When Shirley Langer moved to Cuba in the ’60s, she never realized she would be a part of what is arguably the biggest social movement in the country’s history.
In 1959, when Fidel Castro and the Revolutionary government took over Cuba, roughly one quarter of the population — more than one million people — were totally illiterate.
Castro said if Cuba was to move forward, economically and socially, he had to end illiteracy in the country — a goal he hoped to achieve by the end of 1961.
Shortly after, Castro began a nation-wide literacy campaign in which 400,000 volunteers, including 100,000 teenagers (ranging from eight to 15 years old) left their homes and travelled to the countryside to teach people to read and write.
The volunteers, also known as brigadistas, would live with learners, often in huts with mud floors, and no electricity or toilets.
“It was an extraordinary event in Cuba’s history,” said Langer, a Victoria resident. “I think of the fact that when you read about history, you read about adults. Adolescents aren’t credited with being part of grand change and yet, these 100,000 teenagers mostly, were in fact right at the heart of the whole movement. The result was that it unified the country.”
But the program was interrupted by the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Despite being cut short, almost a million people learned to read and write through the program. Literacy in the country decreased from 25 per cent to 3.9 per cent in seven months and on Dec. 22, 1961, Cuba declared itself an illiteracy free country.
Langer moved to Cuba with her husband at the tail-end of the campaign in 1964, after hearing about the campaign from friends who lived in the country.
Immediately following the campaign, the government established follow-up education programs around the island and Langer was able to see the long-term effect literacy had on the country.
She would see people studying to get their high school education in cafeterias, factories, in public parks and at their work places.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s when Langer noticed a lack of literature about the success of the literacy campaign and decided to write a novel about it.
“It’s the most successful literacy campaign ever conducted in the world. I thought there’s no novels, nothing for the ordinary reader,” Langer said, adding she had written a collection of short stories, but never a full novel. “So I thought I’d write it.”
Since returning to Victoria in 1969, she has travelled back to Cuba nearly two dozen times, interviewing a number of brigadistas. Her book, Anita’s Revolution, was published in 2012.
Now, her book has been translated into Spanish as part of the 55th anniversary of the literacy campaign last month.
“It’s a great honour that the book of a Canadian has been chosen to represent something that was probably a moment in history that changed everything,” Langer said, adding Cubans continue to hunger for novels to read.
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