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Our America Essay

University of Toronto

Antonia Lilie

José Martí (1891): “Nuestra América“, in: La Revista Ilustrada, New York: 1891.

José Martí‘s article „Nuestra América“ was published in 1891 in New York as a direct response to the First Pan - American Conference that took place from January 20 to April 27 1890. The conference was a first attempt to establish a diplomatic relationship between North and Latin America and was crucial for Martí‘s idea of a Pan - Latin American culture. As the objective of the conference was the establishment of Pan - Americanism as a new way of interaction between the two hemispheres, José Martí tried to oppose this concept by emphasizing the opposition of the United States and “Our America“. He himself saw this conference as a key to successful inter - American relations and wanted it to be based on realism, knowledge of each other, and mutual respect.

Martí‘s essay is the reaction to a complex situation in his home country Cuba: Still under Spanish occupation, Cuba was struggling hard to become independent from Europe, while also fighting the potential threat of its neighbour North America. After the U.S. had successfully taken over California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Utah as well as parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Kansas from its neighbour Mexico, it seemed to be more and more interested in Cuba as another addition to its territory, especially because it was also a state of slavery. Since many Cubans had African origins the U.S. - American government was concerned that a Cuban victory over Spain would lead to a black and white republic without white dominance. However, this fact did not stop the United States from exploring new markets and regarding Cuba as a potential target for more expansion.

In addition to this threat from Cuba‘s North American neighbour it was still trying to liberate itself from its colonizer Europe. After the Grito de Yara in 1868, the first declaration of independence, Cuba was at war with Spain for ten years, which very much helped it to form a distinctive Cuban identity, but also had deep impacts on its economy. In the Paz de Zanjón (Peace of Zanjón) Spain tried to make some minor concessions that were rejected by the rebels. José Martí then founded the Revolutionary Party of Cuba in 1892 and mobilized Cuba to rise again against Spain in 1895.

This is the situation in which José Martí wrote his famous essay “Nuestra América“. He tries to create a Pan - Latin American identity and to liberate Latin America from the oppression through its powerful neighbour North America and the former colonizer Europe. The article is addressed to his own people, especially Cuban intellectuals living in exile, as a call for unity and common identity, but also to Europe and the United States.

To emphasize his idea of a united America he uses different approaches. He tries to distinguish America and its unique culture from its European colonizers by pointing out the characteristics of America‘s culture and population: from the hybrid identity of Latin America a “new real man“ emerges. Special attention is drawn to the youth and their obligation and chance to create a new spirit and identity within the Latin American community. An often repeated opposition in Martí‘s article is the European post-enlightenment philosophy on the one side and the American “natural man“ on the other. It is something so unique about Latin America that it even distinguishes it from its neighbour North America. Another approach Martí uses in order to define a Latin American identity is giving a negative picture of the two intruders as being despotic, perverse, premature and treacherous and, to put it in Edward Said‘s words, “other“ them.

Describing an ideal Latin American community of friendly neighbours interacting with one another, building a common identity upon their shared history and liberating the continent from both European and North American intervention is Martí‘s overall intention. To give such a negative picture of the two intruders is a way of dissociating Latin America from any foreign influence, as was Cuba‘s attempt at that time.


Guest post by Kahlil Chaar-Pérez, College Fellow in Spanish, Harvard University

For more than a century, Cuban revolutionary and writer José Martí (1853-1895) has been viewed as a foundational, almost sacred figure in the pantheon of Latin American intellectual history. To this day, Cubans living both in the island and in exile continue to take pointed positions over where Cuba’s “apostle,” as he is popularly called, would stand in relation to Fidel Castro’s Third Worldist brand of communism: one side highlights Martí’s repudiation of authoritarianism and his defense of individual liberties, while the other underscores his condemnation of US imperialism and his support for social equality.  Meanwhile, Martí holds a significant place in the Latin American canon of literature and sociopolitical thought.  The continuing fascination with Martí among Latin American scholars is rooted, on one hand, in his status as a post-romantic polymath who navigated the fluid, conflicted borders between literature and politics, popular journalism and high culture, and the US and Latin America, and, on the other, to his self-fashioning as a man of patriotic self-abnegation in his pursuit of Cuban independence and Latin American sovereignty (the fact that he died, in martyr-like fashion, facing the Spanish army, of course adds to this mystique).

