Alfred J. López's new book, José Martí: A Revolutionary Life from University of Texas Press, is the first biography written about the polarizing Cuban revolutionary in over half a century and the first ever in English. For as academic a subject as Martí could be in the hands of a professor, López's historical narrative of the figure and his continued influence in the post-colonial Americas flows with the parabolic ease of exhaustive research.
A former professor at Florida International University, López currently instructs as professor of English and Comparative Literature at Purdue University. Though he was born in New York City to Cuban parents, López grew up in '70s Miami and has an irreverent, firsthand view of the Havana-Miami divide in pre- and post-Mariel South Florida.
Ahead of his panel at the Miami Book Fair International, "Alfred J. López on José Martí: A Revolutionary Life, Luis Martinez-Fernández on Revolutionary Cuba: A History and Alina García-Lapuerta on La Belle Créole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid and Paris," we got the chance to have an in-depth discussion on Martí, his global status, and Cuban-American identity.
New Times: Before we start, how do you feel being the only person in the panel without a hyphenated last name and what perspectives do your hyphen-savvy colleagues bring to the table?
Alfred López: Wow--never thought about that, actually. I suppose I could have had a hyphen somewhere if my parents had been into that kind of thing: "Alfred J. López-Meilan," I guess it would be. My full name is actually pretty preposterously long: Alfred John López Meilan Quintana Portomeñe. If they ever did a Princess Bride sequel, I could be a character -- Inigo Montoya's cousin, perhaps.
Appropriately enough, it's a very Cuba-centric panel. I actually met Luis Martinez-Fernández almost 20 years ago, when I was a starving young Ph.D. interviewing for a job at Rutgers. His book, A History of the Cuban Revolution, actually complements Martí quite well, given that both Batista and Castro positioned themselves, with varying degrees of cynicism, as Martí's rightful heir. Castro even calls Martí the Revolution's "autor intellectual." Plenty of us disagree with that claim, of course. But he's made it stick by building a very elaborate publishing and intellectual machine to disseminate it -- the Centro de Estudios Martianos, Casa de las Américas, and so on. I don't know García-Lapuerta, but her book looks fascinating. Martí was actually quite enamored of Paris and French culture himself. He met Victor Hugo and translated one of his stories, and is believed to have met Sarah Bernhardt. So even though her book focuses on an earlier period, there's definitely some overlap there, too.
This is the first major biography on Martí in over 50 years and the first ever in English; what first prompted you to write it and how confident are you of the statement: "José Martí is the most substantial examination of Martí's life and work ever published?"
I've been wanting to write this book for a long time. My little 2006 book on Martí was a sort of dress rehearsal for this one, in that it got me comfortable dipping my toes into a subject who fascinated and terrified me at the same time. And I don't mean "terrified" in just an academic sense, although ten years ago 19th century Cuban studies lay well beyond my own expertise. What made me put off the biography for about a decade was the conviction that I would be treading on what, for Cubans on the island and abroad, is holy ground. We're talking about a man who has been so beatified he seemed nearly unapproachable. I knew that to humanize him, as any responsible biography would have to do, would absolutely incur the wrath of many -- not just politicians and scholars, but Cubans generally speaking -- who are deeply invested in the saintly Martí, Cuba's national "apostle."
The content of what each of those groups doesn't want to hear can vary, but whatever their political disagreements, they have a mutual interest in keeping their idol untainted. It's no accident that no one has tried to do this before -- there are plenty of scholars far more accomplished than myself -- Carlos Ripoll, rest his soul, comes to mind -- who could and should have written this biography. I can't speak to their reasons for not doing it. But I wonder whether they pondered the aggravation they'd have to endure from certain angry corners; detractors, rushing to Martí's "defense." Maybe everyone else decided that a true Martí biography wasn't worth the hassle of dealing with the haters. Which is also partly why I dragged my own feet on it for so long.
For the record, I didn't write that statement -- someone at the press did that, or maybe one of the advance reviewers. But I think it's accurate, for one simple reason: It's the only book-length study of Martí that makes full use of the research and scholarship available on both sides of the Miami-Havana divide. In the history of Martí studies, it's a relatively recent development to find U.S. publications that cite or even acknowledge work from Cuba, despite the staggering amount of primary research Cuban scholars have produced on Martí. And the island Cubans are even worse in that regard -- even now, if you read books or journals published in Cuba, you'd never know that anyone in the U.S. or Canada had ever written a word about Martí.
