José Martí was a world class poet and essayist whose literary works ushered in the modernist literary tradition in Latin American letters. He was also an impassioned revolutionary who spent most of life organizing and instigating for the cause of Cuban freedom from Spanish colonial rule. He died in battle fighting for Cuban liberation and is considered “the Apostle” of Cuban Independence.
José Julian Martí Pérez was born on January 28, 1853 in Havana, Cuba to Mariano Martí Navarro and Leonor Pérez Cabrera; he was the eldest and only boy of eight children. In 1865, at the age of twelve, he enrolled in the Escuela de Instruccciónes Primarias Superior Municipal de Varrones where he met two people who would play key roles in his life: Rapahel Maria de Mendive, the director of the school, who would help shape Martí’s social views and help finance his studies, and a student his age, Fermín Valdes Dominguez, who would become his best friend and fellow student activist.
By the time the Ten Years War broke out in 1868, a war of liberation against Spanish rule in Cuba, Martí was already driven by two passions that would be central to his adult life: an abhorrence of slavery (still legal in Cuba at the time) and the goal of Cuban Independence from Spain.
In October, 1869, at age 16, he and his friend Fermín Valdez Dominguez co-wrote a letter critical of Spanish rule in Cuba which resulted in his arrest and condemnation to six years in prison.
He remained in prison for year but was released in 1871 and allowed to flee to Spain. Settling in Madrid, he wrote “Political Imprisonment in Cuba,” in which he enlisted the support of the Spanish citizenry to end governmental brutalities in Cuba. By 1873, Martí was in communication with the Central Revolutionary Junta of New York (organizing for the ouster of the Spanish from Cuba) and had written “The Spanish Republic and the Cuban Revolution,” in which he advocated for Cuban independence from Spain.
Throughout the period of 1875 through 1878, Martí traveled extensively’ first to Mexico City, where he met his future wife Carmen Zayas Bazan, then to Guatemala, where he taught at the National University and wrote the play, Country and Liberty (An Indian drama) and the book Guatemala.
He returned to Havana at the conclusion of the Ten Years War in 1878 and married Carmen Zayas Bazan. Following a short stay in Venezuela, Martí settled in New York City in 1881 and was soon immersed in the activities of the Cuban Revolutionary Committee, headed by General Calixto García, a veteran of the Ten Years War. Martí found work in New York as a journalist, writing for the English language paper The Sun as well as working as a foreign correspondent for the Argentine newspaper La Nación and Mexico City’s La Opinion Liberal. During this time Martí also wrote poems and translated English language novels into Spanish.
In 1891, Martí’s influential essay “Nuestra America,” (Our America) was published in New York and Mexico City. It established Martí as a modernist essayist and advanced his notion that Americas had the right to establish their own governments based on their own unique realities and not based on the values and interests of colonial powers.
In October of 1891, he published his collection of poems Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses). One of the poems of this collection contains the lines which were later adapted into the popular folk song, “Guantanamera.”
Throughout this period Martí never lost sight of the cause of Cuban liberation from Spain, editing and publishing the newspaper La Patria (The Nation) in 1892 which soon became the official publication of the Cuban Revolutionary Party. During much of 1892 he traveled throughout New York, Washington, D.C., Florida, Philadelphia, Haiti and the Dominican Republic raising funds for the Cuban Revolutionary Party and drumming up support for an armed resistance in Cuba.
By 1893 Martí had become an driving force for ousting Spanish rule in Cuba. He met with General Máximo Gómez in the Dominican Republic and met with the mulatto general Antonio Maceo in Costa Rica. With them Martí planned a Cuban uprising against the Spanish in Cuba. By 1894, the armed invasion of Cuba was imminent. Martí wrote the call to arms, “A Cuba” (To Cuba) in January of 1894 in La Patria newspaper.
The Cuban uprising involved two major groups, one contingent led by General Antonio Maceo and his brother José, which departed from San Jose, Costa Rico and landed at the Cuban coast near Baracoa on March 31, 1895. The second group included José Martí, General Máximo Gómez, and other revolutionaries and departed to Cuba from Monticristi, Dominican Republic. Martí and his group landed at Playitas, on the west Cuban coast on April 11, 1895 and within a short time had made contacted with the group of Cuban revolutionaries led by Antonio Maceo. Martí, Maceo and Gómez met at Antonio Maceo’s camp near Santiago de Cuba on May 5th and discussed a coordinated military campaign against the Spanish forces. But on May 19, 1895, Marti was killed fighting in the battle of Dos Rios, when he led a charge against Spanish forces.
Cuban efforts at self-determination were undermined when the U.S.S. Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor, purportedly by Spanish forces, which initiated the Spanish American War. At the conclusion of the war, the Platt Amendment (May 22, 1903), a treaty forced onto Cuba by the United States, sanctioned indefinite United States occupation and intervention in Cuban affairs. It was not until 1934 that Cuba finally became a sovereign nation when President Franklin. D. Roosevelt repealed the treaty as part of his Good Neighbor Policy.