Young people in Cuba's revolution: one boy's story

[Ezequiel Morales from the Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (ICAP — the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples) spoke with Hamish Chitts from Direct Action in Brisbane on May 9. This is the final article in a series from Morales’s interview, in which he gives an amazing personal account of his participation as a 10-year-old-boy in the Conrado Benitez Brigade of volunteer teachers that helped overcome rural illiteracy as part of Cuba’s historic 1961 literacy campaign.]

To talk about my participation in the literacy campaign, it’s necessary to talk about the background. When the revolution triumphed on January 1, 1959, we were a population of close to 6 million people. 23.6% of that population were illiterate; 41.6% of the rural population were illiterate and 11.2% of the urban population. There was great disparity between people living in rural areas and in the cities.

Fidel went to the United Nations in 1960 and promised to the world that we would carry out a social process to eliminate illiteracy in only one year. At the end of 1960 there was a great movement in Cuba to organise new teachers to teach the peasants up in the mountains how to read and write. But the enemy of the Cuban people could not stand to see that the call to eliminate illiteracy was going to be fulfilled. They tried to intimidate young volunteer teachers to stop them teaching in the countryside. On January 5,1961, they killed a volunteer teacher, Conrado Benitez. In Cuba whenever we set a goal we try to go to the end. So Fidel called all the young people who wanted to join the literacy campaign to be involved in that goal, and I was one of those people, even though I was only 10 years old.

The reason for joining the literacy campaign, if I tell you it was an ideological decision, I would be telling a lie; I was only 10 years old and I didn’t know what ideology meant at the moment, nor what communism was or anything like that. The only thing I felt was that I was in debt to that big revolution for seeing me in society as a human being. When the revolution triumphed I was only 8 years old, I had already started work, working since the age of 7, shoe shining in the street to support my Mum and brothers to get some food. So I’d shine shoes in the street all day for only 40-45 cents. I would be really humiliated on a daily basis; sometimes I was shining the shoes of a very wealthy person and at the end he’d say, “I don’t like it, do it again”, and I’d have to do it again for the same payment. I paid a teacher 20 cents per week to teach me how to read and write outside of work hours.

Then the revolution came and for the first time I had the chance to go to school. I had a chance to wear a uniform, to wear a tie. I felt very proud, I felt really very confident. When the literacy campaign came, I decided it was necessary to give back to the revolution what it had given me. I decided to join the brigade, named after Conrado Benitez, of teachers teaching rural peasants. It was rather difficult for me because I was only 10 years old and was only in second grade, and it was necessary to be a fourth grader and 12 years old. But I was determined to go. I said, “I have to”. I went to the offices where they recruited the teachers. I talked to a very old lady there who was in charge and I said, “I’m volunteering to do teaching”. The people in that room started laughing and making fun of me because I was this really small kid. “Look at this, this pygmy wants to be a teacher”, they said.

I felt very uncomfortable because they were making fun of me, but that lady said, “You see, be careful, sometimes pygmies become big roosters”. She said, “Okay, come on. Get close to me, show me how you are going to teach the peasant how to read or write”, and she gave me a manual created by the Ministry of Education to teach people. I didn’t know how to teach anyone, I was only a small kid, and the only thing I had was the willingness to go there.

I opened that manual and started reading about the first agrarian law in Cuba. All of a sudden, she said, “Hey, just listen, listen, you are not going to the mountains to read for the peasants; you are going to the mountains to teach them how to read and write”. This gave me the confidence that she would accept me because she said, “You are going to do this ...” I was excited. Then she said, “Okay, what grade are you in?” and I said, “I’m in second grade”. “How old are you?” “Ten years old.” “That’s a problem because you are supposed to be 12 years and in fourth grade.” I said, “But I’m willing to, I’m willing to go there”, and she said, “Okay, let’s make a promise, let’s make a bet. From now on you tell everyone that you are 12 years and you are in fourth grade.” I said, “It’s a deal”, and I kept that promise most of my life.

Then she asked me, “What does your teacher think of this?” I had not asked my teacher’s opinion about me joining the brigade because at school we were preparing for a play to commemorate the first anniversary of the agrarian law and I was the main character. If I quit for the campaign, I was not sure whether my teacher would agree to find a replacement at short notice. I said, “Yes, I talked to my teacher before coming in”. I continued my lie, “I talked to my teacher and she said that she considers me smart enough to go teaching and of course she would support me”. I was then asked, “What about your Mum?” I said, “My Mum, for sure, will support me.” I knew my Mum would support me. And then she gave me 10 Cuban pesos and said, “Well, go to the shops, try to buy some shirts, underwear, some shorts for swimming and a pair of shoes”, and I got everything and I went to my Mum.

With my Mum it was very easy. I told my Mum I decided to go on the literacy campaign and, even though she was a little bit sad because she would miss me, she said, “Okay. Up to now you have been a man to support your family and to work to support me; you are also a man to make your own decision. I will support you. Go to the literacy campaign.” It made me very happy and made me stronger, but I still had the problem of my teacher, whose permission I needed. So, the following day, I went to school early and I saw my teacher as the teachers arrived. I told my teacher, “Yesterday, just by chance, I met with the head of the people organising the literacy campaign and she said she considered it would be appropriate that I went teaching. It was her decision, not mine.” So, my teacher was angry with the organiser, but she respected her. I now had all the permissions I needed. I then went to the organiser, who said, “Tomorrow you’re going to Veradero”. Veradero is a very famous beach in Cuba and was the camp where the literacy brigade trained before teaching in the mountains. I packed everything I had bought in my small bag and was ready to go.

