Thoroughly researched, written from a nonpartisan perspective, and as lively as a novel, this is the definitive biography of the revered Cuban patriot and martyr whose revolutionary movement eventually ended the Spanish colonial domination of Cuba.
José Martí (1853–1895) was the founding hero of Cuban independence. In all of modern Latin American history, arguably only the “Great Liberator” Simón Bolívar rivals Martí in stature and legacy. Beyond his accomplishments as a revolutionary and political thinker, Martí was a giant of Latin American letters, whose poetry, essays, and journalism still rank among the most important works of the region. Today he is revered by both the Castro regime and the Cuban exile community, whose shared veneration of the “apostle” of freedom has led to his virtual apotheosis as a national saint.
In José Martí: A Revolutionary Life, Alfred J. López presents the definitive biography of the Cuban patriot and martyr. Writing from a nonpartisan perspective and drawing on years of research using original Cuban and U.S. sources, including materials never before used in a Martí biography, López strips away generations of mythmaking and portrays Martí as Cuba’s greatest founding father and one of Latin America’s literary and political giants, without suppressing his public missteps and personal flaws. In a lively account that engrosses like a novel, López traces the full arc of Martí’s eventful life, from his childhood and adolescence in Cuba, to his first exile and subsequent life in Spain, Mexico City, and Guatemala, through his mature revolutionary period in New York City and much-mythologized death in Cuba on the battlefield at Dos Ríos. The first major biography of Martí in over half a century and the first ever in English, José Martí is the most substantial examination of Martí’s life and work ever published.
- Introduction: Mariano and Leonor
- Part One: Before the Fall (1853–1870)
- Chapter One. An Unlikely Prodigy
- A Boy's First Letter
- Chapter Two. The Teacher Appears
- Chapter Three. Trial by Fire
- Havana Farewell
- Part Two: Exile (1871–1880)
- Chapter Four. Spain
- Chapter Five. A Young Man's Travels
- Chapter Six. Discovering America (1): Mexico
- A Secret Mission
- Chapter Seven. Discovering America (2): Guatemala
- Chapter Eight. Homecoming, Interrupted
- Part Three: The Great Work (1881–1895)
- Chapter Nine. New York (1): A False Start
- In the Land of Bolívar
- Chapter Ten. New York (2): No Country, No Master
- Chapter Eleven. New York (3): The Great Work Begins
- Chapter Twelve. New York (4): The Final Push
- Chapter Thirteen. Farewells and Rowboats
- A Narrow Escape—and One Last Letter for His Patria
- Chapter Fourteen. "My Life for My Country"
- Epilogue: A Hero's Afterlife
Mariano and Leonor
"In Cuba, the son has received his first counsel on pride and independence from his Spanish father."
―"Nuestras ideas" (Our Ideas), March 14, 1892
José Julian Martí y Pérez was born in the early morning hours of January 28, 1853, an unseasonably cold day. He was born on the second floor of the small house his proud parents, Mariano and Leonor Martí, shared with her sister Rita's family. The house was situated on the outskirts of Old Havana a few blocks from the sea. There was no heat aside from a small wood stove in the kitchen. Those present at the birth―his aunt Rita, an unknown midwife, and the child's parents―kept the windows shuttered against the damp chill of that January morning. There already would have been significant traffic along Calle Paula even at that early hour: a motley assortment of clergymen and sailors, clerks, soldiers, sellers carrying their wares to market. Young beatas (devotees) were on their way to the nearby church. Everyone was bundled up against the biting cold of the damp, seaside winds. None in the street would have had any way of knowing that a child was being born so close by. None would have had any reason to remark on the event, as children were generally born at home. Yet not a single person in the street below would fail to be touched by the child being born in that unassuming second-story bedroom.
Mariano and Leonor were a fairly typical, if relatively affluent, military colonial couple; only she was born into the Spanish military life and culture. Mariano was the first on his side of the family to join the army; Leonor was the third of five children born to Antonio Pérez, a highly decorated sergeant and infantryman whose two other daughters married Spanish military men.
Although the new parents were loyal Spaniards, the different regions in which they grew up colored their respective early relationships to their mother country. The Pérezes were a firmly middle-class family, and Antonio Pérez owned various properties in their native Canary Islands. The men of the Pérez family could also read and write―a rarity in a region where nearly 90 percent of the population was illiterate.
The Canary Islands archipelago was one of Spain's oldest colonial possessions and had for centuries been an important outpost for Spanish traffic to the New World. The islands' remoteness and distance from the Iberian Peninsula, however, rendered it little more than a way station for Spanish ships and a convenient source of cheap labor and willing military conscripts. The islands' proximity to northern Africa meant that mainland Spaniards viewed the islanders as racially and culturally inferior. These factors, along with hard times due to Spain's single-crop economic policy for the islands, led to massive migration from the Canary Islands to Cuba and Puerto Rico throughout the nineteenth century.
Young Leonor was by all accounts a respectful, disciplined, and devout child who attended church regularly and who never visibly chafed against the rigors of her strict military and Catholic upbringing. The outwardly compliant daughter, however, harbored a keen and fiercely intelligent mind. Spanish girls of the time were generally forbidden to learn to read and write for fear that they would correspond with undesirable suitors. As a teenager, however, the otherwise obedient Leonor taught herself to read and write without her parents' knowledge, apparently the only one of the female Pérez siblings to do so.
If her father's and brothers' literacy was unusual, Leonor's constituted nothing less than a miracle in a land where few women beyond royalty and the very wealthy ever learned such skills. That she did so on her own, without her parents' support or even approval, demonstrates her natural intelligence. It also suggests a pragmatic and resourceful woman who learned early on the wisdom of working within the limitations placed on young women of her class.
