Hostos y Martì en Nueva York: Conference Honors Men of Ideas

 
By Daisy Cocco De Filippis
Provost, Hostos Community College


The 19th century came to life last November 19-21 at Eugenio María de Hostos Community College, when scholars, students, faculty, staff and members of the community at large gathered to discuss the legacies of the Cuban patriot, essayist and poet, José Martí (1853-1895) and of the Puerto Rican educator and man of letters, Eugenio María de Hostos (1839-1903).

Though Martí and Hostos lived in New York City at the same time, they never met. Their writings and substantial legacies of political and educational freedom, however, constitute a historical conversation about the role of education, nationhood, and hemispheric balance in late 19th-century Caribbean and Caribbean-Latino history and culture. Martí and Hostos were incredibly prolific, producing volumes of essays, treatises, poetry, and literature, including children’s stories, that continue to impact the political, social, and cultural development of nations in the Americas.

This, then, was the backdrop for discussions that engaged presenters and a lively audience for three days on the Hostos campus. Did these men of ideas and action ultimately fail? Was their ideal of a United Spanish-Caribbean-Islands Nation, based loosely on Simón Bolívar’s Latin American Nation, a utopia or a dystopia? Was Bolívar’s legacy a blessing or a curse? Did educating women in the sciences and as full citizens contribute to the viability of these nations’ formation? These and other questions came under discussion.

Sons of the two remaining colonies of Spain in the western hemisphere (Cuba and Puerto Rico), Hostos and Martí saw in the presence of their giant North American neighbor both a threat and an opportunity. It is from North American shores that an expedition was launched to liberate Cuba from Spain. The adventure cost Martí his life. And it is from Boston Harbor that a liberation attempt, ultimately unsuccessful, was organized by Hostos and fellow Puerto Rican patriots. But it is also from these same North American shores that an impending threat to the hegemony of emerging Latin American nations loomed larger each year.

 
Eugenio María de Hostos, left, and José Martì. Graphic, Hostos Center for the Arts and Culture.
José Martí lived as a Cuban exile and a correspondent writing in New York for Latin American journals from 1881-1895. During this sojourn here, Martí came to understand the challenge presented to young Latin American nations by a strong and at times aggressive U.S.A. His portrait of the nation, published in Spanish-language journals here as well as in Latin America, educated an emerging local Hispanic community. In particular, his much-studied essay “Our America,”a title that in fact refers to Hispanic America, and the lesser known “A Vindication of Cuba” tackled head-on the difficult issues of racism, imperialism, and capitalism in the U.S.

“Our America” presents even today a road map for self-determination and cultural and political integrity in Latin America. Martí urged his contemporaries to look within their own traditions and
culture for answers: “Nuestro vino de plátano, y si es agrio, es nuestro vino” (“Let our wine be distilled from our own plantains, however bitter it might be”). He also warned his contemporaries of the impending threat of cultural, political and possibly geographical annexation by the U.S.: “We can no longer be the people of leaves living in the air, our foliage heavy with blossoms and crackling or humming at the whim of the light’s caress, or buffeted and tossed by the storms. The trees must form ranks to keep the giant with the seven-league boots from passing.”

Images from nature frame much of Martí’s political discourse, reminding us of his beautiful and visual poetry, such as his Versos sencillos (Simple Verses), which are part of the cultural legacy most Latin American children are taught. His Verses reiterate his vision of America and his commitment to work for the common man: “Con los hombres de la tierra/quiero yo mi suerte echar” (“I shall cast my lot with the common man”).

This theme of working for the improvement of the common man and woman’s lot bridged the world of Martí and the world of Hostos, the Puerto Rican educator and man of letters. Indeed, “Enseñad a la gente a pensar” (“Teach the people to reason”) was a guiding principle of Hostos’ career.

In his long, lonely and often precarious pilgrimage through-out Latin America, as foreshadowed in his youthful novel El peregrinaje de Bayoán, Hostos managed to implement educational reform in Chile, Venezuela, and—most profoundly—in the Dominican Republic. His seminal essays on “La educación científica de la mujer” (“The Scientific Education of the Woman”) appeal to the only moral imperative he understood: that of our obedience to reason and science.

Echoing the words of John Stuart Mill and others, Hostos cautioned his contemporaries about the fallacy of keeping women behind the veil of ignorance. He mentored the establishment by the Dominican Salomé Ureña de Henríquez of the first Normal School for Girls. This school educated women in the hard sciences, as well as mathematics, languages, history, and philosophy. Unusual for its day, the school also emphasized the importance of exercise and sports, and it encouraged a regime of vigorous physical activities. The campus that carries his name now, fittingly, has a student body that is 75 percent women.

Hostos’ educational reforms were broad-based, and they encompassed the implementation of a system of lay education in the Dominican Republic. These reforms survived until the dictatorship of Trujillo in 1930, when they were superseded by a religion-based curriculum.

Eugenio María de Hostos’ legacy lives today in the South Bronx, where his words and those of Martí served as catalyst for discussions about an examined life for Latinos, Caribbean and Caribbean Latinos, both students and scholars. Skits based on Hostos’ philosophy of education—written and performed by students under the guidance of Professors Lizette Colón and Tere Martínez—were particularly poignant and significant. The three-day encuentro owed much of its success to the tireless efforts of Hostos Professor Orlando Hernández and his Department of Humanities colleagues.

Hernández was joined by Mr. Wallace Edgecombe, director of the Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture, and colleagues from other departments in the orchestration of a year-long commemoration.
Recognizing that Community College Number Eight was not exactly inspiring, the Board of Higher Education, at the suggestion of Board member Luis Quiero Chiesa, officially renamed it on September 29, 1969. A unanimous vote approved a resolution that registered “grateful recognition of Eugenio Maria de Hostos’ contributions to the intellectual and spiritual wealth of the Americas” and expressed the goal “to stimulate interest and pride from the large Puerto Rican community of the South Bronx.”

Also exemplifying the College’s leadership in promoting Latino culture is the upcoming Neruda en el corazón, an international conference on the contributions of the Nobel laureate Chilean poet and peace activist Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Information on this event (September 22-23) may be found on the Hostos Community College website:
www.hostos.cuny.edu

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