Living History

Interview with Catherine Murphy-Maestra

By Ann Halbert-Brooks / July 25, 2017

Editors' Note: For those interested in this topic, there will be a screening of Catherine Murphy's new documentary Maestra at UNC-CH on Thursday, September 28th at 5:00 p.m. in the Saltarelli Exhibit Gallery in the Wilson Library. The event is co-sponsored by the Institute for the Study of the Americas and the Rare Book Collection in celebration of the gift of the MAESTRA archive to Wilson Library. 

Above: Director and filmmaker Catherine Murphy. Courtsey of the Maestra film's website

Interview with Catherine Murphy
Conducted at her house in Mt. Rainier, Md.
May 24, 2017

At the time of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, nearly 25 percent of the Cuban population could not read or write. The revolutionaries who came to power in 1959 vowed to fix that, and the following year they announced an ambitious project: beginning in January 1961, they would recruit thousands of volunteer teachers to travel to the communities where illiterate adults lived and teach them to read and write. Their goal was to achieve universal basic literacy before January 1962.

The project, which they named the 1961 Literacy Campaign, was a success. More than 250,000 teachers—100,000 of whom were young adults between the ages of 12 and 19—were recruited and sent to remote parts of the country, and nearly 1 million Cubans learned to read and write.

In 2003, Catherine Murphy began conducting oral history interviews with the women and men who taught in the 1961 Literacy Campaign, and in 2012 she released a documentary titled Maestra based on those interviews. The documentary has been featured at two dozen film festivals since then, but there were too many interviews to include in the original documentary. Murphy is donating her entire collection of interviews to UNC to facilitate future research in the collection and bring the accounts to a scholarly audience. In the following interview, she discusses how she began her oral history project and her goals in bringing it to UNC.

AH: Today is May 24, 2017, and this is Ann Halbert-Brooks. I’m here with Catherine Murphy to interview her about the collection that she is donating to UNC on the Cuban Literacy Campaign of 1961. Catherine, how did you first come to Cuba?

CM: I first went to Cuba in 1992, but I had grown up thinking about Cuba my whole life because I grew up very close to my grandmother—my dad’s mother—and her sisters, and they had both been born and raised in Cuba, my grandmother in 1910, and her sister just a few years earlier. Their parents were North Americans who lived and worked in Cuba temporarily.

In 1992, it was full-on Special Period, and I had no way to anticipate that or prepare for that really.1 I was fascinated with how Cuba was dealing with the Special Period and I was fascinated with how a country with very low resources would take on and grapple with survival, and then with issues of development and human services. So while I was living this immediate daily reality of the Special Period, I was also really struck with and fascinated by the social system that Cuba had built, this education system, the healthcare system, and how a low-resource developing world country would make such a strong commitment and actually make it happen. I was interested in those topics and I ended up enrolling in the University of Havana and doing a master’s degree at the FLACSO program.2 My research topic at FLACSO was not the Literacy Campaign, but it bridged together this general interest in how Cuba was exploring notions of development and putting social development—their own kind of social development—practices into action. I was thinking a lot about how we might evolve our model of social development in the United States…[to] have a more efficient way to extend network of social protections. I also met a number of really interesting men and women doing cutting-edge work in contemporary Cuba, but it just so happened that a number of these people had been literacy teachers. Several of them referenced their experiences as literacy teachers as the most important thing they had ever done and that really intrigued me.


Above: Norma Guillard and Daysi. Courtesy of Maestra's website.

One of the women in the Maestra film, Daysi Veitía, who became a hospital architect, I knew her very well. She had really done huge and wonderful things with her life, but she was one of the people who would always say that the most beautiful thing she had ever done was teach someone else to read and write when she was a teenager. That story fascinated me and it intrigued me. The first interview that we did in 2003 was an interview with Daysi Veitía and it was a life story. She was very ill, and we recorded in a rush to do a recorded interview with her. I think that I had this idea [for a film and] that at that point it kind of became concrete. I got a film crew of a few Cuban film people that I knew and we went over to her house and did a really wonderful filmed interview with her which was so much more than I expected. I was so impressed with how fresh all the memories were to her. It was like she remembered people, places, names, dates, times, all of this detail that she talked about as if it had been yesterday or just last week! That in and of itself was fascinating and she remembered all of the people that she was with and she really encouraged me to interview a couple of them.

