Alma y cómo obtuvo su nombre // Alma and How She Got Her Name

author: Juana Martinez-Neal
illustrator: Juana Martinez-Neal 
Candlewick Press, 2018 

Our young protagonist has a long name—Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela. Her name is so long that writing it on the back of a photograph requires her to tape an extra piece of paper to the bottom. “It never fits,” she grumbles to her papi, who decides that this is the perfect time to tell her the stories of her many names—and gives her the emotional room to “decide if it fits.”

In Alma’s search for her identity, Martinez-Neal tells a gentle story of family culture and history and fills it with illustrative detail that will encourage the youngest readers to embark on their own journeys of self- and family discovery. 

Alma’s papi opens their blue family album. Its photos carry everyone’s story and, as Alma learns about her ancestors, she sees the connections between them and herself. In some of the illustrations, Alma steps into a photograph and meets a relative; for instance, lighting a candle with her curandera great-aunt Pura, who turns around and smiles at her. And as she draws or paints a representation of each of her forebears, she happily takes in what is special about that person by adding another name to her own.

The left side of several pages and some double-page spreads as well depict our niñita, in pink-striped overalls, on her adventure; while some pages on the right side depict old photos of the ancestors whose names she carries. Youngsters may ascertain that the pink tones indicate the present, while the blue and blue-gray tones represent the past. As the pages turn, some of the blues—such as a family photo album, the books, an old trunk and its contents—are gifts from her ancestors and move to the contemporary side.

On every page, Alma wears a red mal de ojo bracelet, a charm her great-aunt had tied around her wrist when she was born to keep her safe and connected. As well, a tiny bird, her companion and support—is the first to notice the relatives and continues to interact with them—and is always present to guide her. 

Martinez-Neal’s design employs lots of white space and limits her palette to pinks, blues and blue-grays. For the cool and warm grays on the pages that depict historic photographs of Alma’s ancestors, she used Prismacolor pencils and graphite, then reversed and transferred the art to handmade textured acrylic paper. For the blues and pinks on the pages that depict contemporary scenes, she painted directly onto the paper. As the story progresses, youngsters will discern past and present coming together in Alma’s life. 

In both the English and Spanish versions, everything that Alma sees and labels—including a large map, many countries of which, with her little bird's assistance, she’s connected with the red string of her bracelet—is lettered in Spanish. Since Alma is Peruvian, this makes cultural sense.

Martinez-Neal renders each of Alma’s ancestors’ names in different blue typefaces to highlight what is special about them, and, on one of the last pages, Alma’s own first name tops the list. On the last page is a photograph of a smiling Alma, her little bird happily perched on her head. Alma is cradling a book that she has made; it’s entitled, “My History,” and taped to her photo is a piece of paper on which she’s written the name that belongs to no one else in her family. “That’s my name,” she says, “and it fits me just right! I am Alma, and I have a story to tell.”

In hinting at some things, it’s clear that Martinez-Neal leaves a lot for interpretation, illustrating the family’s continuum without words. For instance, there’s a photo of Alma’s abuela, Sofia, sitting alone. Next to her is a young jasmine-looking plant in a small pot. On the facing page the grown plant, in a blue pot, frames father and daughter, who are sitting together. As such, Martinez-Neal illustrates these familial relationships while providing space for young readers to finish the story in ways that are meaningful to them. 

Youngest readers (and older readers as well) will relate to Alma y cómo obtuvo su nombre and Alma and How She Got Her Name, and teachers and librarians will find tons of teachable moments here. Both versions of this loving story are highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 1/1/18)

La Princesa and the Pea

author: Susan Middleton Elya  
illustrator: Juana Martinez-Neal 
Putnam, 2017 
preschool-grade 3 

La Princesa and the Pea is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s popular tale, “The Princess and the Pea,” here set in a Peruvian village. Throughout, Elya uses mostly English with some Spanish. The queen is “la reina,” and she’s got some serious control issues around her son, “el príncipe.” 

Aligning it with the familiar tale, Elya uses a simple and effective rhyme scheme to move the story along. She includes  Spanish words into the rhymes and, perhaps most importantly, the words are not translated on the page. Instead, they are red and there is a glossary at the end of the book, if you need it. I would not go as far to say this is a bilingual book, but I would say it is a book that appreciates the Spanish language.

For me, what elevates this book is Juana Martinez-Neal’s illustrations. Rendered in acrylics, colored pencil and graphite on textured paper, they are gorgeous, intricate, and funny. I mean, really, laugh-out-loud funny.

First, there is la reina. She is not pleased. She wears a red llicila (shawl) with a repeated pattern of little people on it, and a deep red montera (hat) that often hosts her cat, who is equally unimpressed. No woman is ever going to be good enough for her son, and she seems always on the verge of pinching or throwing a shoe (although I may be giving her some of my own abuela’s attributions).

