With his speech of December 14 an American president has dared to move the clock of Cuban-US relations forward into the realities of the 21 century. And to people who have been paying attention to Cuban history and culture, that President Obama quoted the revered Cuban literary giant Jose Marti was remarkable. Cuban Born anthropologist Ruth Behar took note
Most significantly, Obama cited the words of the beloved Cuban hero José Martí: “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy.” Martí, a poet of the late 19th century who admired and translated Walt Whitman, spent most of his adult years in exile in New York, planning Cuba’s war of independence from Spain.
He thought of himself as living in “the belly of the beast,” always fearing the United States would steal Cuba’s victory, as it in fact did. Not surprisingly, Cuba is a country overrun with busts and statues of Martí, because it is believed that U.S. interference in Cuban affairs cut Martí’s revolution short. In acknowledging Martí, Obama made clear that the fraught history between both nations cannot be erased but that reconciliation is still possible.
Well regarded translator Esther Allen (who reportedly is writing a biography of Marti) explains:
Obama’s speech urged us to look forward. By citing Martí, he acknowledged that looking forward also means looking back—way back… Obama called for a new way of thinking, and that’s something that needs to begin in the United States, too. It will happen when we start looking at Cuba and other states in Latin America and across the world as valid fellow nations that do not exist in order to be improved by U.S. political, cultural, or economic invasion. Instead of thinking about all we can teach the Cubans, we might ask what we have to learn from them. Reading José Martí, or Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, whose work is translated into English and many other languages by an extraordinary international team of volunteers, or WWB’s great Close But No Cigar issue, or my colleague Ted Henken’s recently co-edited anthology of writing by Cuban social scientists, is a good place to begin. In the process, we might learn something about ourselves.
Given his prodigious body of work and his fame in this hemisphere(except in the USA) it is particularly odd that only recently has an biography of Jose Marti written in English been published.
José Martí: A Revolutionary Lifeby Alfred J. López (University of Texas Press)
Aside for Simón Bolívar, Jose Marti’s (1853–1895)legacy looms large in Latin American history. His collected writings— poetry, essays, and journalism — fill 25 volumes and continue to have a profound influence. Alfred J. López, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Purdue University was born in New York City to Cuban parents and grew up in Miami.He explains why he wrote the first biography of Marti in 50 years:
I’ve been wanting to write this book for a long time. My little 2006 book on Martí was a sort of dress rehearsal for this one, in that it got me comfortable dipping my toes into a subject who fascinated and terrified me at the same time. And I don’t mean “terrified” in just an academic sense, although ten years ago 19th century Cuban studies lay well beyond my own expertise. What made me put off the biography for about a decade was the conviction that I would be treading on what, for Cubans on the island and abroad, is holy ground. We’re talking about a man who has been so beatified he seemed nearly unapproachable. I knew that to humanize him, as any responsible biography would have to do, would absolutely incur the wrath of many — not just politicians and scholars, but Cubans generally speaking — who are deeply invested in the saintly Martí, Cuba’s national “apostle.”
The content of what each of those groups doesn’t want to hear can vary, but whatever their political disagreements, they have a mutual interest in keeping their idol untainted. It’s no accident that no one has tried to do this before — there are plenty of scholars far more accomplished than myself — Carlos Ripoll, rest his soul, comes to mind — who could and should have written this biography. I can’t speak to their reasons for not doing it. But I wonder whether they pondered the aggravation they’d have to endure from certain angry corners; detractors, rushing to Martí’s “defense.” Maybe everyone else decided that a true Martí biography wasn’t worth the hassle of dealing with the haters. Which is also partly why I dragged my own feet on it for so long.
For the record, I didn’t write that statement — someone at the press did that, or maybe one of the advance reviewers. But I think it’s accurate, for one simple reason: It’s the only book-length study of Martí that makes full use of the research and scholarship available on both sides of the Miami-Havana divide. In the history of Martí studies, it’s a relatively recent development to find U.S. publications that cite or even acknowledge work from Cuba, despite the staggering amount of primary research Cuban scholars have produced on Martí. And the island Cubans are even worse in that regard — even now, if you read books or journals published in Cuba, you’d never know that anyone in the U.S. or Canada had ever written a word about Martí.
So this is the first biography that actually incorporates material from both Cuba and the U.S….The stuff has been sitting there all along, but no one else had ever bothered with it.
José Martí: Selected Writings translated by Esther Allen, Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria (Introduction) (Penguin Classics)
Published in 2002 Selected Writings is organized chronologically, beginning with his early writings, such as his account of his political imprisonment in Cuba at age sixteen. The middle section collects some of his journalism—since Martí lived in exile, in New York, for most of his adult life,he earned a living as a foreign correspondent and thus was the conduit through which Latin America saw the United States. This selective anthology also includes selections of his poetry and samples from his private notebooks. And for first time an English translation of his final masterpiece, “War Diaries.”
What better time to take note of this titan of American letters than this day, on the 162nd anniversary of Marti’s birth.
Currently reading Descent by Tim Johnston (Wm Morrow)