Martí, a Reader

agosto 24, 2007

Culture was expected to provide an answer to a concern about entertainment and leisure – and the answer has been given.  It can be done and we can succeed by strongly believing that the seed planted over so many decades has borne fruit.
Walking around Prado Avenue on this day, we have confirmed the confidence and enthusiasm Iroel told me about a few days ago – of what would happen today. Walking around Prado Avenue, together with Eliades, Abel and Julio, we have observed the mobilization, enthusiasm and interest in reading. Because books are the food of the spirit and culture is what is left in us when we have forgotten what we once found in them.
Perhaps it is that sense of accumulating [information] and enriching the spirit in our short lives, – and usually young people do not notice how short life is – that is most urgent as we recall Martí today.
In the heart of the city – where old is divided from new- is the monument to Martí; the one that preceded so many others in Cuba and in the capital, which was unveiled by Máximo Gómez and the Marquess of Santa Lucía. Martí’s friends and comrades were still alive and a young Cuban man studying visual arts in Florence at that time, a dark Herculean fellow who reminded one of Agustín Cárdenas and whose name was José Vilalta de Saavedra, was entrusted with the task of sculpting the master’s image. Now, how should it be placed?
In the other Cuban cities, such as Matanzas, Cienfuegos, Santiago and Caibarién, Martí’s memory has been taken and turned into fine marble or bronze monuments. This one is really beautiful, because of its human scale, especially if we remember what was here before, what this promenade used to be, and what the surrounding buildings were.
If we could take you all back in time on the wings of imagination, the great theatre, situated on the same site, would bring the memory of Martí as a teenager walking along Prado back from Rafael María de Mendive’s school to enter the theater’s inner world, and for the first time witness in amazement- helped by those working between footlights and dressing rooms- the magnificence of the theatre; that same theatre that had brought great companies, actors and famous names from the Cuban cultural world since the 1830’s. In the boxes, Céspedes and Agramonte; around them, the memory of the best of Cuba, and especially in 1860, when the child José Julián was only 7 years old and witnessed the coronation of the eminent poet Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda by the Cuban intellectual circles.
At the corner, another theatre; across the road, the volunteers’ café; to our back, the great Campo de Marte and Aldama Palace, perhaps with its doors open after that terrible plunder in January 1869; at the back, the small and big theatres, the big and small Politeama; and farther back, Villanueva’s circus and theatre, where we can still find the great Corona cigar factory building. At the back, Louvre sidewalk. How could we forget the crowd?, when young people, indignant at the political repression, came out and gave the famous battle of Milk Punch, throwing punch glasses at civilian guards’ black capes, which led the Captain-General himself, with all his escort around him, to put an end to the riot along Obispo Street.
Up there, the Inglaterra Hotel, on whose balconies Antonio Maceo once stood when he was staying in Havana during those early years of the 1890’s: Cuba’s uneasy peace. Maceo’s presence is like an augur of times yet to come; and walking along this promenade, which today is called after José Martí, near Queen Elizabeth II’s statue that used to be placed on this site, he was recognized by a young man who looked with admiration at the wide belt he was wearing with Cuba’s fluttering shield. And then the young man said to him: “Is that you? I’d like to know something about my Country’s hidden history.” He then took him to his room at the Inglaterra Hotel and, according to the learned Cuban historian José Luciano Franco, he took off his jacket and shirt and began telling the story of the great Ten Years War following the marks of his own wounds.
Legends, traditions, poetry. It is wrong of historians and those who can tell stories to snatch that veil of stars, described by some people as romantic, covering and nourishing peoples’ history. For Lenin, who cannot be branded a man of a weak character, the idea was clear: “Revolutions are not romantic at all, but I profoundly mistrust those revolutionaries who are not so.” And today, standing before Martí’s Monument, as blazing as in Key West, or during the days when the Party was forged and founded, we evoke the urgency to read him, as well as our history, our culture, and the distinguished labyrinth of our country, its great men and women, to face the future challenge with a strong spirit; even more, to enjoy the times we live in with greater happiness, generosity and altruism.
What did he read? First, we must mention school – two schools:  one, the small San Anacleto School where professor Sixto Casado showed him the textbooks and the infinite horizons that reading provides us with; the other one, Mendive’s school, in a place not far from here, to the back, next to the old Spanish Casino which is now the Wedding Palace under restoration. Mendive’s school is now an office of no particular significance, but it is the place keeping the mark of those footprints. There was the fascinating piano from which he listened to and enjoyed music; in the library, the most beautiful books, including letters exchanged by great European and North American intellectuals with his teacher who had joined the Romantic Movement – the idea of a world inseparable from poetry.

