119. — Letter from José Martí to Manuel Mercado, May 18, 1895
Cuban poet and journalist José Martí (1853–1895) lived in the United States for 15 years where he grew increasingly disillusioned with white Americans. The Cuban War for Independence from Spain had been going on for 30 years, and many Cuban rebels had hoped that the United States would help them. Martí had returned to his beloved island and in the heat of the battle he warned his fellow revolutionaries to guard against possible U.S. intervention. The day before he was killed, Martí wrote an unfinished letter to Manuel Mercado (1838–1909) about his fear of U.S. imperialism in the region. Mercado was born in Michoacán, Mexico, where he met Martí. They formed a close friendship.
Dos Rios Camp, May 18, 1895
Mr. Manuel Mercado
My dearest brother: Now I can write, now I can tell you with what tenderness and gratitude and respect I love you, and your home that is my own—and with what pride and commitment. Every-day now I am in danger of giving my life for my country and duty—since I understand it and have the spirit to carry it out—in order to prevent, by the timely independence of Cuba, the United States from extending its hold across the Antilles and falling with all the greater force on the lands of our America. All I have done up to now and all I will do is for that. It has had to be concealed in order to be attained: proclaiming them for what they are would give rise to obstacles too formidable to be overcome. The nations such as your own and mine, which have the most vital interest in keeping Cuba from becoming, through an annexation accomplished by those imperialists and the Spaniards, the doorway—which must be blocked and which, with our blood, we are blocking—to the annexation of the peoples of our America by the turbulent and brutal North that holds them in contempt, are kept by secondary, public obligations from any open allegiance and manifest aid to the sacrifice being made for their immediate benefit. I lived in the monster, and I know its entrails—and my sling is the sling of David: Even now, a few days ago, in the wake of the triumph with which the Cuban people greeted our free descent from the mountains where six expenditionaries walked for fourteen days, a correspondent from the New York Herald took me from my hammock and hut and told me about the activities aimed at annexation—which is less fearsome because of the scant realism of those who aspire to it—by men of the legal ilk who, having no discipline or creative power of their own, and as a convenient disguise for their complacency and subjugation to Spain, request Cuba’s autonomy without conviction, content that there be a master, Yankee or Spaniard, to maintain them and grant them, in reward for their services as intermediaries, positions as leaders, scornful of the vigorous masses, the skilled and inspiring mestizo mass of this country—the intelligent, creative masses of whites and blacks.
And did the Herald correspondent, Eugene Bryson, tell me about anything else? About a Yankee syndicate, backed by the Customs Office, in which rapacious white Spaniards have a deep hand, and that may become a toehold in Cuba for those from the North, whose complex and entrammeled political constitution fortunately leaves them unable to undertake or support this plan as the project of their government. And Bryson told me something else, though the truth of the conversation he reported to me can only be understood by one who has seen at close hand the vigor with which we have launched the revolution, and the disorder, reluctance, and poor pay of the raw Spanish army—and the inability of Spain to muster, either in or out of Cuba, the resources with which to fight this war, resources that, during the last war, it extracted from Cuba alone. Bryson told me about a conversation he had with Martinez Campos at the end of which he was given to understand that no doubt, when the time came, Spain would prefer to reach an agreement with the United States than to hand the Island over to the Cuban people. And Bryson told me still more: about an acquaintance of ours who is being groomed in the North as the United States’ candidate for the presidency of Mexico, once the current President has disappeared. I am doing my duty here. The Cuban war—a reality that is superior to the vague and disparate desires of the annexationist Cubans and Spaniards whose alliance with the government of Spain would give them only relative power—has come at the right hour in America to prevent, even against the open deployment of all these forces, the annexation of Cuba to the Unites States, which would never accept the annexation of a country that is at war, and which, since the revolution will not accept annexation, cannot enter into a hateful and absurd commitment to crush, for its own benefit and with its own weapons, an American war of independence.
And Mexico? Will it not find a wise, effective, and immediate way of supplying aid, in time, to those who are defending it? Yes, it will, or I will find one on Mexico’s behalf. This is life or death; there is no room for error. Discretion is the only option. I would have found and proposed a way already, but I must have more authority myself, or know who does have it, before acting or advising. I have just arrived. The constitution of a simply, practical government may take two more months, if it is to be real and stable. Our soul is one, I know that, and so is the connections’, timeliness, and compromise. I represent a certain constituency, and I do not want to do anything that might appear to be a capricious expansion of it.
I arrived in a boat with General Maximo Gomez and four other men, taking the lead oar through a storm to land on an unknown, rocky stretch of one of our beaches. For fourteen days I carried my rucksack and rifle on foot across brambles and high places—rousing the people to take up arms as we passed through. I feel, in the benevolence of these souls, the root of my attachment to the pain of mankind and to the justice that will alleviate it. The countryside is undisputedly ours, to such a degree that in a month I’ve heard gunfire only once; at the gates of the cities we either win a victory or pass three thousand armed men in review, to an enthusiasm
akin to religious fervor. We are going on now to the center of the Island where, in the presence of the revolution that have given rise to, I will lay aside the authority given me by the Cubans off the island, which has been respected on the island, and which an assembly of delegates of the visible Cuban people, the revolutionaries now in arms, must renew in accordance with their new state. The revolution desires full liberty for the army, without the nee imposed on it by a Chamber of Deputies with no real authorization, or by the suspicions of a younger generation that is its republicanism, or by jealousy and fear of the excessive future prominence of some painstaking and farsighted caudillo. However at the same time, the revolution wants concise and respectable republican representation—the same spirit of humanity and decency, full for individual dignity, in the republic’s representatives as is revolutionaries on and keeping them at war. For myself, I understand that a nation cannot be made to go against the spirit that moves it, or to do without that spirit, and I know how to set hearts on fire and how to use the ardent and gratified state of those hearts for incessant agitation and attack. But where forms are concerned, there is room for many ideas, and the things of men are made by men. You own me. For myself, I will defend only that which I believe will or serve the revolution. I know how to disappear. But my ideas would not disappear, nor would my own obscurity embitter me. And as long as we have a form, we will work, whether the fulfillment of it falls to me or to others.
And now that matters of the public interest have gone first, I’ll tell you about myself. Only the emotion of this duty was able to raise from coveted death the man who knows you best—now that Najera no longer lives where he can be seen—and who cherishes the friendship which you distinguish him like a treasure in his heart. I know you have been scolding me, silently, since my journey began. We give him all our soul, and he is silent! What a disappointment! How callused his soul must be if the tribute and honor of our affection has not been enough to make him write one letter more, among all the pages of letters and newspaper articles he writes each day! There are affections of such delicate honesty.
Source: From José Martí: Selected Writings by José Martí, introduction by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, edited by Esther Allen, translated by Esther Allen, copyright © 2002 by Esther Allen. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., pp. 346–349.