Learning about Cuba’s Literacy Campaign

By Cara Evanson, Library

As a librarian, I was particularly excited to learn more about Cuba’s Literacy Campaign. Carried out in 1961, it was wildly successful. In just one year Cuba’s illiteracy rate fell from 23.6% to 3.9% (Benson, 199). I was thrilled that the Bacca Cuba trip provided multiple opportunities for me to connect with this part of Cuban history.

A woman with gray hair and a pink shirt seated next to a man with gray hair, glasses, and a beard, in a blue shirt and blue suit jacket.
University of Havana professors Marta Núñez and Alberto Faya

On our third day in the country we got the chance to speak with professors from the University of Havana. Two of them, sociology professor Marta Núñez and music professor Alberto Faya, shared memories from the Literacy Campaign as part of their remarks. Núñez told us she had participated in the literacy campaign as a teenager and that taking part in it helped her to understand what poverty was – that you “can touch and smell it.” She also told us she had never before encountered Afro-Cubans, and that the campaign provided her with her first opportunity to get to know them.

Faya recounted his sister’s participation in the Literacy Campaign. As a 14 year-old she had volunteered for the literacy brigade and had gone into the countryside to teach illiterate Cubans how to read. Hearing Faya talk about this experience was the first time I realized how young these literacy teachers had been, though I later learned that some had been as young as 10 years old (Abendroth, xi). Faya told us that when his sister returned home from the campaign it shifted their family dynamics. She had become used to being independent and so began opposing their father on certain issues when she returned. One sticking point in particular was that she began dating an Afro-Cuban she had met during the campaign, and her father was not supportive of the interracial relationship. Faya said it was ironic because his father had been an organizer of the revolution in his town, and part of the revolution rhetoric was about everyone being Cuban together, regardless of race.

As the trip went on our group heard more about the Literacy Campaign from other Cubans we met. While it was fascinating to hear the perspective of those who had lived through the campaign, it was clear it was still a source of pride for those in the younger generations as well. Even though it has been more than 50 years since the literacy campaign ended, it continues to have a lasting impact. The current Cuban literacy rate is over 99% (“Cuba”).

Museum display of a uniform, flag, lantern, plaque, and book
Museo Girón Literacy Campaign Exhibit

Towards the end of our trip we toured the Museo Girón (Bay of Pigs museum). While much of the museum focused on the military invasion, I was delighted to find that some of the exhibits were dedicated to the Literacy Campaign.

A group of young literacy teachers hold a flag in a museum display photo
Flag in Museo Girón exhibit declaring Cuba free from illiteracy

There was a uniform with an official alfabetizadores (literacy teacher) seal, a window plaque to be displayed by families providing housing for literacy teachers, and a flag celebrating the success of the campaign and freedom from illiteracy. There was also a photo of a 14 year-old alfabetizadora, Dulce María Martín Angulo. Sadly, the caption said she was one of the civilians killed in the Bay of Pigs invasion. It was sobering to realize she had died at such a young age while participating in this volunteer literacy work.

Photo of a young girl with a caption in Spanish underneath describing her death during the Bay of Pigs invasion
Museo Girón photo and caption of Dulce María Martín Angulo
Two booklets, one titled Alfabeticemos and the other titled Venceremos. The covers each have photos of young Cubans.
1961 Literacy Campaign Manuals

On the last full day of our trip I was browsing through a used bookstore when I came across a set of two booklets published by the Cuban government for the Literacy Campaign. One was the instruction manual for literacy teachers, Alfabeticemos, and the other was the workbook for students, ¡Venceremos!. Using Davidson library funds allocated for the trip I purchased both for the library’s collection. They will be housed in our Rare Book Room, and I’m thrilled that current and future Davidson students will have the opportunity to hold them in their hands and directly engage with this part of Cuban history.

Works Cited:

Abendroth, Mark. Rebel Literacy: Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign and Critical Global Citizenship. Litwin Books, 2009.

Benson, Devyn. Antiracism in Cuba: The Unfinished Revolution. The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

“Cuba.” UNESCO. https://en.unesco.org/countries/Cuba. Accessed 17 July 2018.