Sunday, May 15, 2016

CUBA II: José Martí

A friend recently asked what my next post would be on. I said it will be another post on my visit to Cuba, this time on José Martí. He then asked, "you mean a sort of visual essay that might be titled in search of Martí?" 

My response was "absolutely not!"  There was no search.  In my first post, I knew I would photograph cars.  But I had no intention of looking for Martí. He was never on my radar.

Martí found me.  

Images of Martí, references to Martí, insinuated themselves on me, leaped out at me wherever I went. Sometimes I documented those encounters; other times I ignored them. In other words, this post documents random encounters with José Martí in Havana, to which I begin and end with an additional example of his sculptural presence here in New York City.

José Martí Monument, Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, 1959, Central Park, Manhattan, New York

Looking west from the bottom of Central Park, we see The Pond in the foreground and the twin towers of the Time Warner Center in the background. In the mid-ground and slightly to the left, we also can see the José Martí Monument, cast in 1959 and dedicated six years later.

The Martí Monument was the last of three large, equestrian statues placed (between 1951-1959) where Sixth Avenue meets the south edge of Central Park.  The purpose of this sculptural assemblage was to recognize the 1945 added-naming, Avenue of the Americas, and to promote Pan-American ideals.  The other equestrian statues were of Venezuela's Simon Bolivar and Argentina's José de San Martín.

Plaques on either side of the Martí Monument summarize his importance in Spanish and English, respectively: Apostle of Cuban Independence -- Leader of the Peoples of America and Defender of Human Dignity -- His Literacy Genius Vied with His Political Foresight -- He Was Born in Havana of January 28, 1853 -- For Fifteen Years of His Exile He Lived in the City of New York -- He Died in Action at Dos Rios in Oriente Province on May 19, 1895.

On the Tarmac: Arrivals, José Martí International Airport, Boyeros, Havana, Cuba

I'm not certain when the airport was named for Martí; possibly after 1946, when Cuba became the first South American country to offer transatlantic flights to Europe (Havana-Madrid).  It was originally called Rancho Boyeros Airport, in reference to the land upon which it was built in 1929.

José Martí on Nature, Las Terrazas: Eco-Village [Unesco Biosphere Reserve], Candelaria, Artemisa Province, Cuba

Las Terrazas is an "eco-village," part of a green revolution that Fidel Castro began in 1968 to reforest mountains logged generations earlier by the Spanish, to re-plant fruit trees, and to refurbish the land and provide a new means of living for the local campesinos.

Given the wide range of topics to be found in writings of José Martí, it's hardly surprising to encounter him even here, in the countryside. To him, nature was an essential provider of resources and creator of place which informed all of human life.

This can be found in his poetry, which often speaks to the common man, as in this--from his Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses)--which inspired a song we all know: Guantanamera ("The Girl from Guantanamo").  I translate a few of its most obvious references to nature:

De donde crece la palma: From where the palm tree grows...
Mi verso es de un verde claro: My verse is light green...
Mi verso es un ciervo herido: My verse is a wounded stag
Que busca en el monte amparo: Who seeks refuge on the mountain
Con los pobres de la tierra: With the poor people of the earth...
El arroyo de la sierra: The brook of the mountains
Me complace más que el mar: Gives me more pleasure than the sea.

Memorial José Martí, 1953-1958, Juan José Sicre, Plaza de la Revolución, Vedado, Havana, Cuba

Beginning in 1939, Cuba witnessed four competitions for this Memorial José Martí, culminating five years later with a winning design: a tower by the architect, Aquiles Maza, and a statue by the sculptor, Juan José Sicre.  Delays held up the actual construction for another decade. 

It's worth realizing that, in those fourteen years, Cuba had five Presidencies (with one repeat), and all supported the project--an indication of Martí's unassailable "favorite-son" status.  As the contemporary American political columnist, David Brooks, wrote just last month: "Long dead, Martí is a precious resource who unifies amid disagreement and fortifies in hard times."

When Fulgencio Batista seized power in 1952 and returned to the Presidency, the dictator played preferences (as one would expect) and assigned the tower to a different architect, whose design had come in third place.

Sicre, however, succeeded in retaining the sculptural commission. We can see his 59-foot statue of the seated Martí, dwarfed by the 358-foot tower behind. 

The project was completed in 1958, but Batista's dictatorship would be ended on January 1 of the following year. One could argue that, the main change after twenty years was that the area, once known as Plaza Cívica, would be renamed Plaza de la Revolución.

Bust of José Martí, Museo de la Revolución, Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba

Bust of José Martí, President's Office, Museo de la Revolución, Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba

On December 31, 1958, Batista fled Cuba for asylum in the Dominican Republic. And so, in another significant name change, the Presidential Palace became the Museo de la Revolución. These two busts of Martí are on prominent display there.

One, in black stone, occupies a place of honor on the landing of the grand staircase. The dozen or so dark holes in the white marble panelling behind the bust are bullet holes--the remains of a failed attempt by student revolutionaries to assassinate Batista on March 13, 1957. Clearly, this unscathed Martí had not yet taken residence on the stair landing.

