The truth about the United States by José Martí

In Our America it is vital to know the truth about the United States. We should not exaggerate its faults purposely, out of a desire to deny it all virtue, nor should these faults be concealed or proclaimed as virtues.

There are no races; there are only the various modifications of man in details of form and habits, according to the conditions of climate and history in which he lives, which do not alter the identical and the essen tial. Superficial men — who have not explored human problems very thoroughly, or who cannot see from the heights of impartiality how all nations are boiling in the same stew pot, and how one finds in the structure and fabric of them all the same permanent duel between con struc tive unselfishness and iniquitous hate — are prone to amuse themselves by finding substantial variety between the egotistical Saxon and the egotistical Latin, the generous Saxon and the generous Latin, the Saxon bureaucrat and the Latin bureaucrat.

Both Latins and Saxons are equally capable of having virtues and defects; what does vary is the peculiar outcome of the different historical groups. In a nation of English, Dutch and Germans of similar background, no matter what their disagreements, perhaps fatal, brought upon them by the original separations between nobility and the common man who founded that nation together, and by the inevitable — and in the human species innate — hostility of greed and vanity brought about by aristocracies confronted with the law and self-denial revealed to them, one cannot explain the confusion of political customs and the melting pot of nations in which the conquistador’s needs permitted the native population to live.

With parricidal blindness the privileged class spawned by the Europeans is still barring the way to those frightened and diverse peoples.

A nation of strapping young men from the North, bred over the centuries to the sea and the snow and the virility aided by the perpetual defense of local freedom, cannot be like a tropical isle, docile and smiling, where the famished outgrowth of a backward and war- minded European people, descendants of a coarse and uncultured tribe, divided by hatred for an accommodating submission to rebellious virtue, work under contract for a government that practices political piracy. And also working under contract are those simple but vigorous Africans, whether vilified or rancorous, who from a frightful slavery and a sublime war have entered into citizenship with those who bought and sold them, and who, thanks to the dead of that sub­lime war, today greet as equals the ones who used to make them dance to the lash. Concerning the differences between Latins and Saxons, and the only way that comparisons can be drawn, one must study the conditions they may have shared.

It is a fact that in those Southern states of the American Union where there were Negro slaves, those Negroes were predominantly as arrogant, shiftless, helpless and merciless as the sons of Cuba would be under conditions of slavery. It is supinely ignorant and slightly infantile and blameworthy to refer to the United States and to the real or apparent conquests of one or more of its territories as one total nation, equally free and definitely conquered. Such a United States is a fraud and a delusion.

Between the shanties of Dakota and the virile and barbaric nation in process of growth there, and the cities of the East — sprawling, privileged, well-bred, sensual and unjust — lies an entire world. From the stone houses and the majestic freedom north of Schenectady, to the dismal resort of stilts south of St. Petersburg, lies another entire world. The clean and concerned people of the North are worlds apart from the choleric, poverty-stricken, broken, bitter, lackluster, loafing Southern shop keepers sitting on their cracker barrels. What the honest man should observe is precisely that it was not only impossible to fuse the elements of diverse tendency and origin out of which the United States was created, within a period of three centuries of life in common or of one century of political awareness, but that compulsory social inter­course exacerbates and accentuates their principal differences and turns the unnatural federation into a harsh state of violent conquest.

It is a quality of lesser people and of incompetent and gnawing envy, this pricking holes in manifest greatness and plainly denying it for some defect or other, or this going to great lengths of prediction, like some one brushing a speck of dust off the sun. But it is a matter of certification rather than of prophecy for anyone who observes how, in the United States, the reasons for unity are weakening, not solidifying; how the various localities are dividing and irritating national politics, not uniting with it; how democracy is being corrupted and diminished, not strengthened and saved from the hatred and wretchedness of monarchies.

Hatred and misery are posing a threat and being reborn, and the man who keeps this to himself instead of speaking out is not complying with his duty. He is not complying with his duty as a man, the obligation of knowing the truth and spreading it; nor with his duty as a good American who sees the continent’s peace and glory secure only in the frank and free development of its various native entities. As a son of Our America he is not fulfilling his obligations to prevent the peoples of Spanish blood from falling under the counsel of the smirking toga and the skittish interest, whether through ignorance or disillusionment or impatience, in the immoral and enervating servitude of a damaged and alien civilization.

