José Martí was born on January 28, 1853, in Havana, to a Spanish Catalan father, Mariano Martí Navarro, and Leonor Pérez Cabrera, a native of the Canary Islands. Martí was the oldest brother to seven sisters. When he was four years old, his family moved from Cuba to Valencia, Spain, but two years later they returned to the island where they enrolled José at a local public school. In this school, he met Rafael María de Mendive, a person influential in the development of Martí's political philosophies.
Aside from being a writer, poet, translator, diplomat and journalist, José Martí was also a painter. In 1867, he enrolled at the Professional School for Painting and Sculpting of Havana to take drawing classes. He hoped to succeed in this work, but did not find commercial success.
In 1869, he published his first political writings in the only edition of the newspaper El Diablo Cojuelo. That same year he published "Abdala," a patriotic drama in verse form in the one-volume La Patria Libre. His famous sonnet "10 de octubre" was also written during that year, and it was published later in his school newspaper.
Despite this success, in March of that year, colonial authorities shut down the school, interrupting Martí's studies. He came to resent Spanish rule of his homeland at a young age; likewise, he developed a hatred of slavery, which was still practiced in Cuba.
On 21 October 1869, he was arrested, then incarcerated in the national jail, following an accusation of treason from the Spanish government. More than four months later, Martí assumed responsibility of the charges and was condemned to six years in prison. His mother tried arduously to free her son (who at sixteen was still a minor) by writing letters to the government; his father went to a lawyer friend for legal support, but all efforts failed. Eventually Martí fell ill; his legs were severely lacerated due to the chains attached to him. Therefore, he was transferred by the General to another part of Cuba known as Isla de Pinos instead of further imprisonment. Following that, they decided to repatriate him to Spain.
Martí completed his studies, graduated with a bachelor of arts, and obtained his license in civil rights. He then traveled to France, where he spent some time before secretly returning to Cuba under an assumed name in 1877. He was unable to obtain any employment until he accepted a job as a professor of history and literature in Guatemala City.
In 1878, he returned to Havana and found work there. His son, José Francisco was born there. However, the next year, he was arrested and deported to Spain again. His wife and son remained in Cuba.
In 1881, Martí moved to New York City serving as a joint consul there for Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina. He mobilized the Cuban exile community, especially in Ybor City (Tampa area) and Key West, Florida, to revolution and independence from Spain, while lobbying to oppose U.S. annexation of Cuba, which some American politicians desired. In January 1892 he founded "El Partido Revolucionario Cubano", the Cuban Revolutionary Party, with the purpose of gaining independence for both Cuba and Puerto Rico.
In 1894, he left New York, planning to land in Cuba and fight for revolution, but was intercepted in Florida.
On March 25, 1895, José Martí published the Manifesto of Montecristi together with Máximo Gómez, proclaiming Cuban independence, an end to all legal distinctions between the races, friendship with Spaniards who did not oppose the independence, and war with all who stood in the way of independence.
On April 11, 1895, Martí landed in Cuba with a small force of rebel exiles, including the Generalísimo Máximo Gómez y Báez. Upon reuniting with the Ejercito Libertador, Martí was given the grade of Major General. In the early days of May, he and Gómez met at La Mejorana with Major General Antonio Maceo y Grajales, who was second in command of the Army after Gómez. Nobody really knows what was discussed, the only record being Martí's diary, and the pages concerning that day were missing.
José Martí was killed in battle against Spanish troops at the Battle of Dos Ríos, near the confluence of the rivers Contramaestre and Cauto, on May 19, 1895. Gómez had recognized that the Spaniards had a strong position between palm trees, so he ordered his men to disengage. Martí was alone and seeing a young courier ride by he said: "Joven, a la carga" meaning: "Young man, let's charge!" This was around midday, and he was, as always, dressed in a black jacket, riding a white horse, which made him an easy target for the Spanish. The young trooper, Angel de la Guardia, lost his horse and returned to report the loss. The Spanish took possession of the body, buried it close by, then exhumed the body upon realization of its identity. They are said not to have burned him because they were scared that the ashes would get into their throats and asphyxiate them. He is buried in Cementerio Santa Efigenia in Santiago de Cuba. Many have argued that Maceo and others had always spurned Martí for never participating in combat, which may have compelled Martí to that ill-fated suicidal two-man charge. Some of his "Versos sencillos" bore premonition: "No me entierren en lo oscuro/ A morir como un traidor/ Yo soy bueno y como bueno/ Moriré de cara al sol." ("Do not bury me in darkness / to die like a traitor / I am good, and as a good man / I will die facing the sun.")
José Martí is usually honored as a great poet, patriot and martyr of Cuban Independence, but he was also a translator of some note. Although he translated literary material for the sheer joy of it, much of the translating he did was imposed on him by economic necessity during his many years of exile in the United States. Martí learned English at an early age, and had begun to translate at thirteen. He continued translating for the rest of his life, including his time as a student in Spain, although the period of his greatest productivity was during his stay in New York from 1880 until he returned to Cuba in 1895.
In New York he was what we would call today a "freelancer" as well as an "in house" translator. He translated several books for the publishing house of D. Appleton, and did a series of translations for newspapers. As a revolutionary activist in Cuba's long struggle for independence he translated into English a number of articles and pamphlets supporting that movement. In addition to fluent English, Martí also spoke French, Italian, Latin and Classical Greek fluently, the latter learned so he could read the Greek classical works in the original.
