An Open Letter to President Obama about José Martí

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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 visit.

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 freedom 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 Spain, 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 freedom.

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 airport 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 prison 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.