Rafael Ramirez, a 66-year-old sesame farmer, put the standard-issue eyeglasses on his weathered nose and carefully sounded out the syllables in his primer.
" Lu-cha . Struggle," Ramirez said. "Lu, la, li, lo, le. El chavalo vivio la lucha . The boy lived the struggle. Cha, chu, chi, cho. "
Ramirez, who never went to school as a youth, is one of 20 adults in this farming cooperative who labor in sun-scorched fields by day and learn to read and write in night classes taught by Sandinista teen-agers.
Sowing a Message
For the first time in seven years, hundreds of youths have fanned out into the countryside to sow revolutionary good will and a Sandinista message.
"Masas. Masses. Jamas. Never. The masses will never be submissive again," their primer says.
The teachers, in turn, learn to milk cows, cut wheat and to understand the ways of poor farmers. Officials say the program helps to develop the youths' own revolutionary consciousness. For some, it will be a step toward advancement in the Sandinista Party.
"We teach them to read, and they teach us their knowledge of the land," said Ramon Borge, 16, who is working at the Laurel Galan cooperative about 60 miles northeast of Managua, the nation's capital.
"In the old regime, they made us see the farmers as an inferior class, but with the triumph of the revolution, we are on an equal footing with them," Borge said. The Sandinistas assumed power in Nicaragua after dictator Anastasio Somoza was overthrown in 1979.
The program is a scaled-down version of the 1980 Literacy Crusade, which sent tens of thousands of urban and educated youths to the countryside for six months to teach reading, writing and basic mathematics.
That ambitious effort, the pride of the then-new revolutionary government, dramatically reduced the country's illiteracy rate from more than 50% to 12%, according to government figures.
However, six years of war and a faltering economy have eroded those heady gains. Funds are scarce. Schools have been destroyed by the U.S.-backed contras, and there are too few teachers.
Last year in Laurel Galan, for example, there was a second-grade teacher but no first-grade teacher, and, therefore, no school for first graders.
Many adults, like Ramirez, who learned the basics of reading during the Literacy Crusade, say they have not returned to their books since 1980 and have forgotten much of what they learned.
The Sandinista Youth Organization and Education Ministry officials say they have no figures for illiteracy, since there has been no census since 1980, although they estimate the rate may have risen to 20%.
In this three-month campaign, during the teen-agers' annual school break, much of the focus is on training "popular teachers"--literate residents of the rural communities who can continue classes when the young instructors return to their own schools at the end of February.
Luis Amaya, director of literacy for the Ministry of Education, said the 1980 crusade was "an insurrectional approach" to education, mobilizing youths like troops for a massive campaign. This time, he said, the program is aimed at building a grass-roots adult education system that lasts.
In addition to teaching, the youths act as a kind of Sandinista peace corps, digging latrines, building parks, vaccinating children and helping with farm work. Brenda Bustos, one of 450 student-teachers from Managua, is organizing a women's cooperative in El Mayro, about 40 miles northeast of the capital.
Adapting to Rural Life
Bustos, 16, said the women will sew or bake goods to earn money and to help make the cooperative self-sufficient. At the same time, she hopes, the women will learn to be more assertive.
"At the first community directors meeting, when we introduced ourselves, I saw that the women were not participating. I started talking to them and told them that they should participate more in the revolution," she said.
Bustos, the top student in her class at a Managua high school, said she had a hard time adapting to rural life at the beginning of the program in December.
"At home on a Saturday, we go out to the movies, for ice cream or pizza. Here there is nothing. We miss it. At first, we would make campfires and sing, but now we don't even do that. We go visit with people," she said.
Bustos and the two other teachers at El Mayro live in the brick communal building, next to the community's three-room schoolhouse, and sleep in hammocks.
El Mayro is a Sandinista-built settlement of about 100 cinder-block houses, away from the war against the contras to the north and better off than most cooperatives, having electricity, running water and streets lined with cement drainage ditches.
Ramirez said the Sandinistas gave the farmers land at El Mayro in 1984 in exchange for their property in another part of the Lake Managua region, where the government built a cotton gin. He said he prefers working in the Sandinista cooperative to laboring alone although he feels cramped in the settlement.
"This house is better than the one we had, but there we had more room for animals," Ramirez said. "There we didn't have electricity, just little candles. But we didn't need electricity then and now that we have it, we do."
Ramirez said the main reason that he agreed to move into the settlement was for its school.
"I wanted my children to learn to read and write," the father of six said.
Ramirez's younger children are in primary school. His eldest daughter, Maria Isabel Conde, with four children of her own, is studying with him in the literacy program.
The program, launched in four provinces with as many as 2,000 teachers, is coordinated by militants of the Sandinista Youth, a mass organization for teen-agers that is a stepping stone to becoming a party member for those who demonstrate leadership, hard work and ideological "clarity." Many of the teen-age teachers have spent previous vacations as volunteers in Sandinista Youth coffee-cutting brigades.
But although most of the teen-age teachers seem to share the ideals of the Sandinista Youth, not all join the organization to become leaders or aspire to belong to the Sandinista Party.
'Way to Help Country'
"This is a way to help my country. If we Nicaraguans don't help each other, who is going to teach us?" said Borge, who twice spent his school break picking coffee before becoming a teacher.
"I don't want to belong to the Sandinista Youth because it means too much of a commitment, too much work, and you have to do well in school, too," he said.
Neither coffee picking nor teaching is easy for the teen-ager. At Laurel Galan, the young teachers live with families in their wooden houses, without electricity, running water or plumbing. They give their classes to barefoot men and women by lantern light at crudely built wood tables.
Several teen-agers who were interviewed said they learned they do not want to become teachers. While the work has been gratifying, they said, it demands too much patience. Bustos said she is interested in chemistry, and her colleague, Gustavo Ortega, said he wants to be an agricultural engineer.
"There are other things we can do for our country, like help it become technically independent," said Ortega, who is Ramirez's teacher.
Several professional teachers also are donating their vacation time to oversee the methodology of the youth, who underwent a two-day workshop before the literacy course began and are working from an instructor's manual.
Along with literacy, the program clearly stresses the themes of the leftist Sandinista government.
"Revolucion . Sandino guides the revolution," the basic text says, referring to Gen. Augusto Cesar Sandino, a Nicaraguan rebel of the late 1920s and early 1930s from whom the Sandinistas take their name. "The rifle was our response to oppression."
"When the book says struggle ," said Bustos, "we make sure they understand what we are struggling for."
'Just Teach Me to Read'
Criticism of the highly politicized readers often was heated during the 1980 Literacy Crusade, but it was not evident among peasants at the Sandinista-organized cooperative. Maria Espinoza, 31, one of the local teachers being trained at Laurel Galan, acknowledged that there have been some minor complaints.
"Sometimes someone will say, 'Just teach me to read. Don't confuse me with (Sandinista Front founder) Carlos Fonseca,' " Espinoza said.
Regardless of the message, students in the literacy course said they were pleased to have another chance to learn to read. As happens with electricity, they said, once you've begun to read, you find that you need it.
"I want to learn to read so that no one can take advantage of me," Ramirez said.