José Martí (1853-1895)
Contributing Editor: Enrique Sacerio-Garí
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students face a difficult task as they read Martí within an American anthology. Even as part of a diverse group, with some knowledge of the role of the United States in Latin America and an awareness of issues of identity in our hardly homogeneous society, your strategy must recognize the exciting difficulties of reconciling differences in Martí's text as well as in your own classroom. What is your America?, I would ask the students. A good day may bring many voices that speak about communities, regions, neighborhoods, nations, ethnicity, race, and class. Are we empowered or disempowered by our most intimate America? In "Our America," does Martí empower a nation, a people, a whole continent, with his voice? The obstacles to integrating the different views may then be discussed, leading (perhaps) to Martí's call for understanding by means of direct knowledge and respect of others and by self-esteem through self-knowledge. Stylistic issues of images and themes that surface and resurface (see below) could be related to the sociopolitical experiences of nations and groups.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
A discussion of Martí's emphasis on the racial composition of America, and his vision aligned with the indigenous groups, should contrast civilization and barbarism, false erudition and direct knowledge, imported colonizer culture and indigenous culture. Here, one could ask where the indigenous groups are now and how Martí's treatment of transcultural and transracial issues contrasts with current views. Another important topic is the psychology of the colonial situation, which could reconsider the polemics between Mannoni and Fanon. Martí's text could help promote thoughts on the hybrid nature of Latin America, where the metaphors of Ariel and Caliban are reconciled as an empowered mestizo culture.
As you explore our America as distinct realities, you could probe the class as to basic knowledge of geography and history of various regions and the culture of different Native American peoples. Considering the historical background offered in the introduction to "Our America," you might ask the class to research topics such as: the name America, Pan-Americanism in the late nineteenth century and free trade in the late twentieth century, writing in exile, immigrant voices in New York journals, ethnic and racial issues then and now, and how to "do the right thing." An interesting comparison could be made with Jacob Riis (1849-1914), another famous New York City nocturnal walker, who immigrated from Denmark in 1870. As a reporter and photographer for the New York Tribune, he conducted a crusade against the dire conditions of the slums around "the Bend" of Mulberry Street. He was a close friend and biographer of Theodore Roosevelt.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Read the first two paragraphs in class. A thorough discussion of this passage should be sufficient to acquaint the students with Martí's modernista style, which he initiated in Latin America. If further work with modernista poetics is desired, exposure to the ideals of Parnassian poets and the musicality of symbolist writers should be considered. This close reading will facilitate intratextual understanding of subsequent elaborations as, for example, "[l]et the world be grafted onto our republics, but the trunk must be our own." An examination of resurgent images associated with greed, war, ignorance, and violence, contrasted with an informed resistance and knowledgeable (natural) defenses, may lead to a good discussion of how a reader produces meaning within Martí's text. Footnotes 4, 9, and 14 to Martí's essay offer suggestions on reading other passages.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Of significance to an American poet in New York in the latter half of the nineteenth century was Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. In one of the notebooks he left with his literary executor, Martí describes a future project, "My Book: The Rebel Poets," in which he planned to study Walt Whitman. Indeed, a backward glance over Martí's works reveals many references to Whitman, including a historic essay "El poeta Walt Whitman," published in Mexico and Argentina in 1887. In a necrological note, published in Caracas in 1882, Martí describes Emerson as "a man who found himself alive, shook from his shoulders and his eyes all the mantles and all the blindfolds that past times place over men, and lived face to face with nature, as if all earth was his home . . ." With candor, "flooded with his immediate age," as Whitman advised American poets of all nations, Martí wrote poetry and prose distilled from his experiences as a human, political, transcultural being. Martí strove to remove all the layers of the unexamined, taxing culture of Europe as false erudition, and demanded that Americans stand face to face with nature, that is, the hybrid cultures significant of our real lands. By knowing each other's poets, mythologies, and noblest expectations, without reverting to hatred and racism, Martí expected the new Americans to rise.
Most significant to new American readers would be an acquaintance with the works of Latin American poets who follow Martí and Whitman. You might consider using Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío's "To Roosevelt," written after the United States invasion of Panama, or "The Heights of Macchu Picchu" by Chile's Pablo Neruda. Martí's own Simple Verses could be suggested as part of your supplemental readings.