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Celestina Cordero: A Black Puerto Rican Educator During the Era of Slavery

by Rosario Méndez Panedas


The following article was originally published in Spanish on the blog Afrofeminas. To read the original version, click here

Note: The accompanying image is a work by the watercolor painter Tomás Méndez, who interpreted the work of the great Rafael de Francisco Oller by changing all the characters in the original painting to women. The author used it for the cover of her children’s book Maestra Celestina, which was published in 2017 as part of her work with the Cátedra de Mujeres Negras Ancestrales project directed by the writer Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro. Through the efforts of the project, in November of 2018, a public school in Hormigueros, in the western part of the island, named their library after Celestina Cordero Molina, thus contributing to the recognition that has been sought since 1817.

Celestina Cordero Molina (1787-1862) is one of the first free black women to have played a role in the development of Puerto Rico’s education system. She fought for Puerto Rican girls of all racial backgrounds to have the right to an education. Along with her sister Gregoria, she was one of maestro Rafael Cordero’s (1790-1868) older siblings. Their parents, Lucas Cordero and Rita Molina, were free blacks who had access to education and took it upon themselves to teach each of their children to read and write from the comfort of their home.

Around the start of the 19th century, Puerto Rico had a population of about 150,000 inhabitants, six percent of which knew how to read and write, the majority of them white and male—which is important to note as it is relevant to the Molina family and their legacy with respect to Puerto Rico’s education system during an era in which there were hardly any schools on the island.

The Cordero siblings dedicated their lives to education. As such, they converted their home on Calle Luna in San Juan into a school where girls and boys of all backgrounds went to learn. Rafael was in charge of teaching the boys and Celestina was in charge of the girls. Today, however, Rafael is the better known of the two in Puerto Rico. He is referred to as the ‘Father of Puerto Rico’s education system, with three schools on the island named after him. Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller immortalized him with a painting called “La escuela del maestro Cordero” (1890-1892) in which Rafael appears surrounded by his students. Maestro Cordero also had former pupils who went on to obtain important positions within the public sphere, such as the politician and intellectual Baldorioty de Castro, the writer Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, and the journalist José Julián Acosta, who each make explicit reference to the work and passion of maestro Cordero.

Unlike her brother Rafael, Celestina is largely unknown today in Puerto Rico. No schools are named after her, nor has an image of her survived into posterity. Women in colonial Puerto Rico during the 19th century were confined to the home, which is why there aren’t references to her students, nor a record available in the present-day of their names. It was very difficult, moreover, for women during this period to reach the public sphere as was the case for her brother’s students. Yet unlike him, her work as a teacher is documented in the Actas del Cabildo, or the documents in which the official decisions of the colonial government were recorded. There are about twelve documents about Celestina Cordero, the majority of them related to her requests to officially be recognized as a schoolteacher and to receive for funding for her school. There are also records showing an interest on the part of her siblings Gregoria and Rafael to keep Celestina’s school running after Celestina became ill in 1832 and could not continue teaching.

Here’s a summary of some of what can be found in the documents:

In 1817, Celestina made a request for funding for her all-girls school which states she had fifteen years of experience teaching at the time, along with an enrollment of 115 students. In her request, she asks for funding similar to that of the other four schools in San Juan. She was ultimately denied.

In February of 1820, there is a document in which Celestina requests that she be formally recognized as a schoolteacher in San Juan. That same year, on July 3, 1820, Celestina received her teaching license.

Another document shows that in May of 1821, Cordero filed a complaint that she had not been paid her salary as stipulated by her formal title. In March of 1825, she again requested that her teaching license be officially recognized. The final document to mention Celestina is from 1851. In it, her brother Rafael requests a lifetime pension for his sister “...atendida la circunstancia de haberse inutilizado en el constante ejercicio de su ministerio, como consta a V.E. y a toda la sociedad.” Celestina had not been able to use it while alive, though she was well known as a schoolteacher.

An enormous amount of courage would h-ave been required for a black woman—before the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico—to face the colonial administration and request both formal recognition as a schoolteacher and funding for her school. But she made numerous trips to the colonial administration anyway and did not give up until she was given her title. By then, Celestina was already a schoolteacher, as she and her students knew well, but she insisted anyway. This, in turn, reflects her determination, fortitude, and strength to continue fighting and at the same time, her overwhelming desire to not be discriminated against and instead, to be recognized for her work and paid her mandated government salary. Yet despite her efforts, this kind of discrimination continues into the present-day.

