Friday, May 21, 2010

Jose Marti: Who Owns Cuba's National Hero?

Jose Marti: Who Owns Cuba's National Hero?

I was 19 and he had died a hundred years earlier. At school we were
terrified when the grammar tests asked us to analyze his complex
sentences. It was repeated so many times that Jose Marti was the
"intellectual author of the assault on the Moncada barracks," that we
even imagined his body's presence on that morning of shooting and
killing. On the political billboards his sayings - taken out of context
- adorned a city submerged in the miseries of the Special Period.* I
remember we sarcastically transformed some of them: "poverty happens:
what does not happen is disgrace," we changed to, "poverty happens, what
does not happen is the 174," referring to the bus route connecting
Vedado with La Vibora.

There was no shortage of the dis-informed who blamed the Apostle for
what was happening, and during the days of blackouts and very little
food they visited various punishments on his plaster busts. The
excessive distortion of Marti's ideas - repackaged according to the
convenience of the powers-that-be - led dozens of my classmates to
reject his work once and for all. Only a small group of us continued to
read his love poems and free verse, preserving for ourselves another
Pepe, more human, closer. I was then at the Pedagogical Institute, a
springboard that would allow me to major in Philology or Journalism, two
profession he had engaged in brilliantly. As presented to me there, he
was a gentleman with an energetic face who must be unquestionably
worshiped, officially defined as the inspiration for what we lived.

In the days leading up to the one hundredth anniversary of his death it
occurred to me to write a small editorial for the newsletter prepared by
several of us students. With the title Letter by Letter, the publication
was filled with poems, literary analysis, and a section dedicated to the
language mistakes we heard in the corridors of the Spanish and
Literature Department. I wrote some brief and passionate lines where I
said that we formed part of "another hundred-year generation" that would
do our part to save the country from other dangers. That tiny violation
of the established norms for interpreting the national hero ended with
the closing of the modest periodical and my first encounter with the
boys of the apparatus. Only they had the capacity to decipher and wield
his writings, they seemed to want to tell me with that veiled warning,
but I smiled through clenched teeth: I knew another Marti, more
unmanageable, more rebellious.

Translator's note:
*The Special Period:The very difficult time in the 1990s after the fall
of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies for Cuba.

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