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The literacy of 1980, when thousands learned to read with Sandinista slogans

41 years ago, about one hundred thousand young people went to all corners of the country due to the Sandinista project called the National Literacy Crusade. The purpose was to reduce illiteracy and, incidentally, to indoctrinate literacy workers and literacy students in the revolutionary slogans.

PerspectiveThe literacy of 1980, when thousands learned to read with Sandinista slogans

41 years ago, about one hundred thousand young people went to all corners of the country due to the Sandinista project called the National Literacy Crusade. The purpose was to reduce illiteracy and, incidentally, to indoctrinate literacy workers and literacy students in the revolutionary slogans.

TODAY NICARAGUA – Before writing the name of the founder of the FSLN, Carlos Fonseca Amador, the peasants had to learn the vowels in the phrase “La Revolución” (The Revolution), in addition to reading the sentence “Sandino: guía de la Revolución” (Sandino: guide to the Revolution), with the image of the man with the hat at the top. side.

The third lesson was to read “El FSLN condujo al pueblo a la liberación” (The FSLN led the people to liberation), illustrated with an image of red-black guerrillas raising their rifles.

The Crusade was a Sandinista initiative that mobilized more than 90,000 young people from high schools and universities, who for five months lived in rural areas of Nicaragua to teach reading and writing with phrases alluding to the FSLN to more than half of the poor population. and illiterate.

The literacy teachers spoke about Carlos Fonseca, Augusto C. Sandino, and other FSLN figures to the peasants. THE PRESS / HANS LAWRENCE RAMIREZ
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The literacy workers, mostly young people between 14 and 20 years old, spoke to the peasants about the figures of Sandinismo, the Revolution or the evils of the Somoza dynasty. This was stated in the “Sandinista Education Notebook. Orientations for the literacy worker ”, which also explained how to become literate with the method of Popular Education of the Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire.

Freire’s method had already borne positive results in African countries and consisted of literacy based on words that link people with their context. A phrase of a topic with which the peasant was familiar was chosen and from that sentence a generating word was extracted, from which the letters began to be identified.

This method is notorious in other lessons in the primer such as 10, where the syllables ce, ci, cen, cis and cel were taught in phrases such as “The genocidal are in the cells” or “Jacinto is a socialist”, whose generating words would be Genocide, Cell, Jacinto and Socialist. In total, there were 57 phrases alluding to Sandinismo and its revolution.

Fernando Cardenal was the coordinator of the Crusade and in his memoirs entitled Priest in the Revolution, he tells that once a literacy expert from India told him that he did not like the Crusade materials because they were highly politicized and that instead of initiating the lessons with the phrase “The Revolution” will begin with water or another similar word.

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Cardenal replied that that way was also highly politicized, “since talking about water and clouds at this time was to promote a political education in the line of hiding the reality that the Nicaraguan people were experiencing.”

The FSLN slogans were also translated into Miskito, Sumo and Creole English to teach them to 16,500 residents of the Caribbean Coast in a second literacy training that began on September 30, 1980.

The Sandinista slogans were translated into Miskito, Sumo, and Creole English to teach them to the inhabitants of the Caribbean Coast. THE PRESS / HANS LAWRENCE RAMIREZ

The pedagogue Josefina Vijil explains that the context had a lot of influence on the content of the primer because the triumph of the revolution was recent. “Unquestionably, it didn’t have to be that way. Texts that were not phrases and names or that were not necessarily allusive to the revolution could have been chosen, ”says Vijil, who considers that it could have been more inclusive to use other phrases without affecting the sense of the methodology.

Vijil recognizes that the context of the time was what defined the contents of the primer, which was full of hope, mystique and fervor for the revolutionary process. “The materials could have been more inclusive with less polarizing themes, but it was difficult at that time to see it that way,” insists the pedagogue.

A similar vision has the Nicaraguan historian and professor at Chapman University in Southern California, Mateo Jarquín, who points out that at that time it was utopianly believed that the country could be radically transformed. “Sandinismo thought to recreate society down to the level of identities that is the formation of citizenship, of a new nationalism,” and he emphasizes that the context is precisely what explains the content of the primer.

“Obviously the literacy campaign was one of the many social programs, the one that served the revolutionary government the most in terms of propaganda”, however, seeing it as an indoctrination campaign is “a fat, rude simplification” because it would be denying the fact illiteracy that existed until before the Crusade and would reduce the entire program to its political dimensions, which it effectively had.

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By its nature, the Crusade cannot be separated from the historical context in which it took place, just emerging from a dynasty that oppressed the country for 40 years and therefore it was normal for Nicaraguans to believe in that project. But one of the consequences of having literate more than 400,000 Nicaraguans with politicized materials is that critical thinking was not encouraged.

