• Professional educator recalls her days as a literacy teacher
Yenia Silva Correa
THIRTY nine years of experience and a love of teaching, which finally attracted her more than Medicine. This is the case of Yara Luisa Cárdenas Cepero.
It couldn’t have been any other way for someone initiated in the art of teaching at the age of nine during Cuba’s Literacy Campaign, and who was never able to leave the classroom.
This popular literacy teacher’s recollections of that period are many and arrive with the clarity that accompanies nostalgia. One of the most meaningful is that of her first students.
"The first person they placed with me was the father of an altar boy in the church that I attended. I remember that I was terrified of dogs. They discovered that fact and when I arrived at their house, they turned the dogs loose so that it would look like I didn’t want to teach them, because I was too frightened to enter the house.
"Nevertheless, the task had been assigned to me and I had to control my fear; I went in and taught them to read and write. In the end they were grateful."
Because she was so young when she participated in the Literacy Campaign, Yara Luisa was not sent to rural areas. She carried out her work in Havana’s Cerro municipality, although, as she emphasizes, it was no easy task.
"At that time it was a municipality with much social inequality and an large number of illiterate people.
"From the cultural point of view, Cerro was very backward, with very little attention to education, which made it difficult to change the area’s social and educational situation, and thus this was one of the places where those in the campaign had to work hard.
Those years of her life concluded with the greatest reward that a literacy teacher can receive: seeing that her pupils had learned to read and write.
As a young girl, Yara taught seven adults and a 15-year-old boy. Having worked with adults at that young age left a profound impression on her.
"Maybe if the task had been to teach children, it wouldn’t have meant so much. Having to confront adults, with what that meant in that period, having to instruct them, was very meaningful and very gratifying.
"There were times when they would say, ‘How is a child going to teach me to read and write?’ and display other racial and gender prejudices. All of that was present in the campaign. However, we overcame all of those obstacles and undertook the work.
A FAMILY OF LITERACY TEACHERS, LIFE AS A TEACHER
Although the Revolution and literacy arrived during the childhood of this teacher, she learned about the new social process which the country was experiencing from her family.
Her older siblings also participated in the campaign and the support of everyone in her family for the new society that was being constructed was evident.
"Within my family, one lived and breathed an appreciation and great affinity for the Revolution. My parents immediately became involved in tasks to be undertaken and, of course we, their four children, likewise had the obligation to contribute, each according to our age and abilities.
"To be able to participate in something which pleased my family was a new opportunity in the lives of poor people. We had to be the first to contribute to development and to all the tasks."
Once the Literacy Campaign ended, new efforts began in the field of education. Scholarship programs, high school and college studies, training for teaching careers.
None of this was alien to our interviewee, who completed her higher education at Havana’s Teacher Training Institute in 1971.
JOYS AND RESPONSIBILITIES
The impact of the Literacy Campaign on the country was doubtless enriching; with the support of the government and popular participation illiteracy was eliminated within a short period.
During the 1970s and 80s, Cuba offered solidarity assistance to African and Latin American nations in the context of education, by organizing teaching brigades, whose members included more than a few literacy teachers.
Subsequent decades saw the birth of the Yo sí puedo (Yes I Can) Cuban literacy program and its sequel Yo sí puedo seguir (Yes I Can Do More). Yara Luisa Cárdenas, a Ph.D. in Education Science, participated in all these missions.
Directing the Manuel Ascunce Domenech Teacher Training Brigade, supervising the educational mission in the People’s Republic of Angola, being head of department and assistant dean of the Biology Faculty of the Teachers Training Institute, directing the university satellite program in Havana’s Marianao municipality, taking the Yo sí puedo program to Mexico, and the Yo sí puedo seguir module to Bolivia, have inculcated the life of this teacher with "joys and responsibilities."
After an entire life dedicated to teaching, I ask her what it means for her to be an educator.
"The work and the figure of the teacher were defined by José de la Luz y Caballero when he said that it is the living gospel. The second definition was made by the Comandante en Jefe in 1981, at the graduation of the Teaching Brigade when he laid down the characteristics which teachers should have.
"Cuba has a very strong pedagogical legacy in the image of those first educators who had to confront different historical stages and maintain instruction at a high level, above all with a revolutionary sense of change and transformation.
"I don’t believe that I can consider myself that kind of an educator, but to aspire to that, and thank the Revolution for having given many people that opportunity."