I was barely able to steal 15 minutes of her time and not even on the date I had planned, but a few days after.
At the venerable age of 90, her various responsibilities as coordinator of zone 75 of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) and Party membership; organizing assemblies during which delegates present their accountability reports to constituents; and her work as a Pre-university High School History teacher, make Rina Peñalver González – who has also served on international missions – quite a busy woman.
A fervent protagonist of the most important events of the country’s social process, Rina’s life has been inextricably linked with the Revolution.
“We are founders of the CDRs ever since this great organization emerged next to what is now the Museum of the Revolution. Fidel made the call: ‘We are going to establish a neighborhood watch system on every block.’ I have been part of the vigilance system ever since, first as a founder and then as coordinator since 1993.
“When I was in Angola, I was replaced because I was the ideological person in the organization. When I got back, I began working with the CDR again. It’s an important job that requires using social communication to analyze problems,” she categorically states.
THE SUBSTITUTE TEACHER
In 1950, Rina began to work as a teacher. Although teaching might not have been her dream profession, at that time it was one of the few options open to women to get ahead and secure a job.
“I didn’t really want to be a teacher, but once I settled into it I started to enjoy my work. I started out as a substitute teacher in La Habana Vieja. I became interested in problems specifically related to the teaching profession, especially social issues, children’s home lives, the conditions of public schools.
“Later I continued studying. I became aware of the problems caused by social differences and unequal economic and political systems, and I always recognize that I had the help of our Comandante en Jefe Fidel in this regard. I always say he taught me to think because I wasn't concerned about politics. I became concerned because of the kids' problems.”
Before the Revolution, in her days working as a substitute teacher in marginalized neighborhoods around the capital, Rina witnessed children living in poverty, and saw the injustices of social and economic inequality.
During her long career as an educator, Rina has taught various subjects at different educational levels, ranging from multi-grade classes in elementary schools, to Geography, History, Politics, Modern History and this year, the History of the Americas.
“It’s an interesting subject because it covers the period when the Spanish and English arrived to these lands and the current situation in Latin America, when we're seeing that the empire is not willing to give up its power easily. It’s a subject which develops ones intelligence,” she notes.
Throughout our conversation, Rina constantly mentions her students and how she goes about organizing her study plans for future classes: “I tell them, ‘Kids, the daily newspaper costs 0.20 cents and you get the cheapest literature. You can look at other sources, but the most important thing is to analyze and assess.”
Another key topic in her classes is the U.S. economic war against Cuba. “I always tell my students to study the issue of the blockade in depth, because many people are unaware of the situation it creates. It’s important to focus on all the damage it causes us, which despite everything that is being done, impedes our development.”
THE RIGHT KIND OF VALUES
In her many years as a teacher, Rina Peñalver has learned that passing on values to the new generations isn’t achieved in a day.
“They aren’t born with values; there are some which we try to develop: courage, honesty, the difference between right and wrong. This is precisely what José de la Luz y Caballero taught us: “What is right and what is wrong? However, this is something they learn through life experiences.”
Rina makes a point of passing on to young students training to become teachers, and to parents of adolescent children, one of the most important lessons she has learned in her over 50 years at the head of the classroom.
“You can’t think about teaching in economic terms. Big mistake. As a teacher you can’t be looking at the salary. When I began, substitutes were paid eight pesos a month. A teacher must feel love for their profession.
“It’s not about the student getting 100%, but that this score reflects their aptitude in life, they must know how to value the thirst for knowledge, knowledge not for personal gain, but rather for the benefit of society, for the good of humankind.”
A WELL DESERVED RECOGNITION
This year the Cuban Association of Pedagogues awarded Rina González Peñalver the National Service to Teaching Prize. The distinction awarded for a lifetime committed to teaching, revealed the honoree’s modestly and gratitude.
“There are lots of people and teachers like me. It’s not that I’m perfect. I was overjoyed to receive the Prize, but I don’t regard it with vanity, but as something normal, because teaching is what I do.”
Knowing that a teacher’s work is never done, the distinguished pedagogue spends her time thinking about how to solve problems which still exist in her sector and encourages her students to study Cuban history, and read the newspapers to keep informed and know what’s going on in the world.
Thus ends the conversation with the pedagogue, a women who shows no signs of slowing down or any complacency. As I prepare to write this article, Rina is surely back doing the work to which she has dedicated so many years of her life, ever since she was a young girl back in 1950.