In 1961 in Cuba, a quarter of a million volunteers, the brigadistas, who were mostly young women, went to every corner of Cuba to teach people to read and write. They packed their bags and set out for the remotest villages, many without electricity or running water. In a little over a year, literacy rates in Cuba went from only 47% to almost 100%.
Collectives of individuals are often responsible for shaping history, and they often remain faceless actors with untold stories: those who sacrificed the most and had the most to lose. The Cuban Literacy Campaign (Campaña Nacional de Alfabetización en Cuba) was a huge step towards advancing equality and social development, to which education is key.
But Rosa Hernández Acosta’s story is about more than one of the most interesting moments in Latin American history; it’s also a coming-of-age story for the volunteers who went to teach, armed with just some textbooks and a kerosene lantern, in parts of rural Cuba that still had no electricity, running water, or paved roads. While their compatriots fought what remained of Batista’s loyalists in the mountains and in the invasion at the Bay of Pigs, the brigadistas did their part at home. They fought with the pen rather than the rifle, and their enemy was an enemy within, a deeply entrenched one: ignorance and widespread illiteracy. Attacks on brigadistas by counter-revolutionaries claimed the lives of several young volunteers.
The Campaign was a success because of the young volunteers’ dedication and love for the art of teaching. Many of the teachers went on to pursue careers in education because they saw the power of education for change and valued that labor of love. Rosa Hernández Acosta is one of those teachers. I spoke to her about her time teaching in the Literacy Campaign and what it means to her to have a been a part of that moment in Cuban history.
Translated from Spanish by the interviewer.
Kian Seara Rey: Is it fair to say that you initially became interested in pursuing a career in pedagogy starting with your experience in the 1961 Cuba Literacy Campaign?
Rosa Hernández Acosta: Exactly, yes. The experience of having taught people to read at such an early age was what first motivated me. That’s why I ended up choosing the career path towards teacher training in Havana. I followed that course of study at the Enrique José Varona Higher Pedagogical Institute, which was a faculty at the University of Havana.
How old were you when you started to teach people to read and write with the Literacy Campaign?
Well, imagine! I was born in 1951 and the Campaign started 1961, so I was 10 years old. I was 10 years old when the Literacy Campaign started. But at first, they assigned the task of teaching literacy in our village to my father and my elementary school teacher at the time. The problem was the elementary school teacher wasn’t able to stay in the town, because she lived very far away. She lived in the city of Pinar del Río, about 6 kilometers away from the town of Consolación. So, she spoke with me about it and I ended up taking up the responsibility of teaching that woman and also the others that were assigned to my father because his vision was failing him. So, in the end I taught three or four more people to read and write who were originally assigned to my father.
Do those people still live in the town? Do you still have contact with the people who you taught to read and write?
Only one of those people is still alive because most of them were already quite old at the time of the Campaign. The people that I taught were much older than me. I was just a child and they were in their 30s or older. The boy that was the youngest of them is still alive and still lives in the town of Consolación with his family. He’s always very happy to see me and introduces me to his children and tells them that I was the one that taught him to read and write.
What difficulties did you face during the Literacy Campaign and during that time in general in the countryside in Cuba?
There were a lot of difficulties back then. In 1961 the living conditions in the countryside were still very poor. Most people lived in houses without concrete flooring—the floors were just dirt. All the houses I taught in had earthen floors. There was only radio, no other means of communication. People only had the radio. The only time in the day that they had to learn was with me, the rest of the time they just worked in the fields. Sometimes I would arrive at 7:00 PM and the boy still hadn’t arrived back home and I would have to wait until 8:00 or 9:00 to make sure he wouldn’t miss a class.
It’s funny—you had just learned to read and write yourself when you first began to teach others to do the same. Perhaps it was, let’s say, fresh in your mind? Was that it?
Yes, exactly. When I was in elementary school, I had already learned to read and write easily because my older brothers were already in school before me and they taught me. When I entered elementary school I already knew how to read. I didn’t know how to write yet, but I had already read the first grade school books, so the teacher put me in second grade right away. That’s just because in the countryside, older siblings always teach their younger siblings. And that was the case for me. I always had an easy time teaching others as well. It was decided that I would teach the illiterate families instead of the elementary teacher or my father because I was always more patient. I would really take them by the hand in learning the vowels. They felt more comfortable with me because I was just a child.