I think what I had been expecting was that I would do a few interviews and edit a small film that would be meaningful for Cuba and meaningful for the world, or for the US. It was a deeply personal project from the beginning. I started doing the interviews in 2003, which was [when] I was wrapping up my Cuba years. I felt like I was getting ready to move back to the States so there was some piece of it that felt like a bridge from what I had learned in Cuba and bringing a piece of that back to the US. It was one of the best parts of what had been happening in Cuba in previous decades that we didn’t get a chance to hear about in the US. Those first interviews, rather than kind of just creating a sense where I thought “oh this is a great project, so glad I did it,” it was just like the tip of an iceberg. The fact that they just remembered everything, they were so immediate about it, so passionate about it, so emotionally connected to that story still, it really struck me and it riveted me. I continued to do interviews, and the idea of the project grew into being a larger film. Although in the Maestra film we selected nine of those interviews to make a half hour film, I did dozens of interviews. It just…snowballed. Their stories struck me so much that I started to do some research on the Campaign and the significance…of the Campaign itself. 250,000 volunteer teachers, 100,000 of whom were teenagers, carrying out this massive national campaign for literacy: it just seems like an impossible feat, so I became fascinated on all of these levels with the Campaign itself and the magnitude of it what it might mean for the rest of the world and what it meant in a long-term way for the young people in who had been those young teachers, and how had it changed them.

AH: Now, with this vantage point of more than 50 years and more than 100 interviews, are there any interviews that particularly stand out to you or that were particularly meaningful for you?

CM: Yes. We were just talking about Daysi Veitía, and she said that she felt like being on the Campaign totally changed her life because that was where she found a strong sense of empowerment or self-esteem. She had been a very shy, very quiet, very sheltered… young woman. Her parents didn’t even like to let her go to the corner store by herself, so she just broke out of that and suddenly she discovered that she was actually smart and capable and brave and courageous and could solve problems and had something huge to give the world. A lot of the interviewees, especially the young women, talk in those terms. It changed the world for them. It changed the way they saw the world, and it changed the way they saw themselves because they discovered all of these things that had been prohibited for young women before, like being strong, autonomous, or brave, things that were not really cultivated in young women. You weren’t supposed to be that way if you were a young woman, so they got into all of this forbidden, exciting territory and many of them never looked back.

Silvio Rodriguez 

Above: Silvio Rodriguez, circa 1962, reknowned folk singer and a leader of the nueva trova movement. Courtesy of Wikicommons.

There’s so many different interviews that I could say. One of them was the interview with Silvio Rodríguez, the trovador, one of Latin America’s most beloved singer/songwriters. He taught on the Literacy Campaign when he was 14 years old, and the family that he was teaching how to read and write didn’t know that the world was round. He said, “Imagine, when you’re 14 years old and you’ve received this kind of minimal training to teach people how to make the alphabet!” Of course they had the books, the cartilla and the manual, but their training was really just to teach people “A, B, C, D…” you know, basic reading and writing, how to hold a pencil. To be confronted with these major issues like not knowing that the world is round…there’s so much in that. It was just those kinds of stories that really stuck out to me.

AH: What seemed to be some common goals or motivations for your interviewees?

CM: It’s really interesting because it was the first question that I asked all of them, and I think I expected a little bit more lofty or ideological responses. Some of them had those responses, but many others were just like, “It was an adventure!” Well, I should say in all fairness some were motivated by these big ideas or ideologies. Many others were motivated by the idea of teaching. Many of them say that they were drawn by the idea of teaching, the importance of teaching the country people how to read and write, of teaching illiterate adults how to read and write. Many others also just say that they were swept up in this spirit of adventure, that “all my friends were going and I wanted to go too,” or getting away from home. I think also for the young women this getting out of the overly protective clutches of what the family structure was in the 1950s was a huge attraction. They had diverse answers but they generally fit in those categories and the adventure piece was big for everybody.

AH: How did you go about recruiting interviewees to give these testimonios?

CM: Well, because I started with people I knew, I started with women, a group of women and it just kind of spread. I did those first three interviews in 2003 and I planned to have those be the end. Then, when I really realized that there was so much more to tell and to explore, I think I really hit a point where I realized this was such a massive phenomenon and there are thousands of testimonies to be collected. I felt at one point as though I was racing against the clock, like “well, I just have to do as many interviews as I can.”

It wasn’t too hard to get the word out. People who had taught on the Campaign themselves or had some kind of another role…also a lot of friends of my generation had parents that taught on the Campaign, or some friends younger than me had grandparents that taught.

