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Episode 51: Una maestra en botas (A Teacher in Army Boots)

By Duolingo on Thu 02 April 2020

In 1961, 15-year-old Norma Guillard left her family behind and ventured into rural Cuba as part of a nationwide campaign to teach people how to read. Her eight-month journey would culminate in a historic accomplishment for her country—and give Norma an opportunity to leave poverty behind.

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Transcript

Martina: 73-year-old Norma Guillard loves her boots. Every time she laces up a pair, she’s transported back in time.

Norma: Mis botas son el símbolo de una de las etapas más emocionantes de mi vida: la llegada de la Revolución cubana.

Martina: It's no surprise that Norma was caught up in Fidel Castro's Revolution. A spirit of rebellion runs in the family. Some of her family members even participated in the clandestinaje, as clandestine members of the revolution.

Norma: Yo vengo de una familia revolucionaria. Mis abuelos eran mambises. Ese era el nombre que se les daba a los revolucionarios de aquella época. Mis tíos también participaron en el clandestinaje junto a Fidel.

Martina: In 1959, when Norma was 14 years old, Castro completed his takeover of the Cuban government. For an Afro-Cuban family like Norma's, from one of the island's poorest provinces, the revolution felt like a chance to escape crippling poverty. So while others fled, they decided to stay.

Norma: Nosotros éramos una familia de siete personas y todos vivíamos en un solo cuarto en Santiago de Cuba. Éramos pobres. La llegada de Fidel nos dio esperanza.

Martina: Castro soon proposed a series of initiatives to shift the country to a socialist model. One in particular caught Norma's attention. Castro set a goal of teaching every illiterate person on the island how to read. It marked the birth of the Campaña de Alfabetización: A massive literacy campaign.

Norma: Yo era una adolescente, pero cuando Fidel presentó la campaña de alfabetización, supe que quería ser una maestra de la revolución.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast—I'm Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your Spanish listening and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I'll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Martina: In the early days after Castro took control of Cuba, Norma was desperate to become a teacher.

Norma: Yo tenía solo catorce años, pero le dije a mi mamá que quería ser parte de la campaña.

Martina: She wanted in, but it turns out she didn't even have to sign up. Because in 1961, Fidel Castro required all children who could read and write to become teachers for the campaign, there was a particular focus on educating campesinos—people who lived in the countryside.

Norma: Fidel anunció que las clases se iban a cancelar en todas las escuelas durante el año 1961. ¿El objetivo? Educar a jóvenes de once a dieciocho años para convertirse en maestros. Ese año fue llamado “El año de la educación".

Martina: The school year was canceled entirely. It was a big moment that began to polarize the Cuban people.

Norma: La prioridad de la campaña era alfabetizar a los campesinos en primer lugar, pero, para poder hacer eso, necesitábamos la autorización de nuestros padres.

Martina: Some parents agreed to let their kids go to the countryside—others refused.

Norma: Muchos padres decidieron irse de Cuba porque la revolución comenzó a darles miedo. Otros no querían que sus hijos trabajaran en el campo, así que esos jóvenes se quedaron enseñando en la ciudad.

Martina: Improving life for Cubans in the countryside was such an important focus of Fidel Castro's Revolution—the teachers who left the city were favored by the government.

Norma: Los maestros que iban al campo tenían mejor reputación que los maestros que se quedaban en la ciudad. Yo quería participar en la misión en el campo.

Martina: Norma knew what she wanted, but her mother was conflicted. Before sending her daughter on a literacy mission, there was one really important milestone on her mind.

Norma: Ella me dijo: "Hija, tienes que esperar hasta tener quince años".

Martina: In Cuba, like in many Latin American countries, the 15th birthday is a big deal for girls. It usually entails a coming-of-age celebration called a quinceañera. Norma's mother was a modista, or dressmaker, and she had a simple plan for her daughter's big day.

Norma: Nosotros éramos pobres, entonces no tuve una gran fiesta, pero mi mamá era modista y me hizo un vestido rosado con flores.

Martina: Norma's mother just had to get that perfect photo before her daughter left to become a teacher.

Norma: El 22 de mayo, mi mamá me regaló el vestido. Me lo puse y me tomaron una foto. Yo quería terminar con todo eso y salir para ser parte de la revolución.

Martina: When it finally came time to go, Norma was excited—her teaching 'brigade' would be treated like heroes.

Norma: Para mí, era una gran oportunidad para mejorar mi vida. Yo era pobre y pensaba que esta decisión me iba a dar otras oportunidades.

Martina: The first stop for everyone was a town called Varadero for a 10-day teacher training camp.

Norma: Me fui muy feliz. Yo todavía era muy joven, pero pensaba que convertirme en maestra me iba a dar una experiencia que no iba a obtener de otra manera.

Martina: Varadero is a major tourist destination known for its pristine beaches. For Norma, it was like a dream: teacher training in paradise.

