Penn State

Esther Prins - Professor, Lifelong Learning and Adult Education Program, Penn State University Park

Book Title: Maestra (teacher)

Author: Catherine Murphy

Book Description:

Maestra tells the remarkable story of the 1961 Cuban literacy campaign, which sought to alleviate stark rural-urban inequities in education and adult literacy. The illiteracy rate was as high as 42% in rural areas. In one year, about 250,000 volunteers—including 100,000 urban, school-aged youth—taught more than 707,000 people to read and write. By the campaign’s end, experts estimate that the national illiteracy rate had dropped from about 25% to 4%.

As a scholar who focuses on adult literacy education, I have been fascinated by the Cuban literacy campaign as a social and educational movement. As Maestra shows, the experience was as life-altering for volunteer teachers—many of them young women who had never left home—as it was for the adults who learned to read and write. The youngest volunteer was seven, the oldest learner 106.

The film is personally meaningful because I visited Cuba in 2015. I met filmmaker Catherine Murphy and Cuban literacy scholars Luisa Campos and Felipe Pérez, visited the National Literacy Museum, and heard a former literacy volunteer recount her experiences. I then invited Murphy, Campos, and Pérez to visit Penn State in 2016 to screen Maestra and discuss the literacy campaign.

This film reminds us that millions of adults are still pursuing literacy to manage their own affairs, reclaim their dignity, and craft an identity as an educated person.

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