So this is the first biography that actually incorporates material from both Cuba and the U.S. And I didn't even have to go to Cuba to do it -- the library at FIU has a staggering amount of Cuba-published work, it even outdoes the New York Public Library (NYPL), where I also spent a lot of time. But the NYPL and places like it have nothing on FIU's Special Collections on Cuba. The stuff has been sitting there all along, but no one else had ever bothered with it.
How did you map your research out and what makes it stand out against the numerous Spanish language volumes that have been published before?
Researching this book took a lot longer than any of the others, mostly because I had no real expertise in Martí or Cuba, or really 19th century Latin America, when I started out. So I needed to find financial support -- grant money for travel, time off from teaching -- in order to do it at all. That took time, because I had to get a certain amount of research under my belt before I could even apply for support. And because I wanted this to be a trade book that reached people beyond the usual academic suspects, I also had to get an agent, which also took a good while. So it's been a real grind, but I really believed in the project and was willing to run the gauntlet to make it happen.
As far as Spanish-language books go, I'm not so much competing with them as building from what they've already achieved. But I'm also bringing much U.S.-based scholarship to the project, as well as a larger sense of Martí's importance beyond Cuba, for Latin America more broadly and especially Latinos in the U.S. That's what's been missing in all the hundreds of volumes published about Martí: the idea that you should be talking to an audience beyond your own academic circles or even regular readers in your own country or region. This is the first book that tries to do that, and I'm pretty happy with the result.
You've had an interest in the Cuban Diaspora, academically, for a long time. How do you marry your passion for Cuban history and literature with the fact that you weren't born on the island?
It's actually because I'm not in Cuba, or even in Miami, that I could write this book at all. Because to humanize Martí you have to remove -- exhume him, really -- from the language of ideology and secular sainthood that he's been entombed in pretty much since he died. And for me to do that, I had to be physically away from the places most symbolically invested in keeping him that way -- Cuba and Miami.
What does West Lafayette have that Miami doesn't without having to discuss salaries between FIU and Purdue? And inversely, what do you miss most from Miami?
Well, how I got to Indiana is a long story best left for another time. But, and I assume you're talking about this book here, aside from the distance I've mentioned, Purdue has been very generous in their support of this project. Not that FIU wouldn't have been, but Purdue operates on a whole 'nother level in terms of research and resources. That's another reason that this book may never have happened if I were still at FIU. On a more personal level, I'd rather talk about West Lafayette in terms of what it doesn't have --traffic, pollution, gangs, crack houses, stupendously crooked politicians, overpriced everything. When I come to Miami these days I'm a tourist, and I think I like the place better that way.
I actually miss very little about Miami, because the Miami I really do miss doesn't exist anymore. I grew up there in the '70s, which in Miami-years is an eternity. Almost all of the places to which I had any emotional connection growing up -- my old neighborhood, parks, restaurants, the bar where I had my first underage drink -- are long gone, and I'm not a fan of most of what's replaced them. So present-day Miami has zero emotional pull for me, even though I travel here quite a bit.
What is your honest opinion concerning "sentirse Cubano?" We've already reached a point where the first generation has died off and it is now the grand and great-grandchildren children who stand as torch bearers awaiting the fall of the regime and how important is Martí to them presently?
Well, right -- the whole question of Cubanness only really exists for Cuban-Americans. In my experience post-Mariel Cubans don't give the first fuck about any of it. On the one hand, most of them never stop thinking of themselves as Cubans, so they don't suffer that existential angst that comes with, as Pérez Firmat calls it, "life on the hyphen." On the other hand, they also don't really much care when the regime falls, or whether it does at all -- they're out of there and that's good enough.
As for the original diaspora, we're up to the 4th generation now -- the grandchildren of the 1959-1960 exiles are now old enough to have kids. What historically happens to any immigrant population also applies here: The attachment to the "home" country fades over the generations, so that by now we have what I guess you could call CINOs -- Cubans In Name Only. My own kids, who have grown up away from Miami, speak hardly any Spanish and think of Cubans as their dad's people, not theirs. But that's also the case for most of the third-generation kids even in Miami; by now they just think of themselves as Americans, and don't even have much sense of themselves as "ethnic" unless they go live somewhere else. And they certainly don't much care about "el tirano" or "the regime" -- they just want to know who J-Lo is going to marry next or whatever.
