Almost every Cuban town, large or small, has a bust or a statue of José Martí somewhere, and if they don’t already know, it doesn’t take long for most people who spend any time touring round Cuba to start wondering who he is. Born José Julián Martí y Pérez to Spanish parents on January 28, 1853, this diminutive man, with his bushy moustache and trademark black bow tie and suit, came to embody the Cuban desire for self-rule and was a figurehead for justice and independence, particularly from the extending arm of the US, throughout Latin America.
Angry young man
An outstanding pupil at the San Anacleto and San Pablo schools in Havana, and then at the Instituto de Segunda Enseñaza de la Habana, Martí was equally a man of action, who didn’t take long to become directly involved in the separatist struggle against colonial Spain. Still a schoolboy when the first Cuban War of Independence broke out in 1868, by the start of the following year he had founded his first newspaper, Patria Libre, contesting Spanish rule of Cuba. His damning editorials swiftly had him pegged as a dissident, and he was arrested a few months later on the trivial charge of having written a letter to a friend denouncing him for joining the Cuerpo de Voluntarios, the Spanish volunteer corps. Only 16 years old, Martí was sentenced to six years’ hard labour in the San Lázaro stone quarry in Havana. Thanks to the influence of his father, a Habaneran policeman, the sentence was mitigated and the now-ailing teenager was exiled to the Isla de la Juventud, then known as the Isla de Pinos, and finally to Spain in 1871.
Martí wasted no time in Spain, studying law and philosophy at the universities in Madrid and Zaragoza, all the while honing his literary skills and writing poetry, his prolific output evidenced today in the countless compendiums and reprints available in bookshops around Cuba. One of his poems, taken from the collection Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses), was adapted and became the official lyrics of the song Guantanamera, a Cuban anthem.
By 1875 he was back on the other side of the Atlantic and reunited with his family in Mexico. Settling down, however, was never an option for the tireless Martí, who rarely rested from his writing or his agitation for an independent Cuba and social justice throughout Latin America. Returning to Havana briefly in 1877 under a false name, he then moved to Guatemala where he worked as a teacher and continued his writings. Among his students was the daughter of Guatemalan president Miguel García Granados, who fell in love with Martí but whose love went unrequited. Martí returned again to Cuba in 1878 and during another brief stay he married Carmen Zayas Bazán, with whom he had a son that same year. By 1881 he was living in New York, where he managed to stay for the best part of a decade. His years in New York were to prove pivotal. Initially swept away by what he perceived to be the true spirit of freedom and democracy, he soon came to regard the US with intense suspicion, seeing it as a threat to the independence of all Latin American countries.
Charging to battle
The final phase of Martí’s life began with his founding of the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892. He spent the following three years drumming up support for Cuban independence from around Latin America, raising money, training for combat, gathering together an arsenal of weapons and planning a military campaign to defeat the Spanish. In April 1895, with the appointed general of the revolutionary army, Máximo Gómez, and just four other freedom fighters, he landed at Playitas on Cuba’s south coast. Disappearing into the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, just as Fidel Castro and his rebels were to do almost sixty years later, they were soon joined by hundreds of supporters. On May 19, 1895, Martí went into battle for the first time and was shot dead almost immediately. Perhaps the strongest testament to José Martí’s legacy is the esteem in which he is held by Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits, his ideas authenticating their vision of a free Cuba and his dedication to the cause an inspiration to all.