Mystic, Messiah, and Mediator
Interpreting Martí through Texts and Contexts
ON JUNE 8, 1899, Juan Bonilla, a cigarmaker and member of the all-black reading circle La Liga Antillana, wrote an impassioned letter to his friend and fellow activist Juan Gualberto Gómez. Peppering his letter with direct quotes from José Martí ‘s writings, Bonilla recounted how Martí had personally inspired him to pursue ideals of truth and justice, especially through the readings he recommended to La Liga, a list that included Renan’s Life of Jesus and works by Emerson and Seneca. However, Bonilla’s purpose in writing Gómez was more than commemorative. He wanted him to know that despite Martí ‘s death, Bonilla and other Cubans could continue to receive Martí ‘s counsel, even from beyond the grave.
Since the early months of the U.S. military intervention of 1898, Bonilla had been conducting an “investigation” into the spiritist movement among New York City’s Cuban emigrés. Like all spiritists, emigré adherents sought to prove the immortality of the soul by using the “scientific” methods of spiritism’s founder, Allan Kardec. After attending countless séances, Bonilla had received several important messages from figures such as José and Antonio Maceo, as well as Martí. Cynically, the spirit of José Maceo characterized Cubans’ current attitudes toward the U.S. occupation as “identical to those of Zanjón, in ‘78.” However, the spirit of Martí insisted that all of Cuba’s dead heroes were working ceaselessly “to save Cuba,” even if it appeared that “in the end, [the United States was] going to take her.” Bonilla concluded that Cubans’ only hope was to found a political party modeled on the PRC and the example of leadership provided by Martí, a man who, like Jesus himself, prophesied his own immortality1 Bonilla insisted, “What matters about these investigations is that all [our deceased leaders] agree that the only way to save Cuba is through the strictest unity of all its elements.