Candlewick Press, 2017
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.
“¡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!”
The National Literacy Campaign set high goals. As the young volunteers, called “brigadistas,” and their master teachers created a process for teaching literacy, the young people learned how to make collective decisions that benefited everyone.
When they gathered in groups, their teachers posed questions that required deep thinking: “How can we teach the campesinos to read and write,” they asked, “in ways that will empower them and, at the same time, further socialismo in the New Cuba?” They discussed Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, whose main tenet is that teaching and learning are political acts, and that effective education teaches the whole person. While José Martí was the inspiration, Freire’s philosophy became the game plan for Cuba’s literacy programs.
The National Literacy Campaign was much more than a great adventure for the thousands of young people who volunteered to help create a new society. It was a year of growth, a year for these young people—many of them racially and economically privileged—to face real danger, head-on, for the first time in their lives; to become teachers to impoverished people whom they came to see as not only poor and illiterate, but oppressed as well; and to realize their roles in bringing about change in a broken society of haves and have-nots.
By continually challenging themselves and each other, the brigadistas achieved political and cultural literacy and a sense of solidarity that they had never experienced. They worked harder than they’d ever worked before.
Incorporating Freire’s theories and practices of educating the whole person gave the brigadistas and their master teachers the ability to open the doors for people who had been illiterate and encourage them to use their talents and their dreams—and the revolution gave them the power that fueled them to go on and do more to create a richer society. Today, there are doctors and scientists and engineers and philosophical, cultural and political thinkers, and artists and poets—all in numbers that could never have been imagined. Cuba sends hundreds of doctors, for instance, to impoverished and war-torn countries around the world—and this all ties in with Fidel’s vision of achieving 100% literacy in less than a year.
The National Literacy Campaign is a little-known event here, but it was a year that changed the people of Cuba, campesinos and brigadistas alike. Catherine Murphy’s excellent documentary, Maestra, together with Un año sin domingos: la imagen de la alfabetización en Cuba / A Year Without Sundays: Images from the Literacy Campaign in Cuba present living testimony of their struggles and triumphs, and beautiful archival film and photo footage.1
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katherine Paterson has won multiple book awards and has written more than 30 books. She has visited Cuba twice and writes that she had never heard about the National Literacy Campaign before her plan to travel there this second time. According to her Author’s Note, Paterson found, to her surprise, that her “closest Cuban friend, Dr. Emilia Gallego, who was responsible for both [her] visits to Cuba, was a brigadista as a teenager.” Paterson does not speak Spanish.
Paterson’s Author’s Note acknowledges the 2012 documentary, Maestra, and the film’s companion book, of which Paterson uses only the abbreviated English name, A Year Without Sundays. (The title of this bilingual book is Un año sin domingos: la imagen de la alfabetización en Cuba / A Year Without Sundays: Images from the Literacy Campaign in Cuba.) “Many of the stories from the film and the book,” Paterson writes, “served as inspiration for Lora’s story.” She also acknowledges Jonathan Kozol’s Children of the Revolution: A Yankee Teacher in the Cuban Schools (Delacorte, 1978) and several other titles. And, she writes, she “gleaned much help from the Internet concerning Cuban history, geography, agriculture, flora, and fauna.”
THE STORY BEGINS…
My Brigadista Year begins with an excited Lora, arguing with her parents about joining the campaign. Although her abuela tells her it will be a “hard life,” Lora imagines:
I knew nothing except that I wanted to be part of the campaign. The girl in the poster was wearing a uniform. I looked at her smiling face and for the first time in my life imagined what it might feel like to be truly free. No one telling me not to play in the sun or mess up my nice dress. I didn’t want to spend the next few years of my life just sitting still so that someday I would be able to make a proper marriage. I wanted to do something, be someone. (p. 6)
Her parents warn her that there would be no electricity, no running water, no toilets. And there would be danger—a young literacy teacher had been murdered. But when she promises her family that she will “come home if it proves too hard,” Lora’s father relents and signs the permission slip. The thread of “coming home if it proves too hard” runs through the story.