Speaking of the regime, how exactly did Martí become such a powerful tool for the subjugation/brainwashing of the Cuban people?
That's a long story, and there's been plenty of really good scholarship documenting that history. The short, condensed, very incomplete version is that starting in the 1930s -- coinciding more or less with the rescinding of the infamous Platt Amendment that made Cuba basically a U.S. territory -- Cubans rediscovered and starting embracing Martí as in effect their greatest national hero. Not coincidentally, the first "boom" in Martí publications happens in the 1930s, including the first relatively serious biography -- that was Jorge Mañach's Martí, El Apostol. And of course every Cuban politician worth his congrí saw aligning oneself rhetorically with Martí, regardless of one's own political orientation, was the way to gain credibility with the public. Since the 1930s Martí has been a staple of every Cuban administration's official discourse. Shortly after his coup in 1952, Batista milked the Martí centennial for all it was worth, with massive public works such as the Martí monument, a tremendous centennial celebration, book prizes, and so on. And all of it was for political ends -- aligning Batista as much as possible with the public memory of Martí. So to people who, rightly, get indignant over what Ripoll called the "distortions" of Martí by the Castro regime, I say that Fidel didn't invent the Martí political scam -- he just perfected it.
What was the true spirit of "revolution" in Martí's time and how has it fared since his passing?
I don't think there was any such thing as a single "spirit" of revolution even then. Martí's political genius, which I document in the book, was to fashion a working coalition out of incredibly disparate factions that in some cases were actually working toward different ends. The solidarity among groups was quite fragile, as it was even among the three primary leaders. Martí never persuaded Antonio Maceo, for instance, that Cuba's first government should be civilian-led; Maceo insisted to the end on a military-style junta and slow transition to civilian rule, while Gómez sided with Martí but on some level sympathized with Maceo's ideas.
Racism also remained a huge problem among some factions, and a wedge issue that Spain had exploited for centuries. What happened upon Martí's death, of course, is that his very fragile coalition more or less came apart and people resumed many of the feuds they had temporarily suspended for the sake of the war against Spain. And as I've already hinted at, the concepts of "revolution" and "patria" have proven very malleable for generations of Cuban leaders -- all fashioning "Martís" to fit their own ends and imperatives.
And now the eternal question about his death, historical accuracy or historical fiction, retconned for political purposes?
Definitely the latter. In fact, if there's going to be any real "controversy" surrounding this book, it will probably center around Martí. As I explain in the book, there is very little about Martí's death that we know with any certainty, beyond the fact that he was shot off his horse. The rest of what we "know" is actually the narrative, which Máximo Gómez and others circulated, of his heroic death and martyrdom -- a story that, not coincidentally, absolves Gómez of any blame. Without getting into too much detail here, I use several pieces of circumstantial evidence, including weather reports and topographical studies of the site of Martí's final battle, to show that it is physically impossible for Martí -- who was not an experienced horseman -- to have, as Gómez claimed, been left behind at camp, only to traverse several miles and cross a rain-swollen river on an unfamiliar horse and end up several hundred yards ahead of a bunch of experienced riders.
There are several eyewitness accounts of Martí's death that to some degree or other contradict Gómez's story. I don't know exactly how Martí came to the place where he was killed -- I don't think we will ever know with any certainty. But the available evidence strongly suggests that Gómez's account, which most biographies happily repeat, is at least partly a fabrication.
Is there any aspect of Martí's life that you'd like to go over and explore again, perhaps under the different light of publishing this work and releasing it to the world?
At least one: Martí's emotional, very difficult relationship with Antonio Maceo. His relationship with Gómez was also complex and far from easygoing, as I document in the book. But because the biography is very much event and plot-driven, and because Martí and Maceo spent relatively little time actually together, I don't have the opportunity to do very much with them. That's partly why my next project will be a biography of Maceo --maybe a different approach to that book will allow me to finally do that. Until then, I'll just have to live with the book I've got.
Alfred J. López on José Martí: A Revolutionary Life, Luis Martinez-Fernández on Revolutionary Cuba: A History and Alina García-Lapuerta on La Belle Créole: The Cuban Countess Who Captivated Havana, Madrid and Paris at 10 a.m. on Saturday, November 22 at Room 8303, Bldg. 8, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami. Free admission. Call 305-237-3258 or visit miamibookfair.com.
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.