Maestra: A Retrospective on Cuba’s Literacy Campaign

Final closing march of the literacy campaign. Dec 21, 1961. Photo by Liborio Noval


HAVANA TIMES — I often hear people born before 1959 reminisce about things that were simple pleasures back then, things that were within their reach even though they were poor folk, and are today unaffordable luxuries. These people look in frustration on the present and on a future that is incompatible with all of their years of work and sacrifice, with everything they once believed in.

“What is it they believed in?” I often ask myself. A friend, whose father is now traversing that last stage of life and looks back at the past in perplexity while regarding the present with frustration, recently said to me: “They believed in written words.” They believed in words yelled from a grandstand, to be more precise, the kind that scatter in the wind, I thought. If that’s so, I again ask myself: “is that all they believed in? Are words telling of a better and more just society the only thing they ever set their hopes on?

Norma & Daysi Guillard as brigadistas in 1961
Norma & Daysi Guillard as brigadistas in 1961

I believe that – without setting out to do so, perhaps – US sociologist Catherine Murphy offers us an answer in her 33-minute documentary Maestra (“Teacher”). At least, as we set out to put together the complex jigsaw puzzle that Cuban reality has been over the past fifty-five years, she draws our attention to an ineluctable piece: the literacy campaign planned in 1960 and carried out in 1961. The campaign, carried out by 250,000 volunteers (100,000 of whom were under 18) benefited over 700,000 Cubans.

Though people of both genders took part in the campaign, Murphy focuses on women who were teenagers at the time (some around 12 years of age). Women constituted more than 50 % of campaign participants, in a patriarchal and male chauvinist society that, till then, had confined them to the role of wives, mothers and housekeepers. Such a framing of the issue was to be expected of a woman born to a feminist family, whose mother studied medicine at the University of Stanford in the 70s.

Perhaps because it embodies the gaze of a foreigner, Maestra centers on the human dimension of the campaign, on the experiences of those who became involved in the epic effort. The film does not set out to extol the achievements of the revolution or its leaders. As a documentary, however, it does aim to narrate facts objectively. Maestra places us within the social and political context of that historical moment, in the midst of the effervescence of an incipient revolution taking its first, giant steps.

The campaign was carried out as part of the revolution and Fidel Castro was the author of the initiative. The superb stock photos and footage, which take on a central a role in the film as do the literacy campaign workers, show us a country full of hope, set in motion by the idea of a noble task, perhaps the noblest our people have undertaken since 1959.

Murphy seems to be telling us: “Look, this is what happened. It happened this way, and these are people who experienced it.” The women, at the time very young and now elderly people, speak to us of the reasons they became involved in the campaign, of the obstacles they faced, not only within their families, but among those they set out to teach to read and write, because of the male chauvinism of the time, the harsh times they went through during the Bay of Pigs invasion and, finally, what it meant to them to be able to teach another human being to read and write, how this experience changed their lives forever.

Adria & Ivonne Santana as brigadistas in 1961.
Adria & Ivonne Santana as brigadistas in 1961.

We are surprised and moved in a very special manner by a seven-year-old girl who asks to join the campaign and proves capable of doing so. The testimonies afforded by several members of the campaign give us a sense of the dimension of these efforts, undertaken in very difficult conditions, even when we learn that not everyone learnt to read and write fully.

Many of us Cubans have someone who was a literacy campaign volunteer in our familes, sometimes several people. There’s always that someone who ran away from home to join the campaign, like Adria Santana (the renowned late actress), and like my uncle. There are also those, like my mother, who never got permission from their mothers to join the campaign and regret it to this day.

I watch these images from the present, I listen to these women speak, I am shown those who benefitted from the campaign, and I cannot help but be moved by all of it, to become infused with that youthful enthusiasm. I feel I would have done what those young people and teenagers did back then.

It isn’t hard to understand, even before the 33-minute-film closes, why the lives of these people would never be the same afterwards. While I experience all of these emotions, I ask myself how many of us would be willing to take on this task today, voluntarily, how many of us would be willing to sacrifice a whole year of our lives without the kind of financial incentive that those who participate in Cuba’s internationalist missions abroad have.

Today, even though we have more teachers than we did in 1960 and no one needs to travel that far or spend a year away from home to teach, the shortage of teachers around the country has forced Cuba to adopt emergency measures such as the Intensively Trained Teachers, Comprehensive General Teachers and TV classes (measures which have shown their inefficiency, without exception).

Many are the teachers who have left the classroom, myself included. Even though many are still teaching, the country does not in any way resemble the country that answered the call of the leader and carried out the literacy campaign in 1961.

I have spoken with a number of people who acknowledge the importance of the campaign but feel that, when we speak of it, we often omit the fact that Cuba already had the highest literacy rate on the continent at the time, and the campaign could have been carried out more rationally, efficiently and discreetly, with less media fanfare.

Maestra director/producer Catherine Murphy
Maestra director/producer Catherine Murphy

It is an interesting point of view that may be worth exploring, but which does not minimize what the women interviewed in the film, and all of those who left their homes to join the campaign, did.

Just as these women, as Adria Santana says in the film, were at the time unaware that the literacy campaign would become such an important event in Cuba’s history, Murphy, who had initially planned to tell the story of three of her friends who had been members of the campaign, did not imagine the impact this, her first film, would have, not only as a documentary, but as a historical document as well.

Following its premiere at the Havana Film Festival in 2011, Maestra has been screened at more than thirty festivals and at universities and research centers in Cuba, the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, among other countries.

In an interview for Cuba Ahora, however, Murphy says Maestra is not a completed project and that it will continue to grow with more interviews. Like many others, I hope to be able to follow its progress and have the opportunity to hear the testimonies of others who were involved in the campaign, now living in Cuba or abroad.

To inquire about the complete 33 min. Maestra documentary, it has been released on DVD by Women Make Movies  For ordering or screening info, please write to: [email protected].

6 thoughts on “Maestra: A Retrospective on Cuba’s Literacy Campaign

  • Chuck1938 It may be that Cubans fare better in the US than other immigrants, but that cannot be applied to other countries. The US peculiar political two party system is not representative of other democratic countries. It has a Constitution badly in need of revision and reform. Cuba constantly takes advantage of obvious US faults – which include the embargo – and exploits them. But, despite its faults, the people of the US and the media are freely able to express themselve publicly. Thay can demonstrate when they disagree with their Government. Cubans doing either go to jail – and they don’t pass GO!

  • When it comes to la “campaña de alfabetisation” we have to
    say that it was a good thing that happened to Cubans and its objectives has to be
    preserved. Every child needs to have a school and everybody needs to learn to read and write.

  • Thank you. So to benefit from literacy, a Cuban has to leave the island and find a free society in which to live. Yes, it’s very clear.

  • Simple!! Most, if not all Cubans traveling abroad fare far better than other immigrants and in the United States with it’s high level HS drop-out and the inability of most youngsters to fill out a job application, the answer is clear.

  • What is the value of literacy in a country with no freedom of the press and no free speech?

  • I watched the video and that spirit of mutual aid which is at the very foundation of anarchist belief came through in a very emotional way to me.
    It reminded me of what my beliefs are all about which is that spirit of doing unto others as we would have done unto us .
    This is something that has been a part of humanity until the establishment of the totalitarian state and totalitarian capitalism which have since suppressed this most natural of democratic human instincts.

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