he met and translated Mes Fils for Victor Hugo. Still under order of deportation, and risking return to prison, he sneaked into Cuba using his middle and maternal surname, Julián Pérez. He traveled to Mexico and Guatemala to raise support for Cuban independence but then returned to Cuba. It was during this second stay that he was once again deported to Spain. He fled across the Pyrenees, destination: New York. It was in the Catskill Mountains, where U.S. doctors sent him to recuperate from what may have been tuberculosis, that he wrote Versos sencillos.
Although taking the conventional form of poetry, Martí’s highly acclaimed work is a mosaic of essays. Using the first-person narrative, he moves from the particular—the autobiographical—that he is, after all, part of a larger group, that is to say, humanity. The son of a Spanish soldier who had immigrated to Cuba, he eulogizes his father in Verse XLI: Upon receipt of the news of the honor bestowed upon me, I thought not of Rosa nor of Blanca, but of the gunman, my father; the soldier, my father—the worker, silent in his deserted tomb.
He writes where indignation propels him; a ship tosses from its doors black men by the hundreds; slaves naked, bound in chains, hanged from a tree; a little boy trembling at the sight, crying at their feet, and swearing retribution. (XXX).
With affective connection to memory, he gets past places he otherwise couldn’t go. Of his future wife, he writes in XVIII, XX, XXXV, XXXVII, but read about “la niña de Guatemala,” and you see a man torn, a man anguished, a man who left the woman he loved to fulfill his promise to marry his future wife. (IX).
Los versos sencillos was published by Louis Weiss & Co of New York in 1891. Because Martí wrote and published most of his books in the U.S., it could be argued that he is part of the U.S. literary tradition, although you’d be hard-pressed to find his works in most U.S. bookstores or libraries. The same year that Los versos sencillos was published, he determined that the right conditions existed to bring “necessary war,” to secure independence and also to halt U.S. expansionism into Cuba. He united the exile community in Key West, founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party, and drafted its mission: “…the establishment of a republic where every citizen, Cuban or Spaniard, white or black, American or European, may enjoy in work and peace the full rights of man.”
A poet, essayist, journalist, philosopher, professor, publisher, revolutionary. And now, he would be a soldier. He sailed for the Dominican Republic to join General Máximo Gómez, a black Dominican who had led the struggle of the Ten Years’ War and was now Commander-in-chief of Cuba’s Independence War. Against Máximo Gómez’s advice— Martí was a man of letters, not a man of war—he prepared for warfare. Cultivo una rosa blanca, Martí had written, the first verse most Cuban children are taught in school and one of the most anthologized in Latin America. I cultivate a white rose/ in July as in January/ for the friend who extends a sincere hand. And to the cruel who rips the heart from which I live/ for him too I cultivate a white rose. (XXXIX).
He arrived on the island by rowboat with Gómez and five others. For one of the first planned attacks, Martí donned a black cape and mounted an all-white horse—sure to be seen by the Spanish. Gómez ordered his men to retreat; the Spanish had a vantage point between the palm trees. But Martí rode removed, and alone. He was killed as he prophesied in XXIII: I want to leave the world/through its natural door/in a cart of green leaves. Do not put me in the dark/to die like a traitor. I will die/ with my face to the sun. A wordsmith, a warrior of ideas, he was. But a gunman, like his father, he was not.
Step into a Cuban classroom and a child stands, her back to the blackboard, reciting Jose Martí: I cultivate a white rose/ in July as in January.
My poetry will grow and I too will grow under the grass.