U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Between Two Americas?: José Martí as a Latin American/Latino Intellectual

Guest post by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez, College Fellow in Spanish, Harvard University

For more than a century, Cuban revolutionary and writer José Martí (1853-1895) has been viewed as a foundational, almost sacred figure in the pantheon of Latin American intellectual history. To this day, Cubans living both in the island and in exile continue to take pointed positions over where Cuba’s “apostle,” as he is popularly called, would stand in relation to Fidel Castro’s Third Worldist brand of communism: one side highlights Martí’s repudiation of authoritarianism and his defense of individual liberties, while the other underscores his condemnation of US imperialism and his support for social equality.  MartíMeanwhile, Martí holds a significant place in the Latin American canon of literature and sociopolitical thought.  The continuing fascination with Martí among Latin American scholars is rooted, on one hand, in his status as a post-romantic polymath who navigated the fluid, conflicted borders between literature and politics, popular journalism and high culture, and the US and Latin America, and, on the other, to his self-fashioning as a man of patriotic self-abnegation in his pursuit of Cuban independence and Latin American sovereignty (the fact that he died, in martyr-like fashion, facing the Spanish army, of course adds to this mystique).

Aside from Spanish colonialism, what worried Martí the most was, as he put it in his most famous essay “Our America” (1892), the northern “tiger.” Martí thought that US expansionism represented the Spanish American republics’ “greatest danger,” which in his view were torn by “the arrogance of the capital cities, the blind triumph of the scorned peasants, the excessive importation of foreign ideas and formulas, the wicked and impolitic disdain for the native race.”  In Martí’s utopian vision, the solution to this dilemma lied in Latin American autocthony, in engaging with the local world of Latin America’s “natural men,” teaching “the history of America from the Incas to the present tradition” and cultivating what he called “our own Greece,” all from an anti-racist creed that preached that “there are no races.” The origins of Martí’s creed of “continental unity” can be traced back to the Spanish American Wars of Independence, when Venezuelan general Simón Bolívar proposed the creation of a Spanish American republic that unified the former colonies (in contemporary Latin America, Hugo Chávez sought to resurrect this ideal alongside other left-wing populist presidents, from Evo Morales in Bolivia to Rafael Correa in Ecuador).

Martí’s utopia of a truly independent, socially harmonious Latin America was articulated through a dichotomy that represented negatively not only the US government, but also Anglo-American culture.  In journalistic sketches published widely in Latin American newspapers, such as “Coney Island,” Martí relentlessly excoriated the greed and moral corruption he perceived in the United States and particularly in New York City, where he lived in political exile for most of the 1880s and early 1890s.  His tone grew more acerbic as his plans for revolution intensified; one key reason for this was his suspicion that US would intervene in Cuban affairs if it sought political independence (Martí’s correct hunch was based not only in that US capitalists possessed key investments in Cuba, but also in that many plantation owners and merchants in the island supported annexation).  In one of the many pamphlets he wrote in Patria, the Cuban Revolutionary Party official organ printed in New York City, Martí attacked US society for having “no bond other than that of interests,” as a place of “sordidness and bestiality” (“A la raíz”).  

The irony of this narrative is that, even as Martí argued for an autochtonous Latin American identity separate from the tiger of the North, his work cannot be separated from the very culture he eviscerated in his most intense moments of political fervor.  Martí held a sustained dialogue with a varied US literary and sociopolitical tradition, writing extensively and often admiringly on figures ranging from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to Walt Whitman and Ralph Emerson.  In addition, he wrote and translated articles for Anglophone newspapers such as The New York Sun (interestingly, he also translated Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona into Spanish).  As Laura Lomas points out in her fascinating book on Martí as a Latino intellectual, Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities, in the last two decades American Studies and Latina/o Studies scholars have incorporated Martí as an “interlocutor and as a reader of North American cultural and political texts” (65).

But Lomas also emphasizes the importance of understanding Martí’s difference as a Cuban living in political exile, as “a translator inside the empire’s belly” (13).  Indeed, Martí’s ruminations on wide-ranging issues such as the myth of Billy the Kid, the Haymarket riot, the Knights of Labor, and the Pan-American Conference, show us a critical glimpse into US affairs and how the growing communities of Latin American origin in the US viewed such affairs and related to them, from a transnational, intercultural lens.  In mapping these relations (and tensions), across spaces, cultures and time, and in delineating how they travel (if in fact they do) inside and outside the US, the work of scholars like Lomas and Kirsten Silva Gruesz, who wrote the groundbreaking Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing, can help us reflect not only on the meanings of Latina/o cultures and their history, but US intellectual history itself as an hemispheric enterprise, the utopian vision of a “continental” relationality.

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  1. Wonderful post. Two questions: do you know if Marti’s critique of alienation/reification drew on Carlyle, Marx, both or neither?

    Second: might it be interesting to group Marti among a diverse group of thinkers like Ho Chi Minh and Edward Said, who also worked out an anti-imperialist politics in dialogue with aspects of the American political/intellectual tradition?

