Saturday, November 03, 2007

New York, the anarchists, and José Martí

By Wild Turkey Desire
Originally posted to on November 1st, 2007

[José Martí]

May they not bury me in darkness
to die like a traitor
I am good, and as a good man
I will die facing the sun.
-Part of Versos sencillos by José Martí

In November, We Remember

José Martí, the famous Cuban revolutionary and prolific writer whose published works fill 28 whole volumes, including - children stories, letters, poems, journalism, theater, translations, notes, and essays on a variety of subjects ranging from anarchists to white roses. Martí is often credited as the "father of modernism", especially in regards to Spanish-American literature. He was born in Old Habana, Cuba in 1853 and died in 1895 fighting against the Spanish in Cuba. When I lived in La Habana back in 2005, I would often find myself literally surrounded by him, walking along the streets, and the haunting spectacle of what he was to become. What follows, are my thoughts and research about Martí, specifically - his ten years in New York City, his views on capitalism and work, and his thoughts about the anarchists.

First, a brief history. At the age of 16, Martí was sent to prison for treason against the Spanish government, then in control of Cuba. He was soon exiled to Spain where he studied law and philosophy, but in the coming years he returned to Cuba, where he was again exiled to Spain. Eventually, in 1880 Martí found himself in New York City (NYC) writing journalism, translating articles, and working as joint consul for Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina in order to survive. His time in NYC proved to be critical- as he helped launch Cuba's third war of independence while there, by fund raising and organizing against the Spanish. Soon afterwards, as history has come to tell - Martí was killed near Palma Soriano, Cuba in the very first battle of the struggle for independence against Spain; as he charged into battle on a white horse, while he wore black overcoat. It seems that, in comparison to the sword, the pen was the mightiest for Martí, which is a point many critics make.

[A photo of a sculpture of Martí on a horse - Central Park, NYC; sculpture by Anna Hyatt Huntington in 1959]

Being clever is a good way to start being free

For me, this exploration of Martí began when I visited Habana, Cuba back in 2005 and ventured to one of the many used book shops. Book shops are interesting in Cuba, because there is often a somewhat limited selection amongst public sellers due to state censorship, but at the same time there is a plethora of old inexpensive books floating around, both above and underground - the most unusual little bookshops you can imagine with discounts on already inexpensive books.

Anyways, I spent a lot of time browsing these shelves, and most all of them had one thing in common - José Martí. Here I was a native New Yorker, living in La Habana, reading his accounts of the time he spent in NYC. One thing I learned quickly, was that he seems to be quite the controversial character, for example - Martí Noticias(USA) vs. Portal José Martí(Cuba). Plus, Fidel has pretty much put Martí in the Cuban constitution, while the USA beams Radio Martí, the million plus dollar radio station into Cuba. It's a cat and mouse game for them, as the USA beams it in, Cuba blocks it out, the frequencies change, and soon enough technology upgrades (kind of like the cold war of radio broadcasting/jamming).

So, what if one asks - if Martí were alive today, would he agree with the situation he would find inside present day Cuba? In my opinion, probably not, but that is a whole other essay. Interesting side note, thanks to all these new books and newspapers I collected while there, as I went to depart Cuba, waiting in the airport I was called over the loud speakers to report to security for questions and a search. It was funny because when I got there, the first and only question they asked me was why I had so many books and newspapers in my bag; I just told them the truth, I was a student and it was the Granma, they laughed and said I could go after that, but it still felt kind of strange being singled out like that. I only hoped that the same thing would not happen at the Canada/USA border when it came time to cross, but everything went smoothly after that.

[Book cover, Editoril de Ciencias, La Habana, 1997]

Well, back to the story. For fourteen years (1880-1894) Martí lived in the "gran manzana" (big apple) - New York City (NYC). During this time, Martí experienced first hand the desolation and brute force of American capitalism, especially in regards to race, poverty, and the worker. Who, according to Martí - each day struggled for eight hours of work, fair wages, and an overall better world. Slowly reading through his works, there is so much to come across and many areas that I found difficult to read because of the old Spanish and manner of his writing. No joke, at times I felt like I was reading Finnegans Wake - it can be challenging, but for those who dig deep there is some pretty good stuff to uncover.

