Raised by a mother and uncle who were active in the resistance against Cuba’s pre-revolution Batista government, 88-year-old Gladys Sanchez Espinosa joined the Young Communists when she was 14. After the revolution had succeeded and Fidel Castro introduced his literacy campaign, she became a brigadista in it, travelling to remote and dangerous parts of the country to teach children to read and write. Here she remembers the early days of the revolution.
As long as I live, I’ll never forget that time – it made me who I am today.
I was brought up by my mother and my uncle. They were very active in the resistance against the government. So that’s how they brought up my sisters and me as well.
Our house – this house – was the meeting place for the Partido Socialista Popular (PSP), which was communist. I met nearly all the leaders of the PSP and the young communists as they used to come here to plot their activities.
I joined the Young Communists when I was 14.
We were fighting for all the things that now we have. Many people went hungry, many couldn’t read or write. There was a strong racial divide. Here, in Santa Clara, for example, the inner area of the park was for whites only, and the outer area for blacks.
I went to the Marta Abreu school. My family didn’t have much money, but they made the sacrifice to pay my school fees and buy the books and materials I needed. Most of the students there were children of the rich and powerful. I was one of very few poor ones. This meant that none of the others in the school were in favour of the struggle so I spent a lot of time at the Escuela Normal where my sisters were.
Every time there was a meeting or a strike, I’d be there. And there were lots of strikes – the tobacco workers, electricity workers, builders – they were all against what the government was doing. We’d be out there throwing things at the police – nails, tins – them chasing after us, even on horses, us, always running.
1953: Castro tries to take Moncada Barracks
After July 26, 1953, when Fidel tried to take Moncada, the PSP aligned with the rebels.
We all had the same aim – to overthrow the government. Generally, at meetings, the only women who were there were my two sisters and me – the rest were all men.
I remember one day we heard the police coming. Everyone ran. Some people hid under the bed, others ran out of the back, jumped over the wall and ran through the neighbour’s garden – Cespedes he was called, an artist – and I remember him shouting, “What’s going on? What’s going on?”
The car circled and then braked hard in front of the house. My mother went and stood in the doorway and shouted at them. “What are you doing here? You can’t come in. And definitely not at this time of night.”
The man who lived in front – he was a captain in the army – came out and said, “What’s going on?”
They said, “Well, we’re here because we’ve heard there are meetings here.”
And he said, “No way. You can’t bother this family, this woman who lives on her own with her children.” And so they didn’t come in.
When we were sure they’d gone, everyone crept out one by one. Pablo went that way – Pablo Rivalta who was the captain of the rebel army – well, everyone found their own way out. If the police had come in for sure they’d have killed everyone on the spot when they saw all the papers and propaganda in the house.
December 1958: Battle of Santa Clara
From then on, things changed.
Many went to Santiago and from there to Sierra Maestra, the mountains where Fidel and his group were hiding. Either my sister or I would go to the bus station with those who were leaving so that they didn‘t attract any attention.
But at home, everything got worse.
In this block, people weren’t revolutionaries – far from it. There was the army captain who lived in front, and a family originally from Cienfuegos who used to get visits from Cornelio Rojas, the chief of police in Santa Clara. So there were informers all around. And if they denounced you and said you were a communist, then you’d be taken prisoner and we never heard anything more of those ones.
But, you know, we were never afraid. When you’re young, you just don’t understand danger.
One of my brothers was born with a very large head and walked with a limp. He used to come at one or two in the morning, bringing a radio so we could listen to Radio Rebelde coming from the Sierra. He’d walk right in front of the policemen and yet, because he dragged his feet, they never looked at him.
And so things went on like that for some time – planning strikes, doing what we could. Then one day a comrade came and said, “Make food because the rebels are going to take Santa Clara.” I went to the shop and got rice, everything.
We’d heard they were going to come on December 28. That night, there were a few shots, but the 29th – well you wouldn’t believe it. There were snipers all around the central park, in Santa Clara Libre [the hotel], the library and in the courtroom. And while all this was going on one of our comrades came to the house and brought a note from Pablo Rivalta, who’d gone to the Sierra, saying could somebody go to his house and sort out getting a sweater to him because it was so cold up there. Reina, my sister, was more timid, but Andrea and I went to his aunt’s house, hugging the walls all the way.
His aunt was astonished to see us.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Pablo wants you to send him a sweater.”
By the 30th you couldn’t go anywhere. Bullets in the street from every side. We stood in the doorway and could hear the shots going everywhere. Bang! Bang! It was incredible. At about 3pm, a small plane passed, we saw it from the patio, and it dropped a black ball that was the bomb that fell right on top of the courtroom.
Mum said, “How come you saw that? What were you doing on the patio? You mustn’t go out!”
That was also the day the rebels derailed a train that was carrying arms and soldiers to support government soldiers down in Santiago. El Che [Che Guevara] and Camilo [Camilo Cienfuegos] had worked out a way to get the train off its tracks. And the word was everywhere: “They derailed the train, they killed this one, they killed that one!”
On the 31st, we hid underneath the table begging, “Oh please, God, let this end.” They parked a tank right in front of the house.
Then we heard – I don’t know where it first came from, whether it was on the radio or what – that [President] Batista had gone. And when they said that everyone poured out into the streets, and all the informers were packing up and running away. One of them even tried to come into our house carrying his books and everything, but my sister and I said, “Go, go, go!” and threw him out. I never heard what happened to him. He was one of the worst.