    • Have you read Erez Manela’s “The Wilsonian Moment” (2007)? If you’re interested in the origins of intellectual anticolonialism it’s a useful book. It argues that one of the intellectual foundations of anticolonialism was disappointment with Wilson’s promise of national self-determination after World War I. Manela examines discontent in French Indochina, China, and Egypt among others. Its a great book and a pretty speedy read as well.

    • Kurt, thanks for the kind words; these are very important questions you bring up.

      Kurt: Martí read Marx and wrote a fascinating note upon his death in 1883. He admired Marx’s critique of the excesses of capitalism, yet argued against seeing history as a class struggle. Romantic liberal that he was, Martí stated that Marx “did not realize that children born without the benefit of a natural period of gestation and labor are not viable.” In this sense, Martí’s ideology was closer to the utopian socialism and romantics Marx criticized.

      I am not sure if Carlyle was a main figure in his pantheon; but you can see the great men theory working in his analysis of history in the Americas, even as he takes into account the “natural men” that also made that history, the workers, the indigenous peoples, etc. But Carlyle’s observations on alienation were part of a romantic consellation of ideas that criticized the material greed and corruption,associated with not only capitalism but modernization itself (traces of this criticism can of course be seen in the post-romantic writings of Emerson and Whitman–Martí deeply revered these figures, as I mentioned in my post).

      An important piece missing in Lomas’ book is Martí’s conversation with the Spanish romantic ideology of krausism, which was deeply influential among the intellectuals and politicians that took center stage in the Glorious Revolution of 1868 and the First Republic. Krausism, named after the obscure philosopher Karl Krause, whose works mixed the ideas of Hegel, Schelling and other figures of German romanticism. The Spanish krausists believed in the ideals of universal freedom and social harmony as natural laws, and supported liberal ideals like the strengthening of civil society, free press, separation of church and state. These ideas form the backbone of Martí’s ideology even as he rewrote them and translated them unto the context of the Americas in the 1880s and 90s. One cannot forget that he studied law during his political exile in Spain in the early 1870s (he also traveled to Paris). We have not only hemispheric relationality to account for, but transatlantic networks.

      I agree with your suggestion of grouping Martí with other anti-imperial/anticolonial thinkers, tracing these links can help us understand both the specificity and universality of these visions. This is something Robert Young seeks to do in his excellent history of anticolonial/postcolonial thought, Postcolonialism: A Historical Introduction, but he could have done a better job at incorporating Latin American/[email protected] component (granted, this is not his area of specialty).

  2. This is quite nicely done. While I am also interested in the Marti’s intellectual genealogy and I also wonder about the how and where his writing was received and read? What was the print culture that Marti operated in and how did it create this apostolic notion. I am the one here with the obsession regarding the sacralization of culture and find the deification of writers and ostensibly secular institutions endlessly interesting.

    • Thanks, Ray. It is definitely important to take into account how these ideas circulate and how reception resignified them in the process. In the case of Cuba, the sacralization of Martí happened as intellectuals grew increasingly dissatisfied with the Cuban neocolonial republic and resurrected Martí as a counterfigure (Lillian Guerra explores the process of this mythification in The Myth of Martí). , especially in relationship to the. Martí’s journalistic writings in Spanish were published widely in Latin America, in the most important newspapers and journals of the era. Thus, his ideas on the US were deeply influential among the cultural and political elite of the time. For instance, José Enrique Rodó’s Ariel (1900), perhaps the most influential essay written by an early 20th century Latin American intellectual, uses the same discourse found in “Our America” to create an opposition between a Latin American spirit and US materialism. In the US context, it would be interesting to see what was the reception, if there was any, in the burgeoning US Hispanic print culture, particularly in Southwestern states.

      Contemporary interest in Martí in the humanities in US universities speaks to the construction of historical narratives and archives of Latinidad, stories that give historical meaning to present ideas of what it means to be a Latina/o in the present. There’s much to be said about the different ways these narratives are formed, the politics of these discourses–see the ongoing debates surrounding the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature.

      The sacralization of Martí intersects with the building of these canons (in its more conservative forms, canonization can be thought also as a form of sacralization, giving form to a pantheon of heroes and patriots). Part of this has to do with articulating a critical notion of Latinidad that goes beyond the politics of acculturation and passing that some associate with the discourse of the melting pot (i.e. liberal multiculturalism). Lomas’ work aims to situate Martí in this critical tradition, in what she calls “alternative modernities.” From a Latin American/Latina/o perspective, there’s also the significance of Catholic ideology and spirituality; how it intersects with the secular thought of figures like Martí.

      • Yes, the question is how influential he was or would have been unless he got his ass shot off in a vainglorious two-man charge against the Spanish Army’s position. He was a fine poet [the lyrics to “Guantanamera” are adapted from his works] and an OK polemicist, but the question is whether it was really his martyrdom for the cause that put his picture in as many hands as his writings.

        As for his engagement with American intellectual history, although I’m sure his political prose sings in Spanish, he’s wordy and vague when translated, more inspirational fluff than philosophical rigor.