The marble bust directly above is in what once was the Presidential office suite--another place of honor, naturally.  Nowhere was I able to find a name or more information on either of these two sculptors, even though the white marble bust is a particularly strong work.

José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform, 2000ff, View to East, Vedado, Havana, Cuba

This and the next two photographs (below) were taken in an area bounded by Calle N, Calle L, the street called Calzada to the south, and the Malecón and water to the north. Part of it is known as the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform and part as the Plaza de la Dignidad.  It's a large and amorphous area which lacks clarity of design, but the latter (Plaza de la Dignidad) is the most western section, adjacent to what was once the American Embassy.

Various public events, social and political, including rock concerts, have taken place here. However, as the two identifying titles suggest, the main purpose of the area is political and is dedicated to promoting Cuban national pride.

Es Para Eso [José Martí: May 18, 1895], José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform, 2000ff, Vedado, Havana, Cuba

One of several quotations from fighters for freedom from colonial control, this one is from Martí's last letter, written the day before he was killed on the battlefield of Dos Rios.  Roughly translated, it reads:

" prevent, by the independence of Cuba, the United States from spreading over the West Indies and falling, with that added weight, upon other lands of our America. All I have done up to now, and shall do hereafter, is to that end."

Martí had lived in America long enough to know that it would very likely take over Cuba and become another occupying force, similar to the Spain which he was fighting; because of this fear, he hoped for a quick victory in order to preclude American intervention in the conflict.  His impatience may have contributed to his death.

 José Martí with Elián González, 2000, Andrés González, José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform, Vedado, Havana, Cuba

Anti-Imperialism is certainly the core of this area, and Martí is its father. While living in America, he admired its own early anti-imperialism and revolutionary spirit. However, in 1889, he already saw signs that "the [American] republic is becoming plutocratic and imperialistic." 

In that final letter, referred to above, Martí also wrote this: "I have lived in the monster and know its entrails." 

On the eastern edge of this area of the Vedado is 
this statue of Martí clutching the young Elián González while he points an accusing finger at the American Embassy to the west.  This symbolic sculpture surely embodies the idea of the political as the personal.  Martí, dead for over a century, holds a six-year-old Cuban boy who was rescued from the waters off Miami on Thanksgiving Day, 1999.  

We all know the story of Elián.

We may not know that Fidel Castro took on a major role in the creation of this sculpture and in the selection of the artist, Andrés González. Completing the circle, the sculptor has said of Castro, "I felt the spirit of José Martí within him."

José Martí Sports Park, Grandstand, Octavio Buigas, 1960, Vedado, Havana, Cuba

Just a little further west along the Malecón from the Anti-Imperialist Platform is the José Marti Sports Park. It was begun in 1940 under the Batista government as a recreational facility for Cuban children.

The grandstand, with its dramatic array of rampant vaults of reinforced concrete, cantilevered toward the Malecón and the sea, was part of a revival of the area under Fidel Castro. It fell into disuse as two newer stadiums were built in the next several decades.

Monument celebrating José Martí, Key West, and the Order of the Knights of Light, Avenida del Puerto & Avenida Bélgica, Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba

I seem to have struck out on clearly identifying this bit of cubist abstraction which we see here against one of the original walls of the city of Havana.  It is governed by a simple, but effective, principle of visual asymmetry. 

Of its three sections, the left one contains one word, Martí, and below that, his birth and death dates engraved into the stone.  The taller, central section contains the single word, Centenario, aligned vertically.  The lowest, right section, contains the words, Homenaje a Cayo Hueso, above a historical bronze plaque referencing La Orden Caballeros de la Luz

This Order of the Knights of Light is a fraternal institution associated with Freemasonry.  Cayo Hueso is the Spanish for Key West (Florida).  Martí was a Freemason.  Key West was a Cuban stronghold and was known as "the Miami of the 1870s and 1880s." Moreover, Martí reinvigorated and raised essential money for the Cuban fight for independence during two weeks in Key West in late December, 1891 and early January, 1892.

Somehow, these details contribute to this allusive bit of sculptural abstraction located only a few blocks from the House of José Martí, where he was born on January 28, 1853.

Rincón Martiano, 1943-1944, Canteras de San Lázaro, Calle Hospital, Centro Habana, Havana, Cuba

Close to the north-western edge of Centro Habana, between the streets of Vapor and Principe, is a small, gated park. The gate was locked; I could only peer in; and nothing identified the park.

However, this stone, placed halfway down the axial walk from the gate, offered identifying clues. This park marks what had been the St. Lazarus quarry in the nineteenth century. Here, in 1871, 17-year old Martí was sentenced to six years of hard labor, having been charged with treason for carrying a letter critical of Spanish rule.

The inscription of the stone reads:  Restos de las antiguas canteras de San Lázaro conservados en memorial de José Martí. Que aqui sufrio los trabajos forzados del presidio politico.    1870      1944

The translation would read:  Remains of the ancient quarries of San Lázaro preserved in memory of José Martí.   Here he suffered political imprisonment and forced labor.    1870      1944.

