By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
At age 15, Norma Guillard was traversing the countryside of Cuba. Having grown up extremely poor, this wasn’t a simple backpacking trip or excursion with her girlfriends.
Today she goes by Dr. Norma Rita Guillard Limonta, or more affectionately “Mama Norma,” and she shares with pride the story of how she joined a movement that changed her and an entire country.
“Being a literacy teacher was one of the big tasks carried out by the revolution,” Mama Norma shared through translator Libies Martinez.
“The whole campaign was based on mobilizing the youth from the cities, the countryside to teach reading and writing to those in the country areas,” she said.
Leader Fidel Castro spearheaded the 1961 Cuban Literacy Campaign and trained thousands of volunteers, called brigadistas, to address the issue of illiteracy. Ever since, the country has topped international literacy rates. It’s not something you learn about in school whenever Cuba comes up. Lessons tend to lean toward missile crises, anti-American speeches and justification for continued sanctions.
We gathered at her home as part of our host Kathryn Hall-Trujillo’s effort to introduce us to “her Cuba.” Mama Norma was one of the first people the maternal health champion and community activist met upon going to Cuba on humanitarian trips with Pastors for Peace.
While we were at Mama Norma’s house, we watched a documentary that she was featured in, “Maestra.” The documentary chronicled the historic literacy effort and how many of the volunteers, like Mama Norma, went on to become teachers.
Mama Norma shared how at the time she didn’t really understand the magnitude of what they were doing; she just wanted to be a part of something that would have a major impact. Being part of that project allowed her to experience freedom in a new way and gave her the courage she’d need going into the things she would do later in life. We also learned of her work as a social psychologist and as a revolutionary in Cuba’s LGBTQ community.
Visiting with Mama Norma is an educational experience. We discovered she was both humble and funny. It felt like home. It felt like we were sitting around at the feet of a community grandmother, hearing her talk about her life and legacy.