From the booklet only a part of the history of the Revolution was told and “by not counting both or all versions of the story, critical thinking was not promoted, but subordinate thinking was not promoted,” Vijil considers, adding that this has impacted in an undemocratic society “like the one we have today.”

For the pedagogue, something different was what came later with respect to the educational texts that were used in the country’s schools. These books were known as “Los Carlitos” and had “warmongering and pro-violence” content because they taught children to count on Aks 47, grenades, cobblestones and other war artifacts.

In addition, the books contained readings about children belonging to or joining the Sandinista Children’s Association and other FSLN party structures, which, for the pedagogue, “is not just indoctrination, but a totally absurd thing that has nothing to do with it. neither with reality nor with the interests of children ”.

The peasants identified the vowels in the names of Sandinista figures. THE PRESS / HANS LAWRENCE RAMIREZ

The logistics of the Crusade

Carlos Tünnerman still remembers the sad face of Fernando Cardenal when he met him in a corridor of the pyramid hotel, now known as Crown Plaza. The Governing Board, the FSLN National Directorate, ministers and important cadres of the new revolutionary government were staying there because there were still armed clashes in Managua between some members of the National Guard and Sandinista guerrillas. Somoza had left the country days before and the Sandinistas were beginning to rule.

Cardenal was discouraged because the nine commanders had sent him to Washington as Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States, because it was convenient for a Jesuit priest to stand up for the Sandinistas due to the tense relations that existed after the overthrow of Somoza.

“I don’t speak English, I have no interest, I am not a diplomat. I want to dedicate myself to work here with young people, ”said Cardenal, but Tünnerman, who became the new Minister of Education, wanted to appoint him as coordinator of the Crusade and Cardenal’s face lit up, he was fascinated by the idea and as soon as they got it National Directorate revoked the appointment as Cardenal’s ambassador, he prepared to work in the Crusade.

After a meeting with the Governing Board and the nine FSLN commanders, on July 26, 1979, at 10:30 p.m., Cardenal arrived at the home of Roberto Sáenz, another Jesuit who had experience teaching underground literacy. in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Cardenal asked him for help to organize the Crusade and Saenz told him: “Well, you have to push it back.”

Along with Sáenz, his sister, Ana, arrived at Cardenal’s office, who would act as his secretary, as well as Katherine Grisgby, who had just arrived from Canada with a Bachelor of Education. Grisgby was the one who was in charge of the Technical-Pedagogical Division that made the primer of the Crusade with the FSLN slogans.

César Campos was another of the people who collaborated with the creation of the booklet, in the research area, and had to visit municipalities of Chontales, Teotecacinte, Murra, Quilalí, among other places to collect the generating words that would be used in the materials .

Before the official booklet, a provisional of five lessons was created to do tests in Mozonte, Morrillo, Laurel Galán, La Pintada, among other remote locations in the country, to find out how the literate students would respond, until finally the 23 lessons that it contained were carried out. The Dawn of the People.

But in addition to the primer and the guidelines for the literacy teacher, another notebook called “Calculation and reactivation, a single operation. Sandinista education notebook of practical operations ”whose purpose was to teach the peasants basic mathematical operations such as adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing.

The Crusade booklet contained the symbols of the FSLN, its anthem and even the song “La Consigna” by Carlos Mejía Godoy. THE PRESS / HANS LAWRENCE RAMIREZ

Paulo Freire came to Nicaragua, the same one who devised the methodology to be used in the Crusade. He arrived at the Civic Center in Managua where he operated all the logistics and found a team of seven people, tables full of papers, no chairs and with the phone on the floor because there was nowhere to put it.

The Brazilian pedagogue reviewed the materials and told Tünnermann and Cardenal that the instruments and the methodology would work, but there was a problem. MINED did not have enough money to print the primers and there was no printing press in the country with the capacity to do so.

In Costa Rica they had found one that printed all the materials for a million dollars, so Freire loaned the phone that was on the ground and bent over to Geneva, Switzerland, called Charles Harper, director of the World Council of Churches.

Freire told Harper that there was going to be a “macanuda” literacy campaign in Nicaragua and he had to raise a million dollars in a week to support it. “Charles Harper got one million dollars in a week” as Freire had requested, says Tünnermann, money with which the materials were printed.

As the Somoza data were not credible, a census was needed to know the exact number of illiterate people in the country, as well as that of potential literacy workers. The coordination of the Crusade asked UNESCO for help but were told it would cost a million and would take at least two years.

