On His 160th Birthday, José Martí Still Matters

Step back for a minute and realize that José Martí, born today in 1853, lived in this world for only 42 years. Born in Havana to poor Spanish immigrant parents (debunking one myth that he was “privileged”), Martí not only became the voice of Cuba’s independence from Spain, he also represented a new generation of Latin American thinkers who believed in the political power of a unified region that went beyond its colonial present and celebrated its original precolonial roots and past. In addition, Martí, who lived as an exile in New York City from 1881–1895 before dying in The Battle of Dos Ríos on May 19, 1895 back home in Cuba, was an astute observer and critic of the United States in the late 19th century.

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Our friends at Hispanic New York published a very comprehensive and excellent essay about Martí’s life and contributions. The post is filled with fascinating details about Martí’s life and legacy. It makes a strong argument about Martí’s relevance, even 160 years after he was born. The post’s concluding paragraph sums it up perfectly:

Martí’s tragic death kindled the mystical aura that made him known as the Apostle of Cuban Independence. Very much as with his much admired Abraham Lincoln, his memory is shrouded in a Christ-like light. Both Cubans on the island and in exile regard him, with an almost religious piety, as a symbol of the fatherland. Martí certainly nurtured that image with his writings and speeches, where he identifies himself with the history of Cuba, and in his personal life, through a self-sacrificial commitment to his patriotic mission.

In the end, he embodied the Romantic cult of the national Hero, the gallant warrior that offers his life in the shrine of his country’s freedom….

So much can be said about Martí, from his political activism to his literary works. Today we wanted to share the translation of one part of “Nuestra América” that we think still applies.

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In America the natural man has triumphed over the imported book. Natural men have triumphed over an artificial intelligentsia. The native mestizo has triumphed over the alien, pure-blooded criollo. The battle is not between civilization and barbarity, but between false erudition and nature. The natural man is good, and esteems and rewards a superior intelligence as long as that intelligence does not use his submission against him or offend him by ignoring him-for that the natural man deems unforgivable, and he is prepared to use force to regain the respect of anyone who wounds his sensibilities or harms his interests.

The tyrants of America have come to power by acquiescing to these scorned natural elements and have fallen as soon as they betrayed them. The republics have purged the former tyrannies of their inability to know the true elements of the country, derive the form of government from them, and govern along with them. Governor, in a new country, means Creator.

Our own Greece is preferable to the Greece that is not ours; we need it more. Statesmen who arise from the nation must replace statesmen who are alien to it.

In countries composed of educated and uneducated sectors, the uneducated will govern by their habit of attacking and resolving their doubts with their fists, unless the educated learn the art of governing. The uneducated masses are lazy and timid about matters of the intellect and want to be well-governed, but if the government injures them they shake it off and govern themselves.

How can our governors emerge from the universities when there is not a university in America that teaches the most basic element of the art of governing, which is the analysis of all that is unique to the peoples of America? Our youth go out into the world wearing Yankee- or French-colored glasses and aspire to rule by guesswork a country they do not know.

Those unacquainted with the rudiments of politics should not be allowed to embark on a career in politics. The literary prizes must not go to the best ode, but to the best study of the political factors in the student’s country. In the newspapers, lecture halls, and academies, the study of the country’s real factors must be carried forward.

Simply knowing those factors without blindfolds or circumlocutions is enough-for anyone who deliberately or unknowingly sets aside a part of the truth will ultimately fail because of the truth he was lacking, which expands when neglected and brings down whatever is built without it. Solving the problem after knowing its elements is easier than solving it without knowing them. The natural man, strong and indignant, comes and overthrows the authority that is accumulated from books because it is not administered in keeping with the manifest needs of the country. To know is to solve. To know the country and govern it in accordance with that knowledge is the only way of freeing it from tyranny.

The European university must yield to the American university. The history of America from the Incas to the present must be taught in its smallest detail, even if the Greek Archons go untaught. Our own Greece is preferable to the Greece that is not ours; we need it more. Statesmen who arise from the nation must replace statesmen who are alien to it. Let the world be grafted onto our republics, but we must be the trunk. And let the vanquished pedant hold his tongue, for there is no patria in which a man can take greater pride than in our long-suffering American republics.

That is just one reason why Martí still matters. More América and less America. We close this post with a brief video overview in Spanish of Martí’s life, which includes music by the great Pablo Milanes:

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