- Whose José Martí?
Martyrdom has guaranteed José Martí's central role in articulating Cuban nationalism, often in ways that have contradicted some of his most strongly held ideas.1 Monuments in the United States and Cuba demonstrate the hagiographic dimensions that have made Martí studies into a battleground. Oscar Montero addresses this problem by opening his very accessible "life and works" study with a description of the well-known bronze equestrian statue of Martí in Bolívar Plaza, that is, at the perimeter of New York's Central Park, heading up Sixth Avenue, which Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia renamed "Avenue of the Americas" in 1945.2 Unlike the securely mounted, upright figures of San Martín and Bolívar to his left and right, Martí, the central rider, reels and falls from his horse as he receives his mortal wound.
Translating Empire offers a very different kind of anecdote, as Laura Lomas brings her reader to the site of another bronze statue of the poet, at the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Tribunal in Havana. Here is Martí, larger than life, but wearing his frock coat as always, facing the office building that houses "the drab, fenced-in, U.S. Interest Section" (247). In one arm he cradles a child that suggests both Pepe, Martí's Cuban son, and Elián González, whose controversial migration provided the occasion for creating and placing the statue, while his other arm is outstretched, accusingly pointing "at the office building and the island's northern neighbor" (ibid.). Although the Castro-era statue wears a stern, even angry visage, Cubans joke that the figure is advising his young charge, "There, hijo, is where to apply for your visa" (ibid.). Apart from Martí's radically anti-imperialist views, the anecdote's grim humor gestures toward the present challenge: how to live with the seemingly inevitable migration of the young.
Contrasting with the pathos of the equestrian statue and the ire of the accusatory pointer are the intimate, almost saintly busts of the poet that proliferate across the island, set in front of primary schools, according to U.S.-Cuban [End Page 181] anthropologist Ruth Behar. My colleague Lynn Stoner, a historian of Cuba, describes these little white busts that people set in their homes as constituting a kind of shorthand for the shared belief that they live in a just society.3 Certainly Martí's emphases on migration, U.S. imperialism, and racial brotherhood are key aspects of the poet portrayed in Translating Empire. In contrast to these features are the claims of Carlos Ripoll, a major Cuban American scholar of Martí's poetry. For Ripoll, the poet exemplifies the high intellectual quality of Cuban nationalism and the superiority of Cuban Americans as political exiles rather than economic migrants.4 Lomas, by contrast, pointedly refuses the term exile to describe Martí. Instead, she uses the phrase "migrant Latino subject" to represent Martí as a stateless writer who worked as a translator and who lived between languages during his fifteen years' residence in the United States, from 1880 to 1895.
Divisions between Martí scholars reflect the unresolved question of what it means to be Cuban. Lomas and others walk a fine line between stressing the writer's self-identification as a Cuban nationalist and the concern with transnationalism that appears throughout his writing and in a good part of the scholarship on his work. Above and beyond nationalist versus transnationalist divisions is the further challenge of writing about a man whose life and death led to his being widely termed "the Apostle of Independence."
A figure at once inviting and admonitory, José Martí y Pérez (1853–1895) is a mystical memory among Cubans. The Cuban-born son of impoverished Spaniards—his father served in the colonial police—José Martí was just nine years old when he witnessed the unloading of slave ships and the public hanging of a man who'd tried to escape. As a teenager, he and a wealthy companion founded a liberationist newspaper. Caught...