        Interesting article from the Miami perspective:

        In Cuba, the communists argue that Fidel and Raul Castro are completing Marti’s revolution by defying the United States. But in this country, Cuban-Americans believe Marti could have been one of today’s Cuban rafters, once again fleeing the island to be able to express himself freely, or perhaps one of Castro’s political prisoners, serving time for writing articles that would be considered “counterrevolutionary” today.

        Indeed, some of Marti’s writings, from more than a century ago, are censored in Communist Cuba, where the government is very selective about what the public is allowed to read.


    • Thanks for your comment, Patrick. Like I mentioned in my response to Kurt, Martí can be situated in a genealogy of decolonial/anticolonial intellectuals, from James and Fanon to Said and co.

      • And the rub, that the romanticist Martí envisioned/created a Cuban Man not only as good as the American


        but better, not racist or materialistic or selfish.


        Ironically [or not], in sum, Puerto Rico ended up doing much better being annexed to the US, which a number of Cuban exiles in America during Martí’s time had favored. But there’s certainly the [understandable] anti-colonial vein of “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” among the romanticists.

        Unfortunately, they often get the hell they wanted.

        Martí’s criticism of the Tammany Hall New York in which he lived is hardly surprising or unfair. NY has and always will have that effect on us more sensitive types. But it’s an error to believe that NY is anything but what happens to human beings put together in such an environment, or that a regime of some New Man, or of the “real” man, the campesino, will be exempt from the underside of human nature.

      • Tom,
        Thanks for the pointed comments. Yes, rigor was not a word I would use to describe the majority of Martí’s works, but this had to do, at least partly, with the medium through which he wrote them, newspaper (this was how he made a living). Also his prolific political ruminations in Patria, the official organ of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, were meant for a larger reader public. I haven’t read them in English, but in Spanish his sketches on New York and US politics and culture, not only sing but offer wondrous reflections that go beyond the dichotomy I mentioned (see for example his beautiful short sketch on how the community of NY bonded during the 1888 blizzard).

        About PR being better off under the US, that is a very complicated discussion. Yes, the money coming in from the US did produce enormous socioeconomic benefits, PR witnessed the the emergence of a strong middle class in the 1960s and 70s, which was but a dream three decades before. Yet, the oppression suffered by many Puerto Ricans, specially those allied with the pro-independence movement, was quite acute throughout the 20th century. And now, lacking an actual local economy beyond tourism and with the majority of the US factories having left for cheaper pastures, PR is experiencing an intense structural crisis (I think Bernabe and Ayala’s Puerto Rico in the American Century offers an excellent and balanced account of these transformations).

        Now, it is important to remember, as you point out, the importance of the idea of US annexation among the Cuban elites. There is much to be written about the history of the idea of annexationism, how Cubans cavorted with US politicians who savored the idea of incorporating Cuba into the US (as a territory or a state) Cuba’s dependence on US capital was quite profound by the 1880s, and pro-independence activists like Martí were well aware of the influence that US capitalists had in Cuban society (baseball leagues were already being formed at the end of the 1870s, if I remember well).

      • Kahlil, thx so much for your essay and your reply. You provided a great springboard to go and read Martí for oneself, although I could not help but return to him as symbol and political football, for reasons given.

        In reading his letter [linked above] to the editor of the Philadelphia Manufacturer newspaper, incensed at its typing Cubans as lazy and effeminate, we see that annexation by a nation that held his people [although he hadn’t lived in Cuba as an adult!] in such low esteem was unthinkable.

        But for all his enlightened vision of a post-racial society, he did miss the larger truth that Tammany Hall is the natural order of things, in New York or Havana. I think he fell into his own stereotyping, which makes it more difficult for me to admire his particular anti-colonial sentiments as much more than a provincialism of it own.

        I’d have more impressed if he’d penetrated the romantic veil to that larger truth. He too was a prisoner of his acculturation/alienation.

        As for Puerto Ricans, I’m not a fan of grouping or lumping individuals when there is a better prism, so by “better off” I’m comfortable in saying that the Puerto Rican American citizen has more options in this world than a Castro Cuban. [Or a Cuban under Batista, etc.] I point this out only as an irony–these discussions are bringing out for me what Adam Smith said about moral sentiments, that it’s motives alone we can identify with; outcomes mean nothing to us.

        No mistake, the US did not annex Puerto Rico out of altruism, though we can say that for an imperial power, the US did pretty well by Puerto Rico by mankind’s historical standards–if we keep in mind that ‘historical standards’ of exercising power are pretty low, especially Spain’s. Or Batista’s or Castro’s. In that light, Puerto Rico has fared well for the past century-plus.

        As for Martí’s prose, it’s so ponderous in translation [and his letter in English to the Philadelphia newspaper is numbing in its length and billow that I figured it must have something to recommend it in Spanish. Like the Qur’an in Arabic, I reckon, and to similar bracing effect among its adherents, it seems.


        I’ve come away liking José Martí, but more as an everyman than as hero or visionary, a good man who followed an honest heart. Thx again for a more proper introduction.

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