By Yamylé Fernández Rodríguez/ Radio Cadena Agramonte.
When Maria Arnaiz Barceló remembers her years of youth, her face lights up and a torrent of memories comes to her mind, memories that she doesn’t hesitate to share with this reporter.
Youth dramatically marked this Cuban woman, who is now approaching 70 years of age, because she had the privilege of being part of an experimental brigade of students who arrived in Cayo Coco, in Ciego de Avila –then a territory of a larger Camagüey province- on January 3rd, 1961. Their objective was to gather experiences on how to literate some charcoal burners who lived in that inhospitable cay. Based on their experiences, the nationwide literacy campaign would be drawn up in Cuba.
“I was just about to celebrate my 18th birthday, but my family had always coddled and protected me. My mother raised me in a special way because I was the youngest and had hearing impairments. They had never allowed me neither to cook nor wash my cloth”, María remembers.
“When I knew that they were calling to make an experimental group to teach how to read and write to illiterate people living in the countryside, I gave my willingness to join the group because I had always wanted to be a teacher.
There were schoolmates who said that I wouldn’t stand it, because of the way I had been raised, and even my father didn’t like the idea at the beginning. But as he was a Communist and had taught us that one has to fulfil one’s commitments, I told him that I had committed to that task and will fulfil it.”
Along with Maria, Sara Ramos and Rafaela Varona were part of the group that Camagüey-resident teacher Marcelo García had formed. The rest of the experimental brigade were boys, and that posed a challenge because of male chauvinism that prevailed in the Cuban society of the 1960’s.
Arriving in Cayo Coco was impressive for the young members of the experimental brigade.
They were girls and boys that were not used to living in the wild, because they were city people who enjoyed electricity and other comforts that did not exist in that remote place.
They stayed 28 days in that inhospitable spot, and that meant being in contact with the harsh way of living: long walks, fishing, charcoal burning, which were the daily chores of the few people living there.
Once that mission ended, Maria and his colleagues shared their experiences with the members of the Comisión Nacional de Alfabetización (National Literacy Committee) and started to advise the brigades that were formed in different municipalities. Afterwards they also advised some of 100,000 youth that were being trained in Varadero, to accomplish the great educational feat that took place in 1961.
“The US-backed mercenary invasion of Bay of Pigs occurred in the very same year. We had been asked to go to Ciénaga de Zapata (Zapata Swamp) to literate its inhabitants, because that attack wouldn’t stop the Literacy Campaign, so I went there.
“There I was welcomed by a family where there were eight children, so I became another one. I remember that I helped the old lady to wash big bundles of cloth by hand, and once I got an infection in my skin because of mosquito bites, so I had to go back home.
“My dad wanted me to stay in the city of Camagüey, but I returned to the swamp, but before leaving I picked up some toys for the poor children who lived in that place and had never seen a real toy in their lives.
“I remember that I took there a talking doll. That was wonderful for everyone because that 50-year-old lady had never seen something like that. Two days after that they had already broken the doll, they had took it to pieces to see how it could talk.
Anecdotes like this one illustrate the ignorance that ruled, not only in Cayo Coco or in the Zapata Swamp, but also in most parts of rural Cuba, so it was extremely important to teach how to read and write to almost one million fellow country people.
After that beautiful exploit, Maria Arnaiz continued studying till she graduated as a journalist and became a civilian worker of Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior in Camagüey.
Today, she observes with pride how that bleak place – to where she went to take the light of knowledge 50 years ago - has completely changed and it features medical services, schools, highways, recreational facilities and daycare centers.
In today’s social achievements, we can also see the contribution of Maria Arnaiz Barceló and all those who won the battle against ignorance.