The census needed to be done immediately so 300 members of the nascent Sandinista Youth were taken to El Retiro, Somoza’s private home and there they were instructed on how the census was going to be carried out, they were explained how the materials were going to work and they finished motivating them.

They asked by name, age, occupation, level of education and if they knew how to read, they asked if they were available to teach, what days, what hours and where. After weeks of work, it was finally known that the official illiteracy figure was 50.3%, so one half of the country was going to make the other literate. The census revealed that in total there were 722,616 illiterate women in the country, of which 78% were in the Caribbean region, according to data released by MINED.

The Crusade officially began on Sunday, March 23, 1980, but a day before, some had already left for the communities where they would be literate. Thousands of young people met in the Plaza de la Revolución to leave in the orange trucks of the Ministry of Transportation to the communities, mountains, regions and other localities.

In total there were 96,582 literacy teachers, the majority from high schools and universities. 59,124 young people were those who made up the People’s Army of Literacy Workers and others joined the Literacy Workers’ Militias, who were workers willing to support the Crusade after their working hours.

The brigadistas also carried out other tasks such as executing the malaria eradication campaign, collecting flora and fauna samples, collecting legends, popular songs, archaeological treasures, recovering the Oral History of the National Liberation War, among others. .

The literacy teachers were organized under a military logic in six major fronts at the national level. The Rigoberto López Pérez Western Front, Roberto Huembes Eastern Front, Pablo Úbeda North Eastern Front, Camilo Ortega Central Front, Carlos Fonseca North Front and Benjamin Zeledón South Front. The same names and geographic positions that the Sandinista guerrillas had used to overthrow Somoza.

Each Front was made up of brigades, columns, and squads. The first two had their General Staff and even published war reports in Barricada, the official FSLN newspaper to report on the progress of the Crusade and were sometimes signed with the slogan “Homeland literate or die in the Crusade.”

Regarding this military terminology, Tünnermarn explains that it was done that way because Nicaraguans were familiar with that language, in addition to the fact that the spirit was to declare war on illiteracy. “This time we were going to substitute weapons for pencils and notebooks.”

Barricada, the official newspaper of the FSLN, also published a Reading for Newly Literate Persons, which talked about Sandino, the Sandinista Popular Militias and other aspects of the Revolution. Readers were instructed to cut it out and circulate it “to peers who already know how to read.” In some editions a statement was also published that said “In each literacy worker, Carlos Fonseca.”

A group of literacy teachers celebrates the first anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. THE PRESS / TAKEN FROM THE INTERNET

The order carried out by the brigadistas was that peasant heads of families should be treated as mothers and fathers, and their children as brothers. It was forbidden to interrupt the work of the literacy students because the country’s production could not be stopped, so the young people waited for them to return from their work at four or five in the afternoon, rested for an hour and began to study.

The brigadistas were provided with Coleman lamps or gas lamps so that they could work at night, as well as rubber boots, blue jeans, study materials and their gray cotton cloth with the insignia of the Crusade.

There were also misfortunes such as rapes, murders and brigade members drowned in rivers. In fact, the first case of a deceased literacy worker was known on March 23, when Fernando Cardenal was told while on the stage, dismissing the young people that one had already drowned in Muelle de los Bueyes. Edmundo Hernández was his name, originally from Jinotepe. When the Crusade ended five months later, the death toll of brigade members was 59.


With his head leaning against one of the windows on Route 120, 62-year-old José Ramón Flores remembers his days as a brigadista in Las Segovias. He assures that he was teaching the FSLN slogans in Mozonte, Murra, Santa Clara and other municipalities in the area.

“At that time we were asleep. We did not know the doctrine that all these people (Sandinistas) have given and taught, ”says the man who now works as a bricklayer. Before becoming a brigadista, Flores fought to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship and years later he fought against it.

Flores considers that teaching the peasants to read with FSLN slogans was a mistake, although he admits that “we were asleep. We didn’t even know what all that meant. ”

On the other hand, Ligia Barrios, also 62, participated in the MOAs and remembers how she came religiously for five months from 5:00 to 8:00 pm to teach literacy at the Carlos Ulloa Arauz Institute, in front of the central park of Masaya. She worked in the computer area of ​​the financial system and although she was 21 years old, she could not go to rural areas because the idea was not to interrupt economic activities.

The five people who were in charge of Barrios learned to read and write. “It was exciting when they learned to write his name. There were tears there, ”she says.