In September 1842, Antonio Pérez requested and received a commission in the artillery brigade of Havana. The Pérez family―including fourteen-year-old Leonor―left the Canary Islands for Cuba in November 1843. Leonor's elder sisters, Joaquina and Rita, had married Spanish artillerymen assigned to Havana and were already raising families there. Although no explicit reason for Pérez's transfer appears in his records, it is likely that the career soldier wished to live closer to his married daughters and grandchildren.
Unlike Leonor, Mariano Martí had no family history of military service. He was the third of six children born to Vicente Martí, a farmer and rope maker, and María Martí Navarro. Mariano enlisted in the Spanish army in 1835 at age twenty, likely as a way to escape the lifelong poverty and lack of opportunity that almost invariably awaited young men of his class. His father and elder brothers displayed no interest in or affinity for the military life, but for Mariano 1835 proved an opportune year for ambitious and able-bodied young men to pursue military careers. By the time of his enlistment the Spanish Empire was in steep decline, its once-vast holdings reduced to Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean and the Philippines and a handful of smaller possessions in the Pacific. The Spanish economy was still in shambles from the Peninsular War against Napoleon (1808–1814), and Spain now lagged badly behind the rest of Europe, which was rapidly modernizing. Spain was again fighting a war on its own soil as conservative opposition to the liberal rule of Regent Maria Cristina sparked the first of three civil conflicts known as the Carlist Wars. The combination of Spain's tenuous hold on its home front and remaining colonies led to a nearly fourfold increase in its standing army between 1828 and 1838, much of it fueled by forced conscription from the provinces.
Mariano's choice to pursue a military career thus proved a wise decision, as the army provided the young man with a lifestyle, education, and class status his elder brothers were never to achieve. Surely the military held more promise for a young man of the time than the prospect of a lifetime carrying bales of hemp for his father's rope-making business. A tailor by trade, Mariano could have left for the city, as two of his brothers eventually did, in hopes of finding work or opening his own shop. Yet Mariano chose military life for reasons not entirely financial. It is especially telling that Mariano was the only one of six Martí siblings who learned to read and write. Having received by all accounts the same upbringing as his male siblings and given the sorry state of primary education throughout Spain at the time, it is reasonable to speculate that perhaps he became literate only after joining the army.
Whatever his reasons for enlisting beyond the prospect of steady employment, Mariano quickly took to military life and was soon promoted to the rank of corporal. After an initial period in his native Valencia, Mariano was transferred in 1844 to Barcelona, where Spain had put down a second Carlist uprising two years earlier. His performance in the artillery corps led to his promotion to the rank of first sergeant in 1850.
Shortly after his promotion, Mariano's artillery unit joined a larger contingent of four infantry battalions and additional squadrons, and all were then transferred to Havana after the failed invasion of the island in May by Narciso López, a disgruntled former general. As with Mariano's enlistment, the timing of his promotion and transfer had a great deal to do with larger forces at work in Spain and its colonies. For decades the English government had pressured Spain to abolish slavery in its remaining colonies, a move strongly opposed by the island's plantation-owning elite, or plantocracy. The plantocracy depended on slave labor for the economic viability of the sugar industry as well as the relatively smaller tobacco and coffee trades.
For this reason the Spanish government had long been ambivalent about slavery in the colonies, agreeing only reluctantly―and under intense pressure from England―to outlaw the slave trade in 1817. The government's enforcement of the slaving prohibition was half-hearted at best, and slavery itself remained legal in the colonies, yet island elites grew increasingly nervous about their economic future. After two decades of ongoing tension between the plantocracy and the mother country on the subject of slavery, Cuba's official exclusion in 1837 from representation in the Spanish court proved the final straw.
From that point on, the island elites became attracted to the idea of annexation to the United States, where slavery seemed much more likely to survive. The feeling was apparently mutual, as the U.S. government―specifically the successive administrations of James Polk and Zachary Taylor―made direct offers to buy the island outright from Spain. Neither the Cuban nor U.S. plantocracies, however, were content to watch events unfold from the sidelines. Prominent planters from both camps were prepared to finance a private filibustering expedition-.essentially a mercenary invasion force―to topple the colonial Cuban government and pave the way for U.S. acquisition. The plantocracies possessed the means and motivation for an invasion, and it did not take long before a suitable candidate emerged to lead it.
General Narciso López was Venezuelan by birth and enlisted in the Spanish army against Simón Bolivar's insurgent forces in 1814 at the age of sixteen. He rose quickly through the ranks, and by the time Bolivar's forces prevailed in 1823, the young man was a colonel. Forced to leave his native country along with the Spanish, he relocated first to Spain, where he fought in the First Carlist War, then to Cuba. For a time López's loyalty to Spain paid ample dividends: he married into a wealthy Cuban family, was promoted to general, and served in a string of government posts. As a liberal, however, he suddenly found himself out of favor with the rise of a center-right, moderate government in 1843. López's sudden estrangement―he retained his rank as general but no longer had any official duties―engendered a deep resentment toward the empire he had served for nearly thirty years. After he suffered a number of failed business ventures, López's dwindling fortunes and lasting bitterness turned him against his erstwhile masters; he fled to the United States in 1848 and sought out parties to bankroll an expeditionary force.
By the time of Mariano's arrival in Havana in the summer of 1850, López had tried and failed twice to capture Cuba. In August of the following year, Mariano would help defend Cuba against López's third and final attempt on the island. His superiors duly noted the valor, energy, and zeal he displayed during the crisis, qualities that would eventually enable Mariano to rise into the officers' ranks.
For now, however, his escape from hunger and poverty and into a promising new life seemed more than enough. First Sergeant Mariano Martí was a thirty-five-year-old career soldier who finally began to glimpse the life he may have envisioned when he enlisted as a young man. An enlisted man's salary in the colonial army was more valuable for its regularity than for its size. Even so, shortly after his arrival in Cuba, Mariano was financially comfortable for the first time in his life, thanks in part to a bonus he received for meritorious service during the last Narciso López filibuster. Mariano displayed an interest in business during this time: aside from his regular salary he enjoyed some income from two businesses he acquired, a barbershop and a small café named La Fuente de la Salud (Fountain of Health).
