Here is a photo of Ezequiel Morales (on the left) when he was a ten-year-old school boy who volunteered for revolutionary Cuba’s first literacy brigade in 1961, an historic campaign that took the Cuba’s literacy rate from 60% to 96% (one of the highest in the world) in just one year.
So how did this 10-year old join the 100,000 students who fanned across the countryside teach the peasant farmers how to read and write? I asked him this question after a meeting in the Sydney Resistance Centre on the reforms being discussed in Cuba today.
Ezequiel was the oldest of five children in a poor peasant family in the eastern part of Cuba. Before the revolution against the Batista regime the family could not afford to send the children to school. Ezequiel worked shining shoes for the richer people and the money he earned went towards the family’s survival. But he managed to save a little bit to pay someone who knew how to read to teach him a little.
After the revolution he could go to school and he was in Grade II when the literacy brigade was launched. When a young teacher was killed in the countryside by counter-revolutionaries for daring to teach the peasants to read, it fired Ezequiel and many other students to make their contribution to the revolution.
“I was only 8 when the revolution took place so I could not join it then but in 1961 through the literacy brigade I could play my part for the revolution.”
Ezequiel bluffed his way into the brigade by pretending he was 12 years-old and in Grade IV (a bluff that later meant he had to work extra hard to complete his education because he had to compress several years study to catch up).
He also convinced the head of the literacy campaign recruiting unit that his school teacher had recommended that he join the brigade and at the same time he convinced his teacher that the literacy unit leader had done the same.
He was accepted into the literacy brigade, given an allowance (“more money than I had ever had before”) and a set of new clothes to replace the rags he had worn before.
“I got my very first pair of underpants then!”
With his mother’s blessing he finally was sent, after a short training, into the countryside to teach a peasant to read.
“When I got there the villagers teased me: ‘Are you a brigadista or just a scale model?
“Others in the village laughed at my task. They said this peasant would never read and write because his hands were too big and rough. And they were big.
“Even my new ‘student’ was doubtful. He said that he had got by up until then just marking ‘X’ instead of writing his name.”
But before he could try to disprove these taunts, he discovered was that this peasant was very short-sighted and couldn’t even see the letters on a page. So Ezequiel had to go back to town to arrange spectacles for his student. Only then the teaching could begin.
“When he got his spectacles he was amazed at what he could see!”
Working in the fields with his student, Ezequiel sparked the peasant’s interest by reading to him about the land reform, explaining that when he was given his own land he would have to read and count so he could take his products to market, etc. It was the approach of the lengendary Paulo Freire – though at the time Ezequiel had never heard of him. And it worked!