by Elizabeth Huergo
Experience cannot be communicated
without bonds of silence, concealment, distance.
José Martí, Cuban poet and statesman, was a voracious reader of Emerson. I like to imagine Martí reading “Self-Reliance” and in those pages finding solace from his long final exile in New York. Seen from the distance of years, Emerson writes, the journey of a thousand tacks is actually one straight line. “Your genuine action” in the world, he continues, “will explain itself and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing.” When Emerson died in 1882, Martí eulogized him as one who lived “face-to-face with Nature, as if all the earth were his home.” “His entire life,” Martí insisted, “was the dawn of a night of weddings.”
Emerson was home and honeymoon. The metaphors console; they shape a silent bridge for me, its gossamer spans extending across time, across the 90 miles of sea that separates Cuba and the U.S.: Martí reading Emerson, and me reading both in the hope of locating some part of myself buried for some 40 years, of expressing the silence that is exile.
The “thousand tacks” of Martí’s life form an instructive narrative in perseverance, one that reads less like the life of a mortal man than the life of the mythical Fisher King, the hero grievously wounded in the groin, the martyr who lives and dies for the sake of his people. Born to Spanish parents who immigrated to Cuba, Martí’s sense of social justice drove him to identify not with the colonizing power of Spain, to which he had every claim, but with the growing democratic movement that sought to sever those ties and establish itself as an independent nation. In January of 1869, Martí’s published essays eloquently gave voice to the growing Cuban nationalist movement. For this sin, the Spanish colonial authorities arrested, tried, and condemned him. They bound his ankles in chains and forced him to break rock in a deep quarry. He was 16.
The experience wounded him physically, would cause him a lifetime of pain, but it did not dissuade him. When, in 1871, he was granted clemency and deported to Spain, he continued to write political essays. He also attended university, eventually graduating with degrees in law and philosophy and letters. In 1874, he left Spain for Mexico City and, in the whirlwind span of about five years, worked as a teacher, journalist, and playwright; became engaged; returned surreptitiously to Cuba for two months under the name of “Julián Pérez”; departed for Guatemala; married Carmen Zayas-Bazán in Mexico; returned to Guatemala with his bride; and then witnessed the birth of his only son, José Francisco.
In September 1879, he was arrested again in Cuba for conspiring against the Spanish empire. The government deported him back to Spain, and he found himself alone, without wife and son. Undeterred, within three months, he was making his way through France en route to New York, where he arrived in January 1880 at a boarding house run by Carmen Miyares de Mantilla. In the spring, his wife and son arrived at the boarding house; by October they had both returned to Cuba; and in late November, Carmen Miryares de Mantilla gave birth to María Mantilla, probably Martí’s child, and certainly the woman who later gave birth to César Romero, one of Hollywood’s few Latin American leading men.
From 1880 to his death in 1895, Martí lived his life in exile in New York, travelling to Latin America occasionally, serving in diplomatic roles, and writing ceaselessly, describing U.S. culture and politics from what he termed “the belly of the monster,” for Latin American newspapers. On January 31st, 1895, Martí departed from New York for the last time and joined Máximo Gómez in Santo Domingo, where they launched the Second War of Cuban Independence. Maybe revolution is that simple: a handful of rebels taking on the Spanish empire, and the basic thrust of their political argument, the right of Cuba to be free and democratic, enduring for more than a century after their deaths, despite the internal turmoil fomented by competing empires, the U.S. included, that sought to quell those independence movements for the sake of their own narrow interests.
Despite his pacifist temperament and lack of military training, on May 19th, 1895, Martí led the charge at the Battle of Dos Rios, because (and today this sounds quaint, quixotic) it was the honorable thing to do. This poet and intellectual mounted his horse and launched his body into the fray. Afterwards, his comrades found his last and unfinished letter. In it he expressed his certainty that the Goliath of northern annexation would be defeated with rebel blood. “We will close that path with our blood,” he wrote. A few hours later, he died.
I admire anyone who can live and struggle with such deep-seated idealism; who can battle monsters while others laugh and see only windmills. Martí believed that the war for Cuban independence and an ingrained sense of nationalism would serve to thwart the desire of the U.S. to annex Cuba once the pro-nationalist rebels had done the brutal work of routing the Spaniards. He believed that it was his duty to fight for the independence of Cuba because Cuba’s independence, aside from having its own intrinsic value, would also stop the U.S. from colonizing the sovereign Central- and South-American territories that extend from its southern border. Martí was no late bloomer. He refused to conform and followed his heart at an extraordinarily young age, each “genuine action” he took leading in a karmic daisy-chain to the next, and the next—until eventually amplifying, swelling to the crescendo of an heroic life.
The nobility of Emerson’s words, the nobility of Martí’s actions console me, a late bloomer, a person who has felt the blunt force of history’s dislocations—for exile is a dislocation, the heart-felt sense that the trajectory of a life has been wounded grievously, irreparably. Fidel Castro descends from the Sierra Maestra, symbol and agent of a counter-revolution that itself springs from a nexus of social injustice, of foreign colonization, of empire driven by greed, and like so many others I lost my homeland, the trajectory of my life and the lives of my family shattered. From that point forward my primary culture and language would come to me in fragments—anecdotes and family tales told and told again; yellowed photographs; brittle telegrams; disembodied voices on wires popping with static, ancient voices that blessed and loved me, then disappeared, my child heart unable to understand what was invisible to my eye. Memory became sound, became the deep intervals of silence that followed, slipping through me. The day I was told my maternal grandmother had died, I strained to conjure in my mind not her image but the sound of her static-laden voice.
When I returned to my homeland for a brief visit in 1999, nearly 40 years after I had left in 1961, I understood palpably and for the first time the silent land mass (both space and sacred rite) concealed within me. I understood I could not continue to conform to my own fears. Nothing would alter the loss of my homeland. I would always be caught in between, like a sound suspended between mouth and ear, or the empty space that stretches between island and continent. I can never be wholly Cuban any more than I can ever be wholly estadounidense or “American” in that other jingoistic, chauvinistic sense that willfully renders my place in the world, my history and culture, a dark silent abyss. I am American in a much more inclusive sense: a Latin American who is also North American. Simple, isn’t it—this matter of identity reduced to an assertion?
It’s an assertion that took more than 40 years to put down in words because exile is a kind of perpetually liminal state, and thresholds (as myths and fairy tales insist) are frightening places where the greatest monsters lurk. It’s not that I resisted assimilation to one culture or another, but rather that that the deepest internal webbing of my soul could only reconcile itself genuinely to the threshold between the place lost and the place gained. I am in between, hybrid. This hard-won realization took decades to make manifest as a voice, as a form of writing. It was only through time and effort that the many tacks that shaped my life, all of which seemed so distorted, nonsensical, settled into a straight line. What I had been doing all my life, translating language and culture for my parents, writing, teaching—all of these made sense. I had persevered long enough that the thousand tacks of my life appeared to me as one straight line, and that line led me back to myself, led me back to those who came before me and sacrificed so much.
Elizabeth Huergo was born in Havana and immigrated to the US at an early age as a political refugee. A published poet and story writer, her first novel is The Death of Fidel Pérez (Unbridled Books 2013). More information is available on her author site at http://www.elizabethhuergo.com.