Lora struggles not to think of the danger and is unaware of the political ramifications for joining the movement. Rather, her reasons are self-serving and shallow: she’s in it for the adventure; she just wants to “do something, be someone.”
RACE AND RACISM
Another thread that runs through My Brigadista Year consists of Lora's views of race, as she voices racist observations and opinions that go unchallenged. At her new school, for instance, she befriends an otherwise friendless student, who is of “mixed African blood” and who happens to have horrible table manners.
The expression on her dark face was always guarded, her almost black eyes unreadable…. She sat down across from me and unwrapped an empanada stuffed with meat….She took a large bite and began talking, her mouth so full that little bits of meat and bread escaped to the table between us….Mama, I knew, would have suggested a different friend. Norma’s complexion made me sure she was of mixed African blood. And even if my good mama was so biased, Norma surely felt the prejudice of all our fair-skinned classmates. She wiped her mouth with the side of her hand. “I’m so glad there’s someone I can talk about Martí’s writing with.” Or anything else, I thought. She took another large bite….I quickly forgave Norma’s table manners….(S)he told me her mother bewailed the fact that Norma’s skin was much more like that of her father’s family than her own proud family’s. (pp. 18-20)
Certainly, since the days of slavery, Afro-Cubans were, to an extent, marginalized. The National Literacy Campaign was a major step forward in building alliances and solidarity, in filling the chasm of race and class that existed at the beginning. But having Lora talking about race in these offensive ways without grappling with the issue of racism itself reflects the author's own lack of consciousness; there is no understanding of the complexity of the issues.What a beautiful girl! That was my first thought. She could have been a poster girl for the campaign, with very light tan skin—reminding me of the milky coffee Abuela made for me on the nights before exams. The green beret on her head made her hazel eyes look almost green, her hair was a lustrous dark brown, and her figure, even in boots and uniform, was a match for any Hollywood star. (p. 40)
One of the National Literacy Campaign’s two textbooks is entitled, ¡Venceremos!—the campaign’s battle cry. With exclamation points, it translates as “We will be victorious!” or “We will succeed!” or “We will win!” or “We will do it!” Like “¡Juntos Unidos!” and “¡Viva la Causa!”, “¡Venceremos!”—the song and the chant—is almost always accompanied by a fist in the air. It’s a call for a response; it’s an exercise in unity, common purpose and spirit but, at the end of the day, it’s a call to action. It represents passion and people power and is fuel for the work ahead. It demonstrates the anger, the hope, and the belief in the victory to come.
Paterson apparently does not understand the meaning or the power of “¡Venceremos!” Literally translated and without the exclamation points, it becomes the passive-sounding “We Shall Overcome,” and that’s how it’s used in the ARC. In the finished copy, the English translation of the workbook, ¡Venceremos! has been changed from We Shall Overcome to We Shall Prevail, still without the exclamation points.
When the hundreds of thousands of young brigadistas marched in battle uniform in Havana, their huge pencils substituting for rifles, their banners proclaimed, not “We overcame” or “We prevailed,” but “¡Vencimos!”—“We won!” or “We did it!”
USE AND MISUSE OF SPANISH LANGUAGE
It’s clear that the author neither knows nor understands the Spanish language or its metaphors and symbolism, nor does she know or understand the history of Cuba and the role that Fidel’s National Literacy Campaign played in furthering equality, socialismo and cubanismo. Her attempts at research are weak at best; rather, she adopts as a plot device the protagonist’s love of the English language. Portraying the main character as an anglophile—which begins when Lora enrolls in a private Secondary School in which everyone speaks English and continues throughout—enables the author to tell the story that she wants to tell in the way she wants to tell it without utilizing the likely and appropriate voice of a teenage brigadista.
