Niña de Guatemala: The Engima of José Martí

Jose Marti has to be one of those cultural enigmas you come up against as an outsider in Guatemala. When you read or hear the poem ‘La niña de Guatemala’, perhaps like the hundreds of Guatemalan school kids who learn it, you might find yourself wondering: ‘what’s the human story behind this?’.

I like the way Francisco Goldman explains this issue, which kind of touches on the mysteries of Latin America and how they form, grow or disappear.

"And then one day I hear Mario Montefiore (sic) Toledo, who at that point was Guatemala’s most revered writer. At the time he was ninety-three or something. He’s still writing a weekly column in the best paper. He’s got a PhD. He’s a very serious guy. He was in exile for many years, returning after the signing of the peace accords. And someone tells me they had heard him tell a story at the dinner of the home of the owner of the best newspaper in Guatemala. I go to talk with him. He says, "Yes, my grandmother knew Martí." It makes perfect sense. He’s ninety-three now. And he said that "when Martí came to Guatemala they had never seen anyone like him. He was just so dazzling and charming and brilliant." And, according to this guy, he [Martí] was engaged to be married but he was apparently not that in love with the woman with whom he was engaged. And he was loose in this city where all the woman adored him. And he [Toledo] said, "My grandmother’s best friend had an affair with Martí and she was married." Here the bullshit detector told you it was true. You just believed him. It was his grandmother and he is from an old Guatemalan family. They don’t make stuff like that up. Suddenly this window opens. I have never heard anything like this in any biography. No biographer knows this story. All the official biographies say, "In his relationship with La Niña de Guatemala he was chaste and honorable as he always was. And he offered her only his fraternal love." Nobody knows what really happened, right?"

Here’s the poem in full:

La niña de Guatemala

Quiero, a la sombra de un ala,
contar este cuento en flor:
la niña de Guatemala,
la que se murió de amor.

Eran de lirios los ramos;
y las orlas de reseda
y de jazmín; la enterramos
en una caja de seda…

Ella dio al desmemoriado
una almohadilla de olor;
él volvió, volvió casado;
ella se murió de amor.

Iban cargándola en andas
obispos y embajadores;
detrás iba el pueblo en tandas,
todo cargado de flores…

Ella, por volverlo a ver,
salió a verlo al mirador;
él volvió con su mujer,
ella se murió de amor.

Como de bronce candente,
al beso de despedida,
era su frente -¡ la frente
que más he amado en mi vida!…

Se entró de tarde en el río,
la sacó muerta el doctor;
dicen que murió de frío,
yo sé que murió de amor.

Allí, en la bóveda helada,
la pusieron en dos bancos:
besé su mano afilada,
besé sus zapatos blancos.

Callado, al oscurecer,
me llamó el enterrador;
nunca más he vuelto a ver
a la que murió de amor.

Other versions kicking around on YouTube:

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Categories: Culture, Video

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