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The Literacy Brigade

By: Lurker

 

 

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The Literacy Brigade

Dear Friends- every time I release a story here it is always with lots of anxiety. I always feel that perhaps this particular story IS NO DAMN GOOD!! However, like always there are parts of this story which make me laugh, and perhaps I am able to share yet another facet of Cuba.So that even if there is room for lots of improvements later (tell me!) I'm happy if you want to read it now! The he central events of this story actually happened, and most of the characters are based upon real people, including, as you might infer, my wife when she was about 9, her older sister when she was 10, and my mother in law, who is the hero of this story.

I

One of the most important of all the goals of the Cuban revolution was the achievement of universal literacy. Of course, there may be some people who exaggerate the successes of the brigadistas a little. I have had some Party members insist that in Batista's time a guajiro who could read a letter was as rare as a priest. But there is no doubt that thousands of high school students, college professors, and even some mid level government officials scattered out into the countryside in search of the illiterates. No efforts were spared to climb the highest mountains and seek out the most ignorant campesinos.
Although most of the work was completed within a few years of the revolution, small pockets of illiteracy existed here and there like a virus waiting to be eradicated. This is the story of Consuelo, a black girl, actually almost a full-grown woman who was located in one of the most remote mountains of the Sierras in 1983, more than twenty years after the literacy brigades began.

Consuelo was found living with her mother, father and several older brothers in a cave near the wood and thatched roof houses of Los Cesares, which is a two hour donkey walk along a dirt trail from Jirimaya, in the Province of Guantanamo. Jirimaya is accessible by four wheel drive jeep when the weather has been particularly settled. Not much has changed in Jirimaya since the time of Marti, because even though the jeeps can get there much of every year, Jirimaya is at the base of a circle of mountains, and even a jeep that gets to Jirimaya can get no further. Raoul Castro made this general area his base of operations for a while but the few soldiers commanded by Raoul had little effect on Jirimaya- not then, and not even much later. Every few years a jeepero from Guantanamo might meet a girl in Guantanamo originally from Jirimaya. Since the mulattas and indias of these mountains are just as attractive and addictive as the girls in the rest of Oriente, every such romance would result in more or less regular jeep service from the mountains down to the coastal plain, at least for a while. The farmers of Jirimaya would take advantage of these commercial opportunities to sell their chickens and pigs- the jeep would save them from having to make the fifteen mile walk to Limonar, which lies on the Guantanamo- Moa road. A fifteen mile jeep ride could spell the difference between profit and none in the pig selling business. .

Los Cesares is even more remote than Jirimaya, since it lies up one of the spurs of the Sierras. No one knows why it has such a pretentious name- surely no Ceaser or Tzar of any kind has ever had any interest in the place. Perhaps there were once two people with the common first name of Cesar who lived there at the same time.

Anyway , Consuelo was discovered living with a large part of her nuclear family in a cave outside of Los Cesares. No one knows how the family survived- they were living in the age before agriculture, and didn't even own a chicken. Probably they went out at night hunting and gathering- hunting the chickens owned by others, and gathering the mangos and other fruits that grew all over the countryside, along with the sacks of corn that were stored in warehouses and given to animals in those wonderful days before the special period.

The people of Los Cesares knew about Consuelo, and they even knew where the cave could be located, but they were afraid of the entire family and therefore kept a respectful distance. Consuelos' father Neno was said to be some kind of witch- not a classically trained Santero or Palero, but a more primitive voodoo type brujo who had the power to cause a baby to be born without a hand, or even to curse one of his neighbors to death. Even the children of Los Cesares didn't go close enough to the mouth of the cave to steal even a single anon, guava or zapote that would fall from the trees nearby . Consuelo's family had almost no contact with the rest of the world. When the children were born, it was said that Neno cut the baby's umbilical cord with a rock. So when the Local Chapter of the Federation of Women in Limonar learned about the existence of these cave dwellers, they knew that the family was undoubtedly in need of many of the social services that the revolution had to offer, and principally, efforts to combat illiteracy.
In fact, the need for social services was intense. The family structure had broken down, both by revolutionary and even pre- revolutionary standards. Consuelo was living with her mother Tata who was the daughter of Neno, who was also the father of Consuelo and therefore the husband of his daughter. Incestuous relations seemed to be the traditional family structure of this particular family, because Neno's brother Nicobar lived in a house in Jirimaya with seven daughters, some of whom also bore him children. Although all of this is considered scandalous by social workers everywhere, it actually goes back to biblical times before God, the very first social worker, began to give people the rules to live by.
The efforts to re-socialize the family was led by Hortensia Blanco Chivas, a strikingly attractive India who was the founder and president of the Federation of Women in Limonar, and who also, in her capacity as Minister of Education for the town of Limonar. Had been the founder of the high school and founder of three different grade schools. Hortensia had volunteered to help the soldiers in the Escambray during the war against the bandits, when the followers of Huber Matos attempted for years to overthrow the revolution and give the country back to the exiles in Miami. Hortensia didn't see any actual fighting during her two years as a volunteer, but she was called on to sew up the wounds of the soldiers who were shot at. One of the these soldiers was her common law husband Moises Ramirez Suarez , who was shot in the leg during a reconnaissance mission. However, Moises was treated not by his wife but by another pretty nurse by the name of Gabriella. People seemed to insinuate that something besides the nurse-patient relationship occurred between these two. And since Moises always remembered Gabriella with fondness, even after she moved away to Santiago de Cuba, this led to years of jealousy, and may even have been the start of the estrangement that Hortensia and Moises later endured, much later, after Hortensia gave birth to 8 of Moise's daughters.

