Guest post by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez, College Fellow in Spanish, Harvard University
For more than a century, Cuban revolutionary and writer José Martí (1853-1895) has been viewed as a foundational, almost sacred figure in the pantheon of Latin American intellectual history. To this day, Cubans living both in the island and in exile continue to take pointed positions over where Cuba’s “apostle,” as he is popularly called, would stand in relation to Fidel Castro’s Third Worldist brand of communism: one side highlights Martí’s repudiation of authoritarianism and his defense of individual liberties, while the other underscores his condemnation of US imperialism and his support for social equality. Meanwhile, Martí holds a significant place in the Latin American canon of literature and sociopolitical thought. The continuing fascination with Martí among Latin American scholars is rooted, on one hand, in his status as a post-romantic polymath who navigated the fluid, conflicted borders between literature and politics, popular journalism and high culture, and the US and Latin America, and, on the other, to his self-fashioning as a man of patriotic self-abnegation in his pursuit of Cuban independence and Latin American sovereignty (the fact that he died, in martyr-like fashion, facing the Spanish army, of course adds to this mystique).
Aside from Spanish colonialism, what worried Martí the most was, as he put it in his most famous essay “Our America” (1892), the northern “tiger.” Martí thought that US expansionism represented the Spanish American republics’ “greatest danger,” which in his view were torn by “the arrogance of the capital cities, the blind triumph of the scorned peasants, the excessive importation of foreign ideas and formulas, the wicked and impolitic disdain for the native race.” In Martí’s utopian vision, the solution to this dilemma lied in Latin American autocthony, in engaging with the local world of Latin America’s “natural men,” teaching “the history of America from the Incas to the present tradition” and cultivating what he called “our own Greece,” all from an anti-racist creed that preached that “there are no races.” The origins of Martí’s creed of “continental unity” can be traced back to the Spanish American Wars of Independence, when Venezuelan general Simón Bolívar proposed the creation of a Spanish American republic that unified the former colonies (in contemporary Latin America, Hugo Chávez sought to resurrect this ideal alongside other left-wing populist presidents, from Evo Morales in Bolivia to Rafael Correa in Ecuador).
Martí’s utopia of a truly independent, socially harmonious Latin America was articulated through a dichotomy that represented negatively not only the US government, but also Anglo-American culture. In journalistic sketches published widely in Latin American newspapers, such as “Coney Island,” Martí relentlessly excoriated the greed and moral corruption he perceived in the United States and particularly in New York City, where he lived in political exile for most of the 1880s and early 1890s. His tone grew more acerbic as his plans for revolution intensified; one key reason for this was his suspicion that US would intervene in Cuban affairs if it sought political independence (Martí’s correct hunch was based not only in that US capitalists possessed key investments in Cuba, but also in that many plantation owners and merchants in the island supported annexation). In one of the many pamphlets he wrote in Patria, the Cuban Revolutionary Party official organ printed in New York City, Martí attacked US society for having “no bond other than that of interests,” as a place of “sordidness and bestiality” (“A la raíz”).
The irony of this narrative is that, even as Martí argued for an autochtonous Latin American identity separate from the tiger of the North, his work cannot be separated from the very culture he eviscerated in his most intense moments of political fervor. Martí held a sustained dialogue with a varied US literary and sociopolitical tradition, writing extensively and often admiringly on figures ranging from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to Walt Whitman and Ralph Emerson. In addition, he wrote and translated articles for Anglophone newspapers such as The New York Sun (interestingly, he also translated Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona into Spanish). As Laura Lomas points out in her fascinating book on Martí as a Latino intellectual, Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities, in the last two decades American Studies and Latina/o Studies scholars have incorporated Martí as an “interlocutor and as a reader of North American cultural and political texts” (65).
But Lomas also emphasizes the importance of understanding Martí’s difference as a Cuban living in political exile, as “a translator inside the empire’s belly” (13). Indeed, Martí’s ruminations on wide-ranging issues such as the myth of Billy the Kid, the Haymarket riot, the Knights of Labor, and the Pan-American Conference, show us a critical glimpse into US affairs and how the growing communities of Latin American origin in the US viewed such affairs and related to them, from a transnational, intercultural lens. In mapping these relations (and tensions), across spaces, cultures and time, and in delineating how they travel (if in fact they do) inside and outside the US, the work of scholars like Lomas and Kirsten Silva Gruesz, who wrote the groundbreaking Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing, can help us reflect not only on the meanings of Latina/o cultures and their history, but US intellectual history itself as an hemispheric enterprise, the utopian vision of a “continental” relationality.