Cuba’s “Apostle” desacralized:
melancholic aesthetics and
the specter of assembly in
José Martí: Eye of the Canary
Fernando Pérez’s José Martí: Eye of the Canary (2010) has been touted as the most noteworthy cinematic event in twenty-first century Cuba. The film’s melancholic aesthetics and portrayal of young Martí desacralize the nation’s “Apostle,” offering Cubans a more intimate and vulnerable Martí with whom to reckon. So, too, does it provocatively render Martí as a “dissident” who nonviolently cries out for rights to free speech and assembly.
Yet Afro-Cubans and Cuban women never truly inflect this cinematic project of a Cuba “with all and for the good of all.” Their bodies and desires never assemble nor speak out politically, and that absence renders Eye of the Canary a paradoxical cinematic text that pleads for but does not performatively enact democracy. This essay explores how the film differs from the myths and visual rhetoric that customarily shroud Martí and also how it is intriguingly in (and out of) touch with the assembly politics and non-violent protests that characterize much of the contemporary world.
Lovingly known as the Patria’s “Apostle,” José Martí is the most revered Cuban. So many things in Cuba testify to his status as national martyr and exemplary patriot:
- the busts in every schoolyard,
- his face on the most commonly used currency (1 peso),
- the larger-than-life statues throughout Havana,
- the yearly commemorations of his birth and his death,
- the symposia and seminars of the Center for José Martí Studies, and
- the numerous manuscripts published annually by or about Martí.
Yet what Martí symbolizes for Cubans was never easily discerned or without controversy. As Lillian Guerra (2006) has documented, Martí has as many interpretations as there are constituencies and agendas in the Cuban polity—on and beyond the island. Whether portrayed as literary virtuoso, magisterial orator, civic “maestro,” saintly martyr, or revolutionary militant, he seems to embody virtues and ideologies not easily reconciled, if at all. That his writings and speeches are not only prolific (i.e. no less than 25 volumes) but also poetic and aphoristic does not make matters easier. Indeed, it could be said that Martí is less a passion than he is, as José Lezama Lima (Velazco 2011, 126) once put it, a “mystery,” one that tirelessly haunts and hails Cubans.
This essay examines how Cuban cinema has approached that mystery and to what effect. In particular, I am interested in how Fernando Pérez’s José Martí: The Eye of the Canary (2010) takes up that topic. This is a film touted by critics as the most noteworthy cinematic event since the release of the Oscar-nominated Strawberry and Chocolate (1993). For example, critic Emilio Bejel (2012, 67) recalls the standing ovations and teary-eyed embraces that the film elicited in Cuban theaters. With religious language, Cuban poet Fina García Marruz (2011, 16) refers to the film as a “miracle,” as does philosopher Fernando Martínez Heredia, calling it “spiritual nourishment” (2011, 158).
Why has the film spoken so tenaciously to Cubans and how does it differ from the myths that customarily shroud Martí? One answer lies in its rendition of Martí as utterly human—a Martí “neither sanctified nor statue-fied,” as Joel del Río (2011, 128) nicely puts it. Indeed, for the first half of the film, the script presents Martí as a meek and introspective schoolboy warmly known as “Pepe”; only in the last quarter does he, as a seventeen-year-old pupil, bear any resemblance to the fiery orator and patriot Cubans have come to identify as their “Apostle.” Yet these attributes alone do not satisfactorily account for the film’s signifying power. For they do not address the film’s provocative pleas for democracy. For no idle choice does the film show Martí as a “dissident” and give him a closing scene while in jail. In particular, the rights of free speech and assembly are what are most viscerally staged and most emphatically at stake. In what is the film’s climactic scene, Martí cries out at his trial, “My right to speak has never existed!”
Indeed, Eye of the Canary conspicuously foregoes an epic tale of martyrs who fall in combat and, in its stead, foregrounds a civilly disobedient youth who cries out for rights to free speech and assembly. On the other hand, the script primarily foregrounds the voices and prerogatives of Cuba’s urban and white sons, who assemble politically and whose desires spell out the project of Cuba Libre. Never does the film show that project inflected by the intellects or desires of Afro-Cubans, Cuban women, or Cuba’s exploited workers. Thus, the filmmakers’ narrative choices call for closer scrutiny.
To explain the context of my inquiry into this film, and its importance, first I discuss Martí’s “sublime” death and its resonance within Cuba’s postwar republic and collective Cuban consciousness. I then read and historically contextualize The White Rose (1954) and Pages from Martí’s Diary (1971), the only other feature-length films on Martí. Lastly, I delve into Eye of the Canary, with an eye for what critical possibilities its “melancholic” aesthetics and “desacralized” portrayal of Martí have to offer as well as those possibilities it does not follow.
Martí and the iconography of death
Abdala, a fictional Nubian warrior in José Martí’s 1869 Abdala declaims:
“Nubia is victorious!
I die happy: death
Little does it matter, for I was able to save her…
Oh, how sweet it is to die when one dies
Struggling audaciously to defend the patria!”
