Radio Cadena Agramonte
Thursday, September 24, 2020
Friday, December 16, 2011

Cuba’s Literacy Campaign Made Orlando’s Adolescence Unforgettable

By Yamyle Fernández and Arailaisy Rosabal / Radio Cadena Agramonte.

Orlando Rodríguez' life inspired Cuban film-maker Octavio Cortázar to shot El Brigadista.For Orlando Rodríguez Martínez, the memories of his adolescence left a special mark in his life, because at the age of 16 he had the privilege of being part of a pilot group of literacy educators, that was founded prior the massive Literacy Campaign that would take place in Cuba in 1961, in a bid to definitely eradicate the darkness of ignorance.

At that time, Orlando, along with other boys, was one of the student movement leaders in the city of Camagüey. Then, the Ministry of Education called them to join a group that would gather experience in teaching illiterate peasants how to read and write, before doing this job on a larger scale.

Orlando remembers that there was a teacher in Camagüey respected by all; his name was Marcelo García, and he accepted to lead that mission.  

“Marcelo came to the Association of Students to pick up the candidates of that mission and he selected 12 students, among whom I was. The place chosen to the trial was Cayo Coco, which belonged to Camaguey province that time.

“It was on December 31, 1960, when we bid our parents goodbye and parted to Cayo Coco which was an inhabited and very bleak place where only a few families of charcoal burners lived”.

Upon their arrival to Punta Alegre, in the current Ciego de Avila province, they were told that they couldn’t continue because a Yankee invasion was impending, however these young people ratified that they would not step back and after several negotiations they managed to reach their destination.

Memories flow and it seems as if Orlando were watching that place again, a far cry of the tourist resort it is today.

“Once in Cayo Coco we started to do our job. At the beginning the charcoal makers were reluctant to be taught, they said that it wasn’t necessary to read or write because they had live a life without it and for making charcoal they didn’t need such knowledge”.       

It was not easy for these young educators –made up by nine boys and three girls- to convince those peasants of how important was to be literate. That’s why they decided to become part of that community.

“We immediately took on the task to do the same works they did, chop wood and make charcoal. After several days doing this they made up their minds”.  

Orlando Rodríguez and his comrades stayed only 28 days in Cayo Coco and then they were replaced by other literacy educators who went on the job they had started.   

The pilot brigade of literacy educators returned from that remote key after having gathered a lot of experience which was very helpful to prepare the great educational feat that was coming up and that would teach how to read and write to some 700,000 Cubans.

“We came back to Camagüey and after that we were taken to Havana where we met the members of the Comisión Nacional de Alfabetización (National Literacy Committee). Following that meeting, the board decided to make some arrangements to the spelling book; we suggested that it would be necessary to distribute spectacles to those peasants with sight impairments and hand more pencils because they lasted a very short time in the calloused hands of the charcoal burners”.  

Furthermore, the pilot brigade of literacy educators opened new opportunities to women in the island nation because the female gender was well-represented in the campaign.

“We have to place ourselves in that time, in which male chauvinism prevailed, and girls had to overcome the prejudices of that society to go along with boys to the most far-off spots, says Orlando who exalts what his comrades Sara Ramos, María Arnáiz and Rafaela Varona and many other girls did.   

After those experiences, Los Coquitos – as poet and educator Raúl Ferrer christened these 12 boys and girls- formed other pilot groups that were sent to several municipalities of Camagüey and even to other provinces.

Afterwards, when the Conrado Benítez Brigades were set up –paying homage to the teacher who was murdered by US-backed counterrevolutionary bandits on January 5th, 1961- they also helped to train the new literacy educators in a camp established in Varadero.   



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Orlando tells us that after having shared their experiences in Cayo Coco, he and his comrades asked to be relocated in the most remote areas of Cuba.

“I was taken to the Zapata Swamp, especially to a place known as Maniadero; a hard to reach area, where I managed to teach 24 people”.

In that area, where marshland is an integral part of the landscape, the then young Orlando Rodríguez had to adapt to the way of life of those who lived in the swamp, consequently he was forced to cut down trees with an axe and even go hunting crocodiles.      

Years later his anecdotes were heard by filmmaker Octavio Cortázar, who met Orlando and other comrades. Orlando’s anecdotes were included into the story that the film El Brigadista -starred by actor Patricio Wood- narrates.

With a life like his it is impossible that someone can forget his adolescence, even when half a century has passed.

Definitely, Cuba’s Literacy Campaign was an event that marked forever the life of this Camagüey-born teacher.