Given thirty-six-year-old Mariano's newfound affluence and relatively advanced age for a bachelor, he unsurprisingly set about to find himself a wife. Little is known about Mariano Martí's romantic or sexual life before this point in his life. Apparently he made no move toward serious courtship and marriage until he became financially and professionally secure, suggesting a man who wanted to marry well, within the restrictions imposed by his rank and class, and was willing to wait until he could attract a socially appropriate spouse. Such a match would be the crowning achievement of a lifelong struggle to overcome the station of his birth. A wife with social and economic status would be the affirmation of Mariano's material, social, and personal success.
For Mariano, Leonor Perez was the perfect match. Leonor was a young, beautiful, intelligent, and well-mannered woman from a military family whose two elder sisters already were married to career soldiers. Mariano and Leonor met at one of the weekly dances held at a downtown ballroom in the old city that provided a venue for the social debuts of daughters of middle-class colonials before potential suitors. Mariano Martí, a good-looking man splendidly attired in full military-dress uniform, would have made a deep and immediate impression on young Leonor despite his average height and build. Mariano's charms proved as irresistible for the Pérez family as for Leonor. Having secured his commanding officer's permission and Antonio Perez's blessing, the couple became formally engaged on January 19, 1852, and were married less than three weeks later, on the sunny but slightly chilly morning of Saturday, February 7. After the ceremony, the newlyweds retired to their new home on Calle Paula, where less than a year later José Martí was born.
By the time of José Martí's birth, Cuba had been a Spanish possession for nearly 350 years. As the economic and political center of the island colony, Havana showed little sign of the restlessness that would soon strain its relations with the mother country. The colony's native elites had lost their taste for López-style filibustering, and after his capture and public execution following his third attempt they displayed little appetite for continued agitation. Others on the island who continued to advocate either independence or annexation to the United States had, like López, also been silenced by execution or exile. Despite the independence movements that swept the Latin American continent earlier in the century and continuing international pressure, especially from England, for Spain to abolish slavery in its remaining colonies, Cuba appeared on the surface every bit the placid, contented "Ever-Faithful Isle" (Siempre-Fidelísima Isla) in an otherwise troubled empire.
In 1853 Havana was a bustling, cosmopolitan city of about 200,000 inhabitants characterized as much by its busy international trade, political clout, and displays of military might as by its lively nightlife and thriving arts and social scene. The vast majority of its population, however, could only enjoy the city's many charms from a distance, as these remained strictly the province of the wealthy plantocracy and merchant classes and to a lesser extent those in the military.
The island's Creole elites continued to suppress the immutable tension between material wealth and political subjugation that defined their class. Their awareness of the recent winds of liberalizing political change that had swept Europe and blown as far as their erstwhile colonial peers on the Latin American continent only heightened their untenable position as affluent but second-class citizens. Thus on the day of Martí's birth, local newspapers could announce on the same page and without any notable sense of contradiction the schedule of theatrical premieres and social balls for carnival season alongside the arrival of vaccinations against cholera, which was still running rampant throughout the island.26 Into this web of contradictions, of surface gaiety and calm veiling a growing sense of unease, was born the first child and only son of Mariano and Leonor Martí.
Before the Fall (1853–1870)
An Unlikely Prodigy
Well: the times are bad, but your son is good.
Letter to Leonor Martí, 1892
And from whom did I learn my integrity and my rebelliousness, or from whom could I have inherited them, if not from my father and from my mother?
Letter to Leonor Martí, May 15, 1894
José Martí's first decade of life was a largely uneventful one, a good thing in a city where one in ten inhabitants―and a disproportionate number of children―died of yellow fever. The precarious state of the island's sanitation and its nearly nonexistent health-care system were further taxed by the return of cholera, which reached pandemic proportions during the 1850s.
Childhood anecdotes suggest that José was a sensitive, well-behaved child who gave his parents no cause for particular concern. By his tenth birthday, José Martí―or Pepe, as his parents called him―began to show the first signs of his prodigious intellectual and literary talent. Both of his parents had managed to acquire levels of education beyond what was typical―or in Leonor's case, even encouraged―for Spaniards of their respective backgrounds and classes. They grasped the value of enabling Pepe's education as far as their limited means allowed, although they would come to differ sharply over what kinds of learning and how much was best. Neither his parents' education nor their enthusiasm for his own, however, could account for the child's spectacular record of achievement in school or his apparently immense capacity for intellectual work.
Given the class-bound nature of Cuba's and Spain's educational systems and the chronic lack of opportunity of advancement for all but the upper crust of Creole society, a more unlikely origin could hardly be imagined for the child who would become one of Latin America's most revered political and literary figures.
During José Martí's infancy, his father's military career continued to prosper. On February 14, 1855, Mariano was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. This boon was largely due to a personality exceptionally well suited to the requirements of the times: unwavering loyalty to the mother country, boundless energy, and a mental toughness that appealed to his superiors. Spain needed such men to safeguard the precarious colonial situation in Cuba. The landed elites' latent anticolonial feelings never completely dissipated after the López debacle, and the colonial government found itself constantly on guard against new potential uprisings. Given the burgeoning U.S. empire's growing ambitions in the Caribbean and Spain's corresponding decline, many Creoles believed annexation to the United States was inevitable and perhaps even desirable. It was, in short, an opportune time for ambitious and fiercely loyal Spaniards to find their enthusiasm amply rewarded by the Spanish crown.
Yet the events that led to and in fact necessitated Mariano Martí's promotion were far from ideal. The appointment in 1853 of Marqués Juan de la Pezuela, an avowed abolitionist, as captain-general and thus supreme military and civilian authority of Cuba fueled a renewed economic anxiety among the plantocracy, who depended on slavery for their economic and political survival. The planters' fears of economic and political disaster triggered a return to the general unrest and annexationist pressures that facilitated Mariano's arrival five years earlier. By February 1854 the U.S. government, emboldened by Cuban planters' urgent petitions and Spain's increasingly precarious position, made renewed offers to buy the embattled colony, and Cuban exiles were lobbying powerful U.S. Southern politicians such as Mississippi Governor John A. Quitman to organize a new filibustering effort. The government in Madrid itself was nearly toppled in June but managed to restore order within a few weeks.
Pezuela responded to the rapidly escalating tensions on the island with a sharp increase in military activity. All forces on the island, including Mariano's unit, kept constant vigilance against actual or perceived threats with orders to crush any uprising or invasion.
The birth of a second child, Leonor Petrona, whom the family called Chata, in July put increased financial pressure on the Martí family that Mariano's promotion the following year undoubtedly helped assuage. Yet the new husband and father soon tired of the chronic state of alert in which he lived. The unflagging vigilance and permanent state of readiness demanded of his unit in turn required never-ending rounds of drills and maneuvers that kept Mariano away from Havana and his family for extended periods. News of his mother's death in Valencia in 1855, coupled with Leonor's becoming pregnant with their third child, further taxed the once steadfast, even enthusiastic soldier and family man. He wore slowly but inexorably down under the professional and emotional strain. On December 22 Mariano received an early Christmas present: his request to resign his commission and retire from the army was granted.
Shortly after the birth on June 8, 1856, of the couple's third child, Mariana, whom they called Ana, the Martís moved to a larger house; José Martí was three years old. With the new baby came increased economic pressures on Mariano, prompting the now ex-soldier to seek employment in the civilian ranks. His military experience and lifelong loyalty to the mother country made him a seemingly ideal candidate for a position in the Carabineros, the colonial national police. Despite Mariano's long and meritorious service, his desired position among the aventajados, an elite corps of troopers, did not materialize. The family remained hopeful, as Mariano was in line for a much-coveted position as chief inspector of Templete, the city's main commercial district and home of the colonial government offices.
The family soon moved again, this time to a house in Templete. But before Mariano could formally claim the position, his candidacy had to endure the slow grind of Havana's formidable colonial bureaucracy. In the meantime, it became clear that the income from Mariano's café and barbershop, which he only ever meant to supplement his military salary, would not cover the family's needs. To keep the family financially afloat until her husband could start his new job, Leonor began working at home as a seamstress in addition to her household duties. The months that followed were hard ones for the Martí family. But finally, Mariano again received an early Christmas present: an official notice to report to his new post as chief inspector of Templete district.
Although chief inspectors occupied a relatively minor position within the larger civil and military hierarchy, they wielded significant power over the lives of Cuban civilians. Cubans generally considered the local chief inspector as an arm of the colonizer, not an unreasonable view given that inspectors' ranks were almost entirely composed of Spaniards and most of them former soldiers. At least one observer of the time described the chief inspector's power as equal parts bureaucrat and colonial spy:
Families are obliged to give notice to the celador [chief inspector], or alderman of their locality, of the increase or diminution of the family, of the admission of a new inmate, or of a guest, of a change of living, and of whatever reunion or party they may celebrate in their house, thus subjecting the whole country to a complete system of espionage.
Chief inspectors were the first line of enforcement for construction permits and business licenses as well as keeping roadways safe and clear for city traffic.10 Their most visible function on the streets, however, was to be seen as a deterrent to criminal activity; an effective chief inspector knew that beyond his physical presence in the neighborhood, it was his image in the minds of the civilian population that served to maintain public order and deter potential miscreants. Walking his beat as a Havana chief inspector, Mariano for a time embraced his duties as public officer and private spy, playing his public visual especially well, as José Martí's childhood friend Fermín Valdés Domínguez would later reminisce:
[Mariano] was, then, one of those agents of the law who, when he walked the streets with his two bodyguards behind him, would strike fear into the criminals, when these were not themselves collaborating with him in the persecution of some Cuban opposing the despots or an enemy of the slave traders.
Mariano's initial success as a chief inspector gave the Martís hope of better times to come. The new position enabled a return to financial stability for the Martí family, and the Templete district's wealth of potential business and government contacts held the promise of further professional and personal advancement. Unfortunately, Mariano displayed no particular talent for professional or social networking, his successful courtship of Leonor notwithstanding, and had risen through the army ranks more by dint of persistence and sheer ambition than by personal charm. The martial air and personal brusqueness that served him well as a soldier would have made him a very effective chief inspector in a different part of the city but actually proved a hindrance in Templete, where he interacted with government bureaucrats and merchants unfamiliar with the rigidities of military life. It did not take the new chief inspector long to make enemies among both the people he policed and his own colleagues.
Worse, at the age of forty-one the physical robustness that had been one of Mariano's greatest assets began to fail him. Given that life expectancy for Cuban men at this time hovered between thirty-five and forty years, it was not surprising for a man of Mariano's age and work history to experience a decline in health. Unlike other men at his stage of life, however, Mariano had three young children to support and was beginning a new position he could ill afford to lose after a lengthy unemployment. The specific nature of Mariano's malaise is as puzzling as its timing was unfortunate, as Martí biographers have been unable to identify a specific illness or other direct cause for it. Yet Mariano's libido seemed unaffected, as Leonor became pregnant with their third child during this period. This and the absence of any identifiable illness or disorder suggest the possibility of a psychological rather than physical cause for his waning health. Whatever the cause, Mariano Martí found himself out of his element not only socially and professionally but now also physically, while his sense of professional and familial duty demanded that he remain at his post until a new opportunity emerged.
With the new year came the opening Mariano had been hoping for if not actively seeking. In January 1857 the couple learned of the death of Antonio Pérez, Leonor's father, who returned to Spain shortly after Leonor's marriage. Having retired from the army, the Pérez family patriarch then decided to return to the Canary Islands, where he owned land and could live a quieter life away from rising political tensions in Cuba. Upon his death, his estate was to be distributed among his wife and children, a prospect that prompted the Martís to consider following Pérez's lead and relocate to the mother country. The decision could not have been an easy one. A voyage of this magnitude required a significant amount of money that Mariano could likely raise only by selling off most of his business interests, which by now included two slaves he bought as part of a short-lived foray into tobacco farming.
The prospect of staking almost all of their financial resources on the move was an enormous gamble for the family, one made even more daunting by the complexity of planning and undertaking it with three small children. Mariano's own fitness for the transatlantic voyage―an average of ten weeks by sail-.must also have given them pause, although Leonor's pregnancy in March suggests that perhaps his physical condition was less of an issue than Martí biographers generally assert.
Despite all of these concerns, the promise of an easier, more affluent life proved irresistible to Mariano. On May 3, after less than six months on the job as chief inspector of Templete, a span shorter than the time it took him to get the position, he submitted his letter of resignation, citing his desire to return to Spain to recover from an unspecified illness.
In June the Martí family―Mariano, Leonor (now four months pregnant), Pepe, Chata, and Ana―boarded the Magdalena, a Spanish merchant ship bound for Valencia. Soon after the seventy-five-day voyage they settled into a rented flat on Calle Tapineria where the couple's fourth child, María del Carmen, was born. Despite the substantial expense of the move and perhaps due to an actual or anticipated financial windfall from Leonor's inheritance, the Martís hired a domestic servant they never could have afforded in Cuba. Their all-or-nothing bet on a better life appeared, at least initially, to be paying off.
But before long, the family's situation started going badly. Leonor had spent her entire life in the tropical climates of Cuba and the Canary Islands, and she did not take well to the relative chill of the Valencia winters. Despite Valencia's more temperate weather by Spanish standards, Leonor soon began suffering from chilblains (perniosis) on her hands, a painful itching and swelling associated with exposure to cold, damp conditions. This, along with Leonor's late-pregnancy fatigue and Mariano's diminished physical state, made their first months on the peninsula difficult ones. Leonor began to struggle emotionally after the birth of María del Carmen on December 2. Feeling physically and culturally uprooted, she began to withdraw from her husband's family and even her own children.
The Martís' relations with Mariano's Spanish relatives also may have soured during their stay. His father had remarried since his mother's death, and Mariano had not seen his father or siblings since his departure for Cuba seven years earlier. The retired military officer who greeted them now was a profoundly changed man―physically reduced but no less martial in his manner or unbending in his ways. Leonor failed to establish any lasting bond with Mariano's extended family due perhaps to their resentment of her relatively superior class status and/or education. It is possible that the Spanish colonial cultural logic of the time, according to which peninsula-born Spaniards considered themselves culturally and even racially superior to Creoles, played a significant role in the extended family's disapproval of the island-born Leonor regardless of her class or education.
Aside from María del Carmen's birth, little is known about the Martís' twenty-two-month stay in Valencia. There is no record of Mariano having sought or failed to find work, either in the police or anywhere else, nor is there evidence of his having pursued business interests. It is thus likely that the family supported itself with the funds from Leonor's inheritance along with whatever savings they brought with them. Mariano's health during this time showed significant improvement over his earlier condition; among other indicators, Leonor had become pregnant once again. By the spring of 1859 the money was running out, the Martís tired of Valencia, or both. Whatever the reasons, Mariano and Leonor again staked much of their now-dwindling fortunes on a transatlantic voyage back to Cuba and the promise of employment.
It would be difficult to overstate the impact of the Martís' venture in Valencia on their material well-being and, more ominously, the emotional and psychological ties that bound them. Beyond leaving the family practically penniless, the failed expedition demoralized them. For Mariano it meant the end of his dreams of a comfortable retirement and the grim realization that he would have to spend the rest of his days―or as long as his health and body held out―working for his family's survival. This was enough to light a spark of frustration and resentment that with future setbacks and indignities would grow into the chronic anger and bouts of rage that would eventually render him unemployable. For Leonor, her relief at having escaped an emotionally and physically trying situation in Valencia was tempered by deep concern for her husband's future health and ability to support the family. Although they could not have known it at the time, the Martís' Spanish misadventure marked only the beginning of the family's slow but inexorable decline, neither the last nor the greatest misfortune they would endure.
Mariano, traveling alone, returned to Havana in June 1859 and wasted no time in seeking employment. Leonor, pregnant once again, and the four children stayed behind in Valencia with the understanding that Mariano would send for them once he found a job and suitable dwelling. Mariano remembered well the anxiety and hardships his family suffered during the long months before he was offered the post at Templete, and he hoped he would not be separated from them for long. Luckily, Mariano's inquiry coincided with the resignation of the chief inspector for the Santa Clara district of Havana; within a month Mariano was selected to assume the post. Leonor arrived in Havana with the children soon afterward, and on November 13 she gave birth to María del Pilar Eduarda, their fifth child.
The Santa Clara district's residents little resembled the affluent, well-connected population of Mariano's previous assignment in Templete. Santa Clara was a solidly working-class neighborhood with a reputation for criminality and hard living. Unlike his previous experience as the chief inspector of Templete, Mariano immediately took to his new post, and his natural rigidity and authoritarian approach proved effective in policing the challenging district. Over time, however, it became clear that he had little taste for the particularities of police procedures or for the necessary internal politicking among his fellow officers and superiors. Mariano remained at Santa Clara for less than a year, but that proved long enough to make enemies in the community and in the police force. He found himself repeatedly reprimanded for a series of real and fictionalized errors and oversights, but his success at containing the district's more unsavory elements made his superiors reluctant to dismiss him. Still, it was only a matter of time before his martial ways and difficulties in controlling his temper resulted in his dismissal.
The events of September 27, 1860, and a wealthy Creole woman's subsequent complaint to the captain-general gave Mariano's enemies the necessary pretext to finally remove him from his post. The incident itself involved a right-of-way dispute between a carretonero (cart driver) and a horse-drawn carriage owned by Adelaida de Villalonga, a woman from a wealthy Havana family. Such disputes were quite common in Havana, and at least one commentator of the time has remarked on the difficulty of navigating the city's impossibly narrow streets:
The streets are so narrow, and the houses built so close upon them, that they seem to be rather spaces between the walls of houses than highways for travel. It appears impossible that two vehicles should pass abreast; yet they do so. There are constant blockings of the way.
The point on Calle Aguiar where the dispute occurred was even more constricted than the typical Havana street, as construction partly blocked the road, forcing northbound traffic temporarily to the left. Although the carretonero claimed the right of way, Villalonga's driver was unable to reverse course or retreat on the narrow, congested road. The carretonero, for his part, refused to yield. The first policeman on the scene proved unable to resolve the impasse and summoned a chief inspector from another district who happened to be in the area. He in turn refused to intervene, explaining that he had no jurisdiction in Santa Clara and that Mariano Martí was the appropriate officer to settle the matter. By the time Mariano arrived, a crowd of men had gathered on the street, and the more curious women looked on, as was the custom, from the comfort and protection of nearby windows.
The chief inspector of Santa Clara wasted no time in resolving the conflict, nor did he disappoint those hoping for some free entertainment on that hot September morning. After briefly interviewing both parties and an eyewitness, Mariano resolved to move the carriage. Seeing no other way to persuade the animal and tired of the cries of drivers frustrated by the prolonged blockage and the circus that had sprung up around him, he began to violently beat Villalonga's horse with his cane. The horse quickly relented under the chief inspector's blows and withdrew, ending the confrontation. Villalonga claimed in her formal complaint that Mariano's assault destroyed her carriage's retractable canvas top. What the incident more pointedly damaged, though, was her sense of entitlement: the proud Creole lady had been publicly humiliated by a man of the lower classes, and a Spaniard to boot, who denied her passage in favor of a lowly carretonero's. The chief inspector's greatest crime was perhaps not the violence with which he handled the matter but rather his failure to yield to the will of his social betters regardless of the rules.
After a cursory investigation following Villalonga's complaint―during which the carretonero was not sought out or interviewed―Mariano was summarily dismissed from his post on October 16, 1860. Although the investigator's failure to include both parties to the dispute betrays the report's lack of impartiality, further inconsistencies emerge between it and Villalonga's account. Both reports emphasize the coarseness of Mariano's conduct and especially his language, describing his behavior in terms similar to the carretonero's. The investigator's account asserts that in his words and actions the chief inspector willfully disrespected Villalongo and failed to show proper deference to a lady of her stature, charges that Villalongo did not specifically make in her complaint. The report authored by a Nicolás Lobo contrasts Mariano's behavior with that of the chief inspector of another district who arrived on the scene before Mariano did:
[And] the carretonero claimed the same [right], compelling the lady by his bad manners and way of expressing himself to call for the chief inspector, and upon presenting himself the [chief inspector] of San Felipe who lived nearby appealed to the carretonero to understand that he had no right to sustain his pretension and that further she was a lady to whom should be given the highest consideration.
Lobo goes on to assert that Mariano's violence against the horse was not merely the heavy-handed execution of a conscious decision but a spontaneous outburst of rage triggered by his confrontation with Villalongo herself:
The chief inspector of Santa Clara don Mariano Martí . . . rudely ordered the driver to yield; he refused to obey, and at this point was when the lady told the chief inspector that she would teach him his duty, that he was failing to show consideration for a lady whom in this case he should respect; these words made the chief inspector so indignant that he would certainly make her yield, replying that he needed no one to teach him his duty: that with respect to the blows the complainant claims he dealt the horse Chief Inspector Martí is not satisfied that he beat it enough.
In contrast to the first chief inspector, who recognized his duty to defer to Villalonga, Mariano is portrayed as not merely ignorant of her tacit authority but willfully and impulsively insubordinate. Villalongo's complaint, on the other hand, studiously avoids any specific reference to class, couching her outrage in the coded language of "gentlemen" as guardians of "the rule of law." Perhaps she did not think it necessary to assert her class privilege, believing the point would be obvious enough to the captain-general. Further, Lobo's report does not substantiate Villalongo's claim of a damaged carriage, nor does it even mention her assertion of "grave risk" that the horse's sudden retreat would have posed to herself and other onlookers.
Whatever the veracity of these various accounts or the parties' particular claims, what they include and omit tells us a great deal about the respective authors' overlapping objectives. Villalongo sought punishment for the one who disrespected her and failed to defer to her and who by doing so violated the colonial society's strict class hierarchy. Lobo's apparent goal was to portray the chief inspector as a violent, impulsive man unworthy of his position. That he focused on Mariano's socially inappropriate behavior toward Villalongo rather than his violence toward the horse lays bare the unspoken assumption behind the report: that this was a man who did not distinguish between his betters and a common carretonero, who was as likely to lash out against one as the other―a man who, in short, did not know his place. Such a man could not be trusted, as Villalongo euphemistically put it, "to safeguard the public order and to prevent the consequences of injustice and injury." Thanks largely to their respective accounts, Villalongo and Lobo got their wish: the captain-general's final report on the incident cites among the reasons for Mariano's dismissal his "lack of good manners, limited capacity, and lack of aptitude for dealing with well-educated persons."
In the months after Mariano's dismissal, life in the Martí household grew tense and occasionally ugly. Mariano's bitterness over being fired and mounting frustration at his inability to find another position made him more prone than ever to sudden explosions of rage. A man who took pride in his appearance and kept himself fastidiously dressed and groomed, Mariano began to look disheveled. His health continued to decline. The formerly occasional bouts of asthma he experienced toward the end of his tenure at Santa Clara came more regularly now, and a fall he suffered during recent floods left him with a pronounced limp.