Norma: Yo era negra y pobre, y pensé que nunca iba a ir a las playas de Varadero. La gente dice que son las mejores playas de Cuba, quizás hasta las mejores del mundo. La playa era hermosa. Nunca olvidaré la primera vez que la vi.

Martina: Norma was one of about 300,000 participants in the campaign. Most of them were under 18.

Norma: Cuando yo llegue a Varadero, mi vida empezó a cambiar. Me enamoré de la buena vida. Por primera vez, vi gente con casas grandes y con mucho dinero. Era difícil ir a las clases porque yo quería pasar todo el día en bikini. Yo pasaba mucho tiempo en la playa y empecé a hacer amigos.

Martina: Norma’s social life on the beach was fun, but she knew she couldn't lose sight of the reason she was there. So she worked hard to learn proper methodology for teaching others how to read.

Norma: Nosotros teníamos que aprender a dar clases. El gobierno nos dio un libro que explicaba gramática, frases y expresiones.

Martina: Literacy wasn't the only objective. Public health was also important. Teachers had the responsibility of educating their host families on disease prevention.

Norma: Nos enseñaron lo que teníamos que hacer cuando había enfermedades en la casa.

Martina: Government officials also offered them a key piece of encouragement that Norma took to heart.

Norma: El gobierno nos dio poder. Ellos nos dijeron que no teníamos que ser mayores para poder enseñar, que la habilidad de enseñar se puede desarrollar y practicar a cualquier edad.

Martina: One teacher in particular left an impression on Norma.

Norma: Yo siempre recuerdo el sonido de los tacones de la mejor maestra que tuve, Marta. Cuando nosotros escuchábamos sus pasos, sabíamos que era el momento de ir a clase. Ella era una persona muy sensible y sabía cómo motivarnos.

Martina: While Marta walked around in heels, or tacones, Norma and her teaching brigade were issued army boots in preparation for deployment to their host homes.

Norma: Me dieron mis botas negras estilo militar. Me encantaban esas botas, me hacían sentir poderosa y como una revolucionaria de verdad. Esas botas eran mis zapatos favoritos.

Martina: As they prepared to leave training camp, the boots weren't the only item that made these students feel like soldiers ready for battle.

Norma: El gobierno también me dio el uniforme: una camisa, pantalones y una boina de color verde olivo.

Martina: With their olive green boina, or beret, this group of teenagers had been transformed into an army of teachers—in just ten days. Before sending them off to their host families, the government equipped the young teachers with materials to take with them.

Norma: Nos mandaron a las casas de familias con hamacas, lámparas, lápices y cuadernos. Estos materiales eran un lujo para la gente pobre que vivía en el campo.

Martina: Norma had high hopes for the home where she was assigned to go. It was a huge house compared to where she grew up—and it had the luxury of electricity.

Norma: Yo siempre había sido pobre y pensé que finalmente iba a estar en una mejor situación. Sin embargo, me rechazaron porque eran racistas.

Martina: Unfortunately, Norma wasn't the only teacher to experience this kind of treatment during the campaign. Eventually, she was sent to another home in a more rural area.

Norma: Yo tuve mucha suerte porque era una familia biracial. Yo soy afrocubana, así que eso me ayudaba mucho.

Martina: When she arrived at the new home, Norma realized she still had a lot to learn.

Norma: Me enviaron a una casa muy pobre. Los niños no tenían zapatos y no había baño ni electricidad. Yo pensaba que yo era pobre hasta que llegué a la casa de José María y su esposa, Nora. Mi perspectiva cambió inmediatamente.

Martina: That's when it really sunk in: This was gonna be hard work. But still, Norma felt lucky to have landed there.

Norma: No había luz, pero yo tenía una lámpara y pude usarla para iluminar la casa. ¡Eso me puso muy contenta! Tampoco había camas, pero yo tenía una hamaca y a mí me gustaba dormir en hamacas. Yo transformé las dificultades en situaciones agradables.

Martina: Her first big task was to teach the father, José María, how to read.

Norma: Yo tenía que enseñarle a leer primero a la persona mayor de la casa. Normalmente, era el hombre. Por esa razón, José María fue mi primer estudiante.

Martina: The eldest member of each household was taught first, so that they could read, understand and sign official papers. This was an important element of another of Castro's plans: to give out parcels of land to the farm workers.

Norma: Otra iniciativa de la revolución era regalarle terrenos a los campesinos. Nosotros teníamos que enseñarles a leer porque ellos tenían que firmar los papeles y aprender a cultivar sus terrenos.

Martina: But before Norma and her friends could teach their students to read, the government had to make sure they could see.

Norma: Representantes del gobierno examinaron la visión de estas personas. Si alguien no podía ver bien, el gobierno les regalaba los lentes.

Martina: This vision initiative changed many people's lives—José María was one of them.

Norma: Era increíble sentir que éramos parte de algo más grande. La revolución mejoraba la calidad de vida de la gente en el campo con la enseñanza, los lentes y el cultivo.