If not for the revolution, Hortensia and Moises would probably have been relatively wealthy plantation owners. Moises' father had emigrated from the Canary Islands in the early part of the century and had eventually bought up a few hundred acres of mountainside that he planted to coffee. About the same time Fidel's father, who came from Galicia, was making his fortune in cattle and sugar about fifty miles away from Limonar in the town of Biran. In those days fifty miles might have been the other side of the country, so probably the Gallego and the Isleno never met, although they would have been comfortable with each other's company at a chamber of commerce meeting, if such a meeting could have been arranged. However, the two Spaniard's sons were destined to meet many times. Moises, although too young for the campaign in the Sierras, volunteered to fight against the bandits when he was 16, and shortly after inheriting his father's acreage, he decided to willingly give it to the workers of Cuba, or to Fidel, however you want to put it, for the sake of universal brotherhood and prosperity . He was a short man with a lot of hair on his chest and his back, who never complained- it would be more accurate to say that he almost never spoke. He was selected by someone in the party to be the manager of the coffee fields of the entire region thereabouts. It may even have been Fidel himself who made this decision, since no issue is too small for Fidel to express his genuine interest. Moises was extraordinarily efficient and conscientious in running the local coffee industry- qualities that were not universal amongst agricultural managers. Soon his former plantation was selected to be one of two seed coffee plantations in the country, dedicated to growing the beans that would be used to plant the coffee fields throughout the land- and this was certainly Fidel's decision. . Moises was then nominated and elected by acclamation to be a delegate to Poder Popular, where he heard all sides of every story, listening to everyone else talk for hours, and then making a decision without hardly speaking himself- sometimes just by moving his hands. But most importantly, Moises Ramirez was famous for his honesty. In all of his life he never stole even one ounce of coffee from the nation's harvest. And if he caught his wife toasting some of the seed coffee over a charcoal fire in the big metal pot behind their house, stirring furiously, maybe just as she was throwing in the handful of sugar that would make the beans roast even hotter without burning- he would either stare at her, or else he would ask "asi?:" 'Asi' in this context, meant, "Did you buy this coffee with your ration book, or did you steal it?" And Hortensia would answer, even more pithily, "y?" which in this context meant " With thousands of pounds lying around everywhere, now you begrudge your family even one cup of coffee?" and " So now everyone can drink coffee whenever they want except for us?" and also "First you were stupid enough to give your land away and now we can't drink coffee anymore?" and even " If it wasn't for me you'd have starved to death years ago. So go away and order somebody else around". And the conversation having ripened in full, Moises would find something else to do. But he would not drink any of the coffee that would be offered him over the next several days, even if offered by one of his eight beloved daughters, and even though this may have been the very best and freshest coffee in the entire world.

Hortensia also came from a coffee growing family. When she was young she had been a champion synchronized swimmer, before that sport was even known in most of the world. How she learned to swim up in the mountains of the Sierras is a mystery- perhaps she practiced in the local creeks, or maybe on family trips to the ocean. Later, her father's plantation had been taken over before anyone thought to give it away. Hortensia was a good socialist, although she had a quick temper, and was especially militant when it came to founding the various revolutionary activities. But she was also a good capitalist who really did keep the family alive buy raising pigs, and making sweets out of sugar and ground coconut which she would sell by sending a daughter out to the Moa road to wait for passing jeeperos. And if anyone started to sing gospel Christian songs, not officially approved but not unknown, Hortensia would join in with her strong contralto voice, not caring whether anybody liked it or not. In short, she was happy to march in any parade, and probably would have survived in any system. She worked in the coffee fields and raised 8 children and countless of the neighbor's children and conducted party business whenever it was required. She also bought packs of cigarettes and then sold individual cigarettes at a hundred percent markup, sometimes extending credit. If she had to go to Guantanamo on Party business she would be sure to travel down with a hundred pounds of pork or a few hundred eggs and come back with a few dozen pairs of underwear, or baby toys, or other toiletries that could be resold in Limonar. She was an exceptional judge of piglets, knowing from the shape of the throat or the thickness of the snout which pigs would grow fat on palm berries and which would starve to death even if given cooked rice every once in a while. She was equally good at judging potential husbands, and none of her daughters could ever go to a dance with someone if Hortensia did not approve. Very few people wanted to argue with her- even her husband the Delegate knew better than to backtalk . Some people say that the reason that Moises was so quiet was that he become resigned to the fact that the less he ever said, the less trouble he would get in at home. Hortensia was given lots of authority and was not afraid to use it. So when she first heard the story about Consuelo who was living in a cave 15 miles away and then two hours up by donkey, she knew what had to be done. The family would be moved closer to Limonar and Consuelo would be put into a school near the town of Isabelita.. Although Consuelo was 15 years old, weighed about 140 pounds, and was taller than most of the men in Isabelita, she was placed in the third grade, the same grade as Hortensia's. daughter Danelkis and one grade above Hortensia's daughter Dalia.

II
School officially began each day at 8A.M., although the students were required to be there at 7 for introductory ceremonies, which included the raising of the flag, the pledge to be like Che, and a brief discussion of political events in Latin America and the world. The school was actually just a warehouse that had been divided in half, making two rooms- one for grades 1-3 and the other for grades 4-6. The walls were made of wood, although the floor was poured cement, and the roof was thick fiberglass. There were about 40 students in the school, and one teacher for each class.

