Biography of José Martí

Statue of José Martí in Cuba
Statue of José Martí in Cuba. Getty Images

José Martí (1853-1895)

José Martí was a Cuban patriot, freedom fighter and poet. Although he never lived to see Cuba free, he is considered the national hero.

Early Life

José was born in Havana in 1853 to Spanish parents Mariano Martí Navarro and Leonor Pérez Cabrera. Young José was followed by seven sisters. When he was very young his parents went with the family to Spain for a time, but soon returned to Cuba. José was a talented artist and enrolled in a school for painters and sculptors while still a teenager. Success as an artist eluded him, but he soon found another way to express himself: writing. At the age of sixteen, his editorials and poems were already being published in local newspapers.

Jail and Exile

In 1869 José’s writing got him in serious trouble for the first time. The Ten Years’ War (1868-1878), an attempt by Cuban landowners to gain independence from Spain and free Cuban slaves, was being fought at the time, and young José wrote passionately in support of the rebels. He was convicted of treason and sedition and sentenced to six years’ labor. He was only sixteen at the time. The chains in which he was held would scar his legs for the rest of his life. His parents intervened and after one year, José’s sentence was reduced but he was exiled to Spain.

Studies in Spain

While in Spain, José studied law, eventually graduating with a law degree and a specialty in civil rights. He continued to write, mostly about the deteriorating situation in Cuba. During this time, he needed two operations to correct the harm done to his legs by the shackles during his time in a Cuban prison. He traveled to France with his lifelong friend Fermín Valdés Domínguez, who would also become an important figure in Cuba’s quest for independence. In 1875 he went to Mexico where he was reunited with his family.

Marti in Mexico and Guatemala:

José was able to support himself as a writer in Mexico. He published several poems and translations, and even wrote a play, amor con amor se paga (“pay love back with love”) which was produced in Mexico’s main theater. In 1877 he returned to Cuba under an assumed name, but remained for less than a month before heading to Guatemala via Mexico. He quickly found work in Guatemala as a professor of literature and married Carmen Zayas Bazán. He only remained in Guatemala for one year before resigning his position as professor in protest over the arbitrary firing of a fellow Cuban from the faculty.

Return to Cuba:

In 1878, José returned to Cuba with his wife. He could not work as a lawyer, as his papers were not in order, so he resumed teaching. He remained for only about a year before being accused of conspiring with others to overthrow Spanish rule in Cuba. He was once again exiled to Spain, although his wife and child remained in Cuba. He quickly made his way from Spain to New York City.

Jose Marti in New York City:

Martí’s years in New York City would be very important ones. He kept very busy, serving as consul for Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina. He wrote for several newspapers, published both in New York and in several Latin American nations, working basically as a foreign correspondent, although he also wrote editorials. It was during this time that he produced several small volumes of poetry, considered by experts to be the best poems of his career. He never relinquished his dream of a free Cuba, spending much time talking to fellow Cuban exiles in the city, trying to raise support for an independence movement.

Fight for Independence:

In 1894, Martí and a handful of fellow exiles attempted to make their way back to Cuba and start a revolution, but the expedition failed. The next year a larger, more organized insurrection began. A group of exiles led by military strategists Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo Grajales landed on the island and quickly took to the hills, amassing a small army as they did so. Martí did not last very long: he was killed in one of the first confrontations of the uprising. After some initial gains by the rebels, the insurrection failed and Cuba would not be free from Spain until after the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Martí’s Legacy:

Cuba’s independence came soon after. In 1902, Cuba was granted independence by the United States and quickly set up its own government. Martí was not known as a soldier: in a military sense, Gómez and Maceo did much more for the cause of Cuban independence than Martí. Yet their names have been largely forgotten, while Martí lives on in the hearts of Cubans everywhere.

The reason for this is simple: passion. Martí’s single goal since the age of 16 had been a free Cuba, a democracy without slavery. All of his actions and writings until the time of his death were undertaken with this goal in mind. He was charismatic and able to share his passion with others and was, therefore, a very important part of the Cuban independence movement. It was a case of the pen being mightier than the sword: his passionate writings on the subject allowed his fellow Cubans to visualize freedom just as he could. Some see Martí as a precursor to Ché Guevara, a fellow Cuban revolutionary who was also known for sticking stubbornly to his ideals.

Cubans continue to venerate Martí’s memory. Havana’s main airport is the José Martí International Airport, his birthday (January 28) is still celebrated every year in Cuba, various postage stamps featuring Martí have been issued over the years, etc. For a man that has been dead for over 100 years, Martí has a surprisingly impressive web profile: there are dozens of pages and articles about the man, his fight for a free Cuba and his poetry. Cuban exiles in Miami and the Castro regime in Cuba are currently even fighting over his “support:” both sides claim that if Martí were alive today he would support their side of this long-running feud.

It should be noted here that Martí was an outstanding poet, whose poems continue to appear in high school and university courses around the world. His eloquent verse is considered some of the finest ever produced in the Spanish language. The world-famous song “Guantanamera” features some of his verses put to music.