There was clearly a dichotomy in Martí's feeling about the kind of work he was translating. Like many professionals, he undertook for money translation tasks which had little intellectual or emotional appeal for him. De la Cuesta illustrates this nicely with a quotation in which Martí reflects on his translation projects in February 1883, writing to his sister Amelia: Anoche puse fin a la traducción de un libro de lógica que me ha parecido -- a pesar de tener yo por maravillosamente inútiles tantas reglas pueriles -- preciosísimo libro, puesto que con el producto de su traducción puedo traer a mi padre a mi lado.
Although Martí never presented a systematic theory of translation nor did he write extensively about his approach to translation, he did jot down occasional thoughts on the subject which are of value: yo creo que traducir es transpensar ... traducir es pensar en español lo que en su idioma ellos (los autores) pensaron ... traducir es estudiar, analizar, ahondar. His awareness of the translator's dilemma of the faithful versus the beautiful is evidenced in his belief that la traducción debe ser natural para que parezca como si el libro hubiese sido escrito en la lengua al que lo traduces, que en esto se conocen las buenas traducciones and ve pues el cuidado con que hay que traducir, para que la traducción pueda entenderse y resulte elegante - y para que el libro no quede, como tantos libros traducidos, en la misma lengua extraña en que estaba..
Martí was much involved in writing for Spanish-speaking audiences about the assassination attempt and eventual death of President Garfield in 1881. Using several New York newspapers as sources, Martí took the basic accounts and translated them, but also added personal touches which in his view were necessary to convey the appropriate emotional tone to a Spanish-speaking audience. In so doing he showed his skill as a translator as well as his creative abilities as a journalist and author.
Martí was also a diplomat in his years in exile in New York, acting as consul for several Latin American countries and conducting their business in that city as well as at various conferences in Washington. He wrote for the major newspaper La Nación of Buenos Aires, and his candid commentaries for that paper during the 1889-1890 First Inter-American Conference in Washington provide a neat counterbalance to the dry official documentation. Martí obviously had access to behind-the-scenes sources (especially from the Argentine side), and his columns were sprinkled with almost gossipy references to what the various delegations said to (and about) each other in private. His commentary on the strains between the host US delegation and the aggressively independent Argentine delegation are especially illuminating.
The Spanish-American War ended approximately three years after his death. His best and most revered works were his books for children, La Edad de Oro ("The Golden Age") being the most widely read, and his poetry. Several of the verses from his collection of poems Versos Sencillos were later put to music as "Guantanamera," which has become one of Cuba's most recognizable melodies based on a traditional folk tune.
José Martí International Airport in Havana and the town Martí were named after this leader of Cuban independence, whilst many towns in Cuba have streets named after him. The José Martí Memorial dominates the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana.
José Martí Park, Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, contains a life-size statue of Martí. It is located on the site of the home of famous Afro-Cuban patriot Paulina Pedrosa, Martí's residence in Ybor City. It was here where Martí forgave the Spanish spy who tried to poison him. Martí Park and statue stand further down the block from the mammoth Ybor Cigar Factory complex, where from the ornate wrought iron porch, Martí urged cigar workers to join the fight against the Spanish dominating Cuba. The Park is technically Cuban soil, as it was purchased by Cuba in 1957. The Tampa Parks Department has confirmed this. (USF Oracle, 4/27). There is also a bust of Martí in Ybor City located in front of the Circulo Cubano (Cuban Club).
There is a memorial and bust of Martí on the Northeast corner of Bayview Park, in Key West, Florida, which bears the inscription, "THE CUBAN LIBERTY APOSTLE WISHED TO OFFER TO THE PEOPLE OF KEY WEST WHAT WAS LEFT OF HIS HEART. THIS MEMORIAL PERPETUATES HIS DESIRE."
Some believe that Martí and Carmen (Carmita) Miyares de Mantilla had a child in 1880 when he was separated from his wife. The child, María Mantilla, in turn had children, one of whom was the actor Cesar Romero.
Although it has been often attributed to other revolutionaries, Martí was the first to coin the quotation "Es mejor morir a pie que vivir arrodillado." i.e., "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees."
There is a rum called Martí, which is a Cuban style rum from the West Indies.
There are also schools named after Martí, including José Martí High School in Jamaica, built by the Cuban government as a gift to neighbouring island, and José Martí Middle School in Hialeah, FL where most students are Cuban-American.
Martí did not publish any books: only two notebooks (cuadernos) of verses, in editions outside of the market, and a few more; almost all of them political. The rest (an enormous amount) was left dispersed in numerous newspapers and magazines, in letters, in diaries and personal notes, in other unedited texts, in frequently improvised speeches, some lost forever. Five years after his death, the first volume of his Obras was published in 1900. A novel appeared in this collection in 1911: Amistad funesta, which Martí had made known was published under a pseudonym in 1885. In 1913, also in this edition, his third poetic collection that he had kept unedited: Vesos libres. His Diario de campaña came out a lot later, in 1941. Later still, in 1980 Ernesto Mejia Sanchez produced a set of about thirty of Martí's s articles written for the Mexican newspaper El Partido Liberal that hadn’t been collected in any of his so called Obras completas editions. From 1882-1891, Martí collaborated in the La Nación newspaper of Buenos Aires. His texts from La Nación have been collected in Anuario del centro de Estudios Martianos.
The first critical edition of Martí’s complete works began to appear in 1983 in José Martí: Obras completas. Edición crítica. The critical edition of his complete poems was published in 1985 in José Martí: Poesía completa. Edición critica.