All forty students marched outside for the raising of the flag, sung to the national anthem , "Bayamenses, run to combat" Even the youngest schoolchildren know that the flag ceremony is a time for rigid posture, firm salute, face without expression, full attention. One teacher always lined up in front of the students, and the other behind them, just to make sure that nobody laughed or talked, although this vigilance was seldom necessary. Any student who did move or talk would be beaten with the branch of a tree.

The students were all in position, lined up by grade, the boys on one side and the girls on the other, everyone in their clean uniform of red pants and skirts, white shirt, blue neckerchief, white socks, black shoes, red beret. The beret was a nice touch, since it had been instituted in honor of Che himself.

Hortensia then entered the courtyard, half coaxing and half pulling a very mature negra with big hips and big breasts and nappy hair who was moaning and crying. This would not have been unusual except that Consuelo was also wearing the uniform of a primary school student. Hortensia herself had sewed the uniform the night before, because no red schoolgirl skirt of this size had ever existed before this day, not in Isabelita and perhaps not in all of Guantanamo.

Consuelo, who had been sniffling and pawing at the ground like a horse now began to moan ever more strongly. "Auuuuuunhhh! . Uuunhhhhhhhhhh! Aauuuuuuuuuuunhhhhhhhh!"

The sixth grader whose job it was that day to pull on the rope and raise the flag stopped in order to stare at Consuelo, until the young teacher who was standing behind everyone yelled out- 'raise the flag', knowing that Hortensia, who could become difficult when she was overcome with anger, might be noting any breach of discipline. The flag was raised, and the national anthem was sung, with Consuelo bawling away the entire time. She was homesick, because she had never before been so far away from her cave.
The pledge- "Pioneros por el comunismo- seremos como Che!", usually snapped out with military tone and precision, was desultory at best. Consuelo was distracting everyone. After the ceremony, the school was divided into the two classes, and Consuelo was told to sit in a chair in the back of the room of the lower class. A chair had been provided because she was far too large fit at a desk. Consuelo was obedient in everything, like an unhappy ox that has been beaten too many times. She sat where she was told, although she didn't stop sobbing.

Hortensia made the introductory remarks. "Class", she started. "I want to introduce your new fellow student. This is Consuelo from Los Cesares. With your help she will become a good student. All of us are working together to create a new world. Whatever weaknessess one of us may have, it is for the rest of us to lend a hand, and more importantly to give your heart for the sake of brotherhood and friendship. All of you can now begin class discussion"

Discussion was usually divided into national and international events. The theme for most of that month had been, on the national level, increasing efficiency in the agricultural sector, and on the international level, the dastardly attack on the island of Grenada. Hortensia stood near the front of the room, with her hawk eyes flitting back and forth between Consuelo and the young teacher whose name was Rubi. But on this day, it seemed that the first through third graders had forgotten everything that they had ever known Even the most simple questions, such as who was the revolutionary leader of Nicaragua, was met with silence, except for the sobbing of Consuelo.

"Companera Blanco" said the teacher, who was fairly new, and who seemed near to tears herself, " This is a good class. These students know everything they are supposed to know. But today, as you can see, they are … well… distracted"

"Of course they are" said Hortensia. "Don't worry Companera. I already know that you have been doing an outstanding job. We just have to find the right way to incorporate our new student into our society. Just keep to your regular lesson plan" And with that Hortensia left the building and went back to take care of her pigs in Limonar.

After Hortensia went home Rubi was able to relax a little bit which made it possible for the students to return almost to normal. Even Consuelo stopped crying. Now she was just looking at the ground and moving her legs around, like a well-trained sheep held by the neck that for some reason has been taken inside of a church. Once she stood up and began to walk towards the door, but she was docile and obedient when Rubi politely and kindly asked her to sit down again.

Poor Consuelo was not retarded, or mongolica as they say in Cuba, or neurologically impaired with physical cerebral-spinal defects, as someone with a Master's degree might describe it. She just had never had much contact with people. She knew that her name was Consuelo, but she didn't know how old she was, or how to count. She did know how to climb trees, and she could communicate in a very primitive way, mostly by grunting. Actually she understood Spanish very well, and mostly knew what people were talking about. When she was addressed, it was usually a command for her to do something, which she would do as quickly as possible so that people would stop talking to her. She almost never had any desire to say anything herself, since apparently, in her life in the cave there had been no real advantages to vocalizing.

At that time in the Sierras the first to sixth graders were sent home at lunch time. The older students, in the fifth and sixth grades, were sent to work after lunch for three or four hours, in the school vegetable garden, or in the coffee fields, according to the time of year. But it was thought that Consuelo should be excused after just one hour because her first day in school was so traumatic, as it can be for so many children. When Rubi signaled that she was now free to go, Consuelo stood up quickly and carefully walked out the door without looking at any of the other students.

All of the residents of Limonar and the area roundabouts soon knew about their collective responsibility in helping to take care of Consuelo and the rest of her family. They were given a small house a short walk away from the school. Neno, although more than 50 years old, was put to work chopping firewood. Tata, Consuelo's mother who was as black as burnt roasted coffee with eyes as red as a glowing charcoal was not experienced enough for a very skilled job so she was asked to help weed the community lettuce patch. It didn't take hardly any time for her to learn the difference between lettuce, grass, and pigweed, or how to use a hoe. It began to look like at least part of this family could indeed jump from neanderthal status directly to socialism without all the intermediary steps that Marx has so carefully delineated. Consuelo's older brothers were another story. They refused to stay even one full night in their new home- or to be more accurate, they left sometime during their first night, probably headed back t o Los Cesares.

