Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Myth of José Martí's Natural Daughter

It used to be that historians who believed that José Martí sired an illegitimate daughter would only insinuate it in their writings; a wise policy, all things considered, since they could produce no proof to sustain their imputations except "the frailty all flesh is heir to," from which Martí, they decided, could not be exempt; but, according to which supposition, any man, not just Martí, could fall under suspicion. Contemporary upholders of this myth, however, dispense with the qualifiers and state outright that Martí was his goddaughter's father. They still have no evidence, of course, to support their certitude on this score but are emboldened by generations of the same salacious speculation: a lie, with a rich patina, passes with them for the truth, not because they desire the truth but because this is the "truth" that they desire.

Martí was his goddaughter's father in every sense of the word except the one that they mean: he was not María Mantilla's biological father. There is no doubt that he loved Carmén Miyares' youngest daughter more than he loved anyone else on earth and few men have had as great a capacity for love as he did. Those who claim he was María's progenitor can charge him with no fault in her respect except not proclaiming to the world that she was a bastard, his bastard.

However much Martí's detractors assert that they are non-judgmental and morally neutral, they are, in fact, anything but fair arbiters precisely because their proudly professed indifference to "moral conventions" (i.e. morality) renders them incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong; and, therefore, they can neither acquit Martí nor condemn his supposed conduct. The accusation of aberrant behavior (aberrant, that is, to other people) is not softened because the accuser approves of such behavior or at least does not censure it; the accusation, if it is to any purpose, is intended to malign the accused even when every excuse is allowed him.

We have already discussed here the harm done by those who pretend to "humanize" Martí by dehumanizing him. We live in a peculiar time when noble acts mean nothing in judging a man's character and common frailties everything; when the sordid, the mean and the bestial are regarded as the best confirmation of a man's humanity. Fortunately, in Martí's life there is nothing that would reduce him to the level of his detractors, which, obviously, is an inducement to them to continue doing their worst. If Martí stood where they stand their exertions would be superfluous and Martí would be far less interesting to them. But as long as he is held up by some he is sure to be put down by others.

Here are the facts as we know them, which we owe largely to the investigations of Carlos Ripoll: José Martí arrived in New York as a political exile on January 3, 1880. He came alone. His wife and newborn son, then in Cuba, would join him within two months. He took lodgings at a boarding house owned and run by Carmen Miyares, who resided there with her husband Manuel Mantilla, a tobacco merchant, and their three young children. Martí lived with the Mantillas for exactly a year. There were other paying guests at the boarding house, including two Pinkerton detectives hired by the Spanish Consulate to document all of Martí's movements (these logs have survived). Martí used his rooms as both his living quarters and office. There he planned with Calixto García and other patriots a new insurrection in Cuba, and when General García embarked on an ill-fated expedition to the island, replaced him as president of the revolucionary council. The abrupt collapse of the uprising on García's capture by the Spanish left Martí with no compelling reason to remain in New York. At this time Martí supported himself by writing occasional articles in French for the New York Sun and The Hour; it was a precarious existence which gave little scope to his abilities and Martí decided to relocate to Venezuela against the wishes of both his wife and mother, who wanted him to return to Cuba. He carried with him, as practically his only stake, letters of recommendation from the Mantillas, who had family living there, including Carmen's first cousin Victoria Smith de Hamilton.

On January 6, 1881, two days before embarking for the "cradle of Latin American independence," Martí stood as godfather at the baptism of María Mantilla, born on November 28th, the fourth and last child of Carmen and Manuel. At the time of María's birth, no one questioned her paternity: the fact that Martí was chosen to be her godfather attests to his friendship with both father and mother and to the high esteem in which he was held by both. The logs of the Pinkerton agents who boarded in the Mantilla house do not record any irregularities in Martí's private conduct. On the contrary, the year he spent there was one of the few regular periods in Martí's life as he was able to reunite his family and resume his married life after the disruption caused by his deportation to Spain. What would have been highly irregular, and, indeed, self-destructive, would have been for Martí to embark on an affair with a married woman, under the very roof where her husband and his own wife lived, which, at the same time, was the focal point of the revolutionary movement, visited daily by conspirators and journalists, and, on top of everything else, under permanent surveillance by Pinkerton agents, whom Martí knew were trailing him though he was unaware how closely. Could any man have been so reckless, or so lucky? (To make things even more improbable, Martí's wife arrived at the Mantilla house exactly nine months before the birth of Carmen Mantilla's daughter).