In her book, La ridícula idea de no volveré a verte, which is dedicated to Marie Curie, the Spanish writer Rosa Montero mentions that, until a few decades ago, the biggest problem for women in the West consisted of not knowing how to live for their own desires and living instead for the satisfaction of others like their fathers, their boyfriends, their husbands, their sons—as if their personal aspirations were secondary, invalid, and without merit. In her case, Celestina was way ahead of the times, seeing as how her desire to be a schoolteacher was so strong that nothing could stop her from returning to the colonial administration as many times as would have been necessary to obtain her title. Her entire life was driven and guided by her professional ambition.

There are brief mentions of Celestina in various texts on the history of education in Puerto Rico, such as Historia de la Educación en el Puerto Rico Colonial (1946) by Antonio Cuesta Mendoza, and Lecturas Históricas de la Educación en Puerto Rico (1943) by Gerardo Sellés Sola. There is also a page dedicated to her in La Enciclopedia de grandes mujeres de Puerto Rico (1975). On the other hand, there are various texts dedicated to her brother, such as En busca del Maestro Rafael Cordero (1994) by Jack and Irene Delano and Vida y obra del Maestro Cordero (2010) by Círculo Maestro Rafael Cordero; where a diverse set of references to Celestina and her school appear. Recently, in 2015, Zulmarie Alverio Ramos published a book entitled La Gran ausente: la maestra Celestina Cordero Molina.

Nevertheless, in spite of Celestina’s written presence in colonial administration records that exists today, her story continues to be largely erased as Alverio Ramos notes in the book. The scarce knowledge about her life that does exist is owed to the discrimination Celestina suffered and still suffers as a woman and as a black woman. The patriarchal culture has determined what should be recorded because history as we know it has been told by men. The history of women is one of resistance and lack of visibility, the latter of which still afflicts Celestina. And despite the fact that she worked to obtain the permits for het school, as well as official recognition as a schoolteacher, her story is always mentioned briefly and in the shadow of her younger brother.

Celestina was a pioneer in Puerto Rican education, her achievements documented, yet unfairly ignored by history

As I mentioned before, Rafael Cordero is considered to be the ‘Father of Public Education in Puerto Rico.’ In 2013, he was declared venerable, the first step toward beautification. Without wanting to discredit maestro Rafael’s passion and important role, Celestina should, in a similar vein, be considered the Mother of Puerto Rican education because it was she who was responsible for getting the official permits for the school she ran alongside her brother. In addition, being three years older than Rafael, she surely helped him to learn to read and write. Along with her mother, she was one of maestro Rafael Cordero’s first teachers.

Celestina’s is not an isolated case. There are other women who lived in the shadow of their famous brothers, and as a result, were not recognized by the patriarchal culture in which they lived. Fanny Mendelssohn, for example, published some of her compositions under the name of her brother. And Marianne Mozart, who, despite possessing talents similar to those of her younger brother, remained confined to the home and could not develop her talents in the same way as him.

Celestina Cordero was discriminated against for being black, in addition to being a woman. She didn’t have famous pupils like her brother who could speak of her and who could leave behind firsthand accounts because the majority of women during this period were relegated to the domestic sphere. Celestina’s last days were spent sick, under the care of her brother Rafael, with whom she seemed to share a strong bond. One of maestro Cordero’s students mentions the way Celestina screamed toward the end of her life and the care her brother procured for her. Perhaps her illness was related to the struggle she lived through her entire life as she insisted on being recognized for work that she so lovingly did for such a long time. Celestina dedicated her life to the education of young girls and her work has not been justly recognized. She did not have role models to see herself in, and going against the grain, she had the courage and determination to continue forward and do her work as a teacher. It’s time that she be given the place in the history of education in Puerto Rico she deserves and that she appear in history books not in the shadow of her brother, but for her own efforts, for her achievements in assuring that girls of all backgrounds would have access to education during a period in which schools hardly existed in Puerto Rico; and for helping to bridge the gap blacks and whites, which perhaps leading the way toward the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico that took place on March 22, 1873, eleven years after Celestina’s death.

Rosario Méndez Panedas has a Bachelor of Arts in Hispanic Philology from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and a doctorate in Hispanic Literature of the Americas from Syracuse University. She has published an array of articles of literary criticism in academic journals in Europe, the United States, and Puerto Rico. Currently, she is a professor in the Department of Languages and Literature at the Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico in San German, where she also lives. She belongs to the group Cátedra de Mujeres Negras Ancestrales, which is directed by the writer Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro, with whom she has published five books of short stories: Maestra Celestina, Pura Belpré: una vida dedicada a los libros, Se llama Juana Colón, El secreto de Matilde y Justa. Maestra Celestina received the award of Honorable Mention in the category of children’s short story in the PEN International of Puerto Rico in 2018.

© Rosario Méndez Panedas. Published by permission in Centro Voices 21 February 2019.