By age seven, young Pepé's dominant impression of his father was of a tired, frail, shabby-looking man with no job and negligible prospects. He watched his mother suffer silently, seldom grumbling about the family's diminished state lest she spark another of her husband's rants. Mariano remained unemployed for eighteen months, repeatedly doomed by a paper trail that followed him everywhere he went in the aftermath of the Villalongo incident. The Martí family, which had never fully recovered from the near-disaster of the Valencia venture, now found itself subsisting on Leonor's sewing for hire and whatever odd jobs Mariano occasionally found. Even their joy at the birth of their sixth child, Rita Amelia, the following year was tempered by their unspoken desperation at having yet another mouth to feed.
It was during this dark period that young Pepe showed the first signs of the intelligence and intellectual curiosity that even then set him apart from his peers. Pepe excelled in virtually every subject at school, although literature was by far his favorite. Due perhaps partly to the utter lack of any other good news and partly to his being the oldest and the only male, Pepe's early successes made him much celebrated in the Martí household.
His parents held very different ideas for how to best develop Pepe's abilities. Leonor longed to enroll him in San Anacleto, a school highly regarded for its academics. From Mariano's perspective, nine-year-old Pepe already had acquired far more formal education than he or his father and siblings could have ever dreamed. For Mariano, Pepe's most important assets were his excellent penmanship and precocious language skills. Once he became more fluent in English, he would be eminently employable as a clerk or translator―skills very much in demand in a society with increasing ties to the United States and where less than 40 percent of the population could claim basic literacy in even one language.
Pepe began during this time to form what would prove an unbreakable lifelong bond with his mother and to grow away from his father. Mariano started taking the boy along on his trips into the provinces to seek work, a habit that only exacerbated Leonor's resentments and Pepe's growing estrangement from Mariano. Mother and son resented the frequent absences from school but were overruled by Mariano, who insisted that he needed the boy along due to his own physical limitations. Leonor implicitly understood that Pepe was valuable for Mariano less as a laborer than as an amanuensis for his father. Mariano Martí, while literate, detested the paperwork that came with police work. He recognized that nine-year-old Pepe's skill and affinity for writing already far surpassed his own. In April 1862 Mariano finally found a post far from home at a significantly reduced salary and even then only because of another man's scandal and sudden dismissal.
The Spanish government had long been ambivalent on the subject of slavery in the colonies, reluctantly bowing to English pressure to ban the slave trade in 1817. However, slave labor was indispensable for the Cuban economy, which depended on the labor-intensive sugar industry for its continued growth. Spanish government officials knew that the Cuban plantocracy, frustrated by decades of disenfranchisement, would vigorously resist any serious move toward abolition.
Trapped in an untenable position between the need to appease Britain and the desire to avoid further political unrest on the island, Spain only half-heartedly enforced the ban against slave trafficking, when it did so at all. For their part, colonial authorities turned a blind eye to the illegal slave trade and often profited indirectly from it through bribes and kickbacks. Meanwhile, traders―often with the help of knowledgeable Cuban officials―played an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with the Royal Navy, which constantly patrolled the Caribbean for the human contraband.
But when on March 31 the British consul filed a formal protest over the disembarkation of more than four hundred slaves at Ciénaga de Zapata on the island's southern coast, the captain-general in Matanzas was forced to act, and the perpetrators were quickly arrested. In the authorities' rush to save face, they inadvertently caught one of their own: Captain Manuel Aragón Quintana was accused of accepting a substantial bribe―five thousand pesos and seven slaves―in exchange for allowing the slave ship to land within his jurisdiction. Quintana served as juez-pedáneo (petty judge), the colonial equivalent of a small-town sheriff, of Caimito de la Hanábana, a tiny village near the coast. He was immediately dismissed, which created an opening for a replacement and an unexpected opportunity for Mariano Martí.
As an assignment, Hanábana was hardly comparable in terms of salary and prestige to Mariano's previous posts. It would mean giving up the relative comforts of Havana for a backwater more than a hundred miles away, roughly two days' journey on horseback. Leonor would have to remain in Havana with the children. Mariano insisted that Pepe accompany him to Hanábana, since school was over for the year and the child would be useful to him in his new position. Leonor feared that her husband would not let Pepe return to school in the fall but keep him in Hanábana, thus dashing her dream of sending the boy to San Anacleto. But the disgraced former chief inspector was in no position to decline any offer of regular employment, and his wife was in no position to begrudge him anything that would restore his dignity and raise their family out of poverty.
So on the morning of April 13 Mariano and Pepe set off for Hanábana, arriving late the following day. Upon arrival, the newly minted captain's first official act was to seize the property of all parties involved in the illegal shipment at Ciénaga, including his predecessor Quintana's. After this initial flurry of activity, Mariano found little in Hanábana that required his attention beyond Sunday cockfights and the occasional drunken row. The most onerous duty associated with the position was the constant stream of written reports and other paperwork that even the most insignificant colonial outpost did not fail to generate. This aspect of the job that Mariano loathed posed no problem now that he had Pepe to share the burden.
Now nearly forty-seven years old, with a bad leg and prone to asthma, Mariano grew to appreciate the quiet, rural town with a generally agreeable population and little crime. For his part, Pepe served his father well and showed no sign of missing either the city or his studies. Father and son were getting on well and seemed content with their new surroundings and each other.
Pepe's time in Hanábana also meant closer and more frequent contact with slaves and slavery than he experienced in Havana. Although the capital's residents certainly kept slaves, these were generally household servants or laborers. In this small, agricultural village, Pepe saw firsthand the life of plantation slaves. As the town's top civilian authority, Mariano would have been present at public punishments of slaves such as whippings. Years later, the adult José Martí would recall one such event he witnessed during the months in Hanábana:
And the Negroes? Who has seen a slave whipped who does not forever after consider himself in his debt? I saw it, I saw it when I was a child, and still my cheeks burn with shame. For superior spirits who have rejected honors as unnecessary, these anxieties of justice are a matter of nobility. I saw it and swore myself to his defense ever since.
