Wednesday, February 9, 2011
February 9, 2011: Lifting the Embargo
Cuban revolutionaries get a pretty bad rap here in the States. Of course I get why that is, and I’m not planning here (today or any other day) to make a case for recuperating Castro’s image (nor do I know anywhere near enough about him to make a case for anything related to him). From what I know about Che Guevara I do find him a lot more interesting and in many ways inspiring, but there too I would have to defer to those more knowledgeable than myself to develop any extended analyses of his identity or meanings (guest post idea!). But my real problem with the last half-century of Cuban-American relations is that the resulting embargo has cut off far from more than just expensive cigars—it has seemingly and retroactively blockaded one of the most impressive and significant 19th-century Americans from our national memories and narratives.
In calling José Martí (1853-1895) a 19th-century American, I’m not trying to steal one of Cuba’s most prominent native sons—Martí was definitely first, foremost, and to the last (he died far too young while fighting the Spanish during the 1895 war for Cuban independence, a war that he was instrumental in planning) a Cuban citizen. Nor am I just going with the kind of hemispheric definition of shared and communal identity that the aforementioned-in-this-space mixologist Edouard Glissant articulates so eloquently (although I do find much to like in Glissant’s ideas, and in definitions of America that would at least connect us to nations like Cuba throughout our mutual post-contact existences). No such grandiose purposes are necessary to make an argument for Martí as an American in any case—he spent most of the last 15 years of his life in the States, based in New York but traveling extensively to places like Florida, Venezuela, and the West Indies in attempts to unite Cuban émigrés and make his case for national independence from Spain; and during that time he worked extensively to write and publish in both Spanish and English, making him at the very least a literary and philosophical predecessor to Anzaldúa’s ideas about mestiza American identities and voices.
Yet I do have more symbolic and, yes, grandiose goals in defining Martí as an American as well as a Cuban. For one thing, that cross-cultural identity that he so fully cultivated throughout those final decades of his life is at the heart of my second book’s visions of America, and I strongly considered Martí as an option for my late 19th century figure and chapter in that work (I opted for Sarah Winnemucca, on whom I’ll definitely focus a future post). Even a single action of his during these years, his translation of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1884) into Spanish, because he believed that its images of Mexican- and Native-American identities and experiences could be deeply meaningful to Latin American communities, reflects how fully Martí both inhabited and argued for such cross-cultural American existence. But for another thing, Martí is an exemplary Renaissance American, and perhaps the best argument I’ve ever encountered for the possibility of action and thought as equally significant elements to an inspiring life: he was a political and military leader who also wrote and published hundreds of poems (mostly in Spanish, some in English); he edited and even founded numerous periodicals, from political and activist newspapers to a children’s magazine; and he was equally prolific in a variety of other genres, including essays and diaries and letters, while traveling around the hemisphere to create and inspire communities in support of Cuban independence, Latin American identity and solidarity, and other national, regional, and human ideals. One of the best of his essays, “Our America” (1892), is an entirely unique and deeply moving vision of how inseparable nation, region, and humanity were for Martí.
Despite that essay’s title and ideas, my attempt to claim Martí as at least partially an American might smack of the US’s long and dark history as the hemisphere’s bully, a history that features prominently our treatment of Cuba in the years following Martí’s death; but that’s the opposite of my intent. While there would be various ways to begin revising that history, including making sure to narrate the history of a nation like Cuba on its own terms, to my mind one of the best ways would be to argue for the interconnections between the United States and a nation like Cuba, the ways in which a figure like Martí illustrates how cross-culturally connected and defined the two countries—our America—have always been. For that reason, among many others, it’s time we lifted the embargo. More tomorrow, on one of the 19th century’s highest-paid and funniest columnists and why we should be reading her instead of just about any of our current op-ed types.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Translations of three of Martí’s poems (I think much is lost from the Spanish, but nonetheless): http://library.thinkquest.org/18355/poetry_by_jose_marti.html
2) The full text of “Our America”: http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/marti/America.htm
3) OPEN: Any other nominees for honorary (in the best sense) Americanness?