Rafael Cordero was born in San Juan in 1790. Although born as a free black mon, he was near the bottom of the socio-economic scale of the time. In an officially stratified society, he could earn his living in menial trades, particularly in small cigarmaking shops. But Rafael Cordero was also to become a remarkably effective school teacher. He taught others how to read and write, refusing to be paid for it; and because of his dedication and ability, gained the respect of the entire society.
Basic teaching became his lifelong mission. He founded a modest school not far from San Francisco Church in San Juan. He taught those who were economically poor, both colored and whites, and the children of the professional middle class in what turned out to be a notable experiment -not just in learning, but in social integration. Some of his students, such as Román Baldorioty de Castro, Alejandro Tapia, and José Julián Acosta, later became leaders in the abolitionist movement.
Cordero himself did not preach abolitionist or revolutionary doctrines. He was a simple, devout man who kept among his few earthly possessions a portrait of Saint Anthony of Padua by José Campeche, the outstanding Puerto Rican painter of the late 18th century. In addition to teaching how to read and write, Cordero taught, above all, by his personal example: he showed that real learning had nothing to do with the color of a person’s skin.
Cordero was also a man of intuition, as great teachers usually are. In Tapia, the child, he soon recognized literary talent and so, when Tapia did his homework well, Cordero would ask him to sit under a tree in a backyard patio and look at the changing colors of the sky. In a compact, walled city, Cordero wanted Tapia to develop a feeling for nature, to train his sensitivity. Tapia never forgot the lesson. In due time, he became one of the outstanding figures in Puerto Rican 19th century letters, and in his Memorias, acknowledged the debt he owed to his beloved teacher.
Cordero was a real humanist. In his own modest way, he sought to improve society through learning and personal example. He has become a source of admiration and respect for succeeding generations of Puerto Ricans.
Arturo Morales Carrión
Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: April 16, 2009.
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