Under the Volcanoes: The Influence of Guatemala on Jose Marti

By Huish, Robert L.; Lovell, W. George | Cuban Studies, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Under the Volcanoes: The Influence of Guatemala on Jose Marti


Huish, Robert L., Lovell, W. George, Cuban Studies


José Julián Martí y Pérez (1853-1895) spent most of his short but eventful life in exile. From the age of seventeen, the man now revered as a national icon actually spent very little time in his native Cuba. Driven from its shores in 1870, first to Spain and then to Mexico, he took up residence in New York City in 1880. Thereafter, New York served as the base from which he waged his campaign for Cuban independence, though Martí continued to travel outside the United States, especially in parts of Latin America sympathetic to, and supportive of, his political views.

Spain, Mexico, and the United States in particular are recognized as having played key roles in Martí's intellectual formation, furnishing him with ideas and experiences he would subsequently apply to envisioning Cuban nationhood and notions of pan-Americanism beyond. Guatemala, however, where he spent a little more than a year between 1877 and 1878, is usually thought of as constituting no more than an ill-fated episode in Marti's love life, immortalized by him in the heart-wrenching verses of "La niña de Guatemala," a poem he penned more than a decade later and one that serves Francisco Goldman with rich material for his evocative depiction of Martí in his novel The Divine Husband (Goldman 2004; Martí 1961g). Overlooked - indeed, all but forgotten on account of a tragic tale of unrequited love-is how Guatemala inspired Martí and provided him, in the form of the nation-building agenda of President Justo Rufino Barrios, with an example of nationhood he not only admired but also was moved to champion. Marti's enthusiastic embrace of Barrios, on first inspection, seems at odds with the progressive views we hold of Martí today, for Barrios ruled Guatemala according to the tenets of liberal dictatorship, not liberal democracy. Our goal, however, is to contextualize Marti's time in Guatemala in such a way as to render it both crucial to, and compatible with, his nationalist thinking as it evolved and matured.

The challenge before us is to grapple with the political development of Martí and the multiple influences on his life. All nation-states, and the individuals who help forge them, are not as impartial as some versions of history make them out to be; ideological neutrality, Will Kymlicka (2000) argues, is a myth. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (1983), meanwhile, contend that nationstates, along with their casts of founders and heroes, are laden with invented traditions, as well as riddled with contradictions. These are worthwhile considerations to bear in mind when dealing with the factors that shaped Marti's vision of pan-Americanism, most pertinently (1) liberal ideologies that advanced the separation of church and state; (2) access to, and exploitation of, natural resources; and (3) the pursuit of modernity through technology and science. Although Martí is today incorporated into starkly opposing political discourses, extant literature indicates that he adopted liberal views in Mexico that became increasingly radical during his time in the United States. Marti's more outspoken and substantive works are usually the ones referenced in charting the evolution of his political consciousness.

Why should less analytical, more descriptive writing, a miscellany that does not figure prominently in critical appraisals of Marti's vast output, be slighted (consciously or otherwise) in debates about his philosophy? We maintain that Martí's brief spell in Guatemala, one of his most animated periods of expression, offers insight into his views of the Americas and the nationbuilding project within it. Such works as the celebrated Nuestra América (1891), which calls for the peoples of the Americas to see themselves as one nation, one culture, related parts of a single historical experience, build on Marti's thoughts and influences in Mexico in 1875 and 1876. We must also take into account, however, his yearlong stay in Guatemala immediately thereafter, a period that saw him assume an active promotional role in the liberal reform movement. …

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