I would like to examine two of his articles more closely: Grandes motines de obreros, alzamiento unanime a favor de ocho horas de trabajo…, published in NYC on the 16th of May, 1886 and Un drama terrible: Anarquia y represion… published on the 1st of January, 1888. In these two articles and others he explores the likes of Haymarket (see also: Haymarket Tragedy.) With these two different articles he helped inform and radicalize readers, not only in the USA, but throughout Latin America, and the world. In these two articles, he presents us with a very interesting look inside the events that helped spawn International Workers' Day (Mayday) and the International Day of anarchy (November 11th), while also helping understand how, so many across the the Americas and world, including the likes of Emma Goldman became inspired by these events. His appeal to anarchists can also be found in his his homage to Lucy Parsons written in New York, on the 17th of October, 1886(see also:Albert Parsons.)

In the first article “Grandes Motines de obreros…” he writes about the NYC anarchists struggling for a better day. He thought, that since the Civil War there had not been another moment in USA history so critical. He believed that, the blood stained flowers of May pointed out that there is no more serious problem, than the problem of heartless capitalists and work at this time in the USA. Martí thought that the situation seemed to suddenly appear in an uprising, somewhat spontaneous, even though he believed the problems to be deeply ingrained within the system.

[Forest Park, Illonois - USA, National Historic Landmark]

The workers in the US were uprising, demanding their rights, and undermining the capitalists oppression. For Martí, the streets always seemed to be filled with workers fighting against the capitalists and police, in spontaneous uprisings. In the first article, he wrote that, the anarchists were reading books about insurrection and then target practicing with guns in the streets of NYC almost every Sunday, while everyone else was at church. With this, in the first article Martí looks at a comparison between the anarchists and workers, differences he presumes - such as "peaceful" vs. "violent".

Martí states that he believes non-violence and actions within the law were most just. Interestingly enough, soon afterwards Martí picked up a gun to help fight against the Spanish in Cuba. I'm not really convinced that Martí really understands everything about anarchists, like thinking they're all "violent" or even his definition of "violence". On this note, I think Martí was in line with the demonstrations - but stopped at the point of NYC's gun slinging anarchists and others around the USA. However, interestingly enough, within the second article he changes his stance to be more favorable of the anarchists:

Martí’s first articles on the Chicago anarchists are in step with the North American press and the xenophobia it promoted: anarchist terror is the work of monstrous Eastern European immigrants who have brought the violent ways of the Old World to the New. The notion of “America” as a democratic alternative to barbarous “Europe” stands. After the execution of the anarchists, however, Martí does an about-face and re-writes his earlier account of events. He turns his rage on the political and justice system and softens his earlier critique of the anarchists. The U.S. is now as unjust and violent as despotic Europe.[1]

[Book cover, Editorial "Felix Varela", La Habana, 1997]

It goes on to say that:

In his initial reactions to Haymarket, Martí had celebrated the heroism of the police and demonized the European anarchists in terms similar to those found in the mainstream U.S. press. In “Un drama terrible,” however, he retells the story of what happened on May fourth in a way that was much more sympathetic to workers and anarchists. He indicts the police, the national media and the justice system for their lies and corruption. If before he had referred to the anarchists as beasts, now it was the Republic as a whole that has become savage like a wolf (795). Martí’s newfound solidarity with the working class, and his sympathetic representation of the anarchists he had previously rejected, results in a powerful identification with the working class, where a new community emerges out of the ruins of the Haymarket Affair.[1]
A saint once said, "for the revolutionary, there will be no rest until the tomb." In these times of struggle, millions have lost their lives and many more will, yet the battle will always rage on, in the hearts of us all:
When the trapdoors of the gallows were released on November 12, 1887, Albert Parsons had begun to say “Shall I be allowed to speak? O, men of America…” before his voice was cut short by the noose. Deeply moved by the injustice of Haymarket, José Martí continued to speak, in the name of the executed anarchists, for the poor and the hopeless, and for the Latin American republics threatened by U.S. foreign policy. Thus, the Haymarket affair underlines how Martí’s familiarity with, and critique of North American current events during the Gilded Age did in fact play a substantive role in maturing his views on labor and enabling his later critiques of colonialism.[1]

[Book Cover, Ocean Press, New York, 2004] Other articles by Martí about New York, you might like to read
La ciudad, el viaje y el circo - La vida neoyorkina - Los indios de Norteamerica - La diversion norteamericana - El problema industrial en los Estados Unidos - La escuela en Nueva York - El puente de Brooklyn - The Dedication of the Statue of Liberty
If you like this, you also might like:
The Limits of Analogy: José Martí and the Haymarket Martyrs by Christopher Conway - University of Texas—Arlington[1]
In November, We Remember: Emma Goldman & Upstate, NY!!! by Problema Goldman aka me

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