author: Shirley Langer
Shirleez Books, 2012
On September 26, 1960, Cuban Premier Fidel Castro, speaking at the the United Nations, Announced the formation of Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign. He proclaimed to the world that, in less than a year, Cuba would become the first country in the Americas to wipe out illiteracy. To that end, he said, organizations of teachers, students and workers were preparing for this intensive campaign—an audacious plan that many said would be impossible.
When the campaign began, about a million Cuban adults were illiterate and another million were semiliterate. Some half million children had never gone to school, most of the rural population had no schools, and thousands of teachers were unemployed. By the end of the campaign, some 250,000 young volunteers and their master teachers had gone to the countryside to work with and teach the campesino families how to read and write—laying the foundation for the tiny island country to achieve the highest literacy rate in the world.
“¡Venceremos!” had been the call and, on December 22, 1961, waving huge pencils to signify their great victory, hundreds of thousands of alfabetizadores marched in Havana responding, “¡Vencimos!”
Anita’s Revolution is a coming-of-age story set predominantly in 1961, during Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign. Almost 15-year-old Anita Fonseca and her family are white. They reside in the upper-class suburb of Miramar. Her parents are professional, liberal and intellectual; and the family employs live-in domestic servants—people of color—who cannot read or write. Anita attends a private school and her parents initially oppose the idea of their daughters’ joining the literacy brigade.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shirley Langer, who is Canadian, lived and worked in Cuba for almost five years during the mid-1960s—a few years after the revolution that freed the tiny island nation from the exploitation of the US and Spain and the despotism of the Batista regime and the Mafia—and soon after Cuba’s National Literacy Campaign had established basic literacy for everyone. She forged friendships and immersed herself in cubanismo—language, culture and politics. She stayed long enough to meet people and learn what the revolution was about and why the campaign was so important. Langer makes it clear that she understands what Fidel was trying to do. “Everywhere I went,” she writes in her Preface,
I saw classes taking place: in the lobbies of hotels, in workplace cafeterias, in apartment building vestibules, even outside in parks. Adults who had achieved basic literacy in 1961 were studying throughout the years that I was there to achieve elementary school levels. Public education in Cuba, including acquiring university degrees, was then and has remained a priority and is completely free.
Langer, who has returned to Cuba several times, is fluent in Spanish, including Cuban vernacular Spanish. She acknowledges and thanks, among others, five former brigadistas in Cuba, whom she interviewed in Cuba some 50 years after the National Literacy Campaign. She also acknowledges and thanks Marjorie Moore Ríos, who served as a campaign supervisor in the Bainoa region; and her daughter, Pamela who, at 11 years of age, taught basic literacy to seven campesino adults. It was her friend, Pamela, Langer says, who “provided me with many engaging details about the campaign.” Both Marjorie and Pamela are characters in the story.
THE STORY BEGINS…
Anita’s Revolution begins with the stunned teenager, reading with horror a newspaper account of the torture and murder of 18-year-old Conrado Benítez, someone she had known.
Until now, Anita thought that murder happened only in the adult world.The newspaper article beneath the stark black headline—Volunteer literacy teacher captured and murdered by rebels—said counter-revolutionaries had grabbed literacy teacher Conrado Benítez on a mountain path when he was on his way to teach and had hung him from a tree. Anita’s stomach lurched imagining Conrado dangling from the end of a rope. Why had they done that? What had that boy ever done to them?
Anita tries to concentrate on her homework, and realizes that she has been sitting at her desk, staring at the grainy black-and-white ID photo of Conrado “long enough for day to become almost night.”
She and her papá, who is a newspaper editor, have had conversations and he’s explained to her “what made the counter-revolutionaries tick; why they were constantly doing awful things like blowing places up and sabotaging machinery.” And murdering people. He explains why Fidel is nationalizing everything: “For many years,” he says, “the government has ignored Cuba’s poor. So we need change.”
“But these kinds of changes have made a lot of people furious—especially the very wealthy people who were used to sharing the loot gained from government corruption. Some people are so furious they are prepared to do anything to get things back to the way they were before the revolution.”
“Furious enough to kill people?”