The text is peppered with grammatical, historical and cultural errors. In addition to “¡Venceremos!” (see above), for instance, “jumping beans” are Mexican, not Cuban; “macho” is not something a Cuban woman would have said out loud about her husband; “bandidos” (bandits) is not synonymous with “insurgents”; and “little José” is not the diminutive name for “José”—that would be “Pepe.” (Lora’s campesino learner family names their new baby “Little José” in honor of José Martí, probably because Paterson doesn’t know that Martí himself was affectionately called “Pepe.”)
Throughout My Brigadista Year, Lora informs the reader that she is translating Spanish concepts, chants and songs into English. For instance:
Then someone began to sing the anthem of the campaign. I could feel my spirits lifting. In English, it won’t sound anything like that wonderful song with which the mountains rang that day. (p. 58)
In so doing, the author denies the reader the opportunity to see and appreciate them in Spanish. And that her favorite book is Pride and Prejudice (in English) also diminishes the value of Cuban and other Spanish literature.
One of the most egregious results of using this plot device is what Paterson does with José Martí’s beloved poem, “Cultivo una rosa blanca” (“I Cultivate a White Rose”). Martí was a fierce poet-revolutionary who fought against injustice, from slavery to colonialism. He had a great heart and a clear vision, and he’s beloved throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Those who are engaged with his poetry see “Cultivo una rosa blanca” as an expression of both Martí’s personal beliefs and political activism. He cultivates a white rose for his friends and his enemies, as a metaphor for defiance and resistance—his unwillingness to remain silent in the face of oppression. Young people who read his Versos sencillos (Simple Verses) in which this poem appears, grow to know and appreciate the deep symbolism in his words. A conscientious writer would have carefully researched Martí’s poetry and the reasons he is so loved, rather than just inserting a faulty English translation of “The White Rose” and “I Grow a White Rose” (including the title)2 as a poem her protagonist happens to “love” without stating why. Or else she could have left it out. Paterson chose not to do either.
While the Cuban government was implementing the most successful literacy campaign in history, everyone saw it as a military campaign, a battle for the lives of the most oppressed of the Cuban people. It was also an important part of the battle against the US-backed counterrevolutionaries who tried to destroy the revolution. Paterson touches on “militias with rifles,” “a few roving bandits” and “those who would do evil,” and there’s a scene where they bang threateningly on the doors. But while she writes that “it was in (the Escambray Mountains) that Conrado Benítez had died” and there’s an announcement of Manuel Ascunce’s murder together with that of a campesino, she brings all of this back to Lora: “I’m sorry to say I knew that day in my heart that I would rather be a live coward than a dead hero.” (p. 161) And My Brigadista Year’s overarching context returns to that of a teenage girl’s internal conflicts.
Indeed, throughout My Brigadista Year, Paterson centers the story on Lora’s personal struggles, while her personal “triumph” subsumes the communal triumph:
For all her seeming giddiness about love, Maria must have been a good teacher. All six of her students had passed their first tests and were well on the way to taking the second. My envy of her looks and warm personality gave way to my envy of her success. But she never lorded it over me….In the midst of my discouragement, there were wonderful moments….I could hardly wait until Sunday to tell Esteban and Lilian and the rest of the squad about my triumph. (pp. 105-106)3
LETTERS TO FIDEL
In testimonies some 50 years later, both the brigadistas and the campesinos saw the National Literacy Campaign as a defining moment in their lives. In 1961, as a “final exam,” each campesino learner wrote a short personal letter to Fidel about what it was like to be given the gift of literacy,4 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.
In Un año sin domingos5 , there’s a photograph of one such letter to Fidel from an elderly campesino who has just learned to read and write:
Amigo Fidel. Te escribo para decirte que ya no soy analfabeto y que cada día me siento más proféro y más feliz con esta Revolución que nada ní nadie podrá arrebatarnos. Te deseo salud y suerte. Juntos Venceremos.
