José Martí referred to him as “the eternal patriot,” José Antonio Saco called him, “the first Cuban,” and José de la Luz y Caballero honored him as, “the first to teach us to think.” It is therefore indispensable to know the “founding father” of scientific, social, and political Cuban thought.(Obras XI)
Félix Francisco José María de la Concepción Varela y Morales was born in Havana, on November 20, 1788. At two years old his family moved to Saint Augustin, Florida, when Varela’s maternal grandfather was named General of the military force of that city. His first teacher was the Irish priest , Miguel O’ Reilly, due to the strong Irish presence in Spanish Florida at the time, since both communities shared a catholic faith.
In 1802, Varela enrolled in the Real y Conciliar Seminar College of San Carlos and San Ambrosio in Havana, headed by a an anti-slavery, anti-racism, progressive priesthood…” (Obras XXV). A decade later, Varela himself assumed the leadership of this Seminar, attracting the young sons of the cuban bourgeois. In Tradición y Modernidad, Juan Bosco Amores Carredano considers that his ten years (1811-1821) as chair inspired the first wave of cuban liberals.” (188) Some of his most notable disciples included José Antonio Saco and José de la Luz y Caballero, with whom he collaborated to end slavery in Cuba and promote its independence. With these ends in mind, he founded the newspapers El Mensajero Semanal and El Habanero.
In his position as representative of Cuba in Spanish Court, he signed an invalidation of the Spanish king and was sentenced to death as a result. He survived by fleeing to the US, where he opened two schools, an orphanage, and a church. Indeed, he was a strong voice for the Catholic Church in the United States, where protestants dominated the country. In fact, some of his theological writing was motivated by a sustained polemic with the protestant church. Through The Catholic Expositor periodical, which he also founded, Varela voiced the ideology of the Catholic Church in the US.
Through Philosophy Lessons (1818) and Miscellaneous Philosophy (1819), we can gain an understanding of Varela’s philosophical thought. He rejected the idea that there could be a universal philosophy or science that could apply to all societies. Instead, he proposed that each society have the freedom to elect that which, through complete freedom of thought, it deemed useful and true. (Obras XXVIII). From this premise, he developed a Cuban science-consciousness. This explains why he is popularly known as the one who taught us [Cubans] to think. He is also well known as the patriot father because he prevailed in his position against Cuba’s annexation to the US despite receiving death threats to retract.
On February 25 of 1853, he died in Havana after battling asthma throughout his life. Members of the Jovenes Ilustrados transferred him there in an attempt to improve his condition, but to no avail. His remains were then sent to Saint Augustin, Florida, and was finally relocated to Havana years later.