Juana Martinez-Neal has lovingly given us a book that reflects her own Peruvian culture. She includes a vast array of woven patterns, deep reds and oranges throughout. But, most importantly, she provides people who represent a spectrum of Peruvian-ness.

Some of the characters wear chullos (hats with ear flaps) while some women are wearing monteras (wide brimmed hats that form a sort of bowl). The peoples skin tones are all different shades, which shows young readers diversity, even within a single ethnicity. Oh, and the chickens, roosters, and guinea pigs that are in constant motion provide yet another reason to come back to this book over and over again.

So, if and when you are willing to ditch Skippyjon Jones (see in favor of actual Latinx representations, La Princesa and the Pea is recommended.

—Laura Jiménez

An earlier version of this review first appeared in Laura Jiménez's blog, Booktoss ( We thank Laura for permission.

Marta! Big & Small

author: Jen Arena 
illustrator: Angela Domínguez 
Roaring Brook Press 2016 
preschool-grade 2

In this super-sweet Spanish-English picture book of perspectives and opposites, a beyond-adorable little girl—with hair tied back and dressed for action and comfort in a plain white t-shirt, with purple shorts and sneakers and a matching backpack—traverses through a tropical jungle-like scenario, where she is compared to all the creatures she encounters. 

Domínguez’s art, which she begins with pencil sketches on illustration board, on top of which she glues tissue paper and then digitally adds layers of color, are in perfect partnership with the limited text. The book is elegantly designed, with mostly double-page spreads that contain lots of white space.

Rather than the often-used, obnoxiously italicized Spanish words, here the English and Spanish are placed in different fonts that balance each other: the English in an unadorned black sans serif and the Spanish in a playful orange display font. 

The smooth repetition that begins each spread with a particular animal’s perspective of Marta in Spanish, followed by the English (with the adverb “very” inserted between duplicate adjectives, the happy result of which joins the two languages and slows down the reading), is rhythmic and natural—and at the same time, hilariously overdramatic. 

On each double-page spread, Marta and one of her particular characteristics is shown in relationship to a particular animal. On one, for instance, there is a lion roaring, and children will see only the beast’s huge mouth and little Marta, covering her ears. And on four spreads, youngsters will learn that, to a huge snake, Marta could be—(¡Ay, que no!)—“sabrosa. Tasty, very tasty…” But when she outwits the reptile by scampering up a nearby tree, the disappointed snake has to admit that she is “ingeniosa. Clever, very clever.” 

One of the final spreads, in which English predominates, “summarizes” the story in six mini-drawings that show how Marta and each animal are different. Another is a glossary in which the Spanish predominates. It’s headed by, in English, “Marta is” and “Marta meets.” And between these two is a spread in which our young protagonist is at home, in her own little “art studio” of sorts, with all that she needs to create her own story. A butterfly has landed on her finger, and she’s smiling widely.

The balanced mix of Spanish and English here is delightful and unlike many picture books created for young children, Marta! Big & Small contains no explanatory text. It’s a fun read-aloud, perfect for bilingual classrooms of hablantes learning English and English-speakers learning Spanish—or, even better, in an environment where children are encouraged to call out a word or phrase they know or can intuit from the pictures. 

“Marta is una niña…an ordinary girl,” the story begins. And it ends with: “And clever, very clever, like una niña.” Indeed, there is nothing ordinary about this clever story, the art, or the use of language. Marta! Big & Small is highly, highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/26/17)

Anita’s Revolution

author: Shirley Langer 
Shirleez Books, 2012 
grades 9-12 


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.


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.


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. 

Meanwhile, Anita’s best friend, Marci, whose family will soon be “taking the ninety” (joining the exile community in Miami), tells Anita what her parents think of the literacy campaign and of the impoverished people who are illiterate:

“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.”


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.


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.


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.  
Flor Tamayo


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.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/22/17)

Gracias a mis colegas, Oralia Garza de Cortés, Judy Zalazar Drummond, y Lyn Miller-Lachmann.

My Brigadista Year

author: Katherine Paterson
Candlewick Press, 2017; grades 7-up


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!”

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


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.”


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.”


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)

And when Lora meets a much lighter-complected girl, she is entranced:

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)
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.


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!”


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


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)

Here, Paterson, through her characters, belittles the Spanish language. Accent marks remind readers where to put emphasis, and there’s an occasional spelling of a name that goes outside the “rules.” These skills are easy to teach and easy to learn. Recognizing the relationship between the spoken word and the written word is the definition of “literacy.” And it would be highly unlikely for a campesino who is learning to read and write to criticize the person whose vision and leadership brought him this important skill.


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.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 12/17/17)

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:
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