José Martí and Spain

The latest book by Manuel García-Guatas bridges a critical gap in the life of Cuba’s National Hero.

Those well acquainted and with ears ever perked at any new findings on the life and exploits of José Martí (1853-1895) have always missed a fuller, in-depth look into his life as a university student in Spain. The famous writer and Cuba’s National Hero was only 16 years old when first jailed for opposing colonial rule in his native land. Forced into hard labor in a quarry under the scorching heat of the tropical sun, he faced the real imminence of an early demise. His youth compelled the insular Captain General to commute the original six years sentence, and in 1871 had him deported instead, shortly before his eighteenth birthday. The scars of the shackles were to needle Martí’s health for the rest of his life, but not a strand of rage ever blinded his thought.

In Spain, he resumed his studies. Despite much hardship and a delayed enrollment, he sprinted through the curriculum at the University of Zaragoza and there earned degrees in Law, and in Philosophy and Letters. Before boarding back to the Americas late in 1874, he had also published two indictment booklets, a combination of seven articles and replies, two poems and loose verses, and a translation from the French of a poem by Auguste Vacquerie. He also had written a romance tale and drafted the first version of a drama still praised by scholars today.

The history and culture of the former Kingdom of Aragon, where the university is located, infused Martí greatly, as attested by the poem he later dedicated to the brave “yellow land” with its “flowery plains” and river. Yet this passage of his pneumatic debt to Spain has lingered as terra incognita in proportion to the details at hand from other periods of his life.

Manuel García-Guatas on José Martí

Manuel García-Guatas, a professor at the same university where Martí studied, published in 2004 a book entitled in Spanish La Zaragoza de José Martí (José Marti’s Saragossa). From this privileged spot, the book unearths and weaves together into a brilliantly easy narrative material drawn from school and city files, newspapers, memorabilia, and first-hand testimonies from Martí’s closest circle of friends, including his first sweetheart. Moreover, the book renders unprecedented attentiveness to circumstantial data beyond the campus’ main quad that fleshes out Martí’s sketchy mentions of his intimate experiences abroad.

The most challenging obstacle García-Guatas faced dealt with the insurmountable lacunae that only reconstructive methods may subdue for now. For this, he deployed an array of visuals, coordinates, references, and set as backdrop the defining historical events Martí could not have possibly overlooked.

Ten years later, García-Guatas updates this biographical phase with a new title, La España de Martí (Martí’s Spain), which unpacks nearly two decades of research and expands much further the attainments of his previous volume on the great Cuban patriot. Here one follows Martí from a behind-the-shoulder perspective into the moment he disembarks in Cádiz, with its sundrenched whitewashes, pastel color and terracotta accents. Next, his brief café jaunts in Madrid, university years in Zaragoza, and return to Cuba enters the view. Then one witnesses Martí’s second deportation to Spain in 1879, again as a political prisoner, his unyielding activism, and finally, his farewell for good in 1880 from the country whose language, art, and culture he will never cease to celebrate in his writings.

Spain’s Paradoxes

Since his death in 1895, Martí’s voice grows as an adagial tuner that harmonizes from within what he preferred to call Our America, the imperiled land of “rebels and creators” that range, as he evoked it, “from Río Bravo down to Tierra del Fuego.” Beguiled contemporary readers, after recovering their foothold from the initial shockwave of his writing style, must also reckon with the seemingly miraculous abundance of his ideas and vision, especially when realizing that many of these hark back to his school days in Spain.

Hence, the importance of digging into the substratum from which the seeds of his imagination germinated rather than incurring in useless worship over the true make and durability of his thought. Mayra Beatriz Martínez, for instance, in a book from 2004 she entitled Martí: eros y mujer (Martí, Eros, and Woman) hews Martí’s relevance in today’s pro feminist theories, as shown among his earliest texts across the laborious reworking of a drama named Adúltera (Adulterous Woman) he conceived when studying in Spain. The time and space in question may as well claim much of his precocious inklings against slavery, the value of the indigenous population, and even his early forecasting of Unites States’ besotting might in the Western Hemisphere, wherefrom he was to call on the urgency in Latin America to meld for a “second independence.”

As García-Guatas is quick to underscore in his book, Martí discovered and soon capitalized on the favorable ends of a twofold paradox. For one, most newspapers and printing presses at the metropolis were receptive to the Cubans’ allegations against the Spanish Government all the while severe repressive measures reduced his warring fellow compatriots at home to a threadbare existence. At the same time, though all instructional sources in Spain were then subject by law to strict political control and censure, Martí enjoyed there unlimited free access to quality books at its universities’ collections. At no cost, the likewise superb “popular libraries,” as Spaniards call them, also offered on request a home delivery service for loaned books.

José Martí, a “Spaniard” in America

Journalism was never an underrated, feebly researched literary genre in Martí’s hands. The poetry, children’s stories, and a novel he published place him at the forefront of the modernist breakthrough, but his innovation of Spanish expression owes much more to the then boosting news industry in the Americas. When exiled in New York City, his weekly chronicles also secured his livelihood. Engrossed readers could hardly wait to read his next dispatch. By 1887, up to twenty newspapers in Latin America were pirating his writings.

In 1880, he wrote in English a series of chronicles under the title of “Impressions of America (by a Very Fresh Spaniard).” Here he styles a humorous pun on the word “fresh,” meaning, “recently arrived,” or “impertinent,” as at one point in the storyline the narrator extends his hand to help an elderly American female passenger from a train accident, and she refuses to be touched. Masking the voice under the guise of a courteous Spaniard is not purely fictitious; the author wishes to accentuate a contrast he has assumed as his very own.

Martí’s decisive test as a journalist had come about in Zaragoza’s liberal sundry media branded by a brisk drive toward democracy and freedom. The city so often chilled by northern winds ignited a hotpot of intellectual eagerness through its ten newspapers at its peak from 1868 to 1874. Amid debates mostly focused on politics, finely illustrated critical reviews often ensued over two of Martí’s major weaknesses: painting and plays performed at the city’s main theater halls. García-Guatas is especially keen at reenacting the solace the young defiant political prisoner must have felt before his enemies’ best traditions. His latest book brings to brighter light a geodesy of a love affair as much as it props the human universals of a thinker who stands above all as a citizen of the world.

[July 5, 2014]

Image: Brown-Green Facade by Paul Klee, 1919