“Yes, Anita. Furious enough to kill people.”
Many people are leaving and even Anita’s family had considered the option, but, for now, they’ve decided to stay and see what happens.
“You know what they’re like about anything to do with the revolution. They talk as if people who can’t read and write are dumber than mud, especially black people. My father says all blacks are good for is grunt work.”
But after Anita realizes that her own family’s servants are illiterate and a campaign recruiter visits her school, she decides to forgo her upcoming fiesta de quince (which her mother has been planning), and asks her parents to allow her and her older brother to enlist together. The parents are hesitant, but, seeing how impassioned Anita is about becoming a part of the change that is to come, they finally give their consent. And in the eyes of the maid Tomasa, Anita is no longer “Anita la cubanita.” Having taken on a major adult responsibility, she is now “Anita la cubana.”
RACE AND RACISM
Even before she joins the campaign, Anita begins to be aware of her own whiteness and privilege. She clearly sees racism and its effect on her and everyone else, and this thread runs through the story. Here, for instance:
[Conrado Benitez] had been at her school assembly a few months ago speaking about the importance of literacy; promoting Cuba’s pilot program run by volunteer teachers. The presence of the young black man in her all-white school was quite a novelty.
Last week her class had gone by bus to see a newly constructed junior elementary school in a small village outside Havana. The students—mostly mulatto or black—had never been to school before. Some of the kids were barefoot. She had tried not to stare at their dirty feet. Anita remembered feeling strange, feeling…too white. Afterwards, her teacher had explained many parents were simply too poor to buy shoes, but that she knew the government was importing shoes so that no child would have to go to school barefoot.
Anita is fully cognizant of both the danger and political ramifications of becoming part of the literacy campaign, and decides to join anyway. Langer describes in detail Anita’s and her family’s reactions to Conrado’s murder in ways that educate readers about the urgency of the literacy campaign and appeal to their senses of community and struggle.
GETTING TO KNOW THE FAMILY
After their initial training at Varadero, some of the brigadistas and their supervisor head out to Bainoa to meet their assigned learner families. As privileged, upper-class Anita encounters real poverty, she’s shocked and distressed:
Most of the country dwellings were one or two room bohios, dismal dirt-floor huts set in hardened earth clearings. Such a sameness to all the people! Most of them were short and thin with suspicious faces and bad teeth. Their kids ran about naked or almost naked playing in the dirt, their bodies streaked with grime. Even the dogs were runty and dirty. And every place had a pig or two being fattened up. Wherever they went, there was the stink of animals.
Ramón, standing stiff and awkward, is ready to learn. His tiny wife, Clara, holding their baby Nathaniel, lowers her eyes and Clara’s younger sister, Zenaida, sullenly avoids Anita. Thinking quickly and trying not to inhale deeply, Anita asks Ramón to teach her how to feed the pigs. By the next day—as Anita is knee-deep in the freezing water, scrubbing Nathaniel’s poopy diapers and the rest of the laundry with Clara and Zenaida—she thinks of Gladis, her family’s laundress in Havana. How, twice a week, Gladis would silently wash, dry, iron, fold and put away the dozens of pieces of laundry for a family accustomed to using an item only once. How, on a particular day, Anita demanded that Gladis immediately prepare her tennis outfit and new pajamas. How Gladis responded, “Yes, mistress.” How, within an hour, Anita’s clothing lay, clean and ironed on her bed.
Slowly, Anita begins to fit in, and she and the Pérez family warm up to each other. As Anita adapts to “her” family’s new routine of hard, physical labor during the day and literacy lessons at night—and Clara and Zenaida (who, as Zenaida originally insisted, didn’t need to read or write to be the peasant wife of a campesino) begin to join in the lessons—change comes slowly. Yet everyone is changed.
Ramón teaches Anita to swing an axe to split wood, and she is “secretly proud” to notice her own physical strength and developing muscles. A particular lesson, based on the sound “ch,” is called “Healthy People, Healthy Country,” and as Anita leads a discussion about public health being the right of all people—she thinks of the Pérez family’s lack of even basic medical care and her own family’s regular checkups at their doctor’s posh office.