Cenelia Mayorga, also from Masaya, still remembers when MINED technicians arrived at the Baptist College where she was attending high school to explain the details of the Crusade. Mayorga saw herself running and playing in the quagmire of whatever community they sent her, the longer the better, but her mother did not authorize her to go to the field and she had to settle for going to literate a couple of older people three blocks away. his house.

Gabriela Selser, an Argentine daughter of Gregorio Selser, author of the book Sandino, General de Hombres Libres, was able to go to literacy in the countryside, in the San José de las Casquitas community where she met her mother Francisca and her father Juan, in addition to their 11 siblings.

At that time the community was a seven-hour walk north of Waslala, and Selser, used to huge cities like her native Buenos Aires or Mexico City, now found herself in a small town of 40 houses, a grocery store, a parish, pigs, cows and scorpions.

Her main mission, which was to educate six members of that family of 17 people, she fulfilled with satisfaction, although she remembers that she had to deal with times when “the peasants told you“ I can’t, I don’t understand. My back hurts, I do not continue ”and they threw the card on the floor”.

In addition to Juan and Francisca, Gabriela literate Juan José, 18, Freddy, 15, Mirna, 13, and Ernesto, 11, who continued studying and became an Agricultural Engineer. Mirna, for her part, is in Spain today and still remembers the images of Carlos Fonseca and Augusto C. Sandino in the booklets.

The first sentences that Mirna González learned to write. THE PRESS / HANS LAWRENCE RAMIREZ

Barrios, Mayorga and Selser remember the content of the primer and all three agree that it was politicized content. “Obviously it was political, slogans so they were thrown away as slogans,” highlights Barrios. The same says Mayorga, who affirms that “the approach was merely political” but since he was starting a new revolutionary project and almost all the citizens were in favor of Sandinismo, he saw no problem in taking part.

However, Luciano García now sees the Crusade in retrospect and claims to feel manipulated. He was mobilized to Rancho Alegre, a town located between La Gateada and Muhán, near an old Somoza farm known as Los Millones in the municipality of Villa Sandino, Chontales.

García remembers that he was the second in command of the Carlos Álvarez Guerra squad, made up of 30 children between the ages of 12 and 14 from Colegio Centro América. The first in command was Álvaro Pastora, son of the late Commander Edén Pastora. García’s duty was to go into the mountains through the communities of Rancho Alegre, El Bejuco, La Chinela and others to supply his companions with whatever they needed: papers, pencils, capes, lamps or whatever.

The Carlos Álvarez Guerra squad where Luciano García participated in the Rancho Alegre community. THE PRESS / COURTESY

For García there is no valid context, since he considers that the politicized contents of the primer were “totally inappropriate.” He says that in his squad some preferred to skip the lessons and conversations about who those men were, the one with the bottle-butt glasses and the other with the hat, and preferred to focus on their literacy students only learning to read.

“The primer was designed to introduce ideological indoctrination. In each chapter (lesson) it was necessary to give the peasants “as an indoctrination”, and he details that those of legal age put up some resistance to study the contents of the primer, and in others there was curiosity to know about the Revolution.

García does remember that there was a lot of excitement over the issue of the Revolution, but he comments that at that time the discontent with the Sandinistas at the head of the country also began. In fact, the following month after the Crusade began in April 1980, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and Alfonso Robelo announced their resignation from the Governing Board.

At that time, García was 14 years old and did not perceive being manipulated. “We didn’t realize it. In the course of time, you realize that they were manipulating you ”, he comments today, 41 years later. In spite of everything, the former brigadista remembers the Crusade as the most enriching experience of his life due to the high level of companionship, and considers that he greatly sensitized young people. “An experience that I think everyone should go through. Have that social experience ”

Mission accomplished

The peasants did a small test to confirm that they finally learned to read and write. In their exam they wrote the sentences they had learned about Sandino, Carlos Fonseca, and the Sandinista figures.

With the mission accomplished of teaching how to read the FSLN slogans, the brigadistas had to return to their homes. The illiteracy figure was reduced from 50.3% to 12.9%, equivalent to 406,056 literate Nicaraguans. In the communities the red and black flag was raised with a yellow emblem that declared the town as free of illiteracy.

Juan Ramón Flores, Gabriela Selser and Luciano García, agree that when they returned from the mountains on August 24 in the same ramshackle orange trucks in which they left, the Nicaraguans received them as heroes in the Plaza de la Revolución. Many brigadistas brought chickens, curds, nacatamales, and other gifts that the peasants had given them.

The project received the Nadezhda Krúpskaya medal awarded by UNESCO as the best literacy campaign of that time in which thousands of peasants were indoctrinated and learned to read with FSLN slogans.

Translated and adapted from La Prensa. Read the original article (in Spanish) here.

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