By Miguel Pérez
January 26, 2010 - You may have listened to his verses in the old Cuban song "Guantanamera." You may have seen his impressive statue in New York's Central Park. You may have heard him mentioned when Cuban-Americans and Washington politicians have discussed the U.S. government radio and TV stations that bear his name or when people have been talking about streets, parks, schools or theaters that were named after him — in Cuba, the United States and throughout the Americas.
His name was Jose Marti. You may know him as the still-revered poet, journalist and revolutionary leader of the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain in the late 19th century or as the remarkable writer and stirring speaker who fostered the ideals of freedom and democracy in Spanish America.
This week, you even could be attending a civic or cultural event to commemorate the anniversary of his birth, which was in Havana on Jan. 28, 1853. All over this country and this hemisphere, there will be a multitude of banquets, lectures, recitals, writings and exhibits devoted to promoting Marti's teachings. And yet you may not realize that Marti's most important work — his legacy — was made while he lived in New York City during the last 15 years of his life.
Latin American history books are filled with patriots whose most valuable contributions were made while they lived in exile in the United States. And perhaps Marti is the best example. It was here that Marti developed his concepts of liberation and emancipation. It was here that he represented the aspirations of all oppressed people struggling to be free.
Between 1880 and 1895, from his Greenwich Village apartment, Marti emerged and flourished as a brilliant defender of liberty. He wrote an amazing volume of poems, novels, letters and newspaper articles that inspired many generations of Latinos to stand up and fight for freedom and democracy. He was a correspondent for various Latin American publications and a writer for the old New York Sun, becoming this country's first Hispanic columnist in an English-language newspaper.
But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the way he managed to unite Cuban freedom fighters, in exile and on the island. It was his leadership, charisma and reputable integrity that enabled the formation of the Cuban Revolutionary Party and led to the eventual defeat of Spanish forces on the island in 1898.
But Marti never saw a free Cuba. He was killed by Spanish forces, at the age of 42, on May 19, 1895 — only days after returning to the Caribbean island to launch the Cuban War of Independence from Spain, also known as the Spanish-American War. His Central Park statue depicts the moment when he was fatally wounded as he rode a horse into battle at Dos Rios, in Cuba's Oriente province. Those who fought for Cuba's freedom had lost their most prominent civilian leader, but Cuba and all the former Spanish colonies had gained an eternal martyr.
The teachings of the Apostle of Cuban Independence, as Marti became known, spread like wildfire throughout the Americas, where homes and public buildings were adorned with images of the man with the broad forehead, thick mustache and sincere smile. Latin American children were taught to emulate this ideal man, who was strong enough to be willing to die for his country yet sensitive enough to write beautiful love poems.
However, Marti was such a prolific writer that his ideas have been extracted — and taken out of context — to defend almost any point of view, much in the same way that the Bible often is quoted to make opposing arguments.
Amazingly, at a time when Latin America is sharply divided between socialists and capitalists, both sides can claim Marti as one of their own. Depending on the perspective from which he is seen, Marti either was strongly anti-American or favored a Latin America in the image of the United States — either "the intellectual author" of today's Communist Cuba or a Cuban who would be exiled in New York — if he were alive today — still struggling to free his homeland.
In Cuba, the communists argue that Fidel and Raul Castro are completing Marti's revolution by defying the United States. But in this country, Cuban-Americans believe Marti could have been one of today's Cuban rafters, once again fleeing the island to be able to express himself freely, or perhaps one of Castro's political prisoners, serving time for writing articles that would be considered "counterrevolutionary" today.
Indeed, some of Marti's writings, from more than a century ago, are censored in Communist Cuba, where the government is very selective about what the public is allowed to read.
Cuban schools and books promote Marti's line about having lived in the "monster" that is the United States, but they censor his warning about the dangers of socialism and totalitarian leaders.
"One revolution is still necessary,'' Marti wrote in his day, though someone just as easily could write this about the Castro regime today, "the one that will not end with the rule of its leader.''
That's the side of Marti that Cubans on the island are not allowed to know. "A nation is not governed like you command a military camp," Marti wrote. But those are the writings Cubans are not allowed to see.
Because they are told that the Castro dictatorship was Marti's idea, many young Cubans grow up hating a man they should admire.
"If that was Marti's dream," a young Cuban once told me shortly after escaping from the island, "damned be the hour when he fell asleep."
Carved on a wall at Jose Marti Park in Union City, N.J., the Cuban apostle's words describe the reason Cuban-Americans gather there instead of in Havana to play their beloved game of dominoes. "Man loves liberty, even if he does not know that he loves it," Marti wrote. "He is driven by it and flees from where it does not exist."
With the passage of time, U.S. Latinos could be expected to slowly forget their homeland heroes. But when those heroes also lived here, when they were also pioneers of the U.S. Latino community, we continue to identify with their struggle for freedom and social justice — especially when their fight does not appear to be over.
As this country's pioneer Hispanic columnist, Marti even outlined the mission for Latino journalists today and the path I have chosen to follow with my own column: "What I want is to demonstrate that we are good people, industrious, and capable," Marti wrote in a letter to a friend in Mexico. "For each offense, a reply ... (made) more effective by its moderation. For each false assertion about our countries, an immediate correction. For each defect, apparently just, which is thrown in our faces, the historical explanation which will excuse it, and proof of the capacity to remedy it. It would seem to me that I were being derelict in my duty if I should not realize this thought."
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The lyrics of "Guantanamera" are based on Martí's poetry. LISTEN: