Summary and Keywords
José Martí (1853–1895) is the best known of Cuba’s founding figures and was the civilian leader of the Cuban independence movement. Beyond his iconic status among Cubans and the diaspora, Martí ranks among the most important Latin Americans of the 19th century. Aside from his revolutionary legacy, Martí remains a canonical figure of 19th-century Latin American literature. As a poet he pioneered Latin American modernismo; volumes such as Ismaelillo (1882) and Versos sencillos (Simple verses, 1891) are considered masterpieces. Martí’s US crónicas (chronicles), which appeared in Latin America’s most respected newspapers of the 1880s, stand among the most important journalistic works of the Gilded Age. His other writings span several other genres, including drama and prose fiction. Martí also founded a newspaper, Patria, which served as the Cuban independence movement’s official mouthpiece. In a lifetime of exile and immigration spanning three continents and a half-dozen countries, he worked as a secondary teacher and university professor; law clerk; journalist, editor, and translator; and diplomat. Martí’s collected works fill twenty-six volumes, with previously unknown writings still emerging.
Biographers generally divide Martí’s life into three phases: childhood and adolescence in Cuba, culminating in his imprisonment and first exile (1853–1871); post-exile life in Spain, Mexico, and Guatemala (1871–1878); and after the second exile from Cuba, his mature revolutionary period in New York (1881–1895). A brief imprisonment for conspiracy ended with Martí’s first expulsion from Cuba in January 1871. He spent the next four years in Spain, where he continued to denounce Spanish imperialism and earned a law degree. He then rejoined his family in Mexico but had to flee after the rise of the dictator Porfirio Díaz in 1876. Martí then emigrated to Guatemala, where he attempted to settle with his wife Carmen Zayas Bazán, whom he married in 1877. But disagreements with President Justo Rufino Barrios again forced the couple into exile. After a failed attempt to resettle in Havana under a general amnesty following the Ten Years’ War (1868–1878) and his second expulsion from Cuba, Martí eventually landed in New York, which served as his base for building the Cuban independence movement. After several false starts, the Cuban Revolutionary Party finally launched its War of Independence in February 1895. Martí joined rebel forces on the island in April and died in battle little over a month later.
Martí’s posthumous fame spread slowly, but by the 1930s he was generally hailed as Cuba’s great “apostle” of independence. Successive Cuban governments burnished his legend, and Fidel Castro claimed Martí as the 1959 Cuban Revolution’s “intellectual author.” The mass emigration of Cubans fleeing the revolution then spread Martí’s fame to the United States and Europe; Cuban-Americans continue to identify with him as an example of the nation in exile. Though not a Latino in the contemporary sense, Martí remains a key figure in the historical formation of US Latino/a identities.
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