It is now called Rincón Martiano, or Martí's Corner; ever since 1953, it has served as the ending point for an annual January 27th parade through Havana, called the March of the Torches, in celebration of Martí's birthday.

José Martí, José Villalta Saavedra, 1905, Parque Central, Centro Habana, Havana, Cuba

José Martí, detail, José Villalta Saavedra, 1905, Parque Central, Centro Habana, Havana, Cuba

These two photographs show the top and one side of the base of the first public statue in Cuba dedicated to Martí. 

The signing of the Treaty of Paris in December of 1898 ended Spanish rule. But a statue of the Spanish Queen, Isabel II, was occupying this park as the focal point of a grand, tree-lined boulevard and pedestrian promenade. 

Isabel, naturally, had to be replaced.  So in 1899, El Figaro asked its readers to vote for a patriotic replacement.  Martí won (over Liberty and Christopher Columbus), and José Villalta Saavedra--Havana-born, Italian-trained--received the commission.

José Martí, Courtyard, Casa de la Amistad, Vedado, Havana, Cuba

From the courtyard of the elegant, Neoclassical Casa de la Amistad, this peculiar sculpture shows José Martí emerging from a base of books while his body appears to be encased in tree bark and hunks of wood. I found no reference on it--neither artist nor title.

José Martí, Courtyard, Escuela Primaria Orlando Pantoja Tamayo, Vedado, Havana, Cuba

Alfonso Quiroz, Professor of History at Baruch College, once noted that "Martí's bust is ubiquitous in schoolyards...[where it is meant to] inspire national memory among Cuban school children." 

Still, Martí's presence in these schoolyards is not simply because he is considered the Apostle of the Cuban Revolution.  He wrote children's books and thought deeply about the process of education. Martí's approach to education was one of gentle cultivation.  He promoted curricula based on practical and beneficial things.  He insisted on instruction that, above all else, was to be gentle.  And, along with his call for "wandering teachers," he argued: "Instead of sending pedagogues through the rural areas, we would send conversationalists." 

Images of José Martí, Public Mural, Pedro Pulido, Proyecto Cintio Vitier, Calle 25, Vedado, Havana, Cuba

In this detail of a wall mural across the street from Pedro Pulido's house and studio, which also doubles as an art school for the youth of Havana, we see Martí in triplicate: a head mounted on a projecting ledge and two paintings in which he appears dressed as a worker and a scholar. 

Pulido has created a network for building community which he calls "Proyecto Cintio Vitier." Vitier, who died at the age of 88 in 2009,  was a Cuban poet and scholar and had written a book on Martí and his sacrifices for Cuban independence.

Arte Soy, Installation Art, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, 1990ff, Callejón de Hamel, Centro Habana, Havana, Cuba

In this quotation, also a fragment from the same Versos Sencillos of 1891 which contributed many of the lyrics to Guantanamera, Martí champions sincerity and an ability to discern what is real:

Yo vengo de todas partes: I come from all places
Y hacia todas partes voy: and to all places go
Arte soy entre las artes: I am art among the arts
(Y) en los montes, monte soy: and mountain among the mountains.

Yo sé los nombres extraños: I know the strange names
De las yerbas y las flores: of flowers and herbs 
Y de mortales engaños: and of fatal deceptions
Y de sublimes dolores: and of magnificent griefs.

This poetic fragment is, itself, but a tiny artistic fragment of an alley of hundreds of feet, totally transformed by the artist, Salvador.  A future blog post will be dedicated solely to this project.

La Verdad, Bust of José Martí, Vedado, Havana, Cuba

I took this photograph on the night I arrived, but have no clear memory of exactly where it was. We see a bust of Martí atop a sickle-like base, a deteriorating single star behind him, and a small fragment from his writings on our right.

The truth, once awakened, never falls back to sleep is the quotation.

Different Literatures (José Martí), Gregg Lefevre, 1998, East 41st Street (Library Walk), Manhattan, New York

My final photograph takes us back to the beginning--New York City. Embedded in the north and south sidewalks of 41st Street between 5th Avenue and Park Avenue are plaques celebrating great literature of the world.  This plaque offers a quotation from José Martí's "Oscar Wilde; chronicles and essays," written while he lived in New York and published in Havana in January, 1882. 

In Spanish: Conocer diversas literaturas es el medio mejor de libertarse de la tiranía de algunas de ellas...

It would appear that Martí lived his own life free from the "tyranny of a few," as Gordon Lewis, in his book, Main Currents in Caribbean Thought, wrote the following of Martí:

He is at once journalist, politician, aesthete, philosopher, essayist, poet, and orator. The catholic bent of his mind makes him receptive to all of the various currents of nineteenth-century thought, both European and American: historicism, mysticism, transcendentalism, social Darwinism, democratic populism, liberalism, romanticism, and the rest. He seems to have read something of everybody...


  1. This is an excellent post about José Martí from an art point of view.

  2. Awsome post. Marti was one of a kind.
    By the way Tyko, I made it finally. Just arrived in Miami.