Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

Brigadistas: Stories from Cuba's Literacy Campaign

Image by Denise Tullier Holly, 2016

From June 18th to July 2nd, 2016, a group of K-12 educators from the U.S. traveled to Cuba as part of Tulane’s annual summer teacher institute to Cuba. Members of the group recorded interviews with the Cubans they met throughout the program. The interviews they recorded provide a deeper perspective on a country that continues to mystify and fascinate the United States. This podcast is about Cuba’s literacy campaign.


Background on Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign
In September 1960, Fidel Castro announced his plans to create a society characterized by equal access to educational opportunities through a national literacy campaign. In this historic address, he informed the world of his ambitious goals:

“…our people intend to fight the great battle against illiteracy, with the ambitious goal of teaching every single inhabitant of the country to read and write in one year, and,
with that end in mind, organizations of teachers, students and workers, that is, the entire people, are preparing themselves for an intensive campaign, and Cuba will be the first country of America which, after a few months, will be able to say it does not have one single illiterate..” (as cited in his speech to the UN September 26, 1960 from the Latin American Network Information Center’s Castro Speech Database.

Throughout the year-long, national campaign, 707,212 people became literate or achieved a level of reading and writing equivalent to that of a first-grader. Cuba’s overall illiteracy rate was reduced from over 20 percent, according to the last census taken before the Revolution, to 3.9 percent, a rate far lower than that of any other Latin American country (Prieto Morales, 1981b).

The accomplishments of the literacy campaign became an important part of the culture of the country. The national illiteracy figure of approximately 23 percent prior to the campaign masked vast differences between urban and rural populations. The literacy campaign brought together Cubans from the city and the country, the young and the old, and from all social classes. Castro developed a program that was modeled on previous literacy campaigns in Argentina, Brazil and other parts of Latin America. Over 260,000 “teachers” were created virtually overnight. The school year ended in April and did not resume until November so that students could be taken from schools and enlisted as teachers for the campaign.

Most brigadistas ranged in age from 10 to 16 with a few very exceptional ones being only 7 or 8 years old. Although they were from urban areas they were mostly working class as many of the urban wealthy had already left the country. Parents had to give permission for their children to be sent off as brigadistas.

Listen below as a group of teachers from Tulane’s Summer Teacher Institute in Cuba interview Diana Balboa Hernández who was a brigadista during Cuba’s literacy campaign. The teachers involved in this podcast are Jordan Daniels and Cynthia Garza, both middle school teachers in the New Orleans area. The podcast was hosted by Professor Carolina Caballero and produced by Denise Woltering Vargas and Valerie McGinley. Technical direction provided by Thomas Walsh.

Enlaces Américas is a podcast for educators, students, and Latin Americanists featuring interviews and stories about Latin America. Enlaces Américas is funded through a Title VI National Resource Center grant from the US Department of Education. This podcast will be archived and reproduced with full transcripts for use in K-12 classrooms. Please check back soon for the educational version of this and many other interviews from the trip.

Caribbean + People
Marilyn Miller
Associate Professor - Spanish & Portuguese
Caribbean + News