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Literacy for All

Literacy for All

By Victoria Alcalá

Every Cuban parent knows—because their children take care of reminding them—that December 22 is Educator’s Day, and they must juggle the family budget to bring gifts to teachers, assistants, and school principals, besides contributing snacks and soft drinks for the celebration. But beyond gifts, festivities, not many remember at this point why it is a special day at every school in the country.

alfabetizacion04According to the 1953 census, the enrollment rate then was about 50 percent, the illiteracy rate was 23 percent and the average grade level completed was 3.1. In 1957, the Rebel Army in the Sierra Maestra had decreed that education was central to the developmental process and that the Revolution would immediately start a literacy campaign. In keeping with this sentiment, after the triumph of the Revolution on January 1, 1959, the Revolutionary Government took the necessary steps to promote public education, and as early as March of that year, the National Literacy and Basic Education Commission was created.

On August 29, 1960, at the graduation of the first group of volunteer teachers, whose mission was to make up for the deficit of teachers in the country, especially in rural areas, Fidel Castro said: “Next year we have to establish ourselves a goal: to eradicate illiteracy in our country.” Less than a month later on September 26, at the United Nations, he announced a literacy campaign in Cuba.  On December 31, 1960, when Fidel and those same volunteer teachers were waiting for the arrival of the New Year, they decided to baptize 1961 as “Year of Education,” determined to eradicate illiteracy in less than a year, something that no country had ever accomplished in such a sort period.
Castro was a dreamer, but not the only one. On January 23, 1961, when the Literacy Campaign had just begun, in the graduation ceremony of the second group of volunteer teachers, the then Cuban Prime Minister reported that members of a counterrevolutionary band had killed the young volunteer teacher Conrado Benítez. A few months later, organized under the Conrado Benítez Brigade, 105,664 students (54,953 girls and 50,711 boys) went to every corner in Cuba to teach how to read and write to their fellow countrymen and women. Each “brigadista” received an equipment package that included two uniforms, two pairs of socks, a pair of boots, a belt, an olive green beret, a backpack, a hammock, the primer and the teacher’s manual, a lantern and 10 pesos for personal expenses. Educators from Argentina, Uruguay, Panama, Venezuela, Chile, Costa Rica, Brazil, Guatemala and the United States, among other countries, also participated in the campaign.

alfabetizacion02Fifty-two years later, this is easily told, but the youth who went to the countryside to teach faced many difficulties, from family opposition, especially the girls, to the logical problems of adapting to an unknown environment. The average age of these voluntary literacy workers was fourteen to sixteen and almost three-quarters of them came from urban homes.

In an interview, actress Mireya Chapman from Holguín said that she had to argue with her mother, who strongly objected to her going away from home. “She told me that young girls couldn’t leave their homes, let alone go into the mountains and live with the peasants,” Mireya revealed. “When my father came from work, I spoke with him aside and he said to my mother: ‘You’d better let her look out for herself. Why can’t she go and teach if all the young people are doing so?’”

Even today, when the participants of that utopia meet, anecdotes come to the surface—falling from hammocks, stampedes caused by the presence of a frog or a majá (the harmless Cuban snake), having to ride a horse for the first time, terror caused by ghost stories, which are so common in the Cuban countryside…
Some stories are filled with moving altruism and solidarity. Teachers and students established a solid friendship, and in some cases lifelong bonds. I have a friend who brought to her home in Havana a childless couple who she had taught to read and write in the eastern provinces. She and her husband built them a small house in their yard, and there they stayed forever. My friend’s children were the envy of the neighborhood: they had not four but six grandparents.
When the Campaign ended, 707,212 Cubans had learned to read and write, and the level of illiteracy was reduced to 3.9% (25,000 Haitians who hardly spoke any Spanish, physically and mentally disabled persons, elderly people and patients in very poor health were found unable to be taught to read and write). This illiteracy rate placed Cuba among countries with the lowest illiteracy rates in the world.

On December 22, a jubilant young Castro said at Plaza de la Revolución: “No time is more solemn and moving, no instant more joyous, no minute filled with more genuine pride and glory than this one in which four and a half centuries of ignorance have been demolished.”

But the Cuban people, with their longstanding internationalist vocation, were not satisfied with having eliminated ignorance from their land, so thousands of teachers have collaborated with numerous countries, especially in Latin America and Africa, in teaching their populations to read and write. Perhaps one of the greatest landmarks of this collaboration is the program called “Yo Sí Puedo,” or Yes I Can, which has proven its effectiveness in teaching reading and writing to adults. It was created by one of those student teachers of 1961, the Doctor in Pedagogical Sciences Leonela Relys Díaz, who, along with other teachers, had created a literacy campaign in Haiti by radio.

“Yo Sí Puedo,” which associates numbers with letters (a with number 1; e with 2, i with 3, etc.), uses a manual, a primer, audiovisual aids, and, in accordance with the principles of popular education, a facilitator who is responsible for transmitting knowledge, emotionally mobilizing the people involved and linking audiovisual aids with the recipients. It has also been conceived in Braille and has been adapted for the deaf and people with mild intellectual impairment. It has also been adjusted into English, Portuguese, Quechua, Aymara, Guarani, Creole, Swahili and Tetum.

Thanks to this new Cuban system, nearly 10 million adults from 30 countries, including Spain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador, Nigeria, Angola and South Africa, just to name a few, have learned to read and write—a beautiful reality that has multiplied the dreams of a young bearded Comandante in the today distant year of 1960.


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