Martí's stay in Venezuela was brief and even more disappointing than his previous attempts to settle in Mexico and Guatemala. Simply told, Martí refused to pay court to tyrants and there was no other avenue to success in "Nuestra America." That experience taught him that American freedom was more essential for his life's work than Latin conviviality. His six months in Venezuela also served to establish him as one of South America's most brilliant and honest journalists. From that time his work was sought by the continent's major newspapers and his name, if not so much his fortune, was made.

On his return to New York, in August 1881, Martí resumed residence as a lodger in the house of his now compadres. As soon as possible he sent for his wife and son, who were in Cuba still waiting to join him in Venezuela. The family was reunited in 1882 and established their own household in Brooklyn. When his wife returned to Cuba, for an extended stay that would last till 1890, Martí again boarded with the Mantillas, or, rather, with the widow and orphans, for Manuel Mantilla had died of heart failure on February 18, 1885. It was only after the death of the paterfamilias that Martí and Carmen Miyares' relationship was called into question, specifically, the propriety of a widow and a married man living together under the same roof even as landlady and tenant.

It was Victoria Smith de Hamilton who raised the first objection to this living arrangement in a letter written to her cousin in 1887. Martí took it upon himself to answer for Carmen. A copy of his reply was found among his papers and finally published in 1989. If it had been made known after Carmen Miyares' death in 1925, there would never have been any speculation that María Mantilla was Martí's daughter. Given Martí's unequivocal denials in that letter, it is inconceivable how anyone could assert that he was María Mantilla's father without at the same time branding him a liar, a false friend and a philanderer, not merely the wolf at the door but the wolf-in-residence.

Before the publication of the Martí-Smith letter there was some room for conjecture: Martí's letters to María, first published in Jorge Mañach's 1930 biography, Martí, El Apóstol, were so full of paternal love and solicitude that they left no doubt that Martí's goddaughter was the idol of his last years: Martí wrote to her that he wore her picture next to his heart as a talisman against bullets and even addressed her several times as "daughter."

This seemed sufficient prove of paternity to many and convinced more than a few of Cuba's most eminent martianos; and, it appears, that their authority, in turn, convinced María as well, who up to that time, that is, well into her 50s, had never suspected a thing. Although she never claimed or even hinted publicly that she was Martí's daughter, she was far more open in her correspondence with those Cuban historians; and shortly before her death, in 1962, even seriously considered making the long-postponed announcement. Her son, the actor César Romero, was not as reticent as his mother. He stated that he was Martí's grandson in numerous interviews (even in the lifetime of his mother) and at her death caused "María Martí" to be written on her headstone. In 2004, María's four granddaughters, carrying on the family tradition, now in its third generation, of besmirching Martí's name, visited Havana to obtain recognition from the Castro regime of María Mantilla's illegitimacy (or should that be non-recognition of her legitimacy?). In any case, they did not prevail with Castro any more than their grandmother did with Batista in 1953. One would think that the "Crown of Cuba" were in contention.

Carlos Ripoll, in commenting the following letter, observes that though it may be a disappointment to César Romero not be Martí's grandson, it should afford him some comfort to know that his mother was not a bastard and that his grandmother was an honest woman. And it should likewise be a consolation to all Cubans that Martí, the moral conscience of our nation, was not a moral reprobate.

