“THIS DAY IN CUBAN HISTORY…- José Julián Martí y Pérez (1853-1895)”

A publication of the Cuban Studies Institute

José Julián Martí y Pérez (1853-1895), Cuba’s greatest hero and most influential writer.  Revolutionary, poet, journalist, and the principal organizer of the Independence War of 1895-1898, he was the apostle of Cuba’s independence.  Born in Havana, January 28, of a Valencian father and “isleño” mother, he spent his early years as an eager student.  His environment and teachers aroused in him a devotion to the cause of freedom.  He enrolled at the Instituto de Segunda Enseñanza but was soon arrested for political reasons.  After serving several months of hard labor, he was deported to Spain in January 1871.  By then he was already receiving recognition as a writer.  At the age of 15 he had composed

several poems, and at 16 he published a newspaper, La Patria libre, and wrote a dramatic poem, Abdala.  In Spain he resumed his studies and published an essay indicting Spanish oppression and the conditions in Cuban prisons, El Presidio político en Cuba.  In 1874 he graduated in philosophy and law from the University of Zaragoza.  After traveling in Europe, he worked as a journalist in Mexico, in 1875-1877, made a short visit to Cuba, and settled in Guatemala, teaching literature and philosophy.  There he married Carmen Zayas Bazán, daughter of another Cuban exile and shortly afterward published his first book, Guatemala.  Unhappy with life under Guatemala’s liberal but autocratic President Barrios, he returned to Cuba, December 1878, hoping that the Peace of Zanjón would have improved conditions there.  The authorities, however, soon discovered his revolutionary activities and again deported him to Spain.  He escaped to France, and them moved to the United States and Venezuela.

Finally, in 1881 he made New York his home, although he continued traveling in Latin America and writing on its problems.  Writing a regular column for La Opinión nacional of Caracas and La Nación of Buenos Aires, he won recognition throughout Hispanic America.  Not only his articles, but also his poetry and prose, precursors of modernismo, became popular. His poetry he reserved primarily for the expression of his innermost thoughts, his loves, and his increasing preoccupation with death.  In 1882 his most significant poems recorded his tender feelings for his son and homeland, expressed in regular meter but in a style presaging modernismo, appeared in the collectionIsmaelillo, named for his son. His best-known poems are his Versos sencillos, which emphasize such themes as friendship, sincerity, love, justice, and freedom.  Martí also won the hearts of many Latin American youngsters with his Edad de oro, a magazine especially devoted to children.  His greatest contribution to Spanish American letters were his essays.  Written in a high personal style, the Modernista renovation of language that characterized them marked the beginning of  the new Hispanic American prose.

He realized very early that independence from Spain was the only solution for Cuba, and that this could only be achieved through a military victory obtained so rapidly as to preclude United States intervention.  His fear of a military dictatorship after independence led to his 1884 break with Generals Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo.  His withdrawal ended in 1887 and the three men then resumed working together, with Martí assuming political leadership.  In 1892 he formed the Partido Revolucionario Cubano in New York and directed his efforts toward preparing a war against Spain.  What distinguished Martí was his ability to organize and harmonize.  His oratory inspired his listeners who admired his faith and sincerity, and his conviction in the ideas he was pursuing gained for him respect and loyalty.  His writings were not mere rhetorical exercises, but moral teachings aimed at making a better human being.  His importance transcended Cuba.  Like Simón Bolivar, he thought in terms of a continent and advocated the unity of Latin America.  His writings and ideas had impact throughout Latin America.  When in 1895 he gave the order for the resumption of hostilities, he felt he could not remain behind in New York and landed in Cuba to lead the campaign.  Shortly afterward, on May 19, he was killed in a skirmish at Dos Rios.

*Jaime Suchlicki is Director of the Cuban Studies Institute, CSI, a non-profit research group in Coral Gables, FL. He is the author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro & Beyond, now in its 5th edition; Mexico: From Montezuma to the Rise of the PAN, 2nd edition, and of the recently published Breve Historia de Cuba.