By Rolando Sarmientos Ricard /Radio Cadena Agramonte collaborator
Some 50 years ago, I met René Cardona Fuentes in Romanillo -near Morón, in the current Ciego de Ávila province- where there were merely 12 thatched huts inhabited by peasants and sugar cane cutters.
Cardona Fuentes was the youngest of five members of the “Conrado Benítez” Teachers Brigade who had arrived that place carrying a small khaki rucksack, a spelling book, a teacher's manual and a kerosene pressure lantern made in China to literate almost everyone in the hamlet.
“When the Literacy Campaign started in 1960, I just had finished elementary school and my father didn’t want me to join the Brigade. I insisted and bid my parents goodbye in the municipality of Florida –some 46 km northwest of Camagüey on the way to Havana- not knowing that I would be located in a very remote place, specifically in the house of a peasant whose name was Mercedes Borroto Muñoz, but known by her moniker Chea. There I had to teach eight illiterate people and share with them the most arduous tasks in the countryside”.
Romanillo was then a place where orange trees belonging to Troya Amador brothers, other fruit trees and the sugar canes were copious during spring, blocking the narrow main road, so people would go to Mijial – a crossroad between Pina and Morón- to enter the hamlet, or even the further El Naranjo, a place where there were no schools, family doctor offices or other social services, but a tiny grocery store. These conditions of isolation in the middle of a sugarcane plantation were ideal for counterrevolutionary bandits who moved from Cunagua hills to El Escambray mountain range and vice versa.
“I remember how those bandits hurried past in every direction in the early hours, and how to protect Romanillo’s inhabitants and us teachers; the peasants organized a militia armed with hunting shotguns, some revolvers and machetes.
“However, in order to collect our $ 10 pesos monthly stipend, on several occasions we had to go on horseback to El Naranjo, which though it is today a tourist area, was simply a grocery store on the bank of a river 50 years ago. I used to ride a mare which hated me as hell, because only her owner could ride her and she tried to bite me all the way. She hated me so badly that some years after the literacy campaign I came to that place and she recognized me and even tried to bite me again, even when she was old and injured because she had been hit by a thunder.
“Chea gave me shelter in her home as if I were a little child. I shared with her family the best moments, but also I had to cross long banana fields loading heavy water buckets. She was the heaviest person in the surroundings. Once she visited me in Florida and I had to open wide the front two-leaf door of my house so that she could enter.
“I taught eight peasants how to write and read, and trained other five literacy workers before participating in the national rally on December 22nd, 1961 in Havana that marked the historic day when Cuba was proclaimed an illiteracy-free country.”
René who is today a retired worker of the building sector in Camagüey province, who made great contributions to the hydraulic program also masterminded by Fidel Castro, agrees with those four literacy workers of Romanillo, and with other 100,000 countrywide that:
“We not only left our houses in a very difficult political and economic moment to teach and educate, but also built rustic schools with the help of the locals and proved that diarrhoea and vomits were not evil eye, but a disease that can be prevented and healed if they boiled water, cooked appropriately their food or visited the doctor instead of the medicine man.
“We proved that the lights that appeared near old Romero’s home were not wandering souls, but will-o'-the-wisps; that when a hen crows like a rooster and when a barn owl hoots it doesn’t mean that someone is going to die, that we don’t have to cover mirrors with a blanket while it is thundering.
“To sum up, Nelson Mantilla, Francisco Alonso, Pablo Rodríguez (already dead), Rolando and I, the five literacy workers of Romanillo, learnt from the peasants the purity and innocence of their feelings as well as the riches of nature. Beside, we got blisters on our hands while taught Revolution”. (Photos: Manuel Cano Sarabia and Orlando Durán Hernández/Translated by Gualveris Rosales Sánchez).