Over the next several weeks Consuelo became more and more acclimatized to life in a socialist society. She learned how to hold her hand in a stiff salute. One day she was even given the honor of raising the flag herself, in deference to her age, since this job had never been given to a third grader before. Actually, her status as a third grader was honorary, since even the first graders were far more developed pedagogically.

Now the very core of the literacy brigades was in teaching the alphabet. That's where Consuelo's real academic problems began.

After a few weeks of schooling, when it was thought that Consuelo might have become comfortable with her new environment, Rubi asked her to move her chair right in front of the blackboard, where all the other students could openly stare at her. Consuelo began to learn the basics of reading.

"Consuelo" began Rubi, patiently. "Look at me. No, not at my feet- look at the blackboard. Good. This," she said, drawing a capital letter A "is the first letter of the alphabet. We make it like this- a little house with a line through it. Can you see the house with the line through it?"

"Uunh" said Consuelo.

"Now I'm going to make the small letter 'a'" said Rubi. We make the small letter 'a' by drawing a little ball, and then putting a little tail in front of it" And she demonstrated- first the little ball, and then the little tail.

"Now you do it," said Rubi.

Consuelo could barely hold the chalk in her hand. The other students were already giggling.

Uunnnh" she said, and the chalk fell on the floor.

"Try again, Consuelo. I know you can do it. Let's start with the capital A. First, make a little house." But as soon as her chalk touched the chalkboard, Consuelo jumped back as if she had been jolted and the chalk fell and broke. In all fairness, the sensation of writing with chalk is unpleasant for many people.

"Pick up the chalk," said Rubi. "Don't worry if it's broken. Pick up the bigger piece- no not that piece, the other piece." Consuelo picked up both pieces and gave them to Rubi and began to walk back to her chair, but Rubi insisted that she stand by the chalkboard. All the students were laughing at her, and Consuelo began to sob in frustration.

"Class, be quiet! Consuelo, make a little house. Start with a line on one side. Look, let me show you again" And Rubi took the chalk, drew half of a house, and gave the chalk back to Consuelo.

Consuelo succeeded in making a short little line, although her line was almost horizontal, and not slanting like the side of a little house. Rubi took the chalk and drew the sides of 10 little houses. Consuelo reluctantly took the chalk and made a series of little lines that leaned in various directions.
Cuban teachers are trained to be extremely patient, so Rubi looked at all of Consuelo's marks and selected the one that most looked like the side of a house. "This one" she said. "This one is the start of the capital letter A. Now I'm going to complete the capital letter A by drawing the other side of the little house, and then by drawing the line through the middle. Do you see? It's easy".

But for Consuelo it was too difficult, mostly because she was ashamed of being so old and just beginning her academic career. She began to sob loudly, and this caused all the students to laugh at her.

"Quiet".said Rubi. All students, behave!" But now two students in the back of the room became to mimic poor Consuelo, sobbing every time she sobbed, groaning every time Consuelo groaned. All the other students began to laugh hysterically.

"I told you to be quiet! ordered Rubi, but the class was out of control. "Monkey" called out a third grade boy named Vladimir from the back of the class. "Black crybaby monkey" And everyone became even more hysterical, including Consuelo- tears were running down the sides of her face onto the floor, whereas some of the other students were crying in joy. Other students began to mimic Consuelo- sniffling, bunching up their fists just like Consuelo was doing, bawling without end.

The teacher from the 4th to 6th grade class had come over to investigate the disturbance, and this more experienced teacher immediately regained control of the classroom.
"All students" she said- "go outside now. The first person who laughs is going to be beaten with the biggest stick I can find" But some of the students, in stead of laughing, continued to cry- mimicking Consuelo. "That goes for crying too" said the more experienced teacher. "No laughing, and no crying, or I'll beat you all with a club if I have to." Just then Consuelo let out her loudest sob of all, and the last students who were still in the room just barely kept from laughing until they made it out the door where everybody was laughing at Consuelo. Well, we all know that children can be cruel in whatever system, and all the internationalism in the world still hadn't eliminated the cruelty of these young children.

Class was recessed half an hour while Rubi tried to console Consuelo. The other teacher went outside to glare at all the students, who were made to line up in grade order and stand in the sun without moving for punishment. Even the students from the other class, who hadn't done anything wrong, were forced to stand in the sun, since there were no other adults around, and it was not customary to leave students unguarded. The theory of collective punishment was used to explain why everyone had to suffer for the antisocial behavior of the few.

The school was effectively shut down in order to give Consuelo extra tutoring. Without the other students around to tease her, Consuelo actually learned to make both a capital letter A and a small letter 'a'. The class was then ordered back into their seats, and to keep a straight face, or they would be sent back into the sun, or maybe even sent home, where they knew they would receive the kind of beating that they would not soon forgot. Corporal punishment was a normal part of growing up, although the methods employed varied from family to family. Most people used little switches made from trees, or sticks, or whips, or belts, or even rocks, pots and pans, or whatever was handy. There is a different word for each of these kinds of beatings in the Spanish language, and a need for all these different words, because all of these beatings are a little different in pain and intensity, not to mention the anger of the person doing the beating.

When the class was cowed into a semblance of behavior, the private lesson with Consuelo continued.