But, when I went home and everyone saw I was about to leave, my Mum was crying and my brothers were crying. It was like they were mourning me. I also started crying and, all of a sudden, I changed my mind. I said, “I’m not going to the campaign, I cannot leave my family here unhappy”. Then I went to the office, talked to the organiser and said, “I changed my mind”. She only said, “Okay, that’s your decision”. I was going to give back whatever I had bought with the 10 pesos, but she did not accept it. She said, “Keep it with you; I know that you’ll need it.”

Then I went back with my small bag again and I was at home. The following day was April 17, 1961, the beginning of Playa Girón, when US-trained mercenaries tried to invade Cuba (known in the US as the Bay of Pigs). Across the street from my house, there was a teenager, 18 years old, who was one of my best friends. He was like an idol to me. Our families were quite close and remain so even to this day. He died at Playa Girón defending Cuba against the mercenaries.

I went to his house and I saw all his family crying for their loss. “It is not fair that Marianito — Mariana was his name — Marianito gave his life defending Cuba and it’s not fair that I’m not going to the campaign just because I will miss my family”, I thought. I went back to the office of the literacy campaign and I told the organiser, “Now I’m going today to the training course”. She told me, “Are you sure? If you are sure, that’s okay. If you are in doubt, don’t tell me because after will you change your mind again.” I said, “No, I’m going to the literacy campaign”. And that very night I headed to Veradero by train, all night long. In the train, it happened that I got along with two small kids of similar age to mine who were on the train — they were with their parents — and we were hanging around and they were giving me cookies and sweets and candy.

We were just small kids hanging around, playing, running all over the coach, and they really liked me, and we get along with each other perfectly up to one moment. One of the ladies, the mother of one of those kids asked me, “Are you going to Veradero on holidays?” and I told her, “No, no, no, I have never been on holiday”. I didn’t know what it really meant. I came from a very poor family. I told her, “No, I’m not going to a holiday, I’m going because I have a training course to be a teacher to teach the peasants how to read and write”. It was a very big mistake because, from that moment on, all that love they had shown me turned to hate. It happened that these were people who had decided to go to Miami because they were against the revolution. They started hating me and they said, “Ah, listen, this is a small Mau Mau”. Mau Mau was a name given by opponents to a revolutionary who fought with Fidel in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

After a long night, I arrived in Veradero and started my training course. I was lucky enough to meet Conrado Benitez’s father, Diego. They called me to introduce me to Diego and they said, “Look, Diego, at this small brigadista”.

Diego asked me, “Are you a brigadista?” “Yes, I am a brigadista.” He said, “How much is nine times nine?” I didn’t know how much nine times nine was. I have never forgotten that it’s 81, but at the time I didn’t know. And, all of a sudden, I got an answer, I said, “I don’t know how much it is, but the only thing I know is that I will continue and finish the goal your son could not finish because he was assassinated by the bandits”. It was like a hammer in his head. From that moment on, that man became like my father at the camp. I was always hanging around with him, talking to him. I was like an inspiration for him and for all the brigadistas.

After my training course in Veradero I went back to my home town. I really wanted to go to the mountains and teach, but no one wanted to take me. They were afraid of something happening to me, because, at that time, teachers were being assassinated. Finally someone took me to the mountains because he had a very special purpose. His brother was illiterate and he wanted me to teach his brother since he thought his brother was really very stubborn. He said, “Maybe, since you are a small kid, you can convince him”.

I went there and it was very difficult at the beginning. At the very beginning, when I started with this man, I realised he was short-sighted. I took him to my hometown to talk to the literacy campaign officers there. They gave me some paper, I went to a very famous optician in my hometown. My student was prescribed glasses and was finally able to see. I taught him until the end of December, when the literacy campaign finished.

When the literacy campaign finished, we went to Havana to a very important meeting with Fidel in the main square, Revolution Square. We were shouting, “Fidel, Fidel, let us know what do we have to do”. We just shouted that repeatedly until the moment he said, “A few minutes ago, you were asking Fidel, Fidel, let me know what else we have to do. I have a new assignment for you: to study, to study, to study.” He repeated that three times. I had a new goal, a new assignment. I had a scholarship. I went to Havana to finish my primary education with some difficulties because I was classified as a fourth grader, 12 years old, and I got into a group of older people with more education and I thought, “I have to work on four grades in only one year”.

I finished primary education, then secon- dary, then university. At university, I started studying medicine in Havana, but in 1969 there was a need for English teachers and because I had learnt English from a family I had met in Havana, I was asked if I’d become an English teacher. So in 1969 I began teaching, eventually going back to university and becoming a professor of science, specialising in English language.

That’s part of my life, but I would say it is not only terribly important in my life, but also terribly important for all human society. Because from almost one third of the people being illiterate, we could reduce illiteracy to 3.8% in only one year. From that moment on, we started the real revolution in terms of education. Afterwards, we had follow-up courses so that the people could keep improving their reading or writing and begin learning new things. We then set the sixth grade as the median grade for all the people, later the ninth grade, and we continually improved education.

That’s why at present one out of 15 Cubans has a university degree and we have the highest literacy rate in the world. We have also become very famous in terms of education in different parts of the world and we are providing teachers to different countries in Latin America and in Africa. We also have some students from other countries studying for free in my country. Cuba has helped eliminate illiteracy in Venezuela, in Bolivia and we are continuing that process throughout Latin America. We are even sending teachers to East Timor and to many countries.

Ezequiel Morales (left) in 1961.