MEXICO. D.F—Images come flooding back to mind of the most famous passages of our national hero’s stay in this country which, just as it was for him, has been a land of refuge for so many of the persecuted of this world. The images impact the visitor who, among so many beauties gathered in the historic center of the Mexican capital, comes across a plaque that reads: “In this Tlaxcala house lived José Martí. Lawyer, poet, fighter and National Hero of Cuba.”
After the inevitable shudder of excitement this produces, one looks around, seeking the answers that can only be found in the immensity of Martí’s life and work. The door to the house invites you in. My trembling legs advance as the profound mysteries that lie within beckon.
I do not fear, upon writing these lines, that some may consider them exaggerated. Every Cuban carries their own Martí within, and knows well how reading and learning about him, following his footsteps, can move one. Those who have stood before his tomb, in Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, will understand this sentiment, which appears as though his memory is speaking to us.
The beautiful interior patio of the house, located on San Ildefonso Street, – today home to the Tlaxcala state government – the two floors, the balconies adorned with the greenery of plants, and another inscription reads: “I know how to disappear, but my thoughts will never disappear…”; meet one’s eyes on entering. But for those of us who feel so close to Martí, our imagination takes hold, as we begin to envision him wandering through these spaces.
A bench invites me to sit down, to take in the surroundings and soak up the atmosphere.
Martí arrived here, where his friend Manuel Mercado lived, in July of 1894. This surprise visit soon became a brief stay. Martí fell ill and the family insisted that he leave the hotel where he was staying and stay in their home. Once he was fully recovered, Martí left to continue his travels.
But my imagination runs wild, and although this is not the house where Martí lived as an exile in Mexico from February, 1875, it is not difficult to picture his youth spent here. On arriving at Mexico City’s Buena Vista station, Martí was met by his father, Don Mariano, together with family friend, Mercado. Following a warm embrace after years of exile, the inevitable questions ensued. An eloquent silence informed him that his beloved sister Ana, aged just 19, whose portrait was painted by love-struck Mexican painter, Miguel Ocaranza, was no longer among the living.
Who knows in what spaces Martí cried the night he wrote the opening verses of his poem “Mis padres duermen” (My Parents Sleep), dedicated to his dead sister, who “managed to die without seeing it”: “It’s time to think. To think frightens, / When you carry your soul in your throat.”
Who could know of his struggles in these streets, passing by like lightning, moved by the many anxieties of his 22 years of age. Here he developed his politics, nurtured by a Mexico through which he entered an independent Latin America, and where this poet attended cultural gatherings, theaters, and learned of love.
This warm land was the inspiration for his play Amor con Amor se paga (Love is Repaid with Love), and also witnessed its premiere, in the presence of his family, who by then were established here, in a theater which was filled to the brim with pride. The rich cultural life that this city offered was new food for his poetic soul.
And Mexico served to imbue him with the certainty that it was necessary to find proper forms of government to solve the problems of American societies. It was in Mexico that Martí first expressed his concept of Latin American unity, when he wrote “If Europe were the brain, Our America would be the heart.”
This land was also the setting for his intense love affair. Here he wrote one of the most beautiful verses inspired by a woman, Carmen Zayas Bazán, from Camagüey. On seeing her, Martí felt as if in the presence of a divine being; he chose to marry her and she would be the future mother of his son, Ismaelillo.
One can imagine him writing here late at night, a time he referred to as: “the propitious friend of the verses”; as it was when he found the best creative environment.
Here he wrote for Revista Universal, a daily on politics, literature and commerce; El Socialista, the voice of the Gran Círculo de Obreros de México (Great Circle of Mexican Workers); El Federalista and El Eco de Ambos Mundos. His intellect would see him become part of the literary association, Liceo Hidalgo, and the Sociedad Alarcón, of which he was a leading member.
Today is May 19. On this date, as the history books tell us, Martí fell in combat, facing the sun and fighting for the freedom of Cuba. He was the island’s most universal son, and also a worthy son of the Americas. But his ideas live on, as those of us who seek his guiding light, in the unrest of the present, know well.