Mendive was the inductor. Perhaps Martí exaggerated a little when he later said that he owed him [Mendive] everything he had and all his strength and uprightness, especially in that terrible year 1869 when his teacher was taken to El delito (The Crime) public jail, together with other comrades. A name, a myth, a dream – Cuba. And it was precisely there, at school, from the beautiful book illustrations, where he learned to read in depth the art of thinking. There he listened to Heredia; there he learned about the masterly teachings of José Antonio Saco, the man who, to a large extent, had prophesied the slave society’s drama and its consequences. Martí read his work and met him, but above all, he approached José María Heredia and talked with him in depth. Years later he said that perhaps it was him [Heredia] who sowed in our heart the ardent love for our Country. It was also the place where he heard about Cuban teachers; he heard Mendive talk about that huge torch demonstration coming down El Cerro in which Cuban young people carried Mr. José de la Luz y Caballero’s coffin on their shoulders – the educator, the teacher, he who had identified the cult of the Homeland, and culture as the moral world’s sun.
And it was these books and these readings that inspired the master to propose his father, who was grim for being strict and honest, to receive financial support to pursue more advanced studies at the Second Education Institute, though not the institute we know today, but the previous one. The one that is nearby is a thousand times glorious for all that took place within its walls; but the other one, going up Obispo street, was part of the old University of St. Jerome; there, once he had permission from his father, he began his studies that were violently interrupted by the news coming from eastern Cuba about the uprising on October 10th.
Reports were confused. Havana was an agitated city back then. To defend the interest of the big capital committed to political and pro-slavery power, the volunteers’ battalions had been organized, as he would put it years later, “with the lowest and opportunistic”; and those battalions led by colonels and commanders who were the elite of that capital, including Mr. Joaquín Payret – after whom the theatre is still named – and others, would burst into the city and impose the order of terror.
However, with his acquired knowledge, he published two beautiful newspapers – a fine newspaper called El Diablo Cojuelo (The Crippled Devil), of which only one issue was of necessity published; and another one called La Patria Libre (The Free Nation), which was no less aggressive in challenging the adversary. And it was this that was taking place in eastern Cuba that Martí, at the early age of 16, celebrated with verses. “It is not a dream”, he said, “it is true: A battle cry was shouted by the furious Cuban people; that people who for three centuries have suffered the blackness that oppression entails.” And that man, who was culturally inclined since adolescence, was taken from the school classrooms and from his teacher’s house to horrible imprisonment. His testimony from prison, where he was prohibited from reading – a situation which he could only make up for later at El Abra on the Isle of Pines (Isle of Youth); he was taken here thanks to some arrangements by his godfather and José María de Sardá, a rich businessman who was a friend of his father’s and owner of San Lázaro quarries, and there he began to read again in the quiet of the island by the marble cliffs where he read that universal book – the Bible.

From that moment on, his eagerness for knowledge multiplied, and only after he was exiled to Spain did he discover everything he was eager to know at the great Madrid central library. Walking along the old streets of Madrid, we arrive at the athenaeum whose library still survives, as well as the seat he used to take for his regular readings: the great philosophers and thinkers of Illuminism, the great utopian idealists and socialists, great German writers and men of literature Goethe and Schiller. His urgent need to learn other languages led him to study in detail, as subjects of his two degree courses nearly taken simultaneously – first, at the Universidad Central de Madrid and then at the Universidad de Zaragoza. He earned a degree in Civil and Canon Law and another one in Arts. And there we listen to him raffling off the debate that students are supposed to engage in, standing out as a brilliant speaker; and where he can, he goes out of school and joins in literary circles and the theatre. He meets with poets and writers from Aragon to whom he will dedicate moving verses at crucial moments of his own history.
And Martí, a reader who buys books and knows how much sacrifice buying, taking care of and loving a book involves, until the last moment of his life will feel sorry for the books lost, for those books accumulated and left behind; those he could not take with him on the boat on his return from exile; those he found and collected, many of which were dedicated by poets, artists and writers in Venezuela, Mexico, and Guatemala.
What surprises us, dear friends, is that all of this occurred when Martí was as young as you are now. What is most amazing is that this man I refer to only lived forty two years. This is surprising, especially if we take into consideration that he spent the last fifteen years of his life involved in the political struggle, in the intense task of bringing people together, in the United States. There he also had to be a translator. And he who had learned Latin and Greek, would be able to decipher tombstones and epitaphs; he who had been able to immerse himself in the mysteries of philosophy and thinking in the purest Cuban tradition, would translate William Stanley Jevons’ text or work on a new and fine selection of texts requested by the same publishing house he was working for.
A man of passions, a man of friends, a man. Martí cannot be turned into a mystic figure or sweetened to become completely separated from his human nature; he was a man of loves. He was touched by red lips’ ardor in the dark night; he loved intensely everything that was beautiful; he loved with a father’s and a son’s love, and what is most important in his biography is precisely his ability to renounce all genuine loves when the stormy winds approached and it was necessary, before anything else, to come closer to the unitary and deep calling he was destined for. “We do not lead a dissipated life. We live soberly like the apostles did”, and perhaps the title devotedly given to him by Cubans arose from these dictates, this intuition, – that of Apostle, Master.

