The Cordero Siblings

La escuela del maestro Cordero  (1890-92), Francisco Oller, National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

La escuela del maestro Cordero (1890-92), Francisco Oller, National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.

At a time when almost 80% of Puerto Ricans were illiterate, there were no public schools, and black children and girls had extremely limited access to formal schooling, afro-puertorriqueño siblings Celestina, Rafael, and Gregoria Cordero Molina educated black children, and founded free schools that practiced social and racial integration. The students met at their modest house in Calle Luna in Old San Juan, a neighborhood in which many residents were enslaved. The Corderos taught skills they had initially learned from their parents—reading, writing, math—and the values they received from the Christian faith—generosity, equality, and love.

The schools were established more than fifty years before slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico and thirty-five years before federally organized private schools. After teaching for two decades, in 1820, Celestina (1787–1862) founded one of the first school for girls in Puerto Rico, which was later run by Gregoria (1784-1845). In 1810, Rafael (1790–1868) started a school for boys in San Germán, that he later moved to San Juan. Through offering black and mixed-race children the education and opportunities to improve their lives, the sibling created a space that challenged racial oppression with radical love and intellectual generosity. While one of Rafael’s goals in creating the school was to offer boys of color opportunity, it became so highly reputable that even some wealthy and white families began to send their children there. Challenging racist assumptions, the schools provided a beacon of hope in the midst of the sweeping anti-black legislation in 1848 and galvanized generations to become involved in the abolitionist movement.

[He] knew how to educate the heart.
— Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, writer and student of Maestro Rafael

A tireless advocate, Celestina succeeded in being recognized by the city as a teacher but was not able to secure government support to officially found a school for girls in San Juan. Yet, dedicated to keeping their schools accessible, Rafael supported them by repairing shoes and producing cigars from his house workshop. When Cordero received the Premio de la Virtud from the Sociedad de Económica de Amigos del País, he distributed his prize of 100 silver pesos amongst students and others in the city, keeping nothing for himself.  In 1851, after Gregoria’died and Celestina became ill, Rafael, who had become widely known as “Maestro,” arranged for two of her students to continue the girls’ school. Despite challenging times, Rafael, dressed in his token blue suit and a black alpaca hat, attended mass each morning at 4 a.m. and became a symbol of his unwavering faith in community and education. He was so widely beloved that 2,000 people attended his funeral in 1868. Although none of the Cordero siblings left any known personal writing, their work and their steadfast commitment to justice and equal opportunity continues to inspire generations of students, teachers, and activists.

For further reading: Círculo Maestro Rafael Cordero, Vida y Obra del Maestro Rafael (Colegio San Antonio Abad, 2010); Jack and Irene Delano, En Busca del Maestro Rafael/In Search of the Master Rafael (Rio Piedras: Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1994); and Zulmarie Alverio-Ramos, “Biografía de Celestina Cordero Molina,”

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