By Abby Neiser
Prior to going to Cuba, I had learned that José Martí was the national hero of Cuba. I figured that he would be akin to what George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are here in the United States—pretty universally held in high regard and memorialized by a few statues and namesakes, but not much else. Driving from José Martí International Airport to our stay at the José Martí Institute for International Journalism, however, I realized just how much I had underestimated what “national hero” meant in the Cuban context. Countless buildings had busts of Martí outside them, and the massive memorial to him in the Plaza de la Revolución was just the grandest of the monuments dedicated to him. When we accidentally crashed a memorial recital for a late piano teacher, the gentleman running the event even projected a Martí quote and said that the esteemed writer himself must have been thinking of this teacher—whose lifespan undoubtedly did not overlap with his—when he wrote it. In short, Martí is so revered that it sometimes borders on being a bit overwhelming.
Martí’s claim to fame is being an important leader in fighting for independence from Spain. Yet, interestingly, Martí spent much of his life outside of Cuba and hardly spent any time on the battlefield (The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica). He was a Spanish-educated intellectual who mostly wrote from exile and who died within a month of trying his hand on the battlefield (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). While Martí was certainly important in promoting the independence cause, he is only really a hero on the emotional and intellectual front. So who was the leader on the battlefield, and how is he memorialized?
Antonio Maceo Grajales was born in 1845 to a mixed-race Venezuelan man and an Afro-Cuban woman (Rivera, 2007). For much of Maceo’s life, many Afro-Cubans were enslaved, something that would not change until 1886 (Knight & Levinson, 2020). At the age of 23, Maceo joined the independence army and quickly rose through the ranks (Rivera, 2007). In fact, it only took five years for Maceo to be promoted to general because of his skill and commitment to the cause (Antonio Maceo). As a leader, Maceo not only fought for Cuba’s freedom but also the freedom of all Cubans (Rivera, 2007). His resolve on this was so strong that he refused to sign El Pacto de Zanjón, which ended the first of three wars for independence, because it did not promise to abolish slavery (Rivera, 2007). Maceo believed that a new Cuban nation should uphold the equality of all men, and he practiced what he preached (Rivera, 2007).
Maceo is most famous for traveling over a thousand miles on horseback over the course of 92 days, during which he fended off 27 different encounters with the Spanish (Rivera, 2007). This gained him notoriety among both Cubans and Spaniards, and he was ultimately captured and killed in 1896, two years before Cuba would finally win its independence from Spain (Rivera, 2007). He is remembered for his fearlessness and resolve, and his ideal for the Cuban nation is still in the process of being realized over a century after his death. His heroism and importance are indisputable.
Though undoubtedly a crucial figure in the fight for Cuban independence, Maceo is not revered in the same way as Martí. He is certainly not disliked, but there is a clear disconnect between the regard in which Martí is held versus that of Maceo. The memorialization of Maceo is nowhere near as evident as the omnipresence of Martí in everyday life. Rather, to find Maceo’s grave, you must drive away from the city center, almost to the airport. His body rests in an unassuming park that was almost entirely empty when we visited it. Why is the remembrance of Maceo so understated compared to the remembrance of Martí?
Part of the answer lies in how Maceo ended up in this memorial in the first place. In 1899, he was exhumed to be reburied in the memorial grave (Black, 2020). Before being reinterred, anthropological “researchers” measured his bones to try to determine his ratio of African and European ancestry (Black, 2020). Rooted in pure pseudoscience, they “analyzed” his bones, particularly his skull, to determine that his body structure was more European than African (Black, 2020). This “discovery” made the celebration of Maceo more comfortable, as he could be seen as white rather than Afro-Cuban (Black, 2020). Nonetheless, as evidenced by the stark disparity between Maceo’s memory and that of other famous figures in Cuban history, there is undoubtedly still an uneasiness around his afro-cubanidad.
Race is a taboo topic in Cuba, particularly since the Revolution in 1959. In my own experience, it was considerably easier to find someone who will openly criticize the government than someone who will admit the existing racial inequalities. The fanaticism over Martí and other white Cuban figures such as the Castro brothers compared with the much more understated appreciation of Maceo and other important Afro-Cubans such as Nicolás Guillén are unspoken but telling reflections of how these disparities penetrate all aspects of life. This is not to say that Martí or either Castro were not important in shaping the Cuban nation as it is today but rather that many Afro-Cubans who are not nearly as recognized were also very important in that process. The comparison of how Maceo and Martí are remembered is just one example of why we should be critical of how history treats its most important figures.
Abby Neiser is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science and Spanish with a minor in Portuguese and a Certificate in Latin American Studies. During the summer of 2019, she studied abroad in Cuba as part of the Pitt in Cuba program. She is also the President of the Luso-Brazilian Student Association at Pitt. Abby is primarily interested in Latin American politics, international relations, social movements, and the intersection between politics and artistic expression. Upon graduating, she plans to pursue a career in public service or international relations.
Antonio Maceo. (n.d.). Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/maceo.html
Black, G. (2020, October 12). The Whitewashing of Black Genius. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-whitewashing-of-black-gen...
Knight, F. and S. Levinson. (2020, December 2). Cuba. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Cuba
Rivera, A. (2007, January 18). Antonio Maceo Grajales (1845-1896). Black Past. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/grajales-antonio-maceo-...
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2021, January 24). José Martí. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jose-Marti