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Sotomayor, Race and the Legacy of José Martí

Created: 14 August, 2009
Updated: 13 September, 2023
4 min read

— José Martí

 In recent weeks it seems as if the dreaded race card has become the race billboard. Questions of “race,” with or without the scare quotes, surface everywhere. The genteel discretions of old, walking on eggshells around a “difficult” topic, have vanished, and the topic is on everyone’s lips, from the halls of Congress to the street corners of my barrio in Manhattan. Justice may be blind, but the world in which justice is carried out is all eyes, and many of those eyes have been focused on the nomination and now the confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and on her identity as a Latina.

 In the past several weeks, many of us Latinos and Latinas have considered Sotomayor as our nominee, the pride of the Bronx, who can out-judge King Solomon. For others, she has been depicted as the product of the identity politics of the 1970s, her moral compass guided, and flawed, by her self-identification as a Latina. People have a right to their opinion, but it is short-sighted, if not downright ignorant, to suggest that the ideas of Judge Sotomayor are solely the product of the identity politics of the 1970s.

 The fact is that the anti-racist ideas of Sotomayor and of many Latinos and Latinas today are the heirs of late nineteenth century debates carried out right here in New York, among Latin people from the entire hemisphere. José Martí, Cuban poet and independence leader, published a synthesis of this debate in April 1893, in a journal called Patria, founded by pro-independence Cubans and Puerto Ricans in New York. The title of the essay was “My Race.”

 Martí was a master of a rich, highly figurative literary language, but he expressed the core of his ideas on race in a direct, compact manner: “affinity of character is more powerful than affinity of color,” remarkably echoed in Dr. Martin Luther King´s famous phrase about the supremacy of character over skin color. Martí was no color-blind idealist, but he was a visionary who could conceive of a time when racial categories would become irrelevant. Bodies come in all colors and shapes, he wrote, but the human spirit is the same everywhere, and any just society must write that hallowed idea into its laws.

 Moreover, to use a contemporary expression, Martí walked the talk. Two of his main collaborators in New York City were black men: Rafael Serra, a Cuban, and Sotero Figueroa, a Puerto Rican, publisher of Patria and co-founder with Arturo Schomburg of the first Puerto Rican club in New York. With Serra, Martí founded a school in New York whose main objective was to educate working-class Latinos. In Cuba, Martí’s right-hand man was Juan Gualberto Gómez, the son of slaves who had managed to buy the freedom of their unborn child. In 1892 Martí recruited Dominican general, Máximo Gómex, to lead the war against Spain, and he struggled to iron out political differences with the formidable Antonio Maceo, Cuba´s heroic “Bronze Titan,” recognizing that Maceo was indispensable in the fight against Spain. In other words, Martí looked for those capable of helping him carry out his plans for a free Cuba and Puerto Rico, not for those identified as black or white or even as Cuban.

 Martí countered race prejudice and set forth the foundations of anti-racist thinking, a foundation many of us Latinos share in the face of continued racism on many fronts. It should be added that Marti’s anti-racist struggles predate by just a few years the infamous seven-to-one 1896 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Plessy vs. Ferguson. That decision upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation, contributing to a climate of hatred and death that has ravaged the lives of millions of Americans of African descent.

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 No doubt that Judge Sotomayor has roots in the identity politics of the 1970s, but her record shows the kind of desire for justice and equality evident in the work of Martí and his collaborators. In the current debates about race and identity politics, an exclusively contemporary focus can leave us with too many blind spots, and that is so twentieth century. In the twenty first, we cannot afford that blindness. Looking back, way back, we may find ways to look forward to a truly just society.

Oscar Montero is the author of José Martí: An Introduction (Palgrave/MacMillan, 2004) and Erotismo y Representación en Julián del Casal (Rodopi, 1993). Professor Montero teaches Spanish language and Latin American literature at Lehman College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He can be reached at Reprinted from National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP).

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