Granma | 16 September, 2016
Miguel Ángel Ariza Rodríguez was a member of the Association of Young Rebels at the age of just 15. On May 17, 1961, he joined the Literacy Campaign.
“In my house we sympathized with the Revolution. Already in ’61 I was a member of the National Revolutionary Militia and the call to teach literacy arose.
“There are events that mark a before and after, not only in people, but in the life of a country. The Literacy Campaign was one of those moments in the life of the entire country and in that of the over 100,000 kids like me who participated in that feat.
Without wishing to exaggerate, I would say that I don’t recall the Revolution doing anything as huge in the past 50 years. Back then we did not see it as a great feat, but as the most natural thing in the world, as just another thing done by the Revolution.”
A very difficult year …This is how Ariza remembers 1961, and he does not lack grounds.
“This was the year in which education was nationalized, [the year of] Girón. It was the moment when the United States broke off relations, which have just been reestablished. The attacks from that country also increased, the burning of sugar cane fields and schools, support for internal counterrevolutionary gangs and assassinations of campesinos and teachers. In January they killed Conrado Benitez and then several more.
“In the midst of all that, 100,000 kids left their homes, their comforts and everything surrounding them to go far away, no one knew where, to combat illiteracy. It seemed like a piece of cake. None of us sees himself as someone who did something heroic or markedly significant, but that was the case.”
The young literacy teacher ended up in San Alberto, a community nestled in the present province of Las Tunas. He stayed there for about four months. When his health began to deteriorate he was transferred to El Indio, a poultry farm which was under construction.
Despite previous training he had received in Varadero on the life of campesinos, the things he encountered in both towns seemed otherworldly.
“The Literacy Campaign was not only the elimination of illiteracy; it was also the meeting of two cultures: mine – of an urban town – with a totally different way of life which we also had to modify, in a role resembling that of sanitary social workers.
”We had to see how we could improve conditions for them and we built a latrine. In the house where I was, in order to relieve oneself you went out into the cane field surrounding the house. The two women washed in the bedroom in a sort of washbasin they called a ‘platón’, it was like a giant bowl.
“The well from which the water came didn’t have a wellhead. The drinking water was the rain, which acquired a brown color as it slid down the balsa trees. It was collected in a large clay pot beneath a zinc roof. That was the water that was drunk.
“I had never seen a cow before. The only one I knew of was the one on the cans of condensed milk.”
Miguel Ángel can’t forget the time he and Roberto Funes, the other literacy teacher who accompanied him, arrived in the community in which they would teach.
“When we arrived at the house there were many people, everyone who lived nearby. Barely had we said: ‘Good afternoon!’ and people started clapping.
“I looked at Funes and he looked at me. Neither of us knew what to say and we were so moved our chests tightened. Then one of those gathered shouted: ‘Note the date, today the Revolution came to El Callejón!’ I have never forgotten that moment.”
The city lad – as our interviewee refers to himself – achieved an exchange of cultures painlessly. Thus he convinced Benito, the man of the house where he lived in San Alberto, to build a wellhead at the well. He also identified with the reality and the needs of the people around him.
He learned that the locals “solved everything with concoctions”. Although not for long, he had a room to himself in El Indio and experienced up close the attacks on rural areas by counterrevolutionary groups. Another important experience was that of meeting Soviet advisers on agricultural mechanization.
“Back then everything Soviet was interesting. I knew the Russian alphabet and was motivated to learn the language.
“When the campaign concluded at the end of the year, a tabloid was published with a wealth of wonders, all kinds of degree course, of all types. That was the genius of Fidel. If in the midst of those years of tremendous internal class struggle with an invasion and everything the Revolution had been able to mobilize some 100,000 young people, we could not just go back home or remain in the street at the mercy of what was happening.
“That youth had to be maintained and that’s when the famous scholarship plan emerged. I saw: ‘School for Russian language teachers. Two years, 119 pesos’ and I said to myself, ‘This is my course’.”
With the life experience of 70 years, Miguel Ángel has two unpublished volumes about his days as a literacy teacher. One of them received an award in the competition organized by the Museum of the Revolution on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Literacy Campaign.
During our conversation, he recalled the words of Fidel to the youth who were leaving to serve as teachers in the most difficult conditions, included in the book Tiempo de crecer (Time to Grow):
“When you come back, satisfied having fulfilled your duty, proud for life of what you have done, you will be greater men and greater women.”
Such is the case of this now graying man, marked by an experience that made him a better human being and that helped him abandon all fears before the call of the homeland.