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Mount examines women’s role in eliminating Cuban illiteracy

1961 saw a large deployment of teachers from cities to throughout the countryside; Cuba still has one of the world’s highest literacy rates

May 18, 2022

Continuing Mount Saint Mary’s University’s celebration of women’s accomplishments worldwide and their historical significance, the Center for Diversity, Equity and Justice hosted a screening of the 2011 documentary movie “Maestra,” [“Teacher”], co-sponsored by the education department, film studies, the Center for the Advancement of Women and women and gender studies.

Narrated by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, the movie highlights the 1961 movement in Cuba to eliminate illiteracy in one year. Prior to the campaign, many people living outside the major cities were unable to write their own names and were forced to provide thumbprints in lieu of signatures.

250,000 or so volunteer teachers were dispersed throughout the nation to teach approximately 707,000 Cubans to read and write. More than half of the teachers were women or girls; 100,000 were under the age of 18. The youngest to pass the teaching test was a seven-year-old girl; she was paired with a 40ish-year-old man who respected her ability to guide him.

“’Maestra’ is an important contribution to the history of the Americas,” says Krishauna Hines-Gaither, PhD, vice president of equity, diversity and justice. “During a time when women were discounted, the maestras charted a new cartography. Filmmaker Catherine Murphy did a wonderful job of providing a platform whereby Cuban women were able to tell their stories in their own voices. Thousands of ordinary Cubans joined forces to eradicate a national problem. This film exemplifies what it means to help thy dear neighbor without distinction.” 

Filmmaker Catherine Murphy and one of the maestras (teachers) featured in the film, Norma Rita Guillard Limota, were on hand to discuss the film and the historical significance of the campaign to the Mount community.
Filmmaker Catherine Murphy and one of the maestras (teachers) featured in the film, Norma Rita Guillard Limota, were on hand to discuss the film and the historical significance of the campaign to the Mount community.

Murphy, of the nonprofit Women Make Movies, as well as one of the film’s featured interviewees, Norma Rita Guillard Limota, were on hand to discuss this historical campaign. Limota, who is “in the process of retiring” from a career as a psychologist, researcher and feminist who fights racial and sexual discrimination, was all of 14 when she became a teacher. She described growing up in a household in which her mother was a seamstress and her father a tailor: “I thought I knew poverty,” she said, but she was shocked to find her host family slept on dirt floors and their fields served as their bathroom.

Despite the push by the Fidel Castro-led government, the campaign was not without its difficulties. Urban parents were reluctant to send their children to become brigadistas (volunteers) in rural areas, often without electricity or running water. Their kids, on the other hand, often viewed the project as a way to gain some independence by living among the campesinos (peasants). For them, it was an adventure, albeit one with responsibility.

The parents’ concerns were not completely unfounded. There were insurgents who were against the idea of the campesinos gaining knowledge and would go to homes at night demanding “bring out the literacy teachers,” and at least one teacher was killed. Rather than succumbing to fear, however, the incident made the remainder more determined to fulfill their mission. One woman told of her father and cousins showing up to “rescue” her only to find that she refused to leave.

As for the campesinos, although some men were reluctant to have their wives learn to read and write, most people were excited at the opportunity. It became a status symbol to have a brigadista attend a family’s birthday or wedding celebration.

After the year had passed, the brigadistas returned home via train and were welcomed by throngs of citizens in a scene reminiscent of a ticker-tape parade for a world championship team. In 1962, UNESCO declared Cuba free of illiteracy.

The eight women featured in “Maestra” went on to a variety of careers – teaching, yes, but also acting, translating, urban planning and medicine. Yet they all remain proud of what they accomplished 60 years ago. “Teaching is an art,” one says. “It’s beautiful at any age.”

Beautiful and inspirational. “I have worked in education for some time now, and hearing what the maestras were willing to do to teach their students to read and write energized me to work harder,” says Angela Abruzzi, senior instructional designer. “I love what we do at the Mount even more now. Like our CSJs, the maestras worked tirelessly in service of the dear neighbor.”

Hines-Gaither has been pleased with the response to the programming this spring and urges those interested in the documentary to view it using their Mount credentials. “Filmmaker Catherine Murphy and her production team have offered to work with our film department and with our students on a collaborative project. Those details will be shared at a later time.”


Note: Other recent events celebrating historic contributions of women include:

An in-person Mount celebration of the American Women Quarters program minting a quarter featuring world renowned writer and activist Maya Angelou.

A virtual screening and discussion about “Reflections Unheard” about Black women in the Civil Rights Movement. As with “Maestra,” that film can also be viewed by anyone signing in with Mount credentials.