José Martí: the Tribute

By Alina B. López Hernández

Every January 28, the environment was festive at the small school ‘José Cadenas’, in the Jovellanos of my childhood. Teachers —all of them women—, students and parents came together to celebrate the Night of Martí. The central courtyard of the old large house-cum-school was filled with classroom desks where the comfortably seated attendees enjoyed the activity. Simple paper chains and a huge picture of the Apostle were the only decoration.

We would get ready for the evening since the beginning of the year. The teachers wrote the short scripts and the children would passionately decide who got to play each role. My role was a cinch. I almost always played Leonor Pérez; the advantages of having a height that made me look older.

The summary of crucial moments in Martí’s life was managed with creativity, putting together bits and pieces of his poetry and prose. Some of his characters paraded in front of the audience, like the Spanish dancer, Pilar, Piedad and her Doll, Bebé and her cousin Raúl, Masicas and Lopi, Meñique and the Princess… and many others from La Edad de Oro (The Golden Age). We would sing the song ‘Clave a Martí’ and reenact his death, face turned to the sun, with his verses as an epitaph. It was an ending that moved children and adults alike.

Those were the years of the Grey Five-Year Period, something I’d learn about later, but those Nights of Martí had nothing to do with dogmatic attitudes. They were a tradition that dated back to small public schools during the republican era, where self-sacrificing schoolteachers turned their adoration for Martí into a living and collective act. These were the teachers who remained active in the 60s and 70s.

When my daughters were of school age, I couldn’t help comparing these remembrances with the way of commemorating the Teacher today. Now, in morning meetings at school, standing under the harsh sun, I felt distant from the emotion, the creativity and the enthusiasm of the 70s. The century had changed, but other things had changed too.

Paying tribute to Martí is at the heart of the Cuban Republic. From the very early stages of independence, practically all municipalities and towns in the island named a street after him. In 1900, a public contest was organized in order to choose the person who would be honored with the first commemorative monument of the Republic, replacing the statue of Isabella II. The popular survey decided it would be dedicated to Martí. And that’s how, in 1905, his effigy was erected in the Parque Central of Havana, at a cost that was also defrayed by public subscription.

From 1900 on, he became an object of popular devotion. People applauded at school parades in remembrance of Martí. There were parties to honor Martí, feasts to honor Martí, layettes to honor Martí…

In 1926, his birthday was instituted as a nationwide celebration for the first time. January 28 was declared a public holiday. Researcher Ricardo Hernández Otero tells us that his image was even used for commercial advertising. The big stores of Havana, for example, showed Martí-themed shop windows on that date.[i]

Going over the documents and press of republican times allows us to verify the affected and corny language that political discourse used to present Martí. Juan Marinello stated in his article ‘El homenaje’ (‘The Tribute’), published in the Diario de la Marina on the very 28th of January, 1926: ‘We must move past the stirred discourse, this plebeianly stirred discourse (…) and into sharp, penetrating speech, which carries its force in its natural simplicity. More than anything, we must spread the virtue of that brilliant Cuban, and with it, the guidelines of his political ideas.’

It would be in the second half of the 1920s —a period of economic crisis and great social effervescence— that a new assumption of Martí’s work and legacy would break through. His figure would be much better known, his biographies would be written. In the wise words of Pedro Pablo Rodríguez, one of his most relevant scholars, ‘a distance was required that would permit the collection of documents and processed information with a certain frequency and systematicness.’

For essayist and researcher Carmen Suárez, the perception of Martí was gradually built ‘through a plurality of discourses, in a very choral way, with all the ambiguities, contradictions and distortions that entailed.’ She identifies a discourse which fuels the popular image of Martí; which encouraged, and still encourages, hypothetical anecdotes transmitted in oral tradition: the womanizer or seducer, the drinker, or even the one used to justify the stealing of a book.

In the antipodes of that popular appropriation, Suárez places the official discourse ‘of a frivolous and irritating cynicism, which sought (…) a sort of cordial cosmetic for power, a resource to tune into the highest patriotic feelings, without the rhetoric of invoking Martí having anything to do with actual political practice.’

In the plurality of voices about Martí, a cultured layer of the population must be singled out: the intellectuals —teachers, creators, professionals—, who promoted the systematic study of his life and work as the century progressed.

In an interview granted to Julio César Guanche, and published in La Revolución Cubana del 30 (The Cuban Revolution of the 30s), Fernando Martínez Heredia maintains: ‘Every generation which has entered Cuban civic life during the 20th century has had to deal with Martí. Each one, naturally, has done it from different situations and conditions, but also facing a previous cultural accumulation which includes Martí and the images and readings of him, and reacting to them.’

When the generation of 1926 approached Martí, it sought to polish its anti-imperialist facet, nearly dented by the constant praise of the pro-independent figure he was. In order to do that, they had to break with the political generation of those who fought in the independence wars and with their guiding principles: personal leadership and dependency.

When the generation of the centenary became a light in the dark shadows of a tyrannized country, exactly one century after Martí’s birth, it wanted to pay tribute to the man who told Gómez —in spite of the respect he felt for him— ‘You cannot set up a people, general, in the same way you set up a camp!’ A group of those young people stormed a military fortress and the struggle against Batista began in the name of the Apostle, a struggle that would be joined by Cubans from different classes and social sectors, in the plains and in the mountains, until the dictator was overthrown.

The lesson that both generations left us is quite obvious. Martí should not only be embraced. In the same way that they did, he must be deconstructed. It is a civic imperative to react to the symbolic images of the Apostle that are presented to us from power. It’s the only way a generation will find its own course.

Every time brings with it particular ways of questioning, of interpreting sources and decoding symbols. But that way of reacting must have political coherence, an underlying ideal and a civic purpose. The bloodstained busts of Martí aroused diverse reactions; reactions that cannot be classified as from inside or outside, by socialists or capitalists, by liberals or conservatives.

That action was obviously a provocation to the Cuban government, where the figure of Martí was the least important thing. Some saw simple acts of peaceful and civil disobedience in the vandalism, when it was really something else. Martí was merely an idle pretext.

I do not reject the perpetrators because I believe Martí is sacred, or worship him as a saint, a holy man, a being full of nearly mystical purity. Not even because their actions showed ignorance of Martí’s own appreciation for leaders of the independence movement, to the point that, without shaking off the dust of the road, he went to pay his respects at the statue of Bolívar when he got to Venezuela.

I condemn them —before I knew they had been paid to carry out the act of rebelliousness— because they are not worthy of a man who, since his adolescence, had the courage of facing the consequences of his actions and confessed to writing a letter that took him to prison. They are not worthy of a man who acted, in his desire for independence, against outdated forms of organization and apparently established political judgments.

Because the subliminal reading some people tried to give it, that the meaning of the stains was a reference to how the ideas of Martí have been let down in Cuba, is a cowardly justification to continue to postpone what we now can say outright, due to its real possibility of socialization: with respect, with forcefulness, with good reason.

José Martí was a profoundly subversive man. He was so in his writing, in his political ideas and even in his privacy. He not only conceived a Cuba independent from Spain and the United States, he conceived a future Republic that Cuba is yet to construct. That sets him apart from other leaders, and grants constant relevance to his ideas. The tribute he needs today is that we revisit his republican doctrine. And for that one needs many readings, much civility and much personal worth, not busts stained by clandestine hands.

Contact the author at: alinabarbara65@gmail.com

(Translated from the original)

[i] All unspecified quotes are taken from ‘Martí en la República’ (‘Martí in the Republic’), in the Controversia section, Temas, no. 26: 81-106, Havana, July-September 2001.