Martina: Now that he had his glasses, it was time for José María to begin his reading lessons. Nervous about her lack of teaching experience, Norma sat down with him at the kitchen table to get started.

Norma: Primero, yo tenía que enseñarles el alfabeto. Luego, las vocales, las consonantes y los sonidos. Después, yo les enseñaba algunas palabras.

Martina: Norma has fond memories of these teaching moments.

Norma: Yo siempre recuerdo cuando le enseñé a José María las palabras "mi mamá" y "amo a mi mamá". ¡Su cara se llenó de emoción! Ellos aprendían a expresarse de otra manera y era increíble ver y sentir ese momento.

Martina: Norma learned more than she thought she would from this host family.

Norma: La vida campesina era difícil, pero yo aprendí a vivirla. Todos teníamos que buscar alimentos en la tierra y sobrevivir con poco. Fue un gran cambio para mí, pero me enseñó mucho.

Martina: Things were going well for a few months… until a rash appeared on Norma's leg.

Norma: Era solamente una infección, una reacción por el trabajo de recoger café en el campo. Sin embargo, José María y Nora pensaron que era lepra.

Martina: Lepra. The family thought Norma had leprosy, an infectious disease that causes skin lesions and could sometimes lead to severe disability. In 1960s Cuba, leprosy carried a lot of negative stigma.

Norma: En aquellos tiempos, la lepra era sinónimo de muerte, pero yo no tenía lepra.

Martina: Norma's host family was scared of contracting the disease, and they began to isolate her. She could no longer do her job effectively, and the situation kept getting worse.

Norma: Yo tuve que irme a otra casa, y me sentí muy triste por eso.

Martina: For the second time since she joined the literacy campaign, Norma was kicked out of her host family's home. Just as she thought things couldn't get any worse, the United States invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, seeking to overthrow Castro. For a few days, Norma didn't know where she would live or what her future held.

Norma: Yo tenía miedo de ver el final de la revolución y de no poder seguir trabajando como maestra. Todos teníamos miedo. No sabíamos qué iba a pasar…

Martina: The Bay of Pigs invasion failed, and things started to calm down a bit.

Norma: Después de eso, viví mi experiencia más importante como maestra.

Martina: Four months into the campaign, Norma was relocated to another home, getting a fresh start with another host family. Slowly, she gained confidence as she became a more experienced teacher.

Norma: En esta nueva casa, yo les enseñé a leer a cinco personas. Más de las que yo esperaba. Yo era la maestra de la familia completa y no solamente la de los padres.

Martina: Finally, she was able to teach the whole family, developing a harmonious relationship with them. And it felt great!

Norma: Después de enseñar a la familia sentí emoción, gran orgullo y satisfacción de ayudar a otras personas. Allí sentí felicidad y aprendí a ser más independiente.

Martina: Thanks to her training in Varadero, Norma was also able to help the family protect themselves from the dangerous spread of tuberculosis. She taught them some of the healthcare practices she had learned at her teacher training.

Norma: Ellos no sabían leer, así que tampoco sabían cómo tratar la enfermedad.

Martina: Now, the family knew how to read, they knew how to keep themselves healthy, and they developed a special bond with Norma. For her, it was the perfect ending to a turbulent campaign. Before she knew it, her mission was complete.

Norma: Cuando la campaña terminó, el gobierno buscó a todas las maestras, hasta las que vivían más lejos. Luego, nos llevaron a La Habana, a la Plaza de la Revolución para felicitarnos. También nos dieron una beca para seguir estudiando.

Martina: Every teacher was awarded a scholarship—una beca—for their hard work. Norma felt like a champion.

Norma: La beca era en La Habana, la capital del país. Era un lugar lleno de cosas nuevas y emocionantes para mí. Yo hice amigas de diferentes provincias que aún hoy siguen siendo mis amigas.

Martina: Today, lacing up those boots and looking back, Norma wouldn't change a thing. The literacy campaign gave her the one thing she'd always wanted as a child: a pathway to a better life.

Norma: Yo siempre he trabajado como profesora. La decisión de convertirme en maestra me cambió completamente la vida.

Martina: Norma Rita Guillard Limonta used her scholarship to study Russian and mathematics, later becoming a psychologist. She’s now retired and living in Havana, Cuba. Norma has spent the past decade telling her story across the United States.

This story was produced by Gabriela Luz Sierra, a journalist based in Los Angeles, California.

We'd love to know what you thought of this episode! Send us an email with your feedback at podcast@duolingo.com. And if you liked this story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at podcast.duolingo.com. You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode.

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The Duolingo Spanish podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I'm the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Gabriela Sierra Alonso
Narrator & Protagonist: Norma Rita Guillard Limonta
Script Editor: Grant Fuller
Mixed by: Jeanne Montalvo
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Jeanne Montalvo