Rally held in 1961 in Havana, Cuba.
Nineteen percent of Alameda County residents over the age of 16 lack basic prose literacy skills, according to The National Center for Education Statistics’ 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.
Meanwhile, the small, relatively isolated island of Cuba is ranked among the most literate countries in the world, with a literacy rate of 99.8 percent.
The island’s stellar education record can be traced back to the1961 Cuban Literacy Campaign - a year-long education drive to eradicate illiteracy. The nascent revolution’s watershed moment is the subject of a film by Catherine Murphy - “Maestra” - which screens this Tuesday, June 19, as part of the Oakland Innovation Film Lab.
Murphy, who grew up in the Bay Area, traveled to Cuba in 1992 for a research project and stayed for 10 years. When she met a group of influential women who lived through the revolution, she was intrigued by how much they valued their role in the literacy campaign.
“In spite of having done all these important things, they felt like the most important thing they had done was worked on the literacy campaign,” she said. “It seemed like there was a larger story there.”
“Maestra” (teacher) explores the campaign through the voices of women who participated.
“In the 1950s the paradigm for women was very limited,” Murphy said.
Women in Cuba and elsewhere were largely confined to the domestic sphere and the literacy drive - which required citizens to leave home and work in remote areas - upended this role. More than half of the 250,000 volunteers were women, Murphy said, and most were teenagers.
“When the women negotiated with their parents, they negotiated a level of autonomy that had been previously unknown to Cuban women,” she said. “It became a before and after moment for Cuban women.”
Murphy focused her lens on the campaign’s volunteers rather than pupils because their transformation is an equally significant, though less obvious, outcome, she said.
“Their deepest humanity was awakened; all the teachers say they learned more from their students than they could have imparted," she said. "It’s about the transformative power of giving.”
The literacy campaign of 1961 was about more than teaching people to read. Murphy said it began in earnest the process of razing social divides.
“This project built bridges across race and gender lines, generational lines, across urban and rural divides … it was a huge first step towards a national process of inclusion,” she said.
By screening the film for American audiences Murphy said she hopes to show that in 2012 we can learn a great deal from Cuba’s 1961 crusade.
“We have a massive unsolved problem of illiteracy in the U.S. and it’s pretty invisible,” she said. “It’s so individualized the way we look at it, so people carry this feeling that it’s their fault … I think this is a social problem its not an individual’s problem and if we could start to look at it as everyone’s problem, we could make some real strides towards becoming a healthier country. This experience shows you really can reach near total literacy with people working together.”
“Maestra” screens Tuesday, June 19, with Nabil Elderkin’s “Bouncing
Cats” at 7 p.m. Murphy will take part in the 8:45 p.m. Community
Dialogue on Miseducation, Arts Innovation and International Peacemaking
If You Go
Oakland Innovation Film Lab
When: June 18 – 21
Where: Oakland School for the Arts, 531 19th St., Oakland
Details: Tickets available online at http://oifl.eventbrite.com/