Murphy was raised on the campus of Stanford University, where her parents both studied. Growing up, she was influenced by her grandmother and great-aunt, both of whom had lived in Cuba at the turn of the 20th century.
Murphy studied in Havana during the 1990s in what is known as Cuba's Special Period. While living in Havana, Murphy earned a master's degree in sociology from the Facultad Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales. An early version of her thesis was published by the Institute for Food and Development Policy in 1999, under the title “Cultivating Havana: Urban agriculture and food security in the years of crisis”.
Based on this work, she gave one of the 2010 keynote speeches to the Northeast Organic Farming Association.
Catherine Murphy has earned the following credits for her film work:
Director/Producer. MAESTRA (Teacher). Documentary. US/Cuba. 2012.
Maestra is distributed by Women Make Movies.
Maestra has been included in the recommended curriculum resources of the Zinn Education Project
Maestra at the International Documentary Festival “OXDOX”Executive Producer. Miss. Documentary. Dir Flor Salcedo. Venezuela/USA.
Associate Producer. Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up? Documentary. Dir: Saul Landau. USA. 2011.
Associate Producer. From Ghost Town to Havana. Documentary. Dir Eugene Corr, 2013
Archive Researcher. Sing Your Song: The Life of Harry Belafonte. Dir Susane Rostock. USA. 2010.
Subtitle Editor. Stealing America: Vote By Vote. Documentary. Dir Dorothy Fadiman. 2008.
Subtitle Editor. The Greening of Cuba. Dir Jaime Kibben. USA. 1997
Production Assistant. Gay Cuba. Documentary. Dir Sonja de Vries. USA. 1994
Murphy is an adjunct professor at New York University's Center for Global Affairs, where she teaches a graduate course on the culture and history of Havana.
Murphy founded The Literacy Project in 2004 to explore issues of literacy and illiteracy in the Americas. As a result of her studies in Havana in the 1990s, she met several women who volunteered on the Cuban Literacy Campaign. In 1961, the Cuban government aimed to eradicate illiteracy across the island in the space of one year. It sent 250,000 volunteers across Cuba to teach reading and writing in rural communities for 12 months. 100,000 of the volunteers were under 18 and more than half of them were women.
In 2004, just before Murphy was to leave Havana and return to the United States, she decided to record three interviews with former Literacy Campaign volunteers. From 2004 to 2010, she continued to track down stories of Literacy Campaign volunteers and the families that hosted them, eventually producing and directing MAESTRA and founding The Literacy Project.
The Literacy Project now works to collect oral histories and uses a variety of media and documentation methodologies to capture the history of adult literacy work throughout the Americas.