Nor would that be the last or worst of what nine-year-old Pepe would witness. Two particular events, the unloading of a slave ship and the child's discovery of a dead slave hanged in the woods feature prominently in Poema XXX of Versos sencillos, arguably Martí's best-known volume:
The lightning the heaven scorches,
And the clouds are bloodstained patches:
The ship its hundreds disgorges
Of captive blacks through the hatches.
The fierce winds and brutal rains
Beat against the dense plantation:
In a file the slaves in chains
Are led naked for inspection . . .
Red as in the desert zone,
The sun rose on the horizon:
And upon the dead slave shone,
Hanged from a tree on the mountain.
A boy saw him there and shook
With passion for the oppressed:
And at his feet an oath took
That this crime would be redressed.
Martí biographers have differed on the question of when Pepe would have witnessed these scenes and whether they represent a single experience or a composite of two or more events. Given the image of the child's oath common to the poem and the account of the whipped slave, it is also possible that Martí somehow conflated multiple events into one memory or distilled them into a single, powerful poetic expression. Slaves who caused trouble during the crossings were routinely disciplined in cruel and violent ways, and many died from being beaten or otherwise punished. But traders generally had no interest in killing slaves unless absolutely necessary, and they considered doing so akin to destroying valuable merchandise. Thus it is unlikely that Pepe witnessed the spectacle of the hanged slave simultaneously with the slave ship, as the poem implies, unless the body was left there before the ship landed. Martí later showed facility for fictionalizing real events in his journalistic writings on the United States and did not mention these experiences elsewhere in his writings, as he did regarding the whipped slave; thus it is possible that the actual experiences were less dramatic or visceral than his portrayal of them in the poem. Regardless of what and how much nine-year-old Pepe actually saw or the particular circumstances surrounding the portrayed events, what is indisputable is that the boy's exposure to the implementation of slave justice and the often sadistic treatment of slaves left a profound and lasting impression on him. Pepe and his father would soon leave the countryside and return to the relative civility of Havana, but he would never again see slaves or slavery in the same way as his schoolmates back home. He had simply seen too much.
For Leonor, her son could not come home soon enough. It became obvious by the fall of 1862 that, as she had suspected, Mariano had no intention of sending Pepe back to school. Her disappointment was somewhat assuaged by her husband's apparent success at his new job and by the family's improved financial situation. Thanks to Mariano's new position they even raised enough money to buy their first home, a transaction completed on October 22 for the price of three thousand pesos.43 Although she missed her son and worried about her husband, Leonor no doubt was relieved at the family's good fortune and hoped that the worst was behind them.
Unbeknown to Mariano, the illegal trade that indirectly enabled his arrival was resuming under his very nose. On October 6 provincial authorities in the nearby city of Colón received an order from the captain-general in Havana to apprehend a slave ship that would be landing along the southern coast, seize the cargo, and arrest the traders. The lieutenant governor at Colón replied the following week assuring Havana of heightened vigilance and readiness to act. Captain Mariano Martí did not receive orders to that effect, nor was the alleged slave ship ever sighted. The traders―and their conspirators, among them Mariano's superiors in Colón―succeeded in duping the juez-pedáneo in what would become a pattern of duplicity, subterfuge, and complicity between traders and the authorities.
Mariano did not succeed in stopping slave shipments from landing in Hanábana, a popular spot from which slaves could easily be transported to inland sugar plantations in Matanzas Province. In the deeply corrupt world of Cuban governance, even Mariano's ineffectual resistance to the continuing slave trade posed an inconvenience for a system used to open collaboration with colonial authorities. However ineffective or superfluous his resistance, Mariano's continued presence in Hanábana became a nuisance to the corrupt authorities who only arrested the parties involved in the March 31 slave-ship incident to appease the English consul. Before the year was out, a Spanish court dismissed the case against the slavers and their government collaborators for lack of evidence, despite a wealth of physical evidence that included the remains of the ship and a mass grave for those who died during the voyage. Numerous eyewitness accounts of the landing as well as the disembarking slaves and their sale to waiting buyers likewise failed to persuade the court, which ordered juez-pedáneo Mariano Martí to return to the defendants the property he confiscated during his first day on the job.
However demoralizing the court's rebuke might have been for Mariano, the final indignity was yet to come: shortly after the Christmas holidays, he was dismissed from his post and replaced by Manuel Aragón Quintana, the very man who resigned the position in shame nine months earlier and whom Mariano had replaced. Once again Mariano failed to hold a job that his family badly needed. Beyond that, this dismissal definitively ended Mariano's last chance to retain his place as head of his household. It would be only a matter of time now before Pepe would seek and find a new hero to replace his tired, defeated father―one better suited to his nascent literary and intellectual ambitions.
“The life, the history and the facts are all here in López’s volume. It is thorough, compelling and a generally lively account...”
The Washington Post
“Alfred López’s biography of Martí, evidently the product of long research and reflection, is a most impressive achievement. . . . It will be the standard biography—in English or Spanish—for years to come.”
Gustavo Pérez Firmat, David Feinson Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University, and author of the award-winning Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way
“This is the one and only book that treats the nineteenth-century Cuban figure José Martí as a human instead of an idol, an apostle, or an unblemished personality. . . . Anyone now writing about Martí and the war of independence will have to refer to this book. . . . It establishes a new field.”
Tom Miller, author of Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro’s Cuba
“Alfred López’s biography of Martí, evidently the product of long research and reflection, is a most impressive achievement. . . . It will be the standard biography—in English or Spanish—for years to come.”
Gustavo Pérez Firmat, David Feinson Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University, and author of the award-winning Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way