The Periodical Patria and Racial Mobilization in the Last War for Cuban Independence

This post is a part of the “Race and Revolution” Series.

By Oleski Miranda Navarro

The use of periodicals to promote political reform proliferated in the nineteenth-century Americas. For example, in the early stages of the independence process in Venezuela, Simón Bolívar founded El Correo del Orinoco in 1818 and used it as a tool to address the need for a new form of government. Further to the south, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento founded El Progreso in 1842 while in exile in Chile. He used it as a platform to deliver his attacks against Juan Manuel de Rosas’ regime in Argentina. In the same tradition, José Martí established the publication Patria to act as an informative periodical that would deliver the ideas promoting Cuba’s liberation and contributed to the success and effectiveness of the Cuban Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Cubano or PRC). Founded by Martí on 14 March 1892, the periodical provided he and his colleagues the opportunity to disseminate their political agenda via essays and articles, such as Nuestras ideas (1892), Mi raza (1893) and El plato de lentejas (1894), with the intention of uniting Cubans and Cuban exiles in the fight for independence from colonial Spain. The mixture of heterogeneous interests within the publication ultimately yielded social and political movements that promoted an anti-colonial, inclusive national identity – one that relied on a new racial politics.

Front page of newspaper Patria.

Patria, begun during Martí’s exile in New York, was intended to be the pivotal ideological instrument for the construction of a multiracial identity needed for the new republic. In the inaugural essay, Nuestras ideas, published in March of 1892, Martí proposed racial integration while simultaneously justifying the launch of a revolutionary war as the solution to Cuba’s social and economic problems. Martí knew that hatred between races in Cuba had to be avoided, so from this standpoint he reiterated in Nuestras ideas that “the war is not against Spaniards but instead against Spain’s greed and inefficacy.”[1] Through his experiences in nations like Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, and the United States, Martí confirmed his perception that political emancipation alone did not guarantee inclusion or the harmony of complex national pluralities.

In an Atlantic context, a revolution for independence might emphasize the adverse situation of la raza de color or gente de color [2] – the Afro-Caribbean people who represented a third of the population of the island and who experienced various forms of enslavement, marginalization, and exclusion in Cuba.[3] In 1868, at the dawn of the Ten Years War, the dynamics of race relations on the island experienced a dramatic shift when Carlos Manuel de Céspedes freed his slaves and asked them to fight with him against Spain and slavery. Céspedes’ declaration paved the path for an unexpected development in Cuba, the insurgence of an armed independence movement with black soldiers fighting as free men. Throughout the course of the war (1868-1878), and in spite of the racial tensions and social contradictions that racial emancipation created, young blacks and mulattos ascended from privates to senior military figures, including historical Cuban revolutionary figures Antonio Maceo, his brother José Maceo, Flor Crombet, and Agustín Sánchez Cebreco. In 1878, eight years before Spain finally abolished slavery, Antonio Maceo had already achieved the rank of Major General of the mambí army. While the power acquired by black soldiers through their participation in the struggles that preceded the war of 1895 had a profound impact on Cuba’s population of color, the public role of black leaders also increased fear and racism within white elites and defenders of the colonial status quo. Martí addressed this fear among races in Mi raza, published in Patria in April of 1893, where he emphasized the vague precepts of the concept of race and the extent of social division it had created in Cuba. Martí envisioned overcoming racial fear by condemning the concept of race itself and instead promoting race-less nationalism in Cuban society.

In the shadow of the Haitian Revolution’s legacy, trepidation among whites and criollos led Spain to unsuccessfully stigmatize the anticolonial insurgency as a race war. By labeling the 1895 insurrection as a racial conflict, Spain intended to discourage potential support from some criollos on the island. However, propaganda generated by Spain to categorize the Guerra Necesaria as a racial conflict did not have the same response as in previous conflagrations.[4] Cuban society had experienced a number of social and political transformations that severely undermined Spanish hegemony on the island. Reforms after the truce of Zanjón allowed the constitution of political parties and awarded more press freedom, both detrimental to Spain’s capacity to shape and constrain public opinion.[5] Along with demographic changes, including the ‘whitening’ of the population due to more open immigration policies, nationalist sentiments emerged within an increasingly “Cuban” people. Between 1882 and 1894, an estimated 224,000 immigrants, mostly farmers and workers from the Spanish peninsula, reached the island, bringing with them the germs of anarchist and Marxist labor ideologies.[6] Finally, and in no way less important to the changes taking place in Cuban society at the time, was the fact that it had been nearly a decade since slavery had been abolished.

Thinking about the roles that different social groups should have in a free Cuba, the participation of la raza de color also became a priority in Martí’s political vision. The depiction of race relations Martí created in the article, El plato de lentejas, published in January of 1894, employs the idea of black participation in the revolution based on a filial attachment, where the Cuban nation is portrayed as the mother of all: “And when the flag of the revolution is again raised in Cuba, the black Cuban will hug the flag like a mother.”[7] The fervent approach to racial union he envisioned would only be validated by the idea that blacks perceive of themselves as sons of Cuba. This promoted the notion that nationality was beyond racial stigmas and that blacks and mulattos, being Cubans, would be able to obtain the same rights gained by white citizens in a free society. Much of the ideological prose promoted in the initial years of the newspaper Patria emerged challenging the racism that prevailed as the dominant ideology during the period and focused on constructing a new Cuban national identity. Martí understood that la raza de color was fighting more for equality in Cuba than for a national patriotism. Even though the insurgent movement promoted a conception of race-less nationality that was widely embraced by la raza de color, racial vindication was their primary revolutionary flag.

Oleski Miranda Navarro is a Visiting Professor of Spanish at Whitman College in Washington.  His most recent contribution “José Martí: A rendering of black issues in the United States,” appeared in the edited volume Syncing the Americas: José Martí and the New Modernity, published by Bucknell University Press in December of 2017.  

Title image: Herman Norman, Único retrato al óleo de José Martí pintado, 1925.

Further Reading:

Jorge Camacho, Miedo negro, poder blanco en la Cuba colonial, por Jorge Camacho (Madrid: Iberoamericana Vervuert, 2015).

Aline Helg, Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

Ada Ferrer, Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

Mauricio A Font and Alfonso W Quiroz, eds, The Cuban Republic and José Martí: Reception and Use of a National Symbol (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006).


[1] José Martí, ‘Nuestras ideas’, in Cuba, política y revolución I, 1869-1892, 26 vols. 315–22 (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1991), 321.

[2] Raza de color or gente de color was a term used at the time to encompass blacks, mulattos and African descendants of all classes and backgrounds. The term was promoted during the early 1890s in periodicals such as La Igualdad, which was directed by black intellectual Juan Gualberto Gómez. See Aline Helg, Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 40.

[3] By 1895, Afro Cuban descendants represented, 32 percent of the total Cuban population, estimated at the time in 1,650,000 inhabitants. See Aline Helg, ‘Sentido e impacto de la participación negra en la guerra de Cuba’, Revista de Indias, LVIII (1998), 47–63, 48.

[4] Ada Ferrer, Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 143.

[5] The Zanjón Treaty signed on the February 10 of 1878 put an end to the first war for Cuban independence known as   the Ten Years War (1868-1978). The Treaty forced Spain to grant freedom to all of the slaves who took part in the conflict.

[6] Benedict Anderson, Bajo tres banderas: anarquismo e imaginación anticolonial, trans. by Cristina Piña Aldao (Madrid: Akal Ediciones, 2008), 150.

[7] José Martí, ‘El plato de lentejas’, in Cuba, política y revolución III, 1894, 26 vols. 26–30 (La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1991), 30.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s