Here’s another really incise comment from my friend, Luis Othoniel Rosa, whose words have been featured before on LLNB (Spanish-to-English translation by me, so if any of it is less than clear, it’s my fault):
“One of the great essays of Latin American criticism is titled, ‘Our America: The Art of Good Governance;’ it a marvelous close reading of (Cuban writer and patriot) José Martí by (cultural critic) Julio Ramos. Immediately upon contextualizing the brutal critique by Martí of the intellectuals of his time and of the global project to modernize, Ramos tells us that many decades ago, Martí constructed a new authority by means of the form and style of his writing: literature. Literature, according to this legitimizing strategy, was the discourse that could yet represent origin, the autochthonous, and all those margins that rationalizing languages, emblems of modernization, could not represent. That that sense, in Our America form itself fulfills a fundamental political function.’ This close reading of that little essay by Julio Ramos is so stunning, a subatomic microscope so badass that, as with fractals, it allows us to see a complete continent over centuries simply by observing the syntactic form of a baroque sentence. The ‘enigma’ of Latin America is that it has believed it found its good governance in aesthetics and (literary) style, the thing through which those exploited by the modern project will find their voice. And this truth is as beautiful (for those of us who love literature) as it is sinister, because we know that the aestheticizing of politics can have monstrous effects.” (My emphasis, not Luis’s.)
It would be an exaggeration to say the Our America is an antidote to our current political dysfunction. Any reader of this fine tract has to acknowledge that it is indeed, among other things, inseparable from political dysfunction. But if you haven’t read the essay (it’s available in a very readable translation), you’ll find it to be an eye-opening and timely take on the relationship between cultural discourse, political power and popular self-determination.
Martí’s genius works two ways: contemporaneously and retroactively. In his time, he admired US democracy, dreamed of a democratic revolution for Cuba, in the 19th century one of Spain’s last colonies, and successfully raised funds for the revolution in prosperous Cuban-American communities in Florida. This was, of course, prior to the Spanish-American war. But he also recognized how American power, emanating from popular culture, popular sentiment, and the sense in the United States of popular political entitlement, also presented a threat to the sovereignty of other American republics. The United States, he recognized, projected and perpetuated a belief in cultural superiority, and therefore a belief in the US’s natural superior capacity to govern, that was more than a little bit related to race. The idea and practice of cultural sovereignty, however, was essential to the effective self-governance of Latin American republics—one that recognized the legitimacy of all their citizens to contribute to governance.
Retroactively, that same brilliant approach to cultural sovereignty is also the foundation of Martí’s status as Cuba’s number one cultural icon. The thing all Cubans seem to be able to agree on is Marti’s transcendence. They know Martí first as a poet; he is even more the Great Cuban Poet than Walt Whitman is the Great American Poet. (The instantly identifiable Cuban song, “Guantanamera,” is based in part on Martí’s most famous poem.) For that very reason, Martí’s exceptional status is a source of both unity and division among Cubans, both on the island and in the US. United States culture really doesn’t have a single, transcendent icon—certainly not one in the form of a person—and less so in the form of a writer—that is so central to both its identity and its conflict.
As Ramos affirms, the unique transcendence of Martí is because he is both a creative writer and a political commentator. And because Martí is both product and foundation of a culture that regards governance and literary voice as integral. It’s something we in the US, at this particular moment, would do well to ponder.