January 20, 2004
For the last couple of days I have been wondering how to proceed. It's true my notes are sketchy, but my memory is good. The main reason I've delayed is that Francisco Goldman's presentation last Sunday morning was totally different from every other thing I've related to you so far. I wondered if I should just omit it or include it...causing a temporary communique paralysis. Goldman is a passionate and wonderful speaker who has written for Esquire, New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker and extensively in the 1980s about Central America for Harper's. He's just finished a nonfiction dealing with the murder of Bishop Girardi in Guatamala. While writing it, the general in power who was responsible for the murder was threatening Goldman.
He devoted his entire speech to Jose Marti -- someone whose name I might have heard before, but knew nothing about. There are portraits and busts of Jose Marti all over the San Carlos Institute where the conference took place. It turns out the Institute was founded in 1871 by Cuban exiles who came to Key West to organize the campaign for Cuba's independence from Spain. Jose Marti launched the final drive for Cuba's independence from the San Carlos Institute.
but I digress. It is a literary seminar, not a political one, so who is Jose Marti? Nobel laureate for literature in 1990, Octavio Paz, calls Jose Marti the first modern Spanish poet.
Everyone in Latin America knows Jose Marti. One of his poems, "The Girl Who Died of Love," is taught to every Latin American schoolchild. Goldman had memorized it as a child in Guatamala, and decided to investigate what that poem was actually about. This took him on to -- I think he said a "nine-year research project" into Jose Marti's life.
Marti was born in Havana in 1953. His parents were recent immigrants from Spain, his father originally with the Spanish army. Marti was a brilliant student. By the age of 16 he was imprisoned for his support of the Cuban patriots who revolted against the Spanish in 1868. His parents managed to get his sentence commuted to exile to Spain. He earned several degrees in Spain and then went to Mexico where his writing flourished. He was betrothed to the daughter of a wealthy Cuban exile. Soon though, a military coup installed Porfirio Diaz in Mexico and Marti fled to Cuba...but he couldn't work there without being arrested so he went to Guatemala.
In Guatamala he was celebrated and, Goldman said, given the position of "Professor of Everything Human and Divine." He fell in love with a young woman who also loved him. However, due to political changes in Guatamala he was forced to leave. He went back to Mexico to his betrothed. The woman in Guatamala actually did die...of love or tuberculosis. Contemporary accounts describe how she wasted away.
The marriage was a disaster. Marti returned to Cuba on a general amnesty when the war between Spain and Cuba ended in 1878. He was banished again for conspiring against the Spanish authorities and eventually went to New York City. He lived in New York for 15 years...writing the most amazing poetry and prose. Very little of this seems to be available in translation, and a lot of what is translated is also selectively published with the most political passages being left out of the English publications. To illustrate, Goldman read the published versions and then his own translations of the omitted passages which quite changed the meaning. Marti wrote for Latin American reviews, journals, and modernist magazines. Goldman read some selections which he had translated the night before... a description of the great blizzard March 11-14, 1888 in New York, and a description of Coney Island in summer.
Jose Marti organized the Cuban revolution. He became a hero to exiled Cubans everywhere and travelled to Mexico and the Caribbean and Florida raising money and preparing an army. His wife would join him from time to time in an attempt to reconcile, but she was "Darling, why are you spending time planning this revolution. We could be dining with the rich in New York...."
In January 1895 Marti called for the invasion of Cuba. Forces of Cuban exiles left from the Dominican Republic and the US. He was enormously popular and all the troops and the Cubans were treating him as if he was already president. He was made Major General by the army. Everyone wanted to keep him safe. He was too important to the future of Cuba to see battle. During an early battle, they kept him back with a guard to ensure he stayed put; but he escaped his guard and burst into the battle on his horse. He was quickly shot by the Spaniards.
Goldman speculates Marti might have wanted to commit suicide. His own personal popularity was stopping the growth of democracy in Cuba. he was intensely idealistic. The war ended with a new government, a free and democratic Cuba, and the end of Spanish rule.
Goldman says due to the writing that Jose Marti did in New York over 15 years, he should be embraced as an American poet along with Emerson and Whitman.