José Martí, The language of passion
By Ciro Bianchi Ross Photos: Prensa Latina Photo Archives
His words flowed like water from a spring, irrepressible; sometimes calm and serene, sometimes inflamed, in sudden gushes.
The fluidness of his speech was impressive, as was the brilliance of his ideas, and the sumptuousness of the images transmitted by his voice, both elegant and manly. In Guatemala, when he was still a young man, he earned the nickname of “Doctor Torrent.” José Martí, the Apostle of Cuba’s Independence, always moved, shook, and electrified audiences. As a speaker, he excelled in dry academic forums, stern international meetings like the Monetary Conference that he attended as a delegate in Uruguay, and rallies where he called upon his compatriots to make revolution. In 1895, in the countryside of free Cuba and on the eve of his death in battle against the Spanish, he was able to address the combatants of the nascent Liberation Army, the Mambís. “I listened to him and felt that I had to take my hat off,” recalled one Mambí fighter who had the privilege of seeing him. And another: “I couldn’t understand him, but I felt that I was ready to die for him.”
Sarmiento the Argentine said that “in Spanish, there is nothing similar to Martí’s roar…After Victor Hugo, nothing presents France like his iron resonance.” According to Cuban poet José Lezama Lima, Martí the speaker “occupies a place apart in the annals of Spanish eloquence. None of that facile verbal inebriation for him; his language is the language of passion. That is how he was able to move, impassion, and provoke revolution. Those who heard him remember it as a one-of-a-kind spectacle…”
In 1878, back in the country after a time in exile, he amazed his compatriots with his skills as an orator. Upon the death of the poet Alfredo Torroella, whom Martí had met in Mexico, he spoke at his burial and a subsequent event in a way that his listeners found striking. His oratory was unusual. At a time when speakers still used the terms “the country” or “the island,” Martí referred to the “homeland”; “the frowning homeland with laurels in mourning.” It was a nervous, brilliant, difficult, intoxicating eloquence. His melodious orator’s voice vibrated with energy as suddenly as it became clouded with a suppressed elegiac tone. When his speech was over, the crowded burst into prolonged applause and Martí was led from the platform amid embraces.
His success was even greater when he spoke at a banquet that a group of Cuban reformists had thrown for a wellknown journalist. Martí’s tone and intention surprised the gentlemen sponsoring the tribute, people known as cautious and reluctant to support independence. Martí praised the public integrity of the man who was being toasted and declared: “A man who demands is worth more than a man who begs…rights are taken, not asked for; they are wrested, not begged for….” And the diners were left breathless when he said that if Cuban liberal politics strove to set out and radically solve all of the country’s problems, “then I drink to Cuban politics, for its pride, dignity, and vigor.” But if that was not the case, if immediate, definite and concrete solutions were not reached, if instead of voices for the homeland we should be something other than ourselves, “…then I break my glass: I do not drink to Cuban politics!” An hour later, the colonial governor, Captain General Ramón Blanco y Erenas, the Marquis of Peña Plata, learned about the banquet incident and Martí’s speech. Martí? Who is Martí? he asked. He was to find out shortly, because the next day, the Lyceum of Guanabacoa hosted an evening in honor of Cuban violinist Díaz Albertini, who was returning from abroad after glorious success, and Martí, “that Martí guy,” was to be one of the speakers. The governor headed for Guanabacoa. After the end of the Ten Year War and amid the “incomplete liberty achieved, received from nobody,” the island’s top authority wanted to ingratiate himself with the Cuban intellectual crowd.
Martí cared little that the captain general was present. When he referred to the homeland and to Cuba’s future, everybody listening knew what he meant. Blanco could not bear to hear the speech to the end. He stood up and, full of dignity and covered with medals, walked out of the room. He commented: “I do not want to remember what I heard and what I never imagined would be said in front of me, a representative of the Spanish government. I am going to think that Martí is a madman, but a dangerous madman.”
Many were the speeches that José Martí gave throughout his 42 years of life. His pronouncements on Cuban poet José María Heredia and Simón Bolívar were memorable, as was his tireless advocacy of unity among the émigré community and their preparation for what he called the “necessary war,” as well as the Republic “with all and for the good of all” that the war would make possible. They were stirring speeches that demonstrated the extraordinary seduction of his speech and the brilliant and intoxicating eloquence that emanated from his voice, both elegant and manly.