Brilliant and indefatigable scholar, poet, journalist, activist, organizer, and patriot, often called the “Apostle of Cuban Liberty,” José Martí is widely recognized among Cubans as the most admired figure in their nation’s history and is commonly ranked among the most important Latin American heroes of the modern era.
Martí’s signal contribution was to forge a coherent nationalist, anti-imperialist ideology of Cuba Libre (Free Cuba), which forcefully rejected annexation to the United States, demanded independence, and transcended the island’s historic divisions of social race and class to provide Cubans from all walks of life with a compelling and inclusive vision of national dignity, social justice, and political equality, regardless of race, class, or sex.
This achievement was all the more remarkable in light of the explicitly racist ideologies across the Atlantic World in the late 19th century. Swimming against a powerful tide and despite crushing hardships in his personal life that included imprisonment, illness, and many years’ exile, Martí crafted a profoundly optimistic and progressive nationalist discourse that found very receptive ears among his compatriots and that in the decades after his martyrdom continued to find deep resonance in Cuba, across the Americas, and beyond.
Born in Havana, Cuba, on January 28, 1853, to Spanish parents (his father a soldier from Valencia, his mother from Tenerife in the Canary Islands), José Julián Martí y Pérez was the eldest brother of seven younger sisters. His teacher, Rafael María Mendive, a romantic poet and advocate of Cuban independence, exercised a strong influence on his formative years.
In January 1869 a few months after the outbreak of the Ten Years’ War in Cuba, the 16-year-old Martí founded his first newspaper, Patria Libre (Free Homeland), to advocate for independence. Sentenced to six years’ hard labor on trumped-up charges, he was imprisoned for two years before being exiled to Spain on the condition he not return to Cuba.
In Madrid he studied law, wrote prolifically, and integrated into the lively intellectual atmosphere of the city and university. Earning his law degree from the University of Saragossa in 1874, the next year he traveled via Paris to Mexico, where he lived for several years.
After a brief clandestine return to Cuba in 1877, he moved to Guatemala; soon after, in Mexico, he married Carmen Zayas Bazán, daughter of a rich Cuban sugar planter.
Returning to Cuba under a general amnesty in 1878, he joined a conspiracy against the government, only to be exiled to Spain again. Leaving his wife behind, he traveled from Madrid to Paris before heading to New York City, where, aside from a few brief stints in Central America and Venezuela, he lived for the next 14 years until 1895.
By this time, he had earned a wide reputation as a gifted writer, profound thinker, and the leading voice for Cuban independence. Through most of the 1880s, he worked mainly as a journalist based in New York, introducing to his Latin American audience the culture and history of their powerful northern neighbor, while also working with Cuban immigrants and exiles to organize the Cuban community in the United States.
He became deeply ambivalent toward his host country, which he admired for its freedoms and vitality, denounced for its racial and class injustices, but mostly feared for its power and covetousness toward Cuba. “To change masters,” he repeatedly warned, “is not to be free.”
In 1890 he founded La Liga de Instrucción (Instructional League) in New York as a kind of educational collective for Cuban exiles in preparation for the impending struggle.
In 1891 he served as consul of Argentina and Paraguay in New York and as Uruguay’s representative to the first Inter-American money conference in Washington, testament to his growing hemispheric stature. Meanwhile he intensified his organizing efforts among Cuban expatriate communities in New York, Tampa, Florida, and elsewhere.
In 1892 Martí founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party (PRC), the leading organizational force in the Cuban War of Independence that began in early 1895. Secretly landing with a small force in eastern Cuba in April 1895, he was killed on May 19, at age 42, in a skirmish with Spanish forces a few kilometers east of Bayamo in Oriente province.
His martyrdom soon became a rallying cry for revolutionary forces. Six decades later, Fidel Castro would don the hero’s mantle to legitimate his struggle against the U.S.-supported Batista regime.
By this time, Martí’s face and figure had became a ubiquitous symbol of Cubans’ struggle for social justice and freedom from foreign domination, as he remains today.