Biography of José Martí
José Martí: Father of Cuban Independence
José Martí (1853-1895), the “Apostle of Cuban Independence,” was Cuba’s version of the U.S.’ Founding Fathers. He worked passionately and tirelessly for Cuba’s independence from Spain. His ideology was akin to the later one of the U.S.’ Martin Luther King, Jr; Martí believed that national unity and solidarity could be established by forging a common identity, regardless of ethnicity or race, and that this common identity could only be forged through kindness even to one’s enemies. (Martí was rabidly anti-slavery, which was all too common in the Spanish colonies – as well as still practiced in the United States, in spite of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.) His vision, though, was not only of an independent Cuba, but extended to all of the nations of Latin America. His only fear was that Latin America would succumb to home-grown military dictatorships or juntas (and in the 20th century many countries did) rather than become his dream of democratic republics modelled on the United States of America and France.
José Martí: Poet, Translator and Writer
Martí knew several languages besides his native Spanish, chief among them English, which he learned in childhood. He began translating at age 13; he translated literary works, out of his passion, for the pleasure of it, and other documents and writings, out of financial need (especially during his long exile in the United States). As a writer of his own words, he spanned many different genres. He was a political essayist, as well as a poet, children’s author, journalist, novelist. But, no matter what the genre, his writings all disseminated his social and political ideology of love being the cornerstone of free, democratic and republican nationhood. Indeed, he summed it up himself; although he was speaking of his writing for children, this extends to all of his works, never published as full collections in his lifetime: “We write for children because it is they who know how to love, because it is children who are the hope for the world.”
José Martí: Political Activist
Martí began his political activism early in life, in his teens. In 1868, he and his best friend, Fermín Valdé Domínguez, began taking action by joining Cuban nationalist clubs. In 1869 Martí published his first political essays, in a one-edition newspaper, El Diablo Cojuelo, published by Fermín. Also in 1869, Martí published a patriotic drama in verse, titled Abdala, in another one-edition newspaper, La Patria (which he published himself). That year, 1869, Martí also wrote what would become one of his most famous sonnets, “10 de octubre” (10th of October); his school newspaper published it later.
José Martí: Freedom Fighter
On October 21, 1869, the Spanish colonial government accused Martí, age 16, of treason and bribery. For this crime, he was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison. We have to remember, in the 21st century, that “prison” in the late 1800s meant “hard labor:” bound by heavy ankle and leg chains, perhaps also at the wrists prisoners would be out in all sorts of weather building and repairing infrastructure. Because of these conditions, the adolescent Martí became ill. Further, his legs were lacerated – and scarred for life - by the heavy metal chains that bound him. The Spanish took pity on him and commuted his sentence to exile, first to Isla de Pinos, a remote part of Cuba, and then to Spain. In Spain, the authorities allowed Martí to further his education, probably thinking that that would make Martí loyal to Spain again, rather than to nationalist ideals. This did not work: Martí studied both Civil (government) and Canon (Roman Catholic Church) law and continued working for the liberation of Cuba and other Latin American countries until he died on May 19, 1895, dressed in black, charging a white horse, in the Battle of Dos Rios. He was 42.