"Now this is the sound of the letter 'A'" said Rubi, as kindly as possible. "The letter 'A' makes the sound 'AAAAAAHHHHH' Can you say that Consuelo? Can you make the sound "AAAAAAHHHHHH?'
Uuunh" said Consuelo, with a small sob, because it seemed that her travails were starting all over again.
"Not Uuunh" said Rubi. "Uuunh" is made with the letter 'U'. We'll get to that letter later. For now, we're going to begin with the letter "A". The letter "A" makes the sound 'AAAAAHHHHH' OK? Please repeat after me- AAAAAHHHH"

"UUUUUUHHHHHNNNN" cried Consuelo.

"No" said Rubi, say "AAAAAAHHHHHH"

AAAUUUNNNHHH" cried Consuelo. AAAAAUUUNNNNHHHH." And she began to sob again.

"Yes!" said her teacher. "Yes, you did it! You made the sound of the letter 'A'! . The letter 'A' makes the sound' "AAAAAAAAH'. Let's say it together! AAAAAAAHHH"

"AAAAAUUUUUNNH cried Consuelo, which might have been the sound of the letter 'A', or it might have been the sound of a bear in the woods, or it might have been the sound of a 15 year old black girl crying in shame and frustration.

Consuelo was told that she had done a very good job, and was allowed to move her chair to the back of the room. All the students knew that if they snickered, or even looked back at Consuelo, there would be very severe consequences.

"Who can think of words we've learned that begin with the letter 'A'?

"Agricultor" said Danelkis, which is a word for farmer. Danelkis was normally very quiet like her father Moises but now seemed also to have Moise's sense of humanity and dignity, in trying to put the class back to normal.

"That's wonderful, Danelkis! said Rubi. "Class- I want everyone to behave as well as Danelkis! Now, who else can think of a word we've studied that begins with the letter 'A'? Anyone?"

Everyone was quiet, except for Danelkis, who raised her hand again until she was called. "Alfabetismo" she said.

"Excellent" exclaimed the maestra, "Can you explain what the word Alfabetismo" means?
"Teaching people the alfabet" said Danelkis.

'Wonderful" said Rubi. It means' literacy, which is the same as teaching the alphabet. Anyone else? But only Danelkis had her hand in the air. "Yes Danelkis. You can give us one more word"

"Anti-imperialismo!" said Danelkis.

"You really are your father's daughter" said Rubi- and your mother's daughter too! Class, who can tell me the meaning of the word anti-imperialismo? Not you Danelkis- someone else."A boy named Alexi was drawn in and began to wave his arms wildly. When recognized, he said, "It means against the imperialists".

Skillfully, the teacher drew her class back to the routine of everyday learning, and Consuelo, sitting tearfully in the corner, was almost quiescent, knowing that for the moment she wasn't the center of attention.

III
The weeks passed and Consuelo became a model student in everything except learning. She always came to school on time, quietly saluted the flag, mumbled a little bit about Che, and was given the regular job of cleaning the classroom after every day's lessons. During the day she sat quietly at the back of the room and tried to squeeze herself into the wall, or become as invisible as possible. Tutors were found for her and she actually made lots of progress in drawing all the letters. However, actual reading appeared to be beyond her, at least for the moment.

But the worst of it was that the other students continued to tease her. Well, you can imagine. She just didn't fit in anywhere. When school let out and the younger students who were not required to do agricultural work went off to the forest to try to catch little birds with their hands, or to roll a water tank down the side of a mountain with somebody inside, or to climb the palm trees to break off the top slippery part which could be used as a sled, or to dive down one water hole and swim under the river bed to the place where the water emerged at a different swimming hole- without drowning- or to hunt and cook crayfish in the small creeks nearby- Consuelo was never invited for any of these expeditions. . In retrospect, many of the children probably wish that they had made the effort to be Consuelo's friend, because who can say how much a genuine friend would have mattered to her? But retrospect always comes later, and the students who were her classmates at the time did not consider Consuelo to be a potential friend. Maybe she didn't really want any friends, not knowing anything about the value of friendship.

She never got over being teased, but she was able to develop a strategy for being left alone that was better than relying upon the teachers. Every time a student made fun of her, or called her a monkey, Consuelo would wait until school was over, and then she would tell her mother Tata. Her mother loved Consuelo as much as any mother can love a child, and would do whatever was necessary to protect her. If Tata was particularly angry at someone who had abused her daughter, she would come to school during class. She would stand outside the window with a whip in her hand and a red rag draped around her black, black boiling face, and wait, with much agitation, for Consuelo to point out the offender. No teacher could prevent Tata from whipping a miscreant, which may, overall, have improved general discipline. Neno, Consuelo's father, might also play a role in preventing repeat offenders, although in an indirect way. Neno would seek out the families of the children who taunted his daughter, and slaughter an animal or chop down a fruit tree, as a warning. No one could prove that Neno was doing any of this, but soon the people of Isabelita feared Tata and Neno just as the people of Los Cesares had feared them before.

Meetings were held regularly, presided by Moises Ramirez, about the progress that had been made with Consuelo's family. Consuelo, it was agreed, was making slow but sure improvement from her days as a cave dweller. Tata had become a good worker and caused no problems for anyone, except the children who teased her daughter, and this was thought to be understandable. Neno, on the other hand, was more complicated. He was an unbelievably strong worker, despite his age, and would go out before the sun to climb the mountains thereabouts and cut down dead or dying trees with his machete. He cut up firewood faster than an ox could bring it down. The problem was that in addition to learning how to work like a man and not like a beast, Neno had also learned to drink like a man. And when he drank, he would fight, but he fought, not like a man, but like the beast that he partially remained. There was no police force of any kind in Isabelita, and no jail, only the powers of persuasion of Moises who in the beginning had to come from Limonar over to Isabelita several nights a week just to talk sense to Neno. Neno might be choking the life out of somebody when Moises arrived, but somehow, Moises knew how to calm him down. Usually the person who had somehow insulted Neno, thereby causing the fight, would sincerely and truthfully repent, having learned that Neno was not a person who could be insulted without cost. Soon it seemed that even this problem was working itself out, since nobody wanted to fight with Neno, who was settling down to become the normal type of worker and drinker who fights only occasionally.

