Julie Lamin revisits the Cuban National Literacy Campaign of 1961 at the National Literacy Museum, Havana, Cuba.
‘It is the most important thing I have ever done in my life,’ said Marta, now in her sixties, describing her role as a volunteer literacy teacher in Castro’s 1961 crusade to take a million Cubans to functional literacy.
Following the 1959 revolutionary victory which ousted the dictator Batista and freed Cuba from United States control, Fidel Castro asked for volunteers to teach literacy skills to over one million illiterate land and factory workers. 100,000 young people, half of them teenage girls, stepped forward to enrol. For girls like Marta, who was fourteen at the time, this huge adventure required the permission of reluctant parents, wary of letting their daughters travel to the countryside of the distant Eastern provinces from the relative safety of Havana. Once permission was secured, they were soon engaged as literacy teachers.
‘Not only was this highly exciting to us as girls who lived a sheltered life, it was massive for our self-esteem. We were given the responsibility to teach. However, we were given training and had a mentor to help us. We learnt how to prepare lessons, were observed teaching and gave classes to each other, all using the Brigadista manual and teaching book.’
The brigadistas taught their students the Spanish vowel and consonant sounds and syllables of words crucial to them playing an active role in the emerging democracy, especially as each Cuban land-worker had recently received their own 65 hectares of land under agrarian reform and would need to know how best to farm it and to protect it from counter-revolutionary aggression.
Fifty years on, it is inspiring to reflect on a typical image of those important nine months of the literacy campaign. Picture the darkness of a place where no electricity has yet reached. In the light of a kerosene lantern, the dark head of a fourteen-year-old and the grey and white scalps of adults, (the oldest of whom was a hundred and two) are bowed together over a book. Young and old bring letters alive in sounds. In old hands, for the first time, pencils are held, marks on a page make sense and letters give meaning and permanence to thoughts, feelings and ideas beyond the seconds in which they were uttered.
By the end of 1961, over 707,000 had become literate, turning the national rate of literacy from 65 -75% under the Batista regime, to 96%. For those of us used to a twenty-first century culture of testing literacy and grading children and adults according to their scores, it is an inevitable question: how could they prove so many people became literate? What was the test?
The answer is simple but oh so very sensible. ‘To write you need to think. If you cannot read what you write, then you cannot say you can read and write and you are therefore not literate,’ explained Luisa Campos Gallardo, the Director of the National Literacy Museum, Havana. ‘To prove their new literacy skills,’ she added, ‘the students were asked to write a letter to Fidel Castro explaining how their lives had been changed as a result of becoming literate.
Beautifully neat cursive script in sentences and paragraphs not only expressed gratitude but proclaimed love for their leader who had instigated their literacy, as if mastering the pencil had drawn up a great well of suppressed emotion. ‘I never knew what it was to feel Cuban until I learnt how to write,’ wrote one eighty-six year-old.
Invariably the often lengthy epistles concluded by wishing the young Fidel ‘very good health’. Although such good wishes might seem like politeness, years later, in one of those moving circles of time, Fidel, ill and old, remembered the good health messages of these letters and asked if they could be brought to him. He drew much consolation from them, as if discovering a new medicine. For literacy in Cuba, and indeed anywhere, is so much more than being able to decode or reproduce print. It is the key to health and prosperity, dignity and humanity, nationality and democracy as the words of the freshly literate Cubans gave ample testament to.
Source: Museum of The Literacy Campaign, Havana.