(“Friend Fidel. I write to tell you that I’m no longer illiterate and every day I feel more articulate and happier with this revolution that nothing or nobody can take away from us. I wish you health and luck. Together we will be victorious.”)6
In her Author’s Note, Paterson acknowledges the 2012 documentary, Maestra7 , in which Cuban women who had been part of the Conrado Benítez Brigade tell their stories some 50 years later. In this film, Blanca Monett recalls trying to teach one particularly difficult student, an elderly man named Joaquin, who argued that his name couldn’t possibly be spelled with a “quin” at the end because this was not one of the rules he had learned. On pages 102-103 of My Brigadista Year, Paterson tells exactly the same story that Blanca Monett relates in Maestra, down to the elderly campesino’s name. But then Paterson veers off into a ridiculous scenario:
“When I write my letter (to Fidel),” Joaquin tells Lora, “I will tell Fidel it is wrong, and tell him to change it. We won our freedom from Spain many years ago. Those stupid imperialists have no right to tell us how to write our own names.” Lora encourages Joaquin to hurry up and finish the primer, so that he can go on to write his complaint to Fidel. This is the long-awaited letter, which Lora praises:
Comrade Fidel. I can read and write, even the big words and the squiggle on en-ye. But why must I write my name like the old Spanish oppressors? We won independence. We won the revolution. We have won the war against illiteracy. Now we must free our spelling. Your comrade, Joaquin Acosta (p. 166)
LOOKING BACK AT THE CAMPAIGN
On the last page of My Brigadista Year, Lora says,
My brigadista year was the year that changed my life. This was true not only for me but, I daresay, for all of us who left our safe, loving homes to become brigadistas for literacy. I learned what I could be and do. I was no longer an isolated, spoiled little girl of the city. I was a member of a campesino family who loved me and taught me more than I could ever teach them. (p. 177)
Lora continues, this time in the words of someone else:
I think it is best summed up in the words of a friend and fellow brigadista who said, “I taught the campesinos how to read and write, and they taught me how to be a person.” (p. 177)
Above, Lora posits an equivalency that is belied by the modesty and humility of the real brigadista who said, as quoted in Un año sin domingos:8
I learned a lot. I went to teach them, but they taught me many things that I didn’t know. I think I learned more from them than they did from me, because I gave them the light of learning, but they taught me how to be a person. 9 (p. 72)
Here, the real brigadista acknowledges that she taught the campesinos a skill, and is grateful that they taught her a life lesson. She knows that this was not an equal exchange. But Lora’s “brigadista year,” to the very end, continues to be all about her. Apparently, this humilidad that the brigadistas learned from their campesino families is something that Paterson either doesn’t understand, or else she considers inconsequential.
Lora Díaz is a self-absorbed adolescent who remains one. Although she, too, becomes engaged in this great struggle, the National Literacy Campaign and the Cuban revolution are a mere backdrop to Paterson’s shallow narrative about her protagonist’s own fears and self-doubts and ultimate personal growth. Everything is about Lora and all successes are her own. As she says after one of her students reads aloud, “I could hardly wait until Sunday to tell Esteban and Lilian and the rest of the squad about my triumph.”10
My Brigadista Year centers the reader’s attention on young Lora’s emotions and personal struggles and downplays the coming together of Cuba’s illiterate campesinos with their mostly teenaged, mostly middle-class maestras, living and working together for almost a year. Throughout My Brigadista Year, Paterson creates a false narrative—a contrivance that promotes the development of one character while trivializing the struggle, and obfuscating the point of the revolution and its literacy campaign, philosophies, and practices.
Indeed, in individualizing only Lora’s perspective, Paterson imposes her own individualist values into the narrative and onto a cause that was fighting for the collective spirit. Lora’s story is told in a way that’s superficial and riddled with errors, misconceptions, and stereotypes.
