Book review – Jose Marti Reader Writings on the Americas

Pub. Ocean Press

To mark 170 years this January since the birth in Havana in 1853 of Cuban icon and revolutionary intellectual, José Martí, it is well worth going to the source and reading his ideas in his own words. Although his writing style ranges from romantic exuberance to modern brevity in a sentence this translation of Martí’s key texts – published essays, articles, poetry and letters – into clear English is an excellent guide.

He lived most of his life in exile from Cuba, having been arrested by the Spanish rulers for treason at 16, sentenced to hard labour then deported to Spain. He studied philosophy and law, travelled across Latin America and lived in New York for 14 years before returning to Cuba where he was killed at the beginning of the War of Independence in 1895.

Martí bore witness to events – you can read his description of the Memorial Meeting in Honour of Karl Marx in New York, following his death in 1883, and enthusiasm for Marx on “setting the world on new foundations”. He passionately describes the inauguration of the Statue of Liberty in 1886, donated by the French in memory of their support for American independence from the English.

However, the most significant are those texts which together inspired young Cubans in 1953 such as Fidel Castro to make a revolution in their country, or rather continue what Martí started, even calling themselves “Centennial Youth”, 100 years after Martí’s birth. The essay ‘The Manifesto of Montecristo’ and the article ‘Our America’ (published 1891) are where Martí lays out the ethical and political principles of the future Cuban republic.

Another crucial text was the speech in Florida in 1891 “With all, for the good of all” addressing fellow Cuban exiles to join the new Cuban Revolutionary Party in the armed struggle to free their island from the Spanish colonial rulers and create a new society for the benefit of all Cubans. The title slogan is sometimes appropriated by contemporary Cuban-Americans who support the US blockade, who clearly ignore the detail of Martí’s work. One of Martí’s letters included is to the New York Evening Post in 1889 where he demolishes talk of annexation of Cuba by the United States.

In essays such as ‘My Race’ but also in many others, Martí makes clear his commitment to anti-racism: “Everything that divides men, everything that specifies, separates or pens them, is a sin against humanity.” “There can be no racial animosity because there are no races”.

Cuba’s approach to education was inspired by his 1884 article ‘Wandering Teachers’ advocating education for all, combined with knowledge of the land, which contains his famous phrase “Being cultured is the only way to be free”.

There is an example of Martí’s writing for children, to inspire them to care about others and injustices, from ‘The Golden Age’ magazine in the story ‘Three Heroes’.

Before returning to Cuba he published the long poem ‘Simple Verses’ to express his love for his country. Some of the most well-known verses are here in Spanish and English including ‘Yo soy un hombre sincero’ whose words formed the lyrics to ‘Guantanamera’.

 “I have lived in the monster and I know its entrails: my sling is David’s” wrote José Martí in 1895 the day before his death, perfectly summing up the usefulness of his vision.

Review for CubaSi magazine Jan 2023

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Read more about Jose Marti and his legacy here