Victoria: Carmita has shown me the letter you wrote her that makes reference to me. It is difficult to believe, Victoria, that a person of your tact and kindness, could have dispensed with the one and the other. As concerns me, I must tell you, Victoria, that I need hardly answer you. I have such an exalted and uncompromising sense of my own honor, so ingrained a habit of subordinating my interests and pleasure for the benefit of others, such profound adherence to justice and such confidence in myself, that I must beg you to excuse me if I am unnecessarily harsh; and let me assure you that neither my sense of honor, nor that of anyone whose misfortune it is to be associated with me, will ever have anything to fear from a breach of propriety on my part, nor have need of being watched over by anyone but me. I know how to suffer all, Victoria, and I would consider it, in plain Spanish, an act of villainy to deprive a good woman and her poor children of public respect on account of some amorous folly. I can affirm to you, since your perspicacity has not sufficed this time to understand my heart, that, whatever my circumstances and occupations, Carmita does not have a truer friend, nor one more zealous of her good reputation than me. Moreover, you should have no doubt that were it necessary she would know how to curb the unfeeling heart that would satisfy its desire or vanity at the expense of her children's future. Of Carmita, I have nothing to tell you; she knows how to take care of herself. Of myself, I cannot tell you much since I have neither the immodesty necessary to refer you to my life, which I have thus far maintained above the sway of both passions and men, and which for that reason enjoys a repute which I will not lose; nor have I the right to address to a lady such as you the disordered words which rush to the pen when one feels that his highest virtue is unrecognized. One observation I will allow myself to make. When read by a third party, such as myself, your letter to Carmita does not appear to have been written by a loving hand but one weighed down with anger: How is it possible, Victoria, when you are not that way, not in the least? Not only do you have the right but the duty to procure that no misfortune should befall Carmita; and if you suspect that she is in love with a poor married man, ill-prepared to extract great profits from life, you would do a commendable service by urging her to abandon this disadvantageous obsession. Of course, after taking into account her children's honor and her own, she is free to do whatever her heart deems best, and if she insisted on following such a course, it would be a misfortune but a respectable one, since she would not be selling herself to anyone for social position, protection or riches. If, in keeping with her years and benevolent disposition, she were to place no reins on her love but those that the world and her children could not see, and consecrate herself fruitlessly, sadly and in silence, to a love without recompense and to the loss of the happiness that might still await her -- this, from the standpoint of society, would be madness, as I know very well and constantly remind her; and if that were choice, I can assure you, she would always be absolutely free to act for herself and no attempt would ever be made to impede with impetuous appearances the solutions of tomorrow. These unspoken sorrows, Victoria, when they are well-borne, deserve from all lofty hearts the esteem and respect which are wanting in your letter.

And now, in respect to the rumors, what can I tell you? Neither Carmita nor I have taken a single step which she would not herself have taken naturally of her own accord if I had never lived; nor have I done anything else than what a degree of moral responsibility, or, pity, if you will, should inspire every good man to do for one in her situation and especially a close family friend, who is today no more than he was when Carmita's husband lived.

Let me repeat to you that I know how to deal with these matters: if any evil-minded person, resentful of the growing esteem with which she for her part and I for mine are surrounded, should suspect without any justification and against all appearances that she receives from me a favor that would stain her, that imputation, Victoria, would be one of those many acts of wickedness, not so ascribable or widespread as others, which wound mercilessly and for years on end people who are undoubtedly good and must endure them calmly.

Now it is time to say good-bye, Victoria. With all my heart -- and it is not a small heart -- I say this to you: If you suspect that Carmita intends to consecrate her life to me, I applaud you for desiring to dissuade her from a course where she would not reap dishonor, because it is impossible that she should find it at my side, but would, most assuredly, experience all kinds of sorrows and misfortunes. And if there is in this world any possibility of happiness for her, tell me and I will help her to secure it. But you do not have the right to suppose that what love obliges me to do for the wife of a man who esteemed me and for his orphan children is the unseemly payment for a token of love. Here, Victoria, lonely hearts live on a higher plane. Be tender, my friend, which is the only way to be good and to obtain what one seeks. I've written to you at such length because it pains me more that you should be unjust to Carmita than it does that you should be unjust to me, for I would not have presumed to occupy your attention for so long on my own behalf. -- José Martí

Victoria: Carmita me ha dado conocimiento de la carta que le escribe a V., y en que se refiere a mí. Es difícil, Victoria, que una persona de su tacto y bondad, haya sabido prescindir por completo de una [sic] y de otra. De mí, perdóneme que le diga que casi no tengo que responder a V. Tengo un sentido tan exaltado e intransigente de mi propio honor, un hábito tan arraigado de posponer todo interés y goce mío al beneficio ajeno, una costumbre tan profunda de la justicia, y una seguridad tal de mí mismo, que le ruego me perdone si soy necesariamente duro, asegurándole que ni mi decoro, ni el de quien por su desdicha esté relacionado conmigo, tendrá jamás nada que temer de mí, ni requiere más vigilancia que la propia mía . Yo sé padecer por todo, Victoria, y consideraría, en llano español, una vileza, quitar por ofuscaciones amorosas el respeto público a una mujer buena y a unos pobres niños. Puedo afirmar a V., ya que su perspicacia no le ha bastado esta vez a entender mi alma, que Carmita no tiene, sean cualesquiera mis sucesos y aficiones, un amigo más seguro, y más cuidadoso de su bien parecer que yo. Además, debe V. estar cierta de que ella sabría, en caso necesario, reprimir al corazón indelicado que por satisfacer deseos o vanidades tuviese en poco el porvenir de sus hijos. En el mundo, Victoria, hay muchos dolores que merecen respeto, y grandezas calladas, dignas de admiración.

