Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Literacy Campaign

Over and over, during our time in Cuba, our group was reminded of the things that the revolutionary government gave to the people in its first years in power. Of course, these things were mentioned in our History class, but we were often surprised at how often they came up at home around the dinner table or in a casual conversation with Cuban friends. One of the most drastic and lasting gifts given to Cubans was the ability to read. Below, Claire (one of our students last semester) reflects on our group's trip to the Literacy Museum. 

I must have been around five-years-old at the time. Suddenly signs actually were words, not just shapes. Exxon wasn’t just a design, it was a word made up of letters that I recognized. It was probably about as exciting for me as whistling for the first time—and I was really excited about whistling for the first time. Neither scene jumps out at me as a specific time in my life, I know I was young, but I don’t know which car I was in, or where I lived at the time.

The point is, I don’t remember learning to read. I remember when things started to make more sense, and making the connection that signs were made up of words just like books were made up of words. However there isn’t a time when I remember not reading.

Take a minute to think about your education. How is it that you can read and comprehend this? The letters form words, which form sentences, which form paragraphs, which express thoughts, and all of this is intelligible to you. This isn’t just an image of lines on a screen. For most of you literacy has been a part of your life since childhood. But what if it hadn’t? Or, even more, what if as a child you had the responsibility of sharing literacy with complete strangers?

Cuba sponsored a massive literacy campaign in 1961. In a four-hour speech Fidel Castro declared to the United Nations that Cuba would eliminate illiteracy within a year. Not only were these remarks unheard of in his time—or even today, for that matter—but also he lived up to them.

posters celebrating the anniversaries of the literacy campaign
The literacy campaign in Cuba was one of the largest, fastest, and most successful there’s been. The teachers were mostly students, although there were professional teachers, retirees, and various other volunteers, and over half of them were women. Children as young as eight-years-old left home to go live in rural areas, where they lived with strangers for months, teaching them to read and write. Over 100,000 people volunteered to teach. Within the year approximately 707,000 Cubans were taught to read and write, and Cuba reduced its illiterate population to 0.2%, the lowest in the world. Furthermore, the literacy campaign didn’t just teach people to read and leave them out to dry; schools were established for the newly literate citizens to continue their studies. There were risks involved too. Counter-revolutionaries murdered some of the volunteer teachers as well as some of the people living in the countryside who were being taught. The Bay of Pigs invasion occurred right as the program was starting. And yet, despite the turmoil that was greatly affecting the country, thousands upon thousands of children and teenagers asked for, and received, their parents’ permission to go take part in the campaign as teachers and eradicate illiteracy.

flags that were used during the campaign to declare 'territories free of illiteracy'
As someone who is working on a second language I can’t even begin to imagine not having been able to read until now, or until I was even older. There are parts of life that I take for granted, and I know that, but reading is one that doesn’t normally jump out at me. As a baby I was read to constantly, I learned how to write my (very long) name at a young age, and there have always been opportunities for me to read and write. My basement is lined with bookshelves. I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair because I thought it would be fun. Because of all of this being faced with the reality of widespread illiteracy and seeing how it was handled by a national effort is truly moving. For many who took part as teachers it is the proudest accomplishment of their lives and discussing it brings them to tears fifty years later.

It’s easy to forget to power of language—especially written language—and how much simple acts like reading and writing can change a person’s life. 

-Claire Wellbeloved-Stone, Connecticut College '14

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this brief explanation and very nice information. Well, got a good knowledge. Sometimes you just have to yell at people and give them a good shake to get your point across.

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