In Our America it is imperative to know the truth about the United States.

Wrongs must be abhorred, whether or not they are ours. The good must not be hated merely because it is not ours. But it is worthless and irrational and cowardly for inefficient or inferior people to aspire to reach the stability of a foreign nation by roads other than those which brought security and order to the envied nation, through individual effort and the adaptation of human freedom to the forms required by the particular constitution of that nation. With some people, an excessive love for the North is the unwise, but easily explained, expression of such a lively and vehement desire for progress that they are blind to the fact that ideas, like trees, must come from deep roots and compatible soil in order to develop a firm footing and prosper, and that a newborn baby is not given the wisdom and maturity of age merely because one glues on its smooth face a mustache and a pair of side burns. Monsters are created that way, not Nations.

They have to live of themselves, and sweat through the heat. With other people, their Yankee mania is the innocent result of an occasional little leap of pleasure, much as a man judges the inner spirit of a home, and the souls who pray or die therein, by the smiles and luxury in the front parlor, or by the champagne and carnations on the banquet table. One must suffer, starve, work, love and study, even in vain, but with one’s own individual courage and freedom.

One must keep watch with the poor, weep with the destitute, abhor the brutality of wealth, live in both mansion and tenement, in the school’s reception hall and in its vestibule, in the gilt and jasper theater box and in the cold, bare wings. In this way a man can form opinions, with glimmers of reason, about the authoritarian and envious Republic and the growing materialism of the United States.

With other posthumous weaklings of Second Empire literary dandyism, or the false skeptics under whose mask of indifference there generally beats a heart of gold, the fashion is to scorn the indigenous, and more so. They cannot imagine greater elegance than to drink to the foreigner’s breeches and ideas, and to strut over the globe, proud as the pompom tail of the fondled lap dog. With still others it is like a subtle aristocracy which, publicly showing a preference for the fair-skinned as a natural and proper thing to do, tries to conceal its own humble half-breed origins, unaware that when one man brands another as a bastard, it is always a sign of his own illegitimacy.

There is no more certain announcement of a woman’s sins that when she shows contempt for sinners. It matters not whether the reason is impatience for freedom or the fear of it, moral sloth or a laughable aristocracy, political idealism or a recently acquired ingenuity — it is surely appropriate, and even urgent, to put before Our America the entire American truth, about the Saxon as well as the Latin, so that too much faith in foreign virtue will not weaken us in our for mative years with an unmotivated and baneful distrust of what is ours.

In a single war, the War of Secession, more concerned with whether the North or the South would predominate in the Republic than with abolishing slavery, the United States lost more men per capita than were lost in the same amount of time by all the Spanish republics of America put together, and its sons had been living under republicanism for three centuries in a country whose elements were less hostile than in any other.

More men were lost in the United States Civil War than in Mexico to victorious Chile in the naturally slow process of putting upon the surface of the New World, with nothing but the enterprise of popular instinct and the rhetorical apostolate of a glorious minority, the remote peoples of widespread nuclei and contrary races, where the rule of Spain had left all the rage and hypocrisy of theocracy, and all the indolence and suspicions of a prolonged servitude.

From the standpoint of justice and a legitimate social science it should be recognized that, in relation to the ready compliance of the one and the obstacles of the other, the North American character has gone downhill since the winning of independence, and is today less human and virile; whereas the Spanish-American character today is in all ways superior, in spite of its confusion and fatigue, to what it was when it began to emerge from the disorganized mass of grasping clergy, unskilled ideologists and ignorant or savage Indians. And to aid in the understanding of political reality in America, and to accompanyor correct with the calm force of fact, the ill-advised praise (pernicious when carried to extremes) of the North American character and political life, Patria is inaugurating, with today’s issue, a permanent section devoted to “Notes on the United States.” In it, we will print articles faithfully translated from the country’s earliest newspapers, without editorial comment or changes.

We will print no accounts of events revealing the crimes or accidental faults, possible in all nations, where none but the wretched spirit finds sustenance and contentment, but rather those structural qualities which, for their constancy and authority, demonstrate two useful truths to Our America: the crude, uneven and decadent character of the United States, and the continuous existence there of all the violence, discord, immorality and disorder blamed upon the peoples of Spanish America.

Martí, J. (2007) The José Martí Reader. Melbourne: Ocean Press.