Just as fighting was an accepted part of life in the adult world, it was a regular if not daily event at the schoolhouse in Isabelita. One student would deliberately break a pencil on another student's thigh, and try to blame it on someone else, and that would be enough reason for a fight. Boys fought other boys, girls fought girls, and boys would also fight with girls if attacked or insulted first. Hortensia's younger daughter, Dalia, became an experienced fighter, both because she was quick to feel slighted, and also because she was always ready to fight on behalf of other students who had been slighted or insulted. She also developed an effective fighting technique- as soon as possible after a fight began, Dalia would try to bite her enemy on the finger. When her rival jumped back in pain and surprise, Dalia would beat her around the head knowing that a fighter with an injured hand can not fight as effectively as someone with two hands. .Sometimes Dalia would come to school and then be told that a fight had been arranged for her. If in fact there seemed to be a credible purpose for the fight, Dalia would take her place in back of the little hill behind the classroom when school let out, where all the fighting occurred. Danelkis didn't initiate many fights, but she was honor bound to join any fight that her sister was losing, and since with every victory the handicappers would arrange for Dalia to fight more formidable opponents, Danelkis also learned how to defend herself and attack others. One time Dalia, Danelkis, and their older sister Efigenia, who was already in 6th grade, fought five boys to a draw- at least until an adult came over and broke up the fight.

In addition to the fights that developed for personal reasons, there were also fights that grew out of territorial loyalty. The students from the town of Salsa felt an inexplicable ancient enmity for the students from the town of Isabelita, which led to almost daily warfare all by itself.

Consuelo became involved in a fight only one time. The older brother of the boy who had first called her a monkey that day when she had been learning to draw the letter 'A" started the fight just as school was letting out. This boy's name was Turi, and he was in the sixth grade. Turi called his friends over, and soon they were all standing around Consuelo who was in the center of the circle surrounded by boys who were calling out "Monkey, monkey, monkey". Suddenly, like a bear that has been baited for too long, Consuelo reached out and swatted Turi on the side of the head. Turi crumpled instantaneously- he had been knocked semi unconscious. Then Consuelo went after Turi's younger brother Vladimir, swinging her arms from side to side, and after Vladimir went down with a bloody nose, she attacked all the boys who had ever taunted her. More than five of them were bloodied almost savagely, and one or two actually had to be carried home. This shouldn't be a surprise, because Consuelo was about three times as big as anyone else. . Despite the extensive injuries inflicted, Hortensia decided that no discipline should be meted out against her, since the attack could be said to have been provoked. It wouldn't be accurate to say that after this attack Consuelo was better respected, although it certainly was true that her fists were more respected. The students continued to laugh behind her back, but now nobody taunted her to her face.

IV
The meeting held after Consuelo's fight led to significant consequences for Hortensia, Moises, and the rest of the family. This meeting, like most of the important public meetings, was held in the evening in the field outside the open shed where the young coffee seedlings were given their first sun and water before being transplanted. The shed had a few electric lights mounted outside, and there was a table under the lights where Moises and other dignitaries could sit.

Hortensia had always been Consuelo's biggest protector, since she had, in effect, discovered her. Hortensia went to this meeting, presided as always by her husband, ready to argue that the Federation of Women stood completely behind any young girl's right to become literate. If sacrifices had to be made, they would be borne by everyone equally. She summed up the progress that Consuelo had made in learning to write almost the entire alphabet, and her exemplary behavior in class. However, the counter attack came from an oblique direction that she had not prepared for.

"Companera" began Alfonso Mendez, who coincidentally was one of the fathers of a boy who had been whipped by Tata, " Is it true that our school teachers are unable to provide proper discipline in the class room? Why should we allow one student's mother to establish discipline in the schools? Isn't this the proper job for the teachers?"

Hortensia and Companero Mendez had been enemies for more than 10 years, ever since Mendez had accused Hortensia of unfairly holding back his eldest son who was made to repeat the 4th grade two times. Actually, the dispute went back to before the revolution, when Mendez's father had neglected to pay Hortensia's father for six oxen. Hortensia's father had won a judgment against Mendez' father, but before Mendez's father got around to paying, the revolution eliminated all property debts, making this case moot, like so many others.

"Yes, Companero, you are correct, " said Hortensia. "Maintaining discipline is the proper role of the teacher. However, as we all know, this is an extraordinary case when one teacher alone has not been able to completely control a class of over 20 students. So if you're talking about why your son was whipped, it's because he didn't behave himself and he was punished. Are you opposed to the fact that he was punished?"

" Not at all, Companera, I am only asking that the punishment should be administered by the teacher and not by a brute that lives in a cave." And a few other families whose children had also been whipped by Tata nodded in agreeement.

