What About Literacy?

Dariela Aquique

Young people enthusiastically joined the effort.

Many efforts have been carried out by groups of educators in Latin American nations to eliminate illiteracy among the people in those countries. Under the name “Yo si puedo” (Yes I can) and other slogans, thousands of illiterates have learned to read and write through this Cuban method.

These partnerships are parts of trade and aid pacts between the countries belonging to ALBA and are a continuation of the mass campaign undertaken in Cuba in 1961 that ended with the pronouncement: “Cuba, free of illiteracy.” This effort was carried out by the “Conrado Benitez Brigades” of young volunteer teachers.

This name was adopted in honor of a teenaged teacher who was murdered by counterrevolutionary groups. Each with a flag, an anthem and a uniform created for this mission, thousands of youngsters went from house to house giving lessons. Most went into the mountains, where almost the entire rural population was illiterate.

At that time, my late mother was barely 16 years. She was the daughter of parents who identified with the revolution and—herself deeply moved by everything that was happening—she joined the brigade. My aunt (her little sister), was only 14 and therefore too young to be allowed to go into the mountains; instead she served in the city to promote literacy.

Many years later my mother spoke about the advances and reversals experienced while living in communities in the remote region where she was sent to teach campesinos. Somewhere in a town called Yateras, in far eastern Guantanamo Province, she lived in a settlement of Haitians and Jamaicans and their descendants.

This rugged terrain rural community known as “Jamaica de Yateras,” they didn’t speak Spanish well; rather they used strange phrases in Creole, which made it more difficult to teach the alphabet and pronunciation.

My mother told me about the fear experienced by her and her closest companion who lived eight miles away, who she could only see when they went to fill lanterns and teaching materials. She told me that not only were there armed groups that stalked the area but how the mountain itself was so inhospitable, and how the inhabitants had mysterious religious customs that sometimes frightened her.

One day while performing some ritual, she was dragged by her hair to a rock, where they hit her in her head to make offerings of her blood to the gods.

My mother was exposed to many dangers, but for her it was always held as a rewarding experience and she was proud of having fulfilled her social duty.

Today, after so many years, I have seen for myself that not all Cubans are literate, as is so often publicly stated. Many older people just scribble their names and cannot read.

A close friend of mine told me that about four years ago, when he had to do a census of elderly retirees in rural areas, he was alarmed to find the number of them who signed with an “X or just used their thumbprint.

The campaign—like so many things in my country—was exaggerated. When we went to the routine exhumation of the remains of my mother, we found a fracture in her skull from that blow by the rock; fortunately it hadn’t been fatal, nor was she shot by cattle rustlers.

My mother died 12 years ago. As a teen she had returned victorious and enthusiastic from her mission, but no one ever told her that there were still illiterate people here, nor did she ever see people signing papers with their X’s or thumbs.

Dariela Aquique

Dariela Aquique: I remember my years as a high school student, especially that teacher who would interrupt the reading of works and who with surprising histrionics spoke of the real possibilities of knowing more about the truth of a country through its writers than through historical chronicles. From there came my passion for writing and literature. I had excellent teachers (sure, those were not the days of the Fast-track Teachers) and extemporization and the non-mastery of subjects was not tolerated. With humble pretenses, I want to contribute to revealing the truth about my country, where reality always overcomes fiction, but where a novel style shrouds its existence.

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One thought on “What About Literacy?

  • Dariela Aquique,

    Your mother’s story is very moving. First because she was one of the courageous young people who dared to bring the beginnings of literacy to those who had so little. I recently saw a documentary “Maestra” on the young women volunteers, some who are still alive were in the film and spoke about their experiences and lives since.

    The terrible injury your mother suffered was sadly another example of why education is so badly needed. Not just to write one’s name, but to learn to be better people.

    I am not surprised you have found some elderly who did not overcome their past. One can only imagine how it would be if the literacy campaign and emphasis on education had not happened. In my country, primary schools have long been free, but we too have some who are illiterate. When I was a child, the schools were separated by race and very little was spent on the black schools. Also, we still have a system where the better schools are in the wealthier areas.

    Now I agree with your point that governments should be honest and not exaggerate. In line with your praise of good education, I find that even in our colleges, many don’t understand the difference between anecdotal and scientific methods of thinking. I read your comments to mean you do see the value of the literacy and teaching campaigns, but think there is room for improvement.

    Sometimes I wish we could reverse life, start out mature, hopefully wise and educated, and then gradually over the years grow younger! But then that is just the bias of old age.

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