Castro’s literacy campaign
In 1960, Fidel made a speech and asked everyone to join the literacy campaign. There were huge numbers of people who couldn’t read or write and his plan was to end that. Of course, I signed up and they asked me to go to the villages in the Escambray Mountains; places where there was nothing – not a single school, lots of children, but none knew how to read or write. And so we’d go to see the areas’ farm owners to see if they’d make a school.
There were four in my group. Two gave classes, and the other two would walk in the fields to find the people who needed the classes, and also teach them how to cook. All they used to eat up there was parboiled pumpkin, sweet potato. We four would pool together what money we had and go down the mountains to buy things to give them ideas for other ways to use those staples.
I remember on December 25 we decided to have a small party. The farm owner in that area lent us the hut where he stored tobacco and we danced and had a great time.
But after that, the bandits [former Batista soldiers supported by the CIA] came and started causing trouble in Escambray. We would see them, hiding their faces from us behind a towel, or whatever they had so that we wouldn’t recognise them. Once I heard the dogs going mad, barking in the middle of the night and wondered, “What’s bothering them?” So I got up to see what was going on and realised that the owners of the same house where we were staying were feeding the bandits.
One evening during class – classes were mostly held at night – we heard a horn and one of the family members jumped from fright and said, “Oh a car! That will be them [other brigadistas] leaving the school at San Tilin.” But that didn’t make sense – why would they be leaving the school at San Tilin at this time? So that was when we began to suspect. Then we found that the bandits had set fire to the school there.
One day the woman of the house said to us, “We think of you as part of the family, but next time you come back, don’t come dressed in olive green [the uniform].” It seemed the bandits had threatened to kill the family if we carried on there.
Soon after, the farm owner came and said that we couldn’t give any more classes in the family’s home because they’d threatened to burn his tobacco store. So we started teaching under a tree.
We carried on like that for a while until one day we went down the mountain for a break. On the way we saw Conrado Benitez in a jeep – he was also a member of the literacy brigade – and he called to us.
“Are you going down?”
“Yes, we’re going down.”
“Have you got your lantern?” All of the groups had a lantern, as there was no electricity up in the mountains.
“No, because we’re coming back.”
“No! You can’t go back there. You just tell me where you left it.”
And so he went up. He’d wanted to take presents to the children where he’d been working – some toys, some sweets. It was the beginning of January 1961 when we saw him, and on the 6th the bandits shot and killed him.
It was after his death that they formalised the literacy campaign across Cuba and asked everyone who could read and write to get involved. It was named after Benitez.
Teaching in Camaguey
They sent me off to Camaguey, to the countryside near Moron. It was full of counter-revolutionaries and a lot of racism too. We’d sing the “L’internationale” and the boys would all go, “These teachers are communists!”
They sent me with five brigadistas, young girls, 13 or 14 years old, for me to guide and look after, that sort of thing. But when I got there the people said, “There’s nowhere for you to stay.”
So I went to sleep in the chalet of the farm owner who’d fled. It was completely empty, the only thing it had was one of those old-style telephones that you had to wind up which the Haitians [who had come to work on sugar harvests] in the area used to come and use. But there was a shop next door, so I bought some things.
Every day I‘d go see how the young brigadistas were doing. They‘d tell me that they didn‘t understand the Haitians, one of them was frightened. There was always something. And around 10 in the morning a small [American] plane would pass flying really low, with a chain hanging out of it. And I said to myself, “What’s that plane doing with a chain hanging out?” I suppose it was bringing drugs, or arms – I have no idea.
One day, the shop owner said to me, “Maestra! Do you realise where you’re staying?”
“I don’t know, a house.”
“Yes, but don’t you see? If they [ the sugar harvesters] start a fire how are you going to get out?”
“Well, through the door?”
“Yes, but after the door, then where?”
And I looked and said to myself, “It’s true, where will I go?” I realised that every path had sugarcane all around and that if they set light to the cane fields there’d be no way out. [It’s common practice to burn the fields to make harvesting easier.]
So I decided that the choice was to stay and possibly die, or to end my participation in the campaign. Of course I chose to stay.
Another time I had a fever – I don’t know why. Maybe I got cold one day after taking a bath outside. There was a lady sitting in front of me and she said, “You’re feeling bad?”
“Yes, yes,” I said. “I have a terrible fever.” When I got home the fever had gone. But the next day the men all looked at me.
“Look at the teacher! Have you come back from the dead?”
One man said to me, “You haven’t died?”
“Yes,” said the others, “Because last night we heard on Radio Swan [a radio station set up by the CIA and operated from Swan Island off the Honduran coast] that the teacher from here had died.”
But I didn’t die. The Revolution has made me who I am. For me, there’s nothing other than the Revolution and being Cuban.
As told to Sylvia Hines. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
- March 10, 1952: Fulgencio Batista overthrows President Carlos Prio Socarras in a coup.
- July 26, 1953: First armed insurrection – failed attack on Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba to try and secure weapons by rebels united under Fidel Castro.
- Sept 21, 1953: Castro acts as own defence in his trial of the failed assault and delivers famous “History Will Absolve Me” speech.
- Dec 31, 1958: Batista flees Cuba after the decisive battle of Santa Clara.
- Sept 26, 1960: Castro declares plan for all-out offensive against illiteracy at UN General Assembly.
- Nov 1960: Census to locate illiterate people begins.
- Jan 1961: Death of Conrado Benitez. Literacy campaign formalised.
- Jan 28, 1961: Castro announces that in April all schools will close and everyone over 13 will be asked to join the Conrado Benitez brigadistas.
- Dec 22, 1961: Cuba declared free of illiteracy. Havana celebrates.