I also went to the Literacy Campaign Museum in Havana, where the director Luisa Campos helped me. I asked for suggestions of people to interview, and one of the people that Luisa Campos suggested was Griselda Aguilera. Griselda Aguilera was the youngest girl teacher. She taught one person, one 58-year-old man named Carlos Pérez Isla who was totally illiterate. She taught him how to read and write—basic reading and writing—in 1961. I honestly couldn’t believe that story. It wasn’t believable to me that a 7-year-old could do that, so I tracked her down, maybe almost more out of incredulousness than out of interest in her story. I just couldn’t imagine it was true. We actually interviewed her at the Literacy Campaign Museum and her story’s really true! It’s quite spectacular! She tells a piece of it in the Maestra film, and it is always one of the moments that sticks out to people the most. Her parents taught on the Literacy Campaign, and she said that she felt like they were getting up every morning, and they would leave the house like they were going to do something so important and she wanted to be a part of that. She was so young they didn’t take her seriously, but of course she was reading at more of a second- or third-grade level so she had a lot to teach to many adults who had never had the opportunity to learn.

AH: It seems like you’ve been able to get really overwhelming response to this project from potential interviewees. What are some of their reasons for wanting to be interviewed, especially at this point?

CM: I think on the one hand people are so proud of the Literacy Campaign. It was such an important experience for them, a life-changing experience, a transformative experience for them on a personal level…They’re really proud of the importance of the whole undertaking. Such a key piece of the story is about the transformative power of service and the lasting importance of that in the lives of all of these thousands of young teachers who really experienced it, day in and day out, living with their students, working with their students, learning about the lives of rural people, learning about the challenges of rural people and working together with them and then taking the dedication of teaching them how to read and write. The power of that—in this very personal way—is very lasting. People are proud of that, you know? “Honored” might be more the word for what I felt like I read from that.

I also feel like there was really an element of the crisis that Cuba has been going through in the Special Period, in the post-Soviet period, from 1989 to now, where life has just been so challenging on so many levels. I felt like that might have been a piece of why so many of those who participated in the Literacy Campaign were so happy and excited to talk about it. It’s like, “This is what I’m about,” or “this is what we’re about and in spite of all the challenges now and the difficulties, this is the core thing that we want to be building.” It was almost just remembering, bringing back, and then transmitting what they were working to build at that time.

AH: You’ve touched on this a little bit already, but in Maestra a lot of the focus…is on women even though almost half of your interviewees have been men. What is the goal with that, and what are you hoping to do by focusing on women?

CM: I think that when I set out to collect the first stories I was really looking for stories of women and for the stories of the youngest women and how this experience may have changed the way they saw themselves. The country was changing and I was looking for what that connection was between a country going through a massive process of change and how that can be lived on a personal level; what’s the connection between the macro transformation and the micro.

This is very different, but in the particular instance of the Literacy Campaign, how did that change the lives of young women or especially the way that young women saw themselves vis a vis this larger project. I think I came to see it more as through these new opportunities that were afforded to them or that were available to them because of this larger project of the Literacy Campaign. Because of the Campaign, they were able to break out of those very narrow confines of the gender roles that existed in Cuba in the 1950s. There’s a lot of race and class dynamics in that as well because lower-income women always had to work but any family that could afford to not have the daughters work, the daughters didn’t work.

In middle class families the daughters were very, very protected… they did not leave the house without a chaperone, or they learned to walk with a book on their head, or that the way to cultivate a “good future” for them—that mainstream social construct of the time—[was to]… learn how to be a proper lady and learn how to be a good wife and a good mother. It’s important to be a good wife and a good mother in the larger sense of the world, but if that’s all you have open to you and there’s the total exclusion of the public sphere, intellectual life, spiritual life, artistic life, or autonomy…I was really curious about that, and the young women that participated in that Literacy Campaign because they were able to break out of that so much. It was life-changing for them...

Above: A female volunteer teaches at a rural classroom as part of the 1961 Literacy Campaign in Cuba. Courtesy of the Maestra website.

At the same time, it was transforming for the men too. The young men that participated in the Literacy Campaign were profoundly transformed and it didn’t really dawn on me until some years into the project that it also transformed them around gender confines. It also gave them some movement on the very strict gender confines of men, and young men, and what men are supposed to be. Now, there was a big difference in terms of the way that parents reacted. When young men went to tell their parents that they wanted to join the Literacy Campaign, the parents generally approved… it fit into those Western concepts of manhood and masculinity. You go out into the world and find your way in the world, and become a man.

