Our Americas: José Martí and the International Fight Against Imperialism

by Sean Joseph

January 28, 2021 was the 168th anniversary of the birth of José Martí. For those unfamiliar, Martí occupies a nearly sacrosanct position within the national mythology and memory of Cubans. Often called “el apóstol” (the apostle) and “el maestro” (the teacher) he is the personification of Cuban nationhood and national liberation. Born on the island of Cuba in 1853 to middle-class Spanish parents, Martí’s life was punctuated from early on by questions of justice and injustice. Early in his life he physically confronted the sight of a black man who had been lynched, later fictionalizing the event in his Versos Sencillos, writing “And, at the feet of the dead man, he swore to wash away that crime with his own blood.” He was exiled from Cuba for revolutionary activity at the age of 17, deported to Spain where he received a university education, later marrying and spending periods in Cuba and in exile in various countries. A significant period of his exile was spent in New York City, where he served as a correspondent for the various newspapers and journals of Latin America, wrote for Cuban revolutionary newspapers, and gave speeches to raise money for revolutionaries. He also found time to be one of the founding fathers of Latin America’s first home grown literary movement – modernismo.

Much can be written about Martí’s life, but likely more important to his memory than his life, is his death. He died on May 19, 1895 while riding into battle against Spanish soldiers in Cuba. After over a decade of exile in New York City, Martí had founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party, bringing many of the leading figures in the independence movement together. In this role, he raised funds for the purchase of weapons, recruited volunteers for his army, and organized an invasion of the colony. The invasion went poorly and quickly died down into a low-level insurgency whose persecution by the Spanish would form part of the United States’s pretext for initiating the Spanish-American War, which would finally result in “independence” for Cuba. This was an independence Martí would never see or help shape. He died a martyr of the revolution and would become central to the national mythos of Cuba, a figure whose support and legitimacy would be sought by all who hoped to lay claim to political power in Cuba. Such veneration continues to this day under the leadership of the Communist Party of Cuba, which considers the writings and speeches of Martí of equal importance to those of Marx and Engels.

The role that Martí plays in the lives and politics of Cubans is a subject for their consideration. Here, I wish to take this anniversary as an opportunity to consider and analyze what Martí can tell us about our own country, about imperialism, and lastly, about internationalism.

America vs. América

While in exile in New York City, Martí would pen one of his most famous works, an essay entitled “Nuestra América” (“Our America”) which was first published in January 1891 by La Revista Illustrada of New York City and El Partido Liberal of Mexico City. This essay served then – as it can now – as a warning about imperialism, a call for unity amongst Latin American nations, and a trenchant defense of indigeneity. “Nuestra América” is meant as the canary in the coal mine, a warning to all of Latin America that only solidarity between “brothers” can defeat the “giant in seven league boots.” “The hour to muster and march in unison is upon us” warns Martí. Who must muster? Whose America is this? And who is the giant which must be defeated?

The answer is the same as it ever was: our country, the imperialist par excellence, the United States of America. This giant threatens the other America, Martí’s America. The latter was being imagined and theorized through a relatively new framing at the time, Latin America. Martí identifies the United States as the giant threatening his home and his brothers. Worse, his nation and those of his brothers were being led by “men born in América, ashamed of the mother who raised them because she wears an Indian tunic!” They must expel these “termites” who destroy the confidence of the nation because they have none themselves. Latin America must rid itself of that bourgeoisie which bows to the imperial giant, it must show strength in unity.

This unity extends beyond mere friendship between countries. Martí is also calling for a recognition of and respect for the various peoples who make up these nations. Let’s not give Martí any credit he doesn’t deserve. He was certainly a believer in the concept of racelessness, that race isn’t real even as a social construct. He was also an advocate of mestizaje or mixed-ness, an idea which was wielded both by the indigenous and those of African descent to access citizenship and by white majorities to assimilate and suppress indigenous culture and language. However, one can easily see the basis for a multicultural and multiracial united front against imperialism in “Nuestra América.” One of the key differences for Martí between América and America was the role of  indigenous peoples. He contrasts “These sons of our América, which must save herself through her Indians and is on the rise” with “these deserters, who ask to take up arms with the forces of North America, which drowns its Indians in blood and is on the wane!” América can only be saved by the Indians, while America is drowning the Indians in blood.

The United States of America in “Nuestra América” is the violent, genocidal, imperial power, ruled – for Martí – unnaturally by men alien to the land. América, he says, must be led by “statesmen who arise from the nation.” América was hampered and shackled by the “imported forms and ideas” which were “inherited from its perverse, despotic colonizer.” To build a just and free América, students must study “the history of América from the Incas to the present” even if this means not studying the classics of European education such as the Greeks. Above all, this is an exhortation to take pride in what is “natural” to América, to favor it and to do away with the fetish for all things European, taking only that which is useful, but keeping that which is indigenous to América as “the trunk.”

What We Can Learn

Much like “America” at the time of Martí, the United States continues its war against the indigenous. Mere weeks before “Nuestra América” was published, the United States Army massacred nearly three hundred Lakota people at Wounded Knee. What would he think, to see the actions of the United States at Standing Rock, or the current abuse of indigenous activists fighting Line 3? He would tell us to join and support their struggle, much as he tells his brothers to free the indigenous from the shackles of colonialism which hold them back. Following the model of his internationalism, we must support the struggles of indigenous people across América like the heroic efforts of indigenous activists in Bolivia to defeat the coup, the victorious fight against decree 883 in Ecuador, or the fight of  indigenous people in Brazil against the imperialist attack on the Amazon under Bolsonaro. We must also constantly struggle against American imperialism and to stand in solidarity, always, with América against America.