By JOSE PATINO GIRONA
Since age 6, Chaz Mena has revered Jose Marti, the 19th century Cuban patriot, poet, journalist and thinker. His Cuban-born grandfather gave him a book of Marti's writings for children and a picture book of the Cuban leader. He has kept the Cuban writer at a reachable distance from that first encounter. When he went to study theater in Russia, he took a book of Marti's writings to have a familiar companion. Two years ago, the Florida Humanities Council asked Mena, a New York-based actor, to perform a one-act play connecting Marti's work to Florida's history. He will perform "Charla, a Chat with Jose Marti," at 1 p.m. Saturday at the West Tampa Branch Library, 2312 W. Union St. Mena's Chautauqua performance begins when Marti came to Ybor City for one week in November 1891. The Cuban Workers Federation had invited Marti to speak and promote Cuban independence from Spain. After Mena completes his monologue, the performance turns into a question-and-answer session with the audience while Mena remains in character. In Marti, Mena found someone who easily empathized with others. "It is said that once you met Marti you were a different person from meeting him," Mena said. People were struck by Marti's loving and comforting approach, Mena said. He easily could focus and listen to people, he said. "He unapologetically tried to perfect his humanity," Mena said. "Those that give to others receive 10 times more." Mena said Marti's writings have changed him. It has pushed him to be more understanding, compassionate and loving to others, he said. It has also helped motivate him to learn about his family's homeland and to expand his intellect. Mena, 42, is no starving artist. He has a master's in fine arts degree from Carnegie-Mellon University. He has performed in plays throughout the country and appeared in films, television shows and commercials. He plays a recurring character in the television show "Law and Order." But Marti is a passion for him. About 10 years ago, his wife, Ileana Musa, encouraged him to write a play about Marti but other work got in the way. He said he performs the play because he sees a value in people learning about Marti and is moved when he receives comments from people saying they picked up Marti's writings after seeing his performance. He also wants people to see that Marti remains relevant. "We are at a crossroad in our American democracy," Mena said. "We need to decide which way to go. Marti was dealing with those issues in his day."