Slightly over half of the young teachers were young women, but the other almost-half were young men, and vale la repetición as they say, it was a profoundly transformative experience for them. I started to run into men who I knew, or friends of friends, or friends’ parents, dads, uncles, grandfathers or whatever, and I started to interview them. Many of those interviews actually happened after the Maestra film was already edited. I would come across these incredible stories like Enrique Pineda Barnet, he was the first maestro voluntario, and he was old friends with Ivan Napoles who was our cinematographer from ICAIC. Ivan Napoles was saying “you’ve got to interview [him], you’re doing something on the Literacy Campaign!” He almost insisted that we interview Enrique Pineda Barnet. It was of course a fascinating story, so we all went together to his house, and we spent an afternoon with him. We interviewed him about the experience and also watched this archival Cuban film called Maestro del Cilantro, which he stars in and it’s sort of about his experience…but that was totally wonderful...

It’s also sort of funny because when I started showing the Maestra film in Cuba, numerous men came up to me and they were like “you left us out!” and at first I thought, “well, this is how women have felt throughout the ages!” but it’s not just that simple. They have had so many beautiful experiences and beautiful things to tell so yes, we started interviewing more men. I’ve actually done a number of interviews—research interviews—with men like with Jorge Odio, who has a beautiful story. He came from a very poor family in Palma Soriano and he had never been able to go to school because he didn’t have shoes, which was a very common story. When the Campaign started, he signed up to be a student but he was more the age of the young brigadista volunteers than the other students. He took the classes for a few days and then he ran away from home and appeared in the next town presenting himself as a literacy volunteer. They gave him students, and he taught these people how to read and write! He said that he would stay up reading, studying the lessons furiously before he would teach them the next day. There’s just so many beautiful stories told by the guys, by the various men that we interviewed...

AH: For any potential future researchers, is there anywhere that you would recommend they start?

CM: I guess it depends so much on where, and what aspect they’re looking at... It’s hard to say. It would be interesting to look at the regional differences. I don’t know, I think the things that stick out to me wouldn’t necessarily be the most interesting.

For me if there was one thing that we would have included in the film more, it would have been more what the brigadistas talk about learning from their students. I felt like we hadn’t explored it enough in Maestra. Such an important part of the Campaign was breaking down that enormous divide between that urban people and rural people, and that urban people often feel superior and there’s so much prejudice throughout history that urban people are superior to rural people, urban living is superior to rural living, people in the city are smarter or more cultured, more sophisticated or whatever, and breaking that down was such an important piece of what happened in the Campaign. I think the teaching materials on this are fascinating, that part of the instrucciones al alfabetizador where they say, “show tremendous concern for all the problems that your students face, illiteracy is just one of them” and really trying to cultivate this deep concern and respect for rural people and their challenges. That’s a very important part of piece of the story. That then opened the door for the students the young student-literacy teachers who went to teach on the Campaign to honor and respect the families that they lived with. Maybe the student families didn’t know how to read and write, but they had this tremendous wisdom in so many other ways—knowledge, intelligence, and traditional wisdom—and the way they talk about that is really interesting and moving I think. I don’t know that there would be enough volume on that to be a research project but it sure is a beautiful topic…y allí para adelante!

AHB: We’ve come to the end of my questions. Is there anything else that you’d like to include?

CM: I’m really delighted that these archives are going to UNC. I know that so many Cuba scholars either are cultivated at UNC or specifically go to UNC to study with Lou Pérez. That makes me particularly happy that the archives are going to be there and going to be at easy reach for present and future Cuba scholars. I would also just encourage people to continue to collect interviews and do that research because there’s still so many living people. The alfabetizados, there’s not many, but there are some that are still alive or children of alfabetizados are a huge area that could be explored…I’m honored… and really happy that these interviews will contribute to that history, but I would encourage folks to keep collecting, searching for more.

Ann Halbert-Brooks is a Ph.D. candidate in the UNC-CH department of history. Her work focuses on the Cuban Revolution. 

To see a trailer for Maestra, click here

To go to the website for Maestra, click here


  1. The “Special Period in Times of Peace,” the euphemism for the economic crisis that struck Cuba in the 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union.

  2.  FLACSO: the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales at the University of Havana. It is part of an 18-country academic network dedicated to the study of social development.

  3. The Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos, the official organization responsible for promoting and running the film industry in Cuba.