"First of all, Companero Mendez, Tata no longer lives in a cave, thanks to all of us who have succeeded in integrating her into normal society. Secondly, we all agree that Tata acted in an extra-judicial manner, but only because nobody else was properly protecting her daughter"

"That's exactly my point, Companera. Why was nobody protecting her daughter? Is the teacher incompetent? I know that she doesn't have much experience, and although she may be a good enough teacher, discipline is at the heart of education. The main purpose of a school is to provide socialist discipline, in addition to providing learning. And if the teacher is not able to instill discipline, whose job is it to discipline the teacher?"

Everybody knew that this was Hortensia's job. Everybody also knew that although Mendez was talking like a good communist, he was really talking shit, because his entire family had been counter revolutionaries from the beginning. His father's land was the first in the entire region to be collectivized, as a punishment for abusing the campesinos in the old days- whipping them brutally when they complained about not being paid. Mendez worked as an accountant for the coffee plantation, directly under Moises, and it was generally believed that he was sending sack after sack of coffee to his brother in Guantanamo to be sold on the black market. Part of the evidence against him was that he had recently completed an addition to his house, and had even installed a private water tank and a pump purchased in Santiago, and he now owned the only house in all of Limonar with inside plumbing. Nobody ever mentioned any of this to his face, because Mendez was also the assistant Secretary of the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.

Rubi was present at this meeting, and was scheduled to make a back up-report on Consuelo's psychological improvements. Rubi now asked to be recognized, and when Moises nodded at her, she stood up, and went up and stood by the front table, under the lights. With her voice trembling a little she said, "Since this is an issue which effects me directly, I want to say that although I have been working as a teacher for less than a year, I believe that I have done everything that has been expected of me. All of the evaluations of my work have been satisfactory" She then walked back to where she had been standing before, to a small amount of applause, because Rubi was a pretty girl who obviously was doing her best.

"Nobody is criticising you "said Mendez, "for being in a situation that you are unable to control. But the real question is - why do you have to be in this situation? Why do we permit this one family to disrupt our lives? Who brought them here in the first place? Who gave this woman the right to walk through town whipping whoever she wants to? Who gave this man the right to assault his neighbors, and maybe to steal from us in the middle of the night? That's all I want to know"

Neither Neno nor Tata were there to defend themselves like Rubi had been able to do, because although they had been socialized to a very great extent, this still did not extend to going to any of the many meetings in which local government was formulated and exercised

And unfortunately for Hortensia, instead of attempting to speak on behalf of the parents, and instead of replying with a proper socialist defense, she answered.in a manner that was more traditionally Cuban. "Comemierda" she began, which means 'shit eater' 'Hijo de Puta! Traicienero! Maricon! Abusador!" And she went on for quite a few more words. But the public was divided, because although they were generally in agreement that Mendez was indeed all of these things, they understood that Mendez wanted to get rid of this troublesome family, which they also agreed with. Everyone wants to help the disadvantaged in general, as long as they are helped by other people somewhere else.
"Objection" called out a campesino named Agostino who owed Hortensia for over a hundred cigarettes, and who also had been the man that Neno had almost choked to death. "Companera Blanco is insulting Companero Mendez. This is not correct"

"You worthless lazy bastard" said Hortensia, who, ist seemed, like Consuelo could only take so much abuse. "You never do any work. All you want to do is go off in the bushes in the middle of the day with somebody's wife- that and drink rum. And now you want to criticize me! You never pay your bills! If I was a man I'd beat you worse than Neno did!"

"Callete, mujer" interupted Moises, who probably was trying to protect her. But Hortensia had already gone too far, and now all the abuses that she had borne for so many years were overflowing her patience like the rains of a cyclone. If only she had remembered her training as a synchronized swimmer, she might have been able to maintain a controlled albeit fluid posture in relationship to others

"Why should I have to be quiet when I am only telling the truth! The first one is a snake and a thief, and the second one is a lazy womanizer who lives off everybody else! Everybody knows that, even you! But you're too much of a coward to even talk about it! You're a fox, that's that you are! Going out with other women, and then pretending that you are some kind of saint who never learned to talk! Pendejo!" (which is a not very polite way to talk about your husband in public).

Of course now all the enemies that Hortensia had collected over the decades, and even the enemies that she had inherited from her father and grandfather, saw their opportunity. She was attacked for her inappropriate language. She was criticized for selling underwear at too high a price. She was accused of defaming a legitimate representative of the revolution (Mendez). It was even said that she was a brutish mother, since it was known that Hortensia was one of the people who believed that a rock was as good as anything else to punish a wayward child. The person who questioned her skills as a mother was a young communist functionary just out of school who had no husband or children of her own, although she did occasionally make use of the husbands of others. .

As speaker after speaker was recognized by Moises to join in the collective criticism, Hortensia seethed with anger, when the proper and correct response would have been to humbly accept the criticism, even join in the criticism herself, and promise to try to do better. But Hortensia, whatever her flaws, never pretended to be something that she wasn't . Who had sacrificed for the revolution more than her? Who else had volunteered in the Escambray, and given up her land, and founded all the schools, and raised 8 children, and worked tirelessly for all of her neighbors? And when finally it was even suggested that her entire attitude was not that of a proper revolutionary, Hortensia answered, shaking with anger and frustration, with her index finger up in the air- "Yes, I am a revolutionary! I believe fully in the revolution! THE ONE THAT IS COMING! The revolution that will drive out all the thieves, and all the incompetents, and all the liars, and all the shiteaters, and all the hypocrites, and all the cowards who are afraid to say what everybody knows is true! Who said that a revolutionary has to be liar and a thief and a coward! Because that's what you are- the whole bunch of you!"

