Over 200 years ago, before the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico, one fiercely determined young Black woman was about to make history. But today, the legacy of Celestina Cordero Molina, The Mother of Puerto Rico’s Public Education, remains largely obscured. It has been comfortably shrouded by colonial patriarchy in an attempt at erasure. To ensure Celestina’s memory and accomplishments obtain their rightful place in our nation’s collective consciousness, we are boldly rewriting the narrative. This is HERstory — shared from an unapologetically Afro-Puerto Rican feminist perspective.
Born in San Juan, on April 6, 1787, Celestina was the middle child of Rita Molina and Lucas Cordero, a free Black couple who instilled a love of learning in their children. Though the three siblings were involved in educating Puerto Rico’s youngsters, (with the eldest daughter, Gregoria playing a small part), it’s the youngest, Rafael (b. October 24, 1790) who has received the accolades. Considering the then-Spanish territory’s economic and social backdrop, this is unsurprising.
In the early 19th century, Puerto Rico’s illiteracy rate was over 80 percent and those who could read and write were predominantly white males. Factoring in a colonial Puerto Rico where women were largely restricted to the home brings another flavor to the panorama. Then, when you add the facts that Rafael and Celestina were free Black literate persons, and an official public school system wouldn’t be created on the island until 1865, the scenario becomes clearer.
Using their San Juan home as a school, Rafael oversaw the boys’ education, while Celestina taught the girls — it’s important to note that both Black and White children were accepted as students. It’s right about here where the Cordero Molina siblings’ place in Puerto Rican history starkly differs. Whereas San Juan municipality records do not officially recognize Rafael as a schoolteacher, there are multiple documented inquiries relating to Celestina’s role as an educator.
In 1817, with over 15 years of teaching experience under her belt, Celestina Cordero Molina continually confronted the colonial administration.
Feb 10, 1817 — requested funding for her school (denied)
Feb 28, 1820 — requested official recognition as a school teacher (denied)
June 26, 1820 — makes a second request for recognition
July 3, 1820 — municipality named Celestina to a permanent teacher position
July 10, 1820 — notations regarding Celestina’s permanent position & salary
Aug 8, 1820 — officially named as a school teacher
Sept 18, 1820 — municipality discussions of how to provide her pay
May 18, 1821 — Celestina files a complaint of not having been paid the stipulated salary
The challenges Celestina faced with San Juan municipality’s recognition offer a glimpse into something sinister — erasure. And it goes beyond the capital city. On a national level, it is evidenced by there having been three public schools named after Rafael Cordero Molina (the Mayagüez primary school bearing his name closed in 2021) whereas there are zero institutions bearing Celestina’s name.
Taking an afternoon stroll along the majestic palm trees and immaculately maintained walkways behind San Juan’s capital building, visitors are greeted with monuments honoring illustrious Puerto Ricans. Among them is a large marble marker, with elegantly etched details of Rafael Cordero Molina, ‘The Father of Puerto Rico’s Public Education.’ Palpably absent is a similar monument to his older sister, Celestina.
In school books, she is also visibly absent. This leads us to believe there is no information available about Celestina Cordero Molina’s life; however, this is not true. As writer and Professor Rosario Méndez Panedas at Puerto Rico’s Interamericana University (San Germán) shares: “the insult to the memory of Celestina is made worse because there are records of her struggles to obtain funding for her school and recognition for her work as an educator. She existed and it’s imperative we continue to keep her legacy alive.”
Another reason for the lack of recognition of Celestina and, conversely, her brother’s prominence is attributed to 19th-century Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller’s masterpiece, ‘Escuela del Maestro Rafael Cordero.’ His painting ‘Master Rafael Cordero’s School,’ shows the educator holding a paper in his right hand, his left gently supporting the elbow of a young boy writing by his side. Surrounded by several male children, ‘Master Rafael’ reflects a symbol of patriarchal nurturing. (Note: in Spanish, the word ‘maestro/a’ can be translated as both ‘teacher’ and ‘master’).
Without a similar representation, Celestina Cordero Molina’s memory formerly fell into ‘el olvido’ (forgetfulness, oblivion). As a free, independent, educated, single Black woman living in an era when persons were still enslaved and women were expected to be submissive, it’s easy to understand what society felt Celestina’s ‘place’ should be.
We’ve been here before. Afro-Puerto Rican women, Latinas, and Latinx women are no strangers to systems of intended eradication. There is no sugar-coating it. And while no one is suggesting we excuse it, what matters most is our proactive stance — lifting our unapologetically pro-femme voices.
Regarding Celestina Cordero Molina, many in Puerto Rico are passionately defending her legacy. On November 16, 2018, in the western town of Hormigueros, Public School Alfredo Dorrington inaugurated the first library to carry her name. The initiative for El Centro de Servicios de Tecnología e Información Celestina Cordero Molina (The Center for Technology Services and Information Celestina Cordero Molina) was undertaken by student, Nadiel Morales, with the support of his teacher, Richard Padilla, and La Cátedra de Mujeres Negras Ancestrales.
The Order of Ancestral Black Women is a literary project of EDP University’s Department of Afro Puerto Rican studies, directed by Afrofeminist Writer, Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro. The project’s mission is to ‘offer workshops empowering participants through the process of creating, correcting, editing and publishing the stories of their rebellious, warrior grandmothers, great grandmothers, and great-great-grandmothers.’
Then there’s La Escuela Itinerante Celestina Cordero, a traveling school created to offer safe spaces for interactive learning, healing, and action. Founded in September 2020 by two young ladies, Nicolle Teresa Ramos y Melanie Rodríguez Vázquez, their commitment is to ‘sharing ancestral teachings, making healing accessible via focusing on anti-racism, transfeminism, liberation, and offering a haven for children.’
As a way to introduce others to Celestina’s work, Professor Méndez Panedas started an Anti-Racist Day Celestina Cordero Molina at her university in 2021. The event takes place around April 6 (the anniversary of Celestina’s birth), and this year marks its third celebration, the first in-person event.
Carving Celestina’s memory into our collective consciousness, Spanish Painter Tomás Méndez Panedas offers the watercolor illustration for his sister, Rosario’s book, Maestra Celestina (Teacher Celestina), published in 2017. Using Francisco Oller’s artwork as inspiration, Tomás replaced Rafael’s image with his rendition of Celestina and the male children with images of young girls.
Most recently, Celestina’s proponents celebrated a huge victory. On March 13, 2023, the Senate of Puerto Rico approved Joint Resolution 374, naming the Department of Education’s San Juan headquarters after the Cordero Molina siblings. What stands out in the announcement is the positioning of their names: Celestina appears first, followed by her sister, Gregoria, then by Rafael.
✅ En reconocimiento del enorme legado que dejó la Familia Cordero Molina a la educación de Puerto Rico, hoy se aprobó en el Senado nuestra resolución para nombrar la sede del Departamento de Educación con los nombres de Celestina, Gregoria y Rafael Cordero Molina. pic.twitter.com/d0GcNY0GNp
— RiveraLassenSenadora (@RLSenadora) March 13, 2023
It is our collective responsibility to keep Celestina Cordero Molina’s legacy alive — to ensure she isn’t erased from history. In doing so, we are reminding young Puerto Rican girls and young women everywhere that they are seen, their contributions acknowledged and their lives celebrated…because they are the fierce faces of our world’s future.