Read José Martí for National Poetry Month (A Plea) by Emma Otheguy
While recovering from an illness in New York State’s Catskill Mountains, the nineteenth-century Cuban poet and independence leader José Martí wrote these words:
Mi verso es de un verde claro
y de un carmín encendido:
Mi verso es un ciervo herido
Que busca en el monte amparo.
My song is of the palest green
And the fieriest crimson:
My song is a wounded deer
That in the countryside, seeks safety.
It is not hard to imagine the palest green and the fieriest crimson as the colors of the mountains in springtime and autumn, as Beatriz Vidal has imagined them in her illustrations for our picture book Martí’s Song for Freedom. Nor is it hard for any lover of words and metaphor to empathize with José Martí’s sentiment in this stanza, with his understanding of poetry as the innermost part of the soul, where old wounds live, and where natural beauty is the only balm.
José Martí did not write these words in the Catskill Mountains by accident, he wrote them there because he lived in New York City, and the Catskills were the nearest and most accessible place to go for his convalescence. Today, a large statue of José Martí stands in New York City’s Central Park, and street musicians sing Martí’s poetry as lyrics to the song ‘Guantanamera.’ But most people walk right by the statue and assume that the words to this song are a Cuban thing, with nothing to do, nada que ver, with the United States. Of course, those people are wrong: José Martí lived many years of his short adult life here in the United States and wrote his most famous poetry in this country. Our ideas about what is ‘international’ and what is our own are often flawed. In the United States, our history and literary traditions are intertwined with Latin America (among others), and we do our young readers a disservice when we ignore this reality: who wouldn’t identify with José Martí’s words? Who has never felt like a wounded deer, who doesn’t crave safety and protection? Martí’s words are universal words, and they are American words.
I had two childhoods rich in poetry. One was at home, where José Martí was a mainstay along with several other Spanish and Latin American poets. My parents were both fond of quoting poetry, and there are certain phrases I always hear in my mother’s voice. The other childhood was at school, where I remember my fourth-grade teacher reading us Longfellow’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, learning to recite Robert Frost, and searching the binding of Shel Silverstein books to figure out where the sidewalk ends.
I was lucky to have had these two childhoods—but it would have been better to have one. Not ‘only’ one, but one whole life instead of two separate ones. Each of these reading lives enriched me, gave me an ear for the rhythms and the contours of the music in poetry, brought me closer to the adults in my life who shared poetry. But because there was so little give and take between these poetries, these childhoods, I learned along with the words a wrong lesson that became difficult to shake: the lesson that if I wanted to be accepted, I would have to become very skilled indeed at squeezing myself into white molds. I would have to learn how to leave my parents’ poetry at the door and pretend in school not to have this other person, this other cultural life outside. When friends came over to our house, I would steer them past my parents’ bedroom, so they wouldn’t see our statue of the Caridad del Cobre or the estampitas, the prayer cards tucked into my mother’s mirror. No one intentionally taught me to do this, but the enormous gulf between my household and what was represented in school, in any type of media, made it so that my friendships were predicated on my ability to be a chameleon: to operate by one set of rules and customs with my family and another with the institutions I encountered outside my family. If José Martí, the Caridad del Cobre, and the estampitas weren’t a deep dark secret, then surely someone would have talked about them at school.
Every child in the United States, regardless of race, language, or country of origin, brings with them a rich literary tradition that should be celebrated. Those traditions teach us not only about the world beyond our shores, but much more importantly, about our own worlds. After all, José Martí taught us to observe the structural flaws in the United States and absorb the wonder of our natural landscape.
There are a thousand ways we can give children one childhood instead of multiple separate childhoods, to create spaces where children do not have to become chameleons, skilled at switching and translating between cultures, to survive. One way to give children one childhood is to share poetry that reflects the multilingualism of our country. I translated a few of José Martí’s best-known stanzas for Martí’s Song for Freedom, and free bilingual poetry cards are available for download.
This is a plea: please slip some bilingual poetry into the pockets of kids this year, and then tell me if you do. I want to know that something is changing, that bilingual poetry is not relegated to one part of the year or one specific unit, but integrated with every aspect of kids’ lives. I want José Martí and Shel Silverstein in the very same breath, in the very same kid. I love the tradition of Poem in Your Pocket Day: these pocket-size poems remind me of the estampitas, those little cards that illuminate the mirrors and dashboards of so many Latinas in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. National Poetry Month is an opportunity for the sort of casual diversity that elevates marginalized voices to the mainstream. I think that acceptance comes with the poems. I think these poems will give kids one whole, rich, complete childhood.
Emma Otheguy is a children’s book author and historian. Her picture book debut, a biography of famed Cuban poet and independence leader José Martí, titled Martí’s Song for Freedom (Lee & Low Books), received five starred reviews and was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal and the New York Public Library. Otheguy is also the author of the forthcoming picture book Pope Francis (Bloomsbury 2018) as well as her debut middle-grade novel, Silver Meadows Summer (Knopf 2019). She will be a guest author for the Cuba volume of the Unicorn Rescue Society (Dutton). Otheguy lives in New York City with her husband.