[On March 2nd, the great Cuban-American actor and entertainer Desi Arnaz would have celebrated his 100th birthday. So for Arnaz’s centennial, a series on a handful of Cuban-American figures and histories!]
On the cross-cultural experiences, ideas, and meanings of the legendary activist.
As best I can tell, José Martí (1853-1895) could be accurately described as at one and the same time the George Washington, Tom Paine, and Phillis Wheatley of Cuba: equal parts revolutionary activist and leader, political journalist and philosopher, and poetic and artistic genius. Although he died far too young, fighting in the revolution against Spain that he had so fully helped bring about, he had already done and achieved and influenced more in his forty-two years, in all those different arenas and many others as well, than most of us can dream of in a lifetime twice that long. And just as another legendary Caribbean and world revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, belongs centrally to his native Haiti for which he lived and died so inspiringly, so too do Martí’s inspiring life and work clearly belong to his beloved Cuba, and I would never try to argue for a defining national or communal identity other than that for him.
Yet one of the more striking facts about that life is that almost exactly a third of it—most of the years between 1880 and 1894—was spent living in the United States; principally New York City, but with extensive time and travel in Florida as well. That Martí was less a voluntary immigrant than a political exile from his homeland interestingly connects him both to many 20th and 21st century Cuban Americans and to the long history of immigrant Americans who fled for political reasons and found a new home in (often) communities like New York. But while those are the some of the main reasons behind Martí’s move to the United States, they can’t possibly capture all that he experienced in that decade and a half here, what (for example) the society and world of Gilded Age New York meant to this still young man from Havana. Not at all coincidentally, Martí did much of his writing and literary work during these years, including (to cite only one telling example) translating Helen Hunt Jackson’s activist novel Ramona (1884) into Spanish.
Toward the end of his time in the U.S., Martí published his seminal essay “Our America” (1892), a breathtakingly original and vital work (to my mind, it’s on the short list for the most unique and significant American texts, from any time and in any genre, that our hemisphere has yet produced) that manages both to capture his specifically Cuban patriotism and goals and to argue for a sweepingly trans-hemispheric vision of American identity and community. The essay is all Martí, reflective of all the different individual roles and talents, ideas and visions, experiences and passions that I tried to highlight in my opening paragraph and that define a truly singular person. But I can’t help but see it as well as profoundly influenced by his cross-cultural experiences, his time in New York and Florida (among many other places), his trans-Caribbean and –Atlantic travels, a life and perspective that had stretched beyond any borders or limiting categorizations. As such, I believe that there’s great value in thinking of Martí as Our Martí—not, again, removing him from his Cuban heritage and impacts, legacies and meanings, but instead in extending his meanings (just as he extended his life and work) into our U.S. histories and narratives as well.
Next CubanAmericanStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Cuban American stories or histories you’d highlight?
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