Aside from Spanish colonialism, what worried Martí the most was, as he put it in his most famous essay “Our America” (1892), the northern “tiger.” Martí thought that US expansionism represented the Spanish American republics’ “greatest danger,” which in his view were torn by “the arrogance of the capital cities, the blind triumph of the scorned peasants, the excessive importation of foreign ideas and formulas, the wicked and impolitic disdain for the native race.”  In Martí’s utopian vision, the solution to this dilemma lied in Latin American autocthony, in engaging with the local world of Latin America’s “natural men,” teaching “the history of America from the Incas to the present tradition” and cultivating what he called “our own Greece,” all from an anti-racist creed that preached that “there are no races.” The origins of Martí’s creed of “continental unity” can be traced back to the Spanish American Wars of Independence, when Venezuelan general Simón Bolívar proposed the creation of a Spanish American republic that unified the former colonies (in contemporary Latin America, Hugo Chávez sought to resurrect this ideal alongside other left-wing populist presidents, from Evo Morales in Bolivia to Rafael Correa in Ecuador).

Martí’s utopia of a truly independent, socially harmonious Latin America was articulated through a dichotomy that represented negatively not only the US government, but also Anglo-American culture.  In journalistic sketches published widely in Latin American newspapers, such as “Coney Island,” Martí relentlessly excoriated the greed and moral corruption he perceived in the United States and particularly in New York City, where he lived in political exile for most of the 1880s and early 1890s.  His tone grew more acerbic as his plans for revolution intensified; one key reason for this was his suspicion that US would intervene in Cuban affairs if it sought political independence (Martí’s correct hunch was based not only in that US capitalists possessed key investments in Cuba, but also in that many plantation owners and merchants in the island supported annexation).  In one of the many pamphlets he wrote in Patria, the Cuban Revolutionary Party official organ printed in New York City, Martí attacked US society for having “no bond other than that of interests,” as a place of “sordidness and bestiality” (“A la raíz”).  

The irony of this narrative is that, even as Martí argued for an autochtonous Latin American identity separate from the tiger of the North, his work cannot be separated from the very culture he eviscerated in his most intense moments of political fervor.  Martí held a sustained dialogue with a varied US literary and sociopolitical tradition, writing extensively and often admiringly on figures ranging from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to Walt Whitman and Ralph Emerson.  In addition, he wrote and translated articles for Anglophone newspapers such as The New York Sun (interestingly, he also translated Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona into Spanish).  As Laura Lomas points out in her fascinating book on Martí as a Latino intellectual, Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities, in the last two decades American Studies and Latina/o Studies scholars have incorporated Martí as an “interlocutor and as a reader of North American cultural and political texts” (65).

But Lomas also emphasizes the importance of understanding Martí’s difference as a Cuban living in political exile, as “a translator inside the empire’s belly” (13).  Indeed, Martí’s ruminations on wide-ranging issues such as the myth of Billy the Kid, the Haymarket riot, the Knights of Labor, and the Pan-American Conference, show us a critical glimpse into US affairs and how the growing communities of Latin American origin in the US viewed such affairs and related to them, from a transnational, intercultural lens.  In mapping these relations (and tensions), across spaces, cultures and time, and in delineating how they travel (if in fact they do) inside and outside the US, the work of scholars like Lomas and Kirsten Silva Gruesz, who wrote the groundbreaking Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing, can help us reflect not only on the meanings of Latina/o cultures and their history, but US intellectual history itself as an hemispheric enterprise, the utopian vision of a “continental” relationality.

Tags: .USIH Blog, guest post, Kahlil Chaar-Pérez

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