There was widespread ignorance in the countryside of Cuba in that time, correct? In an interview with Silvio Rodriguez (a famous Cuban musician), who also taught in the Literacy Campaign, he described how little some of the people knew about the world. He said that some of the people “didn’t even know that the earth is round.” That was the level of ignorance about the world beyond the countryside where they lived.
Yes, the level of education was abysmal because these people were illiterate and the only media available to them were just a few radio dramas or local programming. And they hardly had time to even listen to those. There was no press—no newspapers or magazines. There was very little media at all. People in the countryside really only had oral stories that had to do with the land or the moon, for example. Sometimes people would refuse to go outside when the moon was out because they said the moon would chill them and give them a cold. There was a lot of superstition and mysticism having to do with the stars and things like that.
A lot had changed after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, perhaps in every area of society. The educational system is no exception to that. As a specialist in pedagogy, how do you believe the educational system changed after the revolution?
Everyone in Cuba, no matter how revolutionary or not they may be, will always recognize this incredible feat in literacy that was a product of the revolution. A million illiterate people were taught to read and write. It was truly something to witness how the tears would run down the people’s faces when they were finally able to read the cartilla (student workbook) or to read the newspaper when it began to be distributed in the town. Some of the people I taught would call me because they wanted to show me that they could read the newspaper. They didn’t want me to forget about them. For those that lived in the countryside, like where I lived, they gave us teachers a little kerosene lantern so that we could find our way to the homes in which we taught. The majority of the houses in the countryside didn’t have any type of lighting besides a lamp with a little wick. Sometimes I would get home with my nose all smeared with soot if my lantern gave out.
In the end, the revolution virtually eliminated illiteracy. People that lived even in the remotest mountainous areas totally isolated, with parents and grandparents that were totally illiterate, were suddenly able to get as far as studying at the University of Havana. I am an example of that. I am a Black woman. That a very poor Black person could end up studying at the University of Havana… it was really a huge feat. I have a doctorate. I’m a certified professor. Before the revolution, that would’ve been completely impossible. Unthinkable. I’ve traveled to many different countries in Europe and Latin America. I gave master classes in Veracruz (Mexico), in Peru, in Brazil. I went to the former Soviet Union because, in that time, the relations between our countries allowed for a university in their country to offer us advising. We received help from Germany, from Russia. We had an exchange going that allowed me to travel to the former Soviet Union to see how some of their programs worked. I also went to Paris, France, to see how some of the programs at a French psychology university worked.
And those were all things that would’ve been totally impossible for anyone from the countryside who, in the old days, would’ve hardly known how to count to ten, much less read and write. They used to even steal people’s money when they went to the store to buy things because they didn’t even know basic arithmetic in some cases. To see the difference that we made was an enormous thing for me. I saw it start as a child and I’m still alive; it’s been within our lifetimes. I was able to witness the entire development of the revolution. And it wasn’t just me, everyone witnessed these changes. All of my little friends in school at the time that wanted to study were able to. Even if it was just to finish high school or attend a technical school. None of my classmates, people in my generation, ended up illiterate. The only illiterate people in Cuba are the “residual” ones. Those are the ones who learned to read and write in 1961 and really never went on to use that knowledge. That accomplishment, in a Latin American country like Cuba, was really tremendous.
Of course, it’s incredible. And that happiness, that excitement, felt by the people who you taught to read and write, was really at the national level, isn’t that right? It was felt all over Cuba.
Yes, exactly. It was felt all over the Cuba. Some people weren’t even able to read what they put on medicines and didn’t have anyone nearby that could help them read the labels. It was such a huge difference after.
And so, you went abroad to give master classes in ecology and the environment?
Well, actually, it was in the field of pedagogy. I taught various different courses. One of them was on the development of creativity. It’s a class from one of our master programs in the Central Institute of Pedagogical Sciences. I taught that course abroad. I also coordinated a program of increasing the quality of education in elementary schools at the regional level in one region of Mexico. We trained the teachers. We taught courses to students as a demonstration so that the teachers could see how we teach. It was in order to instruct the teachers and increase the quality of education in their schools. In the end, we helped them a lot.