Meanwhile, Anita’s brother, Mario, also becomes cognizant of the connection between race and poverty—and of his own reactions to race. Here, in a letter to Anita, Mario writes:
“This family is black, Anita. Not mulatto, but African black. I feel funny mentioning it. Why should it matter? At first I felt a real strangeness living with black people—like being the white rice in the black beans—but it doesn’t feel at all strange now. This campaign is really bringing the races together. It’s good.”
During the campaign, US-trained and -financed counterrevolutionaries wreaked terror, especially on the small, impoverished communities engaged in the literacy project. They attacked at Playa Girón (the Bay of Pigs), bombed the sugarcane fields, and kidnapped, tortured and murdered at least two brigadistas.
Through Anita’s eyes, Langer paints horrifying and real pictures of this terror. For two nights, mounted rebels, firing their rifles in the air and shouting threats, circle the rural schoolhouse at which Anita works. They kick down the door. They shatter a window, and toss in a donkey’s severed head, the blood still red and clotting. They set the outhouse on fire. They confront Anita’s campesino learner family who, fortunately, are armed and drive them away.
Later, as she shows her learner family the triangular paper flag on which is written, “Territorio Libre de Analfabetismo,” and, despite her fears and the memory of the grisley donkey’s head flashing before Anita’s eyes, she promises them that they will pass the final test, and place this flag outside the door “for the world to see that literate people live in this house.”
But the terrorists are far from done. In a particularly harrowing episode, they kidnap Anita and hold her for four days, blindfolded and tied to a chair.
During this time, she fears that she will be raped and murdered, and, in her semiconscious haze, reimagines the details she’s heard of Conrado Benítez’s and Manuel Ascunce’s torture and murder. But here, the kidnapper’s wife, also terrified, sneaks her water and bits of food, and Anita is ultimately rescued because, struggling through her fear, she had the presence of mind to leave a trail. And months later, at the celebration in Bainoa, Anita is acknowledged and called up to join the other heroes of the revolution.
But Anita’s Revolution is not solely about Anita. Throughout, she sees the bigger picture. At the massive rally in Havana, the applause is thunderous as Fidel honors several other brigadistas and campesinos, and proclaims: “Above all, bravo to the three hundred thousand volunteers, youth and adults, who taught over 707 thousand illiterate adults to read and write!”
And as the thousands of people applaud Fidel, the campaign, themselves, and the country their efforts have helped bring together, Anita whispers her honor and respect to her campesino learner family: “We’re applauding for you, Clara, for you, Ramón and for you, Zenaida.”
Fidel’s ambitious plan for The Cuban National Literacy Campaign was not “only” to bring 100% literacy to the tiny island; it was also to eradicate racism at its core. In a section of 21 black-and-white photos from the campaign, readers will see that many of the brigadistas, as well as most of the campesinos, are Afro-Cubanos, oppressed descendants of the enslaved African workers brought to the island to harvest the sugar cane.
As well, the photos show • young people, carrying hammocks, kerosene lamps, and a few personal belongings, arriving at their countryside destinations. • elderly campesino students, learning how to hold a pencil, working on their lessons, and attending an outdoor class • brigadistas, at a schoolhouse seminar during this “año sin domingos” • and thousands of brigadistas in Havana, joyously celebrating the success of the campaign. And there is a photo of one of hundreds of thousands of letters to Fidel by a newly-literate campesino, and a photo of Fidel in his military fatigues, relaxed, laughing and enjoying the victory celebration.
The well balanced, well executed book design is impressive, beginning with a small map of Cuba and a brief history that ends when the revolution triumphs. The type and spacing are easy to read, and the varying typographic elements—for songs and many letters and diary entries—clearly follow and enrich the voices of the characters. Anita’s hazy, semi-conscious nightmare about the tortures and murders of Conrado Benitez and Manuel Asunce—two young people she had known—is set in italics with almost no paragraph breaks, conveying and highlighting the frightening reality of this episode.
LETTERS TO FIDEL
In interviews some 50 years later, both the brigadistas and the campesinos saw the literacy campaign as a defining moment in their lives. In 1961, as a “final exam,” each campesino student wrote a short personal letter to Fidel about what it was like to be given the gift of literacy, something most campesinos had thought would have been impossible. Today, in the Museo Nacional de la Alfabetización near Havana, albums housing over 750,000 such letters are considered a national treasure.
