Recommended for readers 10-14
It’s 1961, and Lora is a 13 year-old girl who signs up to be one of Fidel Castro’s Brigadistas – groups of students, some as young as 8, most between the ages of 10 and 16 – who went into the rural areas of Cuba to spend a year with families, teaching them to read and write. Lora sees this as an opportunity to grow as a student and a person; she wants to be a doctor, and she wants the space to learn and discover on her own. Her parents protest: she’s lived a comfortable life in Havana, why would she want to live in poverty for a year? With some help from her grandmother, Lora’s parents relent, and she joins the Brigadistas, promising to come home if it gets too hard. Lora is placed with a family to teach, and before she knows it, is teaching a neighboring family, too. The group becomes an extended family as she takes part in the daily chores, taking as much encouragement as she gives, but all is not easy: not everyone is in favor of the Cuban Literacy Initiative. Counter-revolutionaries have martyred those who would lift Cuba out of illiteracy in the past, and the Brigadistas know that risk is part of what they’ve signed on for.
This was the first I’ve read about the Cuban Literacy Initiative. It’s a little-talked about moment in history, and it’s fascinating. Lora is a wonderful character who we see coming of age with each turn of the page, and her students consist of parents, grandparents, and children. Things don’t come easily to Lora, but she never gives up, her larger goals in mind, and her determination at her back. This is a short but powerful book that I’d love to see on summer reading lists next year. An overview of the Cuban Literacy Initiative fills provides more information for readers who want to learn more.
Katherine Paterson is the Newbery award-winning author of Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob I Have Loved. You can visit her website to find her bio, information about her books, and interviews with the author.
As our relations with Cuba continue to open, I’d love to read more first-hand accounts from brigadistas and the rural families with whom they lived. Until then, Tulane University’s Roger Thayer Stone’s Center for Latin American Studies has some information on the campaign, and Al-Jazeera posted an interview with a former brigadista.