You are from the countryside originally, but isn’t it true that most of teachers in the Literacy Campaign were from the cities?
Yes, from Havana, from the city of Pinar del Río, or from other provincial capitals.
In that regard, isn’t it true also that for those that went to the countryside for the first time to teach, ended up learning a lot about life in the countryside and nature, paradoxically?
Yes, that’s true. For the teachers that formed the brigades from Havana, the Literacy Campaign was a very important experience. Many of them also became teachers after that. Others ended up choosing professions related to agriculture or rural development. All of them were no doubt motivated by the experience they had during the Campaign. It was a tremendous experience for everyone involved. Both for those that learned to read and write and for us teachers that taught literacy. All of the teachers over the age of 60 in our municipality participated in the Literacy Campaign. And they weren’t teachers already before that! They all became teachers precisely because of their experiences during the Campaign. They will really always carry that with them. It’s something that becomes a part of you and in many cases, it inspired people to choose a profession based on it. All in all, we really showed what was possible. Some were saying that the Cubans are crazy, how are they ever going to be able to teach people to read and write who don’t even know how to write a single letter? But yes, it was possible!
Do you believe that Cuba still has a high quality educational system? Does Cuba still stand out in that regard?
Yes, I believe Cuba still stands out. For example, with COVID-19, the Cuban scientists and researchers studying it are all obviously products of that educational system. Talented people are encouraged to pursue their interests from a young age. I think that was a great success and a very interesting thing that happened in Cuba, that the Ministry of Education was able to encourage those talented young people. Today many of them are researchers at the forefront of science. Anyone who wished to study was able to. I am from a tiny town and I would have never been able to go and study in Havana. And once we were there in the capital, they gave us everything. In terms of cultural offerings, they opened the doors to a new world. We were exposed to music, they brought us to museums, we got to see the newest films, and in the end, we were able to share in that newly achieved level of culture that Cuba had reached at that time. Among certain specialties, there was a minimum level of cultural awareness that would allow us exchange ideas and participate in different activities.
Anything else you’d like to add?
You had to have been there and experienced it to really believe it. There are plenty of people that know about what happened back then in Cuba, but for us that really experienced it, today we share in a certain pride for reaching those new heights—in every sense. There were also other campaigns in other areas of the economy designed to increase development. For example, tobacco production campaigns, training of medical staff, and many different areas of culture.
I wanted to also ask about how other programs of the Cuban Revolution affected your community, for example the Agrarian Reform Law of 1959?
Yes, the Agrarian Reform Law immensely benefitted farmers because they weren’t the owners of the land before that. We used to live on land that belonged to someone else and we used to have to give them the majority of what we sowed. We had few privileges. The Agrarian Reform Law gave the land back to those that worked it, so all the farmers that produced high yields could finally enjoy the fruits of their labor. They were finally the owners of their own land and of their harvests. The majority of farmers were overjoyed by the Agrarian Reform Law. For many that have always been in favor of the revolution, if not for any other reasons, it was because it finally gave the land back to the people who actually worked it. Sure, there were some people who were bitter about having lost their land, and some even left the country. Many of the big land owners spent their whole lives exploiting others, and in the end never received compensation for their land. But the majority of the people supported the Agrarian Reform Law and everything that came with it. And it was because they benefitted directly from it!
And that part of Cuba where you live, it’s a tobacco-growing region, right?
Yes, it’s a tobacco-growing region. In fact, it’s in this area that they harvest the best tobacco in the world! They harvest some high-quality tobacco in Consolación also.
And those farms are all still small individual holdings?
Yes, that’s right. They are mostly small farms. And there is competition actually. Any farmer on his little farm wants to have the best quality tobacco possible. So, there is competition between farms for the best quality harvest. The farmers from where I am from are very dedicated to the land. In fact, so much so that when they gave people houses in the towns, many people didn’t want to live there. They wanted to stay in the countryside. And many of them would come and go every day from the fields. They really have a great passion for working the land.