Remembering José Martí, the Literary Man Who Started a Revolution

Photo Courtesy of BELatina
Photo Courtesy of BELatina

On April 10, 1892, Cuban intellectual José Martí created the Partido Revolucionario Cubano (PRC). While Martí will always be remembered as a hero and martyr of the Cuban Revolution, the literary world will forever revere his way with words, which became a catalyst for change. 

His quest for Cuba’s independence ultimately became synonymous with liberty and equality throughout the Americas, and on January 28th, Cubans celebrate his birthday by lighting torches in his honor.

Martí’s vision not only helped unite Cubans, but it also had a considerable impact on the expansion of Spanish-language letters globally to ignite dialogue among all parts of society.  He is also considered the most widely-read writer in Spanish in the Hispano-American world in the 1880s. A believer in freedom of expression, at age 16, he founded the Cuban newspaper, ”La Patria Libre.” Years later, as an exile, his prestige as a deep thinker spread throughout the continent thanks to the power of Spanish-language newspapers that published his writings in countries like Spain, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Venezuela, and others. 

After founding the Cuban Revolutionary Party, he also intensified his public action traveling around the Americas and Europe giving humanistic speeches about oppression. In his writings, he called for education, land, and livelihood for workers and farmers, racial equality in Cuba, and respect for Spanish soldiers—not hate.

And though the pen is mightier than the sword for most writers, sadly, in Martí’s case, he was killed at the age of 42 in battle while on horseback on May 19, 1895, in Cuba. Accounts say he was shot at point-blank by a Spanish soldier hiding in a bush.

Despite dying at a young age, he produced 28 volumes of letters, manifestos, poetry, and numerous newspaper articles, that have been theorized, criticized, and politicized around the world. 

His beginnings and literary legacy

The son of Spanish parents, Martí was born on January 28, 1853, in Havana, Cuba. While attending high school at the Municipal Superior School for Men, the school’s director, the Cuban poet Rafael Mendive, began to mold his separatist thinking. By 1869, he published his first writings and was active in the Cuban independence movement, for which he was eventually sentenced to six years in prison and later exiled to Spain.  

After living in diverse places like Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, and the United States, these places undoubtedly affected his attitudes toward racial politics. Martí saw first-hand how enslaved people in Cuba were treated, and later, during his period in New York, he would pen his famous essay, “Mi Raza,” declaring that there was only the human race. His style has been described as rhythmic and rich in metaphor and is said to have influenced the modernist movement. Considered very advanced for its time, it is now considered a pillar of mid-twentieth century Ibero-American thought. 

Many still do not understand why Martí had to die for the independence of Cuba by getting on a horse to fight. By doing so, he represents an artist’s commitment to never renouncing the dangers of having a public life due to one’s political beliefs. In “Versos Libres,” Martí himself says in his introduction: “Verse should be like a shining sword which leaves spectators with the memory of a warrior who goes to heaven and whose sword breaks into wings as he sheathes it in the sun.” In his case, political action and literary writing were inseparable.