It would be impossible to separate this figure from that brightness that has moved his followers to this day. “Apostle”, Fidel said, in the passionate and painful pages of “History Will Absolve me” speech. “Apostle”, clamors Chibás in a trembling voice, when in a few hours we celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birthday. That is why we shall never find in his life a separation between his personal interests and the social and common interest; on the contrary, to the former he will give everything. Every time he can, he surprises his friends with an open book.

At the time he leaves Haiti for Cuba and during his last days and hours, near Cap-Haïtien, he walked to a house and asked for water; and when he was offered a calabash with water, he tried, delicately and compassionately because of those people’s poverty, to give the young girl a few coins, and she replied: “No, not the money, – the book”, because she had seen a small paperback he was carrying in his jacket – a science book.
He was the inventor of a concept – that of travelling teachers. He believed that an avant-garde generation could go out into the countryside and teach those who could not read or write. That dream was realized during the first year of the Cuban Revolution with the Literacy Campaign. The island was filled with teachers; teachers who went to the most distant places of the country and everywhere the master’s dream and the book dream became true, just as he had imagined.
Books were also with him at the time of his death, in that detailed inventory of things that were found in his saddlebag and traveler’s clothes, and so was the blue ribbon – a gift from Clemencia Gómez Toro, Máximo Gómez’ daughter; the photo of María Mantilla, his beloved girl from New York. In his letters to her, he passionately recommended reading and good music, asked her to stay away from trivialities and told her that the world makes those carrying their head higher pay dearly. He also recommended, as a strategist of the battle of ideas, that one needs to learn the language of the world.
That is why, on this day when the beautiful initiative by the Cuban Book Institute has bloomed, at the time when the elements of the environment are brought back to life by culture and memories, and bring us to this Central Park where young students waged so many battles; this Central Park which is not far from the lawyer’s office on Tejadillo Street where the young lawyer once defended the rights of the poor; in this place not far from Prado 109, where the Moncada young people gathered at the Orthodox youth headquarters; in this place near Factoría 60 where the 26th of July Movement was created; in this place which is near the school where Rubén Martínez Villena used to teach about books and the arts; this place that saw a proud and Apollonian Mella walk by; in this place so full of such noble and great history; Cuban men and women, young people and people from other generations have gathered to share a dream, a different dream which is that of bettering ourselves and thinking, a dream of joy, of free use of leisure, which should be dedicated and honored by devoting ourselves to the best.
It is wrong to hide flaws or bad tendencies from people; but rather than scolding or reprimanding, we should try and change customs by doing beautiful things and showing that the masses can access them as passionately as cigar rollers in these factories and those in Tampa, Key West and New York City listened to the Master’s voice. Many of them said that they could not understand the complexity of several words, but deep in their heart they could feel an emotion that replaced each of those words.
Dear all, let’s continue having these cultural parties for a long time. When the book party, that is held every year, overflows into the whole city and its municipalities, we will have truly succeeded; we will have convinced everyone that this is the true path. This does not mean, however, that we will strive to create what people call in slang terms “fake culture”. No, we want a superior kind of culture – the culture of speaking, living and loving, the culture of music, literature and art. Then we will have come closer to this one, which is the model for all Cubans.


Thank you very much


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Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana 2011
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