Ivan Garcia, 29 January 2018 — At the foot of a small stairway, at the entrance of the former Vibora Institute of Secondary Education which is now René O’Reiné High School, a group of students smoke one cigarette after another and argue loudly about football.
They are sitting on a cement floor and lean their backs against the base of a relatively ordinary bronze statue of José Martí, whose image is commonly present in many Cuban schools.
When you ask them about the life and work of the hero — born on 28 January 1853 in a modest two-story house on Paula Street in Old Havana, and shot to death on 19 May 1895, in a skirmish in Dos Ríos, Jiguaní, today one of the thirteen municipalities in Granma province — young people turn on their ’autopilot’ and begin to recite the rote story they learn at school.
Yosbel, in the tenth grade, says “Martí is the most important Cuban hero. He was the one who taught us to think, the intellectual author of the assault on the Moncada barracks and the precursor of the Cuban revolution.”
Joshua, in the eleventh grade, confirms what Yosbel expresses and adds: “If Fidel had been born at that stage, he would have been like Martí and the rest of the Mambises chiefs. If Martí had been born now, he would be like Fidel and Raúl. ” He says it as if he were reciting a poem.
Do you admire José Martí? Have you read Martí’s works? I ask them and I ask them to speak frankly, not as if they were at a school assembly. They smile, they look at each other, and confess that they have hardly read him.
“What I remember,” says Yosbel, “I read Rosa’s Little Shoes and some stories from the book The Golden Age. But I’m not a fan of Martí. They tell you so much about him on the news and the newspapers, then they repeat the same jabbering at school, that you learn it by heart, but you do not enjoy it. It seems that Martí was not a human being, but an extraterrestrial.”
If you speak in confidence with young people and even with adults who, during their student years met a marble Martí, distant and perfect, the figure of the National Hero does not move them.
Maybe he’s repeating rumors he heard or it’s what he thinks, but Diego, a teller in a bank, says that “Martí was a spider captain. He talked and wrote a lot, but when it came time to use his gun, he was a failure. If the press presented him to me as a guy who had his faults, perhaps I would appreciate him more. But they want to sell you to a person who in 42 years of life did more things than an old man of one hundred years.”
When doctrinal propaganda is abused in the eagerness to build a myth, there is a risk of rejection in a population already stunned by the excess of pamphleteering propaganda.
Carlos, a sociologist, believes that “the sanctification of José Martí began after his death. In all cultures, it is typical to sketch a portrait of your heroes distant from their real lives. About Martí there is a suspicion that he had extramarital relations and according to recent studies he had a daughter with Carmen Mantilla. He was not a skilled warrior in the use of the machete and the rifle. Nor was he a military strategist.
“But, until proven otherwise, he is the Cuban with the greatest set of skills we have had. A humanist and an intellectual of the highest level. His untimely death generated a kind of feeling of guilt among the Mambises leaders, who, whether by dissension, envy or ambition for power, rejected Marti for not being a seasoned fighter like them.
“But it is the revolution of Fidel Castro that has fiercely manipulated his figure, in an attempt to weave a false theory of revolutionary unity. With regards to Martí, not only has the government turned him into a hostage, but the dissidence and the anti-Castro exile have done the same. He is the hero of both sides. The question we must ask ourselves is whether we venerate the Apostle in an authentic way. Or does he only serve as a stepping stone for our political campaigns.”
Luisa, a university student, says that “like every year, to remember the birth of Marti, we will march from the Staircase of the University to the Fragua Martiana (located at Hospital and Vapor in Centro Habana, now a museum). We do not go spontaneously, it is rather a commitment to the FEU (University Student Federation) and the UJC (Young Communist League). We have a good time and some leave the march and go home.”
In Cuba, prudery reaches the level of a work of art. Although intellectuals, like the filmmaker Fernando Pérez, in his film El ojo del canario (The Eye of the Canary) (ICAIC, 2010) tried to de-sanctify José Martí, the official narrative continues to use the hero in a simplistic and dogmatic way.
Martí was never a Marxist. In his work he left evidence of the opposite. Knowing the authentic Martí, like Cuban traditions, we have a love of country, the national culture and the idiosyncrasy of its people, which should be something spontaneous and long-winded. Without guidelines or political scripts, Cubans should feel motivated to read about the lives of our heroes and to cultivate respect for our traditions in a natural way.
Those born on the Island who reside in other lands and care about their country, always go to sleep “with Cuba under their pillow.” And from afar they have learned to appreciate the colossal dimensions of José Martí.
On the 165th anniversary of the birth of the man Cubans call ’The Apostle’, I remember that warm afternoon in November 2016, when I visited Ybor City in the city of Tampa with a group of friends. We laid a wreath at the foot of the statue located in Friends of José Martí Park, inaugurated in February 1960, a short distance from the old tobacco factory, where Martí harangued his countrymen and collected money for the necessary war of independence. Later, as we walked through the cobbled streets, we met an 85-year-old man who travels from California to Tampa each January, to honor the Master.
That is the Martí that should prevail among Cubans. The one that nobody has imposed to us. One that rises freely.