Companero Mendez then offered a resolution that Companera Hortensia Blanco should be censored for speaking in a manner that was against the Cuban revolution. Moises seconded the resolution. Hortensia then announced that she was quitting all of her official activities and that the people of Limonar could in the future drop dead for all she cared. The resolution of censure was passed by acclamation.

V
Although Hortensia's words were so strong that she could theoretically have been punished much more seriously, she was allowed to quit all of her official responsibilities and spend all of her time raising pigs, and raising her children. She moved her bed out of Moises' bedroom and never really forgave him for joining in the attack against her. Thus, the lack of trust which began with the incident of the alleged affair between Moises and Gabriella, the nurse who cared for him when he was shot in the Escambray, reached its fruition when Moises seconded the motion to censure her. Possibly, Moises was acting out of the correct theoretical position that Hortensia had behaved improperly, and deserved castigation. The fact that she was his wife should not have entered into Moises' obligation to justice. Although it is also possible that Moises had only wanted to intervene in such a way as to cause his wife the least possible harm, after she crossed the line and guaranteed her punishment. For all we really know, Moises and Fidel might have had a conversation about this incident later, with Fidel doing all the talking, speaking about women in general and the particular strengths and weaknesses of Hortensia, and then letting Moises know that as a reward for all of his loyalty, and because justice itself should never be overly harsh, Hortensia would be permitted to live in peace and that Moises need not fear any repurcussions. We don't know if this conversation ever took place, just as we don't really know if Moises's father and Fidel's father would have become friends or enemies.

Hortensia was never again active in the socialist revolution. She became more and more crafty over the years, sometimes praising the revolution and sometimes cursing it. No one could tell what she really felt, because she said all kinds of different things to all kinds of different people. But when her daughter Dalia later married a citizen of the United States and became a citizen herself (an interesting story in itself) Hortensia was one of the few people who thought that this was a good idea, even though it meant that she would have to live apart from her daughter. And when Dalia later arranged to bring over her older sister Danelkis, another interesting story, Hortensia didn't object to that either, even though it seemed then that she was destined to lose her entire family one by one. "All I have in life is my daughters" Hortensia used to say. "My children are my only accomplishment". And even though it is true that Hortensia used to discipline all of her children with stones, and with the branches of coffee bushes, and with whatever was nearby, there are few children anywhere who love their mother more than these eight girls adore Hortensia.

Which is not to say that these girls do not equally adore their father, and not only for his nobility. Moises was later offered the gift of a new car, which is the very highest reward that the revolution has to give. The family believes that the decision to offer the car was made by Fidel, although it is quite possible that the family is exaggerating. But in his typical humility, Moises refused to accept the car, asking instead that it be given to a neighbor woman who limped and therefore needed the car more than he did. This was just one more of the noble decisions made by Moises for which Hortensia never forgave him.
Although their life together was not perfect, Moises and Hortensia have now lived with each other for more than forty years. They never got married, so there is no paper document that forces them to stay together.

Hortensia continued to raise not only her animals and her daughters and grandchildren, but always had spare food, money, and cigarettes for her friends and even for her enemies, even during the worst of the special period. To that extent she has always remained faithful to the socialist ideals.

Tragically, however, when Hortensia resigned from her position in the Federation of Women, there was nobody left to look after the interests of Neno, Tata, and Consuelo. They all disappeared from Limonar as suddenly as they had first appeared. It is doubtful that they returned to their cave, because cave people, like everyone else, quickly become addicted to the benefits of society, whether those benefits include food, alcohol, or prettier clothing. They could have gone anywhere. Perhaps they made it as far as one of the solares of La Havana Vieja, which, aside from the many people all around, is almost similar to living in a cave.

It would be nice to think that Consuelo learned to read one day. It would be particularly gratifying to think of her writing letters to penpals around the world. We all hope that friendship did not elude her forever. At least, as far as we know, she did not have to endure the cruelties of false friendship.

Even in the event that the literacy brigadistas failed in this one particular case, this can not be understood as a criticism of their idealism or their humanity. Yes, some people would argue, it would have been nice if in addition to teaching literacy, a little more variety of reading material had been made available. But this side argument takes nothing away from the noble literacy campaign itself.

If Consuelo never learned to read, the socialist principle of self criticism demands that we attempt to discover who was at fault. Clearly, we can not blame Consuelo herself. She did try very hard, and did learn to draw almost all of the letters, which is at least a partial success.

Nor, I think, can we really blame her parents. Although not an ideal couple in every respect, Neno and Tata were willing to uproot themselves entirely and work very hard at back breaking manual labor to provide their daughter with an opportunity to go to school. Continuing their existence as hunter/gatherers may have been the easy choice, but it was not the moral choice, and therefore, Neno and Tata proved themselves loyal to a higher morality.

Perhaps those development experts who claim that a child needs to learn certain skills at a certain time are correct, and if the time passes the door is closed forever. Perhaps the correct explanation is simply that too many doors had closed upon her.

However, my personal opinion is that if blame is to be levied, it should be placed on the ordinary people of Limonar who proved themselves unworthy of the ideals to which they allegedly subscribed. Like those petty people who seem to thrive under every system, they proved themselves to be more powerful, at least temporarily, than the humanitarian dreams of the minority who are able to dream. History may indeed hold all these people accountable- first, for attacking Hortensia, and then, for driving Consuelo out of school. And until such time as the historians of the future are able to apportion the blame correctly, it is incumbent upon us to record and to remember the details of this story with accuracy, and with compassion

 

 

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