WWW: “Maestra” – The Cuban Literacy Campaign

Maestra - Ivonne - Adria - Santana

Ivonne and Adria Santana, 1961 – from the film “Maestra”

Today, Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. This hasn’t always been the case. Prior to the revolution, census data identified nearly a quarter of Cuba’s population, mostly rural, as illiterate. Within a decade, that number dropped to less than 4 percent despite a substantial defection of school teachers to the United States. How?

In 1961, the revolutionary government initiated a program of mass participation, dispatching volunteer, young, literate Cubans to teaching assignments across the country. Rural families hosted this new generation of teachers (over a quarter million total) in their homes, and in exchange, the people of the countryside were taught to read and write. A culture of literacy was born on the island.

“Maestra” is a documentary (33 minutes) by Catherine Murphy, focusing particularly on the young girls who participated as teachers. The focus on young girls is interesting, as Cuba of the 1950s was dominated by a staunchly patriarchal family structure. Girls who wanted to participate had to enter an intense process of negotiation with their families—a process the filmmakers call a “teenage girl uprising.” 

“Maestra” tells the story of the literacy campaign through the recently gathered testimony of nine women who participated in 1961. A preview of the award-winning film is available at the film’s website. If you order or rent the film for your class, an educator’s guide with discussion questions is available free online.

Hope this is useful,


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