One hundred and sixty-seven years after his birth, José Martí is still an expanding universe. His immense, portentous work, still amazes for its innumerable nuances and teachings, for the depth and passion that unifies Cubans―and non-Cubans―from here and there, of all creeds, colors and ideologies.
It is not gratuitous praise or patriotic rhetoric to call him “the most universal of Cubans”―although by force of repeating it to many its real meaning is blurred―because that is what he precisely was: a man of universal significance who, with his mind on Cuba, gazed at and embraced the world, and recorded it in his very vast written work.
Quoted and revisited over and over again―not rarely uncritically or opportunistically―, Martí remains untouched by the passage of time. Both his brilliant poetry, which ranks him among the greatest Spanish-American writers of the 19th century, as his arduous and sacrificed political work, crowned with his death and that exalts him today as the National Hero of Cuba, would be enough to revere him. But they are joined by his outstanding and comprehensive journalism.
“The journalist must know, from the cloud to the microbe,” he wrote about his most constant profession, and he was able to fully fulfill that phrase. His splendid culture, forged since childhood, allowed him to address in his writings political, artistic, scientific and social issues equally; facts about Cuba, Latin America and the United States―where he spent most of his short and intense life―and also about the old Europe and distant Asia.
This, however, would not have been possible without his innate journalistic sensitivity, his insightful capacity for observation and analysis, his refined―but because of this not simple―writing, his proven pedagogical vocation, which allowed him to make available to his readers reviews of art exhibitions―such as that of impressionist painting―, writings on Latin American history and theater reviews, as well as chronicles on relevant events such as the Charleston earthquake and the process against the Chicago anarchists, articles for children such as The Golden Age, and portraits of figures as diverse as Darwin, Edison, Heredia, San Martín and Grant.
Since he started during his teenage years with El Diablo Cojuelo up to the culmination of his political journalism in Patria, Martí wrote hundreds of texts for newspapers and magazines in America and Europe. La Soberanía Nacional, from Spain; the Revista Universal, from Mexico; El Progreso, from Guatemala; La Opinión Nacional, from Venezuela; La República, from Honduras; and La Nación, from Argentina, were some of the media distinguished with his signature.
In the United States, and particularly in New York, his work as a journalist was extensive and notable, in publications such as La América―which he directed―, The Sun, La Revista Ilustrada, El Avisador Hispanoamericano, El Economista Americano and El Porvenir. His New York and North American scenes are among the most brilliant of his journalistic production and, I would say, of the entire press of his time. And they are, above all, because of their detailed descriptions, their emotional depth, their momentous writing, the accurate judgments that emerge in the narrative.
I thus leave you with one of them, published in El Economista Americano in October 1888 and dedicated to the newspaper sellers who he himself met in the Iron Babel, as an example of José Martí’s universal journalism. A journalism that, more than a century since it was written, continues to shine in times of Internet and increases the genius of its author.
New York Scenes: Newspaper Sellers
There is a father in New York who usually takes his five-year-old son to see how poor children fight for life; and as this is never seen better than when it comes to selling the evening newspapers, father and son usually go there holding hands, by Park Row, next to the Post Office, which is where most of the newspapers are―the Herald in its marble palace, already rickety next to the new buildings that surround and fade it; the World that in the hands of the Jew Pulitzer, and by force of Western money, is leaving the Herald behind; and the Times, with its clientele of bright people, and its new granite house, which they have built through the old one without moving for a single day the printing press or the newsroom; and the Tribune, in its brick monument, topped by the tallest tower in the city, as a symbol of its founder Horacio Greeley, who while he lived was among the tallest journalists; and the Sun, curled up in its old hovel next to the Tribune, biting its knees, spicy like champagne, as passionate as Aristophanes, mischievous and raw. ―That part is very busy during the day, as Park Row is at one end at the start of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the other on Broadway, where the Post Office, the Herald and St. Paul’s church look at each other, as in the corners of a triangle, located, with the cross at the top and the graves around it, in the business region: from the atrium wall, wrapped in a funeral mantle, a cinerary urn attends the procession of chariots, in which they run, bald and exalted, after fortune. But death is natural, and life is beautiful. See you tomorrow! It must be said upon death, and not goodbye! ―What seduces the eyes in Park Row, what the father wants the son to see, is the mob of orphaned children, twelve, ten, five years old like him, who with their dime in hand wait on the sidewalk in a row for the basement to open where the newspapers are put up for sale! They run down the stairs! One of them coming out from between the others’ legs! The departure of he who gets them and he who does not! Not being offended with the word, they help each other with the good deed! One has the desire to empty one’s pockets over them. That is the new Danae, the misfortune. He thrusts his fist to the sky, for not being able to turn the rain into gold. Father, oh God, for all orphans! Shoes, oh God, for all the barefoot! The father says to the son: “look.” And the boy’s eyes soften, and he buys lots of newspapers he still can’t read. If a penny is missing in the change, “let him take it, no, Dad?” So the man learns to be one: not like foolish and vile people, who are ashamed to be counted among the poor, or to be close to them.
And at the top of the city, at nightfall, the scene is the same. It’s time for the scoops, the latest news. The population is back in their homes. Which yacht came out the winner in the regatta?: which ballplayers won, those from New York, who have the batter who throws the ball farthest, or those from Chicago, whose champion is the first in the country, squatting out of the box, looking at the sky, to jump with the impetus of a dancer to catch the ball that comes like lightning through the air at the tip of his fingers? And what horse won the race? And how was he, they say he is dying, boxer John Sullivan, the biped beast of Apollonian body, gnawed inside from drinking so much, as the tinder gnaws fire? Here people are passionate about these things: balls, yachts, boxers, horses. Suddenly, at the foot of the elevated railway station, the “elevated” as they call it here, the poignant groups of kids agglomerate. Two policemen come with the club raised. The boys, quietly, line up. The newspaper vendor drops his bundle of a thousand newspapers at the foot of a lantern. And kneeling in the mud, starts counting by the light. The buyer waits anxiously, with outstretched hand. A dime, twenty newspapers: And starts running: “Extra, Extra!” He’s barefoot, his pants don’t cover his legs, no jacket, no hat. He sells his newspapers for a penny. ―And there you see the charitable boy, who gives half of his purchase to the neediest friend. And the pious, who gives two issues of his ten to a little angel who looks at him with sad eyes, with hes small round face, and the torn skirt, and the head in a scarf, and barefoot. And the entrepreneur is seen, already with an air of a wealthy man, who buys a dollar of newspapers when the pile is coming to an end, and then resells them as a prize to those who weren’t able to get any. Life begins there. And capital triumphs. Sometimes, while they wait, they leave the edge of the sidewalk. The policeman goes after them, club in hand. And they run off in different directions. Their naked heels shine, with the green light of the electric lantern, when they get lost shouting “Extra!” in the shadows.