Che Marti-ni: The Cuban Cocktail of National Heroes

Oh, the sweet taste of revolution. And martyr worship.

There’s no escaping Cuba’s two biggest icons. Revered, quoted and placed on pedestals/t-shirts, these tragical heroes loom large in the national psyche. They give impassioned words and a photogenic face to the struggle for independence that has characterized the country for centuries. One, you’ve heard of; actually, you’ve had him shoved down your throat by starry-eyed ultra-lefties. The other lurks in the dusty corners of used bookstores, in the syllabi of Latin American Studies courses; you’ve heard his words, but never his name. Until you land in Havana.

Che stencil I saw around in Berlin. In case you can't tell, Che's wearing a Che shirt.

Okay, okay, I’ll tell you. One is Che Guevara, the Argentine renegade who’s become synonymous with Cuba, guerilla warfare and revolutionary politics. He’s arguably the country’s biggest cultural export, and a ubiquitous presence within Cuba (hey, an atheist country’s gotta worship something). This is relatively unsurprising as a visitor; what’s more surprising is this fetish they’ve got for Jose Marti. You could call him the OG—he advocated and fought for Cuban liberation from Spain, calling on the same ideas of Latin American unity and anti-imperialism that Che later did. But when you actually start to read his essays and poems, you wonder why in hell you haven’t been inundated with Marti your whole life too (one answer: he shoulda swapped the funny moustache for a guerilla beard—far more flattering). Even more intriguing is what lies at the intersection of these two figures, and what they reveal about the country that adores them.

Jose Marti and Che Guevara share more than just a saintly status in the heart of a nation. The die-hard revolutionaries were both privileged boys of good education, who gave voice and garnered fame for the struggles of Cuba. Both were seasoned travelers; both had a vision of a unified Latin America free of imperialism; both died fighting battle for their cause, the cause of “the people.” Both pumped out enough good quotes to rival Mao, and both are exalted in the streets of Cuba. And both were, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, guided by feelings of love.

"Viva Che." Etched into the sidewalk in Berkeley. Spotted this on my Marti hunt this morning.

Jose Marti was a 19th-century Cuban-born revolutionary, poet, writer, thinker and traveler. His writings about the Cuban struggle for independence captured the culture in a way no one previously had, and his words served as the voice of a people. So much so that the first lines from his famed poems “Versos Sencillos” were adapted as the lyrics of Cuba’s most famous song and de facto anthem, “Guantanamera.” But what’s most interesting about Marti is how his writing has endured, and the ways it’s remained relevant.

Already a national hero, Marti’s anti-colonial, pro-America (Latin America, that is) ethos was invoked during Castro’s revolution. Castro framed his revolution as an extension of the one Marti fought and died for, and depending on your politics, it’s pretty easy to agree. What fueled all Marti’s work was a fierce defense of justice inspired by a complex and tender understanding of human nature. I won’t play lecturer and drag you through tedious citations, as the Marti Wikiquote page serves as evidence enough. But the famous poem “I Grow A White Rose” captures the Marti sentiment pretty well:

I grow a white rose
In July just as in January
For the sincere friend
Who gives me his frank hand.
And for the cruel man who pulls out of me
the heart with which I live,
I grow neither nettles nor thorns:
I grow a white rose.

Che cigarettes, purchased in Peru. Each cigarette had a tiny Che on it.

And then there’s Che. Aside from being charismatic and hot as hell (yeah, I said it), Che’s enduring legacy, I’d argue, comes from his compassion. Not necessarily for his enemies, but for the people, the struggle. Sure, he had the bad-ass lines like, “I would rather die standing than live life on my knees,” but he also came out with quotes like, “One must harden without ever losing tenderness.” It’s not just rebel girls that swoon at lines like these; a whole nation does. And that says a lot about them, wouldn’t you say?

You definitely get beaten over the head with the two in Cuba, a combo that will flatten you faster than a Cube Libre (not really). Che’s legacy does retain a little more depth here than in the rest of the world, where the commodification of Che is more depressing than consumerist Hot Topic punk. And to be fair, the elevation and exaltation of national poets isn’t purely a Cuban phenomenon, but a Latin American trait; Gabriela Mistral is also pictured on the currency of her native country, Chile. (Imagine paying for groceries with a Walt Whitman note.) Call it the Latin flair for passion, but it’s enough to make a US Creative Writing major weep.

Wheatpaste in London. Che's image composed of corporate logos.

Together, Che and Marti conspire to create a revealing picture of the Cuban culture and psyche: revolutionary, lyrical, learned, passionate, martyred. Both figures have been reduced, their lives and work co-opted for the purposes of others, commercial or otherwise. And while the world is oversaturated in Che juices, Marti remains little-known, a recluse of national monuments and smelly old bookstores. But the true picture, I think, lies somewhere between the two—between national fame and international obscurity, the commodification and the worship, the intrigue of an outsider and the love of a people.

I’ll end with a Marti poem I worked hard to bring you. I once owned a Marti collection; who knows who I lent it to or what move it got lost in. I remembered a poem that captured the intricate relationship between colonizer and colonized, and decided to find it. Google gave me nothing, so today I missioned to 3 book stores and 1 library. In a dim, 4th-floor corner of an independent bookstore, I finally found the poem, in the lone Marti book stuffed amid the over-packed shelves. I slyly photographed the pages with my phone, and transcribed them. As far as I know, this is the only available translation of “Little Prince” on the web. Enjoy. And keep fighting.

Little Prince

This party is for

A little prince.

He has long hair,

Soft blond hair

That hangs over

His white shoulders.

His eyes appear

To be black stars

That move like the wind,

Shine, quiver and give off sparks.

He is my crown,

My pillow and my spur.

My hand, that bridles

Horses and hyenas,

Goes where e’er he takes it.

When he frowns, I tremble.

If he complains,

My face, like a woman’s,

Turns white as snow,

Then red, as blood

Pours through my veins.

His pleasure causes

My blood to ebb and flow.

This party is for

A little prince.

/

Come, my gentleman;

Come this way.

Come, my tyrant,

Into this cave.

When he appears

Within my sight,

It seems a pale star

Casts its opal

Brilliance o’er all

In a dark cavern.

/

When he goes by

The shade acquires textures

Like the sun,

That wounds the blackest clouds.

Behold me, at arms,

In the struggle.

The prince wants me to fight again.

He is my crown,

My pillow and my spur.

And, just as the sun,

Breaking up the black clouds,

Turns shadows

into bands of colors,

When he touches the thick wave,

He embroiders

My red and violet

Battle colors there.

So, my master wants

To return to life?

Come, my gentleman;

Come this way.

Come, my tyrant,

Into this cave.

Let me offer life

To him, to him.

This party is for

A little prince.

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1 Response to “Che Marti-ni: The Cuban Cocktail of National Heroes”


  1. 1 Brian January 12, 2010 at 9:18 am

    Really like your writing and the stories you are sharing! Glad I came across your site.


Comments are currently closed.



Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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