Front Door to Cuba Front Door to Cuban History

José Martí: Apostle of Cuban Independence
Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

by Jerry A. Sierra

Marti as a young student

Early Life

In the Cuban newspaper El Diario de Cuba of May 19 1942, writer Eduardo Abril Amores writes: "Martí is the liberator of always and forever; the warrior of every epoch and the eternal thought of Cuba. Nobody has said, since Martí's death, anything that he had not said. He was the pinnacle of Cuban liberty, of the Cuban ideal, and of Cuba's political genius. Martí was Cuba's Infinite. Martí reached a point beyond which there is nothing."

Don José Julián Martí y Pérez was born in Havana on January 28 1853. He spent his early years in Spain with his parents, Mariano Martí and Leonor Pérez, and four younger sisters. Upon returning to Cuba, as a boy, he was shocked at the way black slaves were treated on Cuban plantations and felt inclined to voice his opposition.

One of the most important influences in Martí's early life was his mother, a stern believer in education even though she came, as did his father, from a poor working background. (She's credited with the now famous quote: "Men are always dissatisfied with whatever government they have.") Another significant influence was a teacher and poet named Rafael Maria de Mendive, who taught him to express himself through poetry and saw his potential. When Mariano took his son out of school and started him in an apprenticeship as a shopkeeper, Mendive mentored him with a scholarship so he could continue his education.

Marti in Jain

In 1869 (less than a year after the beginning of the Ten-Year War, Martí found his first newspaper, Patria Libre, supporting the rebels and the idea of Cuban autonomy. That same year, Mendive was accused of participating in a rebel rally and exiled to Spain.

Around that time, while Martí was 17 years old, authorities found a note he wrote to a schoolmate supporting the revolution and expressing opposition to colonial rule. He was sentenced to six years of hard labor in a military prison, where he suffered a leg injury that forced him to use a cane for the rest of his life. After six months in prison, and through his father's intervention, he was banished to Spain, where in 1871 he published "El Presidio Político en Cuba," exposing the horrors of political imprisonment.

In Spain, Martí continued his education at the Universidad Central de Madrid, and then at the university of Zaragosa, where he received degrees in civil and church law, philosophy and letters (the same subjects Fidel Castro would study seventy years later). He lived briefly in France before moving to Mexico in 1875, where his play, "Amor con Amor se Paga" (Love Is Repaid by Love) written for the Spanish actress Concha Padilla was a success.

Using his second name, Julián, and his mother's maiden name, Pérez, he smuggled himself into Cuba in early 1877 without being identified. But unable to work, and aware that the cause of Cuban independence was lost for the time being, he returned to Mexico after a month, and then went to Guatemala, where he found work as a professor of history and literature.

Martí's personality was described as eclectic, borrowing from a multitude of sources, and he was a voracious reader with many interests and ideas. He loved Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, whom he called the poet of the people.

He was a thin man, not taller than five-and-a-half feet, with a high forehead and intense, penetrating eyes. He usually wore dark suits with white shirts and dark bow ties, which he purchased second hand, but friends joked about how clean his clothes always were.

On December 20 1877 Martí married Carmen Zayas Bazán y Hidalgo, the daughter of a wealthy Cuban exile.

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