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A classic account of that most “sublime” of secular loves, namely the love of Nation, Abdala was published in Martí’s periodical, Patria Libre, within the first year of what came to be known as the Ten Years’ War (1868-78). Martí was only sixteen-years-old when he wrote this play in poetic verse as a literary homage to the separatistsat war in Cuba’s far east, and he offered this romanticized call for others, too, to sacrifice their lives for the Patria. Such a desire for a patriotic “happy” death was not of course peculiar to Martí. At least two years before Abdala was written, fifty-year-old “Perucho” Figueredo, an Oriente lawyer and landowner, wrote the words and melody to what became (and remains) Cuba’s national anthem, la Bayamesa; in that anthem, the most routinely cited verse reads: “fear not a glorious death/for to die for one’s country is to live.” And not unlike Perucho, Martí would die his own “happy” death at the Battle of Dos Ríos in May 1895.
Yet Martí’s death hardly aroused happiness in Cuba’s collective consciousness. Three years later, the United States militarily intervened in Cuba (1898-1902, 1906-09) and left in its wake the Platt Amendment, a naval base in Guantánamo, and a “pseudo-Republic” friendly to U.S. investors and the mafia. That was a far cry from that republic “with all and for the good of all” that Martí had eloquently intoned. In terms of Cuban culture, Martí’s death came to signify the death of Cuba Libre itself. As one of the more popular songs of the early twentieth century, “Clave a Martí,” lamented:
“Martí no debió a morir
Ay de morir
Si fuera el maestro del día
Otro gallo cantaría
La patria se salvaría
Y Cuba sería feliz”
“Martí should not have died
Oh! Not have died
If he were the maestro of the day
A different story would be heard
The patria rescued
And happy would Cuba be”
As Bejel (2012, 92) has argued in Freudian terms, within Cuban culture Martí is no mere hero inasmuch as a “redeeming saint,” one who would have instituted that “moral republic” so eagerly anticipated by the wars of independence. As history proceeded, the unsavory reality of Cuba’s “republican” era made it such that Cubans did not mourn inasmuch as melancholically fixate on his death. Martí became that lost object from which Cubans could not (or would not!) effectively withdraw their “libidinal” attachments and by which, consciously or otherwise, they expressed their disenchantment with Cuban reality. Martí as such lived on a specter of what-could-have-been—and, thereby, of what-should-be. This may be precisely why his commemoration became obligatory. With the 1921 “Law that Glorifies the Apostle,” Martí’s birthday, January 28, was declared a national holiday. All municipalities were expected to name a street and erect a commemorative object (e.g. statue, plaque, etc.) in his honor, as were schoolchildren and citizens to collectively recite verses and offer tributes. However, as Guerra (2006, 34) has noted, such events and their objects do not commemorate inasmuch as police, however indecisively, what Martí can signify.
Indeed, anyone who wished to legitimize his or her bid for power has had to reckon with and skillfully enlist the aura of the “Maestro” or “Apostle.” This was the case whether one be a ruler or a rebel, whether a Fulgencio Batista or a Fidel Castro. For example, Batista, who came to power by coup in 1952, tried to capitalize on the symbolically rich year 1953, the centennial of Martí’s birth. For that, he sponsored commemorative events and projects, not least the famous Martí memorial in Revolution Plaza (formerly Civic Plaza) and the first feature-length film about Martí’s life: La rosa blanca (The White Rose.
Directed by the renowned Mexican filmmaker Emilio “el Indio” Fernández, La rosa blanca: momentos de la vida de José Martí (The White Rose) first screened in Havana in 1954. It is a two-hour, black-and-white biopic that projects Martí as gifted orator and devout patriot. He is brought to life by a handsome and respectable Roberto Cañedo who delivers one impassioned speech after the next. And while the film’s strictly chronological account is driven towards Martí’s climactic fall in Dos Ríos, it is mostly devoted to his life in exile and the personal agony and sacrifices he suffers for the sake of his beloved Patria. Low-angle close-ups of Martí’s face and scenes set in aristocratic homes, salons, and ballrooms are what stand out visually, just as all that Martí must forgo or disavow (i.e. women, family, career, etc.) are what stand out morally and politically. Martí is portrayed thus as an asexual, morally incorruptible statesmen who dies the death not of a warrior inasmuch as a saintly martyr.
Martí’s death was hardly in vain—at least insofar as the film frames it. The closing scene features the lowering of the Spanish flag at Havana’s El Morro, the military and ceremonial center of Spanish imperial power, and as a mambí bugler solemnly bellows, the Cuban flag comes to wave proudly. The entire scene overlays a faded still of Martí/Cañedo’s dead yet sober face. The viewer is thereby summoned to revere more than mourn or fixate Martí’s his death, for Cuba Libre has been metonymically (by the raised flag) rendered a consummate fact.
This belies history, of course. For it was the U.S. flag that soared in Havana 1898 and the U.S. Army that took credit for Cuba’s “liberation.” In fact, remarkably no Americans are seen in The White Rose, and only in a subdued tone and ephemeral scene does Martí refer to his many years in the “entrails of the monster.”
Even more ironically, in the same year The White Rose was filmed and edited under Batista’s auspices, Fidel Castro led his historic assault on the Moncada barracks of Santiago de Cuba, an act he would later say was “intellectually authored” by Martí (2007, 88-89). Notably, once in power, Castro would oversee the installation of Martí busts all over the island and cultivate awe for an anti-imperialist and internationalist Martí.
|Martí the fiery orator. Here in exile in 1890s New York, rousing crowds to donate to the cause of Cuba Libre.||The closing scene of La rosa blanca, with Martí’s spectral presence as the Cuban flag is hoisted at El Morro fort in Havana.|