P.S. AUTHOR’S NOTE (cont’d)
On the back cover of My Brigadista Year is a short statement of praise written by the author’s Cuban friend, Emilia Gallego, who had been a brigadista. She writes, in part, that “It (the campaign) was an experience of solidarity, in the very best sense of what each of us as a human being has to offer.” Yet, in her disingenuous Author’s Note, which she rewrote after the publication of the ARC, Paterson suddenly switches gears to describe the so-called “evils” of Fidel’s Cuba and the National Literacy Campaign. Indeed, she tramples all over the message of her own book, renouncing her whole story—and the Cuban Revolution—apparently for the sake of appeasing criticism from the right-wing emigre community.
In the published ARC, Paterson writes:
Like most Americans, my view of Fidel Castro’s Cuba was largely negative. It is true that from 1959 until his death, Castro presided over a repressive regime, jailing and executing opponents and denying ordinary citizens of the freedoms we Americans take for granted. But he also launched the amazing literacy campaign. And Cubans have for decades received universal free education and health care. (pp. 185-186)
And in the finished copy, Paterson expands her criticism of Fidel, the National Literacy Campaign and the Cuban revolution:
My Brigadista Year is by no means intended to be a full or balanced account of all events occurring in Cuba in the year 1961. Fidel Castro committed many evils against his enemies, some of whom originally fought on his side for freedom from Batista but felt betrayed by the actions of the new government when small farms were seized and innocent farmers relocated or put in camps. From 1959 until his death, Castro presided over a repressive regime, jailing and executing political opponents and sometimes even those considered allies, and denying ordinary Cuban citizens freedoms we Americans take for granted. These freedoms include freedom of expression—widespread censorship, book banning, and even Bible burning have occurred in Cuba since Castro first assumed power. And the literacy campaign was not entirely staffed by idealistic volunteers like Lora. I understand that some families felt the pressure of potential reprisal for non-cooperation, and therefore, some young people might well have felt forced to join the campaign. As the year went on and the goal remained distant, schools were closed and teachers were also conscripted.Yet it is true that Castro had a vision that basic literacy was important for a functioning society and for every Cuban citizen. Moreover, for decades Cubans have received universal free education and health care. (pp. 185-187)
If any of this is true, or if Paterson actually believes this, why didn’t she incorporate it into her story? Why did she instead write a story, imperfect as it is, through the eyes of a young brigadista, a story of how illiteracy was totally eradicated in a tiny impoverished country in less than a year—something that had never been seen before and has not occurred since anywhere—with only the passions and plans of a few people who dreamed a better Cuba, and the hard work of hundreds of thousands of young people who made it a reality? If Paterson believes the essential story she wrote, why then did she take it all back in her Author’s Note? Where is her accountability to herself and to her publisher—and to history, and to her young readers?
Were things better for most Cubans before or after the revolution? And, after all, isn’t that all that really matters? My Brigadista Year is not recommended.
Gracias a mis colegas Rose Berryessa, Oralia Garza de Cortés, Judy Zalazar Drummond, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, y Catherine Murphy.
1 Both book and documentary are highly recommended. To read De Colores’ review of these important resources go to: http://decoloresreviews.blogspot.com/2016/05/un-ano-sin-domingos-la-imagen-de-la.html.↩
2 In several references to this poem, which Lora says is her “favorite,” Paterson inconsistently calls it “The White Rose” and “I Grow a White Rose,” both of which are incorrect.↩
3 emphasis mine↩
4 Although the purpose of these letters was to tell Fidel, “I can read and write,” they all expressed gratitude as well.↩
5 Murphy, Catherine, and Carlos Torres Cairo, Un año sin domingos: la imagen de la alfabetización en Cuba / A Year without Sundays: Images from the Literacy Campaign in Cuba. Ediciónes Aurelia and The Literacy Project, 2014.↩
6 translation mine↩
7 Maestra was produced and directed by Catherine Murphy and is available through Women Make Movies.↩
8 Murphy, Catherine, and Carlos Torres Cairo, op. cit., p. 72.↩
9 emphasis mine↩
10 emphasis mine↩