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January 28, 1853: Birth of José Martí

January 28, 1853: Birth of José Martí

On January 28, the words of the greatest of all Cubans take on special significance in day-care centres and schools of all levels of education, and students and workers set off on the evening of January 27 from the University of Havana on a pilgrimage to Central Park, where the first statue erected in Cuba in his memory still stands.

Besides his literary work, he organized the Cuban Revolutionary Party, the political body which brought together the patriots that were willing to wager an all-out military effort against Spanish colonialism until independence was gained. Killed in combat at Dos Ríos in the eastern part of Cuba in 1895, Martí would not get to see the results of the recently begun war that would end in 1898, although a period of US intervention would delay the proclamation of the Republic until May 20, 1902.

Paradoxically, the architect of Cuba’s independence lived very little on home soil. At the age of 16 he served time in prison in Havana and was later exiled in the Isle of Pines before being banished in 1871 to Spain where he studied Civil Law, and Philosophy and Letters at the Universities of Madrid and Zaragoza. He lived in Mexico and Guatemala from 1875 to 1878, making a brief, clandestine visit to the island in early 1877. He returned to Havana in August 1878, but was again banished in September 1879, and settled down in New York where he would live, with a brief stay in Venezuela, until 1895. That year he travelled to the Dominican Republic where he organized an expedition that landed on Playitas de Cajobabo in Baracoa on April 11, 1895.

Despite having lived most of his life outside his homeland, no one has stirred among their countrymen devotion comparable to that for José Martí, to the point that the house where he was born was bought in 1901 through public donations for Martí’s mother, Canarian-born Leonor Pérez, widow of Valencian Mariano Martí. When Dona Leonor passed away, the small house became the property of the Cuban people and was devoted to honour the memory of the National Hero.

The modest dwelling, which opened as a museum on January 28, 1925, was established as a National Monument in 1949. It holds many personal belongings of the great intellectual and political leader who lived there only a few years. What child in Havana can say that they have never visited “Martí’s little house” as it is popularly known? My father took me there on my first visit almost 50 years ago while almost 15 years have passed since I took my own child on his first visit there. Usually talkative and spirited, and accustomed to visiting imposing museums and cultural institutions in Old Havana, my son grew silent and whispered in my ear: “Martí was so poor!” as if he found it difficult to associate the beauty of Martí’s poems, which he had heard and learned since he was very little, with the unpretentious and modest dwelling. Unknowingly, he was paying tribute to the austerity of the man who had ratified with his death what he had proclaimed in his verses: “With the poor people of the earth / I want to share my fate,” the man who every January 28 is remembered by good Cubans, wherever they are.

January 2015 This article formed part of the January 2015 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.

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