At the giant rally and celebration in Havana, an elderly campesina reads her letter to Fidel:
Dear Fidel Castro,
No one in my poor family has ever been able to read and write. Thanks to you, thanks to the revolution, an old lady, her six children and sixteen grandchildren are able to read and write now, ending generations of ignorance. May God bless you and all the people of Cuba. If you would come to Bainoa to visit me, I would be the happiest woman in the world.
LOOKING BACK AT THE CAMPAIGN
At home, Anita’s parents have also been moved by the revolution, and despite the wide chasm of race and class between themselves and their servants, they have taught Tomasa (the maid), Gladis (the laundress), and Fernando (the gardener), to read and write. But while Tomasa allows the newly returned Anita to make her own bed in the morning, she’s embarrassed by Anita’s attempt to help her clear the table after meals, and Gladis tells her that it “wouldn’t be right” for her to help with the laundry. Anita’s friend and mentor, Marjorie, tells the agitated Anita that “some things change by revolution, others by evolution.”
Anita’s Revolution is written in English, and the Spanish words and phrases, as well as many in English, are nuanced and idiomatic. For instance, the huge celebration that Anita’s parents had been planning for her is called “fiesta de quince” (the way upper-class Cubans would refer to it, rather than “quinceanera.”) The names by which Anita’s family’s maid, Tomasa, fondly refers to her (“Anita la cubanita” and later, “Anita la cubana”) are realistic as well, as is the name that Anita ultimately takes for herself: “Anita la brigadista.” And there’s also, in dialogue, a sprinkling of the term, “gusano,” the derogatory name for Cubans who turned their backs on the revolution; and “taking the ninety,” for those who left Cuba for Miami.
Anita Fonseca is a believable young person, coming of age in a time and place in which she is called on to become an agent of change. Although she initially doubts herself, her story of how she answers that call—and how her work and struggle empower her campesino learner family, her country, and herself—is rich and authentic. For instance, after two practice tries, when one of Anita’s campesina students, Clara, writes her letter to Fidel, Anita feels “she would never, ever feel prouder than at that moment.” At the end of the campaign,
Anita, Marietta and Mario linked arms with those around them as they chanted. Anita felt she would burst. The brigadistas had done something extraordinary for their country—so why stop now?….She just had to keep on doing something meaningful.
Langer sets her protagonist—as well as her family and friends, teachers, and the campesino family she instructs and learns from—firmly into the historical and political realities that embodied the Cuban National Literacy Campaign and its great accomplishments—both for the young people and their master teachers, and for the campesinos, whose own lives and struggles were changed for the better. Through Anita’s experiences, readers find out what it was for young people to come of age in this time and in this place: to grow and embrace adult responsibilities, to leave their parents and confront real challenges, and even to risk their lives for the greater good.
Langer’s writing is clean and sharp and evocative. There is some amount of humor here, too, as every once in a while, she describes one of Anita’s fish-out-of-water experiences.
Anita insists that Clara rest while she prepares the evening meal. She can’t bring herself to slaughter a hen, so she asks Clara to do it. While she works through the afternoon, with no running water and only a small kerosene stove, she imagines her family’s beautiful, modern kitchen at home. Finally, the meal is cooked and Anita announces proudly, “La comida está servida.” The family eats in silence. The soup is bland and greasy, the stew is watery, and the rice and bananas are burned. Only baby Nathaniel eats the bananas and cries for more. Anita, embarrassed, pushes her plate away and apologizes, and the family bursts out laughing. When she promises that “next time will be better,” Ramón groans, rolls his eyes and pretends to pray: “God save us all from our teacher’s good intentions,” he says.
In Anita’s Revolution, the author has crafted an important and readable, historically-based novel that will resonate with high school-age readers (and even younger, maybe), who are seeking purpose in their lives. It’s highly recommended.
Gracias a mis colegas, Oralia Garza de Cortés, Judy Zalazar Drummond, y Lyn Miller-Lachmann.