De Carmita, pues, no le digo nada, que ella sabe cuidarse. Y de mí no le puedo decir mucho ya que no tengo ni la inmodestia necesaria para referirle a V. mi vida, que he mantenido hasta ahora por encima de las pasiones y de los hombres, y tiene por esto mismo fama que no he de perder; ni tengo el derecho de escribir a V. que es dama, las palabras alborotadas que como cuando uno se ve desconocido en su mayor virtud, me vienen a la pluma.

Una observación sí me he de permitir hacerle. Leída por un extraño, como yo, la carta de V. a Carmita no parece hecha de mano amorosa, sino muy cargada de encono: ¿cómo, Victoria, si V. no es así, sin duda? No sólo tiene V. el derecho, sino el deber, de procurar que no sea Carmita desventurada; y si sospecha V. que quiere a un hombre pobre, casado y poco preparado para sacar de la vida grandes ganancias, haría V. una obra recomendable urgiéndola a salir de esta afición desventajosa. Por supuesto que si, libre de hacer en su alma, salvo el decoro de sus hijos y el propio, lo que le pareciese bien, si insistiese en esto, sería un dolor, pero un dolor respetable, puesto que no se vendía a nadie por posición social, protección o riqueza, sino que, en la fuerza de su edad y de sus gracias, a la vez que no daba a su cariño más riendas que las que no pueden ver el mundo ni sus hijos, se consagrara sin fruto y en la tristeza y el silencio a un cariño sin recompensa, y a la privación de las alegrías que de otro modo pudieran todavía esperarla. Esto, mundanamente, sería una locura, como sé yo muy bien, y le digo a cada momento, y estoy seguro de que si así fuese el caso, se le dejaría siempre inflexiblemente en la más absoluta libertad de obrar por sí, y no se impediría jamás por apariencias impremeditadas de hoy las soluciones de mañana. Pero esas penas calladas, Victoria, merecen de toda alma levantada, cuando se lleven bien, una estimación y respeto que en su carta faltan.

Ahora, de murmuraciones, ¿qué le he de decir? Ni Carmita ni yo hemos dado un solo paso que no hubiera dado ella por su parte naturalmente, a no haber vivido yo, o que en el grado de responsabilidad moral, de piedad, si V. quiere, que su situación debe inspirar a todo hombre bueno, no hubiese debido hacer un amigo íntimo de la casa, que no es hoy más que lo que fue cuando vivía el esposo de Carmita.

Yo le repito que de esto sé cuidar yo: si alguna mala persona, que a juzgar por la estimación creciente de que ella por su parte y yo por la mía vivimos rodeados, sospecha sin justificación posible y contra toda apariencia que ella recibe de mí un favor que manche, ésa, Victoria, será una de tantas maldades, mucho menos imputables y propaladas que otras, que hieren sin compasión años enteros a personas indudablemente buenas, que las soportan en calma.

Ya es tiempo de decirle adiós, Victoria. Con toda el alma, y no la tengo pequeña, aplaudo que si sospecha que Carmita intenta consagrarme su vida, desee V. apartarla de un camino donde no recogerá deshonor, porque a mi lado no es posible que lo haya, pero sí todo género de angustias y desdichas. Y si en el mundo hay para ella una salida de felicidad, dígamela y yo la ayudaré en ella. Pero V. no tiene el derecho de suponer que lo que mi cariño me obligue a hacer por la mujer de un hombre que me estimó y sus hijos huérfanos es la paga indecorosa de un favor de amor. Por acá, Victoria, en estas almas solas, vivimos a otra altura. Sea tierna, amiga mía, que es la única manera de ser bueno y de lograr lo que se quiere.

He escrito a V. tanto, más porque me apena que sea injusta con Carmita, que por mí mismo, que no me hubiera yo atrevido a molestar en mí propio su atención por tanto tiempo. -- José Martí


The Myth of María Mantilla is our version of the Da Vinci Code: she is the "Cuban Holy Grail," the human vessel that carries the sacred blood of "him who should not have died." But just as the Da Vinci Code is a fantastical farce which appeals only to those who can dismiss all history in order to believe it, the Myth of María Mantilla is a patchwork of slander and innuendo which demands that its adherents unaquaint themselves with everything that is known about Martí so that they can embrace a dead woman's sentimental illusion and her heirs' neo-dynastic pretensions. That María and her descendants should wish to be related to Martí is not as culpable, however, as the propensity of certain martianos to accept and promote these spurious claims in spite of Martí's denials and the absurdity of the allegations.