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The father of Puerto Rico’s public schools: Meet Venerable Rafael

Rafael Cordero y Molina
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He didn't have the chances that other kids had, so he endeavored to change that for future generations.

Rafael Cordero y Molina came into this world on October 24, 1790, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was born into a poor family and had two older sisters. His dad, Lucas Cordero, worked on a tobacco farm and his mom, Rita Molina, took care of the children and the home. Although technically not enslaved, they were black, and because of that, their children were not allowed to attend school.

Rafael’s parents had a small amount of education and imparted what they could to their children. Rafael showed an instant love of reading and began to read as much as he could. He developed a passion for literature and that dedication, coupled with his determination to become a teacher, led him on his arduous journey to achieve his goal. 

Rafael’s mom and dad did their best to instill the faith into their children. Instruction in the faith by the local priest was open to all. At the age of 14, he received the Sacrament of Confirmation and from that point forward would continue to grow in faith and remain a devout Catholic his entire life.

Rafael began working in the tobacco fields at a young age. When he was 20, he managed to open a school in the town of San German. From the very beginning of his career as a teacher, the young man would never accept any money or gifts for his teaching. His earnings as a tobacco farmer and maker of tobacco products were the only monies he would ever consider using. 

Rafael’s school in San German was on the street known as Moon of San Juan. In the beginning, his students were those excluded from other places. As time went by, underprivileged white children also began attending. At a time when racial segregation was a dominant factor in many places around the world, Rafael treated all people the same and never discriminated against anyone. 

He would be at this school for the next 58 years. He taught children not only how to read and write, but also arithmetic, history, Catholic doctrine, and even calligraphy. The place was not only a school — it was also his home and a tobacco shop. He would instruct the children, and while they studied, he would roll cigars to sell. On the walls, he had images of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and his personal patron, St. Anthony of Padua. There also was a large crucifix hanging for all to see.

In 1847, Juan Prim Prats became the Governor. He hated all non-whites and immediately set out to subjugate them. He decreed the “Bando Negro” law, which justified any aggression against blacks, be they free or enslaved. Nevertheless, writings show that Prim visited Rafael’s school several times and, unexpectedly, always approved of its operation.

Rafael attributed that to prayer and protection from Our Lady. Luckily, Prim lasted in power only a year.

Rafael Cordero’s reputation as a saintly teacher grew, and more people wanted to send their children to him, including the rich. People began calling him the “Maestro.” Some of those who studied under him included Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, a famous poet and playwright, Roman Baldorioty de Castro, a professor and politician, and Jose Julian Acosta, a journalist. 

“Maestro” Rafael Cordero devoted his entire life to the free education of children and young people. In 1868, sensing the end of his life was near, he called his students together and prayed with them. He gave them his blessing saying, “My children, pray for this poor old man who has taught you how much he knew; he has nothing left but a breath of life.” 

A few minutes later, at 5 p.m., he died. The date was July 5, 1868. Next to him was a burning candle and scapulars sent to his bedside by the Carmelites. More than 2,000 people attended his funeral, and he became known as the “Father of Public Education in Puerto Rico.”

Each year in Puerto Rico, the Rafael Cordero National Medal is given to the Teacher of the Year. Schools are named after him not only in Puerto Rico but also in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Brooklyn, New York.

The schoolhouse he taught in is registered as a historical site in the National registry of Historical Places of the United States.

In 2004 the process of Rafael Cordero’s canonization was begun. On December 9, 2013, Pope Francis declared that he had lived a life of “heroic virtue” and was worthy of the title Venerable.

Venerable Rafael Cordero y Molina, please pray for us.

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