School children are happily marching in their school uniforms along crowd lined streets. They proudly carry the flag of their country, the tricolor red, white and blue, after the example of France, standing for Liberty and Independence. This simple scene was so far from happening until the Speratti sisters came home a little over a century ago.
Their young mother had fled from Paraguay with her two infant daughters, Adela and Celsa. It was the late 1860s and their father had already died in the war that was to eventually claim more than half of the population of Paraguay and essentially all of her educated peoples. The children were spirited away to Argentina in hope of a better life, where they were educated and flourished and excelled so as to gain renown as graduates twenty years later.
Paraguay, following the war, was devastated. The national school system had only educated only boys, and now, according to census, only 28,000 adult men were alive. The schools were closed and the teachers were gone. A future of national illiteracy, and the associated impoverishment loomed. It was essential to the future of the nation that the educational system be rejuvenated and reformed.
In the ten years following the war, and then the fifteen years and then the twenty years, great efforts were expended in the rebuilding of the educational system. All the while our sisters Speratti were schooled, maturing, graduating and commencing