Professor Elena Margarita Valdés

Elena Margarita Valdés Estévez is one of those people who has left her mark on the soul of many. A brilliant teacher, who has served as an inspiration for several generations to thousands of students. The art of teaching has led her to change lives with the right mix of chalk, love, and challenges.

The years that have passed until today do not make her forget those moments when she gratefully imparted her knowledge in front of a classroom. Sitting in the living room of her home, after a warm welcome, Elenita, as we affectionately call her, recalls one of the stories that make us understand her love for pedagogy.

"There is an event that marked me forever. It is something small, but it was very significant for me. When I was a literacy teacher, I had three Haitian students. One day, one of them came to the house where I was staying.

"He was 77 years old, already a little stooped, with calloused and hardened hands from working so hard with the machete. It was payday, and he had a voucher in his torn pocket. With tears in his eyes, he took it out and told me, 'Look, teacher, I didn't have to put my fingers in it'. He had signed his name, Mateo. I think that was enough to continue this beautiful work of the Revolution, which is to teach."

How would you describe your first years of study?

"This was a very sacrificing stage for my parents, but Dad said that the only inheritance he could leave me would be the degree. I went to school for the first time when I was seven years old. I began my studies at the Ana Naida Carballo Academy. After a few months, at the end of the course, my father enrolled me in a private school called 'Victoria de las Tunas', which was run by Mexican nuns. I was admitted there when I was 8 years old because my father was a field inspector and in the areas where we lived there were no schools at that time."

In this school, I spent my childhood and adolescence until June 22, 1960. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Then I enrolled in the School of Commerce of Las Tunas since I was thinking of studying Commercial Sciences at the University of Havana."

When asked about her youth, Elena recalls the revolutionary fervor that characterized that period.

"My youth was spent studying, at the same time the Revolution was beginning; and with it events such as the assault on the Moncada Barracks. In 1956, I had Ada Santamaría Cuadrado as a classmate, who was already 18 years old and had been brought from Las Villas to protect her from the rural guard and the police."

Haydée Santamaría photo"While she was at school, I met Haydeé Santamaría, as well as her parents. After Moncada happened and Haideé had been released from prison with Ada, we have to know many things that happened inside and outside the barracks. She had the only book of La Historia me Absolverá (History Will Absolve Me) then, but she kept it hidden and did not give it to anyone. With her, I learned to know Fidel. In 2009 I participated with two clandestine combatants in the research on the Santamaría Cuadrado family in Las Tunas."

When did your vocation to pedagogy awaken?

"I confess that my vocation at the beginning was not teaching. I was called from Las Tunas to teach at the recently inaugurated 2 de Diciembre Basic Secondary School."

"I started on January 25, 1961, as a teacher of the A chair. I taught science in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. I had students older than me because some of them had finished the sixth grade in public school five years ago and had not been able to continue their studies in academies or private schools. They were the best students I had, their thirst for knowledge was enormous, and they all wanted to have a profession, which most of them did."

"This experience made my vocation for teaching grow stronger and stronger. The interest I saw in the students made me prepare myself more for my classes, and I tried to teach them everything I knew. Although in those years there was still not an abundance of textbooks, and the programs were not adapted as they are today, I tried to find the content of the classes I taught, such as Botany, Zoology, and Anatomy, in my high school books."

"I remember I received a visit from an inspector from Caimanera and she asked me why my students knew so much. That made me very proud and I fell madly in love with my profession."

"This stage of my working life was very intense because the changes in our country were beginning and there were not enough qualified personnel for the schools. Those of us who had a little more preparation worked as teachers of improvement, I had to go to Las Tunas on Wednesdays to teach Basic Secondary School teachers, who were the only ones in the province at that time."

"In the same year that I started working, the Conrado Benítez brigades were formed for the literacy process in the country. I was there, with almost all the teachers and students responding to Fidel Castro's call."

"I taught literacy in the areas of Manatí, Santa Rosa, and El Guanito, it was a very hard process but I learned a lot. Not only professionally, but also as a human being. I was there until the end of the campaign and in the Revolution Square with Fidel on December 22, 1961."

"After the Literacy Campaign, I continued teaching at night while simultaneously following the Basic Secondary School. Then I got married but continued to work as a teacher, this time in adult education, where I spent 24 years. For the last 8 years, I was the director of the Workers and Farmers Faculty (FOC, by its acronym in Spanish), during which time I graduated in Puerto Padre with a degree in Spanish in 1975."

We know that in your extensive revolutionary trajectory you had a meeting with Fidel Castro. How was this experience?

Professor Elena Margarita Valdés"During the time I was a leader in education, I did not miss any National Seminar for leaders or methodologists, nor any teacher training course. Regardless of the distance of the place where they were held, nor the time they lasted. Therefore, I went to Santiago de Cuba, to Havana when the Minister of Education was José Ramón Fernández and on another occasion, the Minister was Armando Hart."

"In one of these courses in Havana, all the science teachers of the Basic Secondary Schools of the country were staying at the Habana Libre Hotel. One night, near the entrance of the hotel, Fidel was in the library. You can imagine the huge crowd of teachers and directors. Everyone wanted to see the great teacher, including me. I got as close as I could among so many people. Finally, I managed to grab his arm."

"The happiness I felt was so great that I hardly noticed the guard that accompanied him, who only smiled at me when they saw the jumps of joy I was giving. No one can imagine the emotion and pride I felt when I had the leader of the Revolution so close, which cannot be described."

After so many years of working in the education sector, Elenita decided to retire. However, she did not hesitate to join again, after the call was made for the first time in 2001, to cover classrooms that were without teachers. Thus, she spent 12 years of her life at the Gregorio Careaga Medina Polytechnic where she claims to have been highly respected and valued by teachers and students.

"During the retirement process, my co-workers and students planned a very emotional farewell in front of my house. They brought flowers and made a poem that I still keep as well as the affection I have for them."

"It was very difficult to adjust to not working, but my eyesight was very affected and I had to have surgery. Besides, I was 73 years old and I could no longer ride the bicycle that always accompanied me."

At 81 years of age, Elena Valdés confesses that there was no wiser decision than to dedicate her life to teaching. Because of her admirable work and her brilliant ability to stimulate the love of learning, today we consider her a very valuable jewel of knowledge.