Felix Varela y Morales

Beatriz Varela
University of New Orleans
Académica de Número
Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española

It is with great pride that we celebrate the issuing of a stamp to honor the social and humanitarian work of a 19th century Cuban: the Catholic priest Félix Varela. More than half of Varela's life was spent in the United States. After being orphaned when barely six years old, Varela, under the care now of his maternal grandparents, received his first years of education in St. Augustine, Florida, the city where he would pass the last three years of his life and where he died. For twenty-seven years he lived in New York City, displaying a continued flurry of activity to help the successive waves of arriving European immigrants. It is important to stress that at that time there was no Welfare, no Catholic Charity, and no Salvation Army, so his helping of the poor was a personal initiative. Varela's eagerness to aid the poor, made him go as far as to give away his only winter coat and his table silver. Throughout these years in New York, he never abandoned his intellectual pursuits, and besides contributing to Catholic journals, he published his well-known Cartas a Elpidio. Later on in this presentation, I shall refer to his varied and important undertakings in the United States. In Cuba, we learned as children to respect the illustrious figure of Father Varela, considered by one of his devoted students, José de la Luz y Caballero, as the philosopher who taught us Cubans how to think (Rodríguez, 1944, 406). However, in the long years of the Cuban exodus, the teachings of Father Varela have been revived and the permanence of his ideals on liberty are better understood. The Félix Varela Foundation of Miami has contributed greatly to the dissemination of his thoughts. The introduction of this stamp is further recognition of the esteem that has developed for Varela in this country. Culturally, Father Felix Varela is a product of his time. Born at the end of the 18th century, he witnessed the first half of the 19th century. He was a man of great intellectual curiosity, and although influenced by encyclopedism, this did not prevent him from being faithful to the Catholic church. A descendant from military families on both his father's and his mother's sides, Félix was expected to join the army. Yet when the then fourteen year old boy was asked by his grandfather to choose a career, his answer was clear and firm: "I wish to be a soldier of Jesus Christ, the Lord; I do not wish to kill men but to save souls" (New York Freeman's Journal, 1853, 4-5). Self-taught, Father Varela acquired a comprehensive philosophical, scientific and political culture enabling him to perform, besides his duties as a priest, those of a professor, an author of famous treaties, a journalist and a statesman who represented Cuba in the Spanish parliament. During his lifetime strong uprisings occurred seeking liberty and equality for all citizens. In 1776, the independence from England of the thirteen colonies; in 1778, the French Revolution proclaiming liberty, equality and fraternity. Between 1810 and 1825, all the Spanish-American countries obtained their independence from Spain, except Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Father Felix Varela fought for Cuba's independence and he once stated: "I wish to see Cuba as much of a political island as she is a geographic one" (El Habanero, no. 3, 94-95). Curiously, Varela died in 1853, the same year in which José Martí, his ideological heir apparent, was born. Years later, when Martí visited Florida, busy as he was with his multiple activities to prepare the armed fight for Cuba's independence from Spain, he took time off to go to the cemetery in St. Augustine where Father Varela was buried and there honored him as a "full patriot and a Cuban saint." Varela also influenced such 19th century Cuban intellectuals as José de la Luz y Caballero, José Antonio Saco, Domingo del Monte, Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros, and others, many of whom had been his students at the San Carlos Seminary. It was Varela's ideas that led to the 1898 war of Independence. To become a priest, young Félix had returned to Havana, where he attended the San Carlos Seminary. In 1811 he was ordained by Bishop Díaz Espada y Landa. Bishop Landa was famous for improving education in Cuba and also for ordering the construction of the famous Columbus' cemetery, admired by tourists from all over the world for its architecture. Several years before Varela's ordination, the Bishop had named him professor of Philosophy at San Carlos Seminary telling him: "Take a broom and sweep everything that is not useful." Anxious to instill new life in philosophy studies, and to make them accessible to all educated people, Varela started teaching in Spanish in 1813. He had already published in correct and elegant Latin two volumes of his Institutiones Philosophiae Eclectiae... dealing with Logics and Metaphysics. The third and fourth volumes on Ethics were written entirely in Spanish as all his future books and articles would be. The culmination of this productive stage of Varela's philosophical years is his magnificent three volume textbook Lecciones de filosofía, which went through several editions and was adopted by many universities in Spanish America. Varela had also introduced the teaching of chemistry, botany, zoology, physics, mathematics and drawing at the San Carlos Seminary. As a lover of music, he also helped in the founding of the first Philharmonic Society in Cuba. Undoubtedly, Varela was a great innovator: he was the first to teach in Spanish, not Latin; the first to write textbooks of Philosophy in Spanish; the first to introduce science and music; the first to introduce in Spanish America new philosophers like Locke, Condillac and Descartes. Applying Bishop Landa's recommendation of using a broom, Varela really swept what was useless: he defeated scholasticism and brought in modern methods. Varela's honored reputation as an author and professor, drew him into politics. After winning the position of professor of Constitution in brilliant competitive examinations, Varela started explaining, at the San Carlos Seminary, the laws promulgated by the Cadiz parliament in 1812. He even published a textbook Observaciones sobre la Constitución de la monarquía española, which included political economy and constitutional law. This book and the Constitution course were also firsts in Varela's long list of innovations. In 1821 Varela was elected deputy to represent Cuba in the new Spanish Cortes (Parliament). There he presented three important proposals, none of which was approved. The first one introduced a bill granting wider powers to the provincial parliaments of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The second proposal was in relation to the abolition of slavery, and in the last one Varela called for a plan to establish negotiations with the governments of the countries fighting for their own independence from Spain. By this time, Varela had given up hope of achieving autonomy for Cuba within the Spanish monarchy and publicly began to advocate the cause of Cuban independence. When the Spanish parliament was dissolved in 1823 and absolute rule was restored in Spain and her colonies, Varela and the two other Cuban deputies, having been declared traitors, had to flee the country and seek asylum in the United States. Thus, a new epoch in Varela's life began. We have already pointed out that he lived for twenty-seven years as an exile in New York, where he never stopped working for Cuba and for his faith. Thinking of the students he had taught at San Carlos Seminary, he started publishing the newspaper El Habanero, in which he put forth his ideas on the independence of Cuba. He fought for liberation without the aid of or obligation to any other nation. The newspaper was secretly introduced into Cuba and fervently read by all Cubans. It pleases me to inform you that the seven volumes of El Habanero have just been published by Ediciones Universal (1997). The first six volumes had earlier appeared in Revista Ideal (Miami, 1974), and the last one was missing in Cuba. It was found in the United States by Lee Williams, the guardian of the Latinamerican Collection at Yale University and published by Revista Ideal (Miami, 1981). Unquestionably, Varela is the first apostle of Cuba's independence. His ideas on liberty would arouse the patriotism of José Martí and others who, more than half a century later, actually achieved the independence of the island. As a Catholic priest, Varela was constantly helping the poor, the sick, the working women, the alcoholics. He founded two churches in New York, and held the office of Vicar General for the city , an office second in importance only to that of the bishop or archbishop of a diocese. Father Varela's pastoral work and journalistic endeavors, considerable as they were, did not interfere with his teaching career and his publications. He established a coeducational school in which , in addition to the traditional curriculum of the period, children were afforded the opportunity to learn two foreign languages, Spanish and French. Father Varela published a 5th edition of his Lecciones de filosofía, updated with the latest advances made by European and North-American philosophers. He also translated Thomas Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practice (1826) to help democracy establish roots in Spanish America. In 1835 and 1838, he published the first and second volumes of his masterpiece Cartas a Elpidio, a unique summary of his ideology and of his love for Cuba. In it he addresses himself to Elpidio, a real or fictitious correspondent. For some authors Elpidio represents the island of Cuba. Since Elpidio is derived from the Greek word elpis meaning 'hope', this last theory seems correct (Arana de Love, 1982, 180). Father Varela explains that although he admires and has a deep affection for the United States, he could never become a citizen of this country or of any other one, because of the love and respect in which he holds his native land. These touching and patriotic words of an exile who had been unjustly treated by Spain's authoritarian government, contrast sharply with the opinions of several rafters or "balseros"of recent times. In the book Balseros: Oral History of the Cuban Exodus of '94 by Felicia Guerra and Tamara Alvarez Detrell, some of these rafters state that they do not love their country as much as they should, because having been born under Fidel Castro, they could have no respect for their motherland, whose moral principles have been entirely burnt and destroyed by the Communist regime. The declining health of Father Varela forced him to seek a climate less harsh than that of New York. As said earlier the last three years of his life were spent in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the United States, founded by Spain in 1565, where Father Varela lived for many years as a child and where he died. Surely, the issuing of the stamp with the image of Father Felix Varela will increase the universal knowledge of the life and works of this great Cuban thinker and educator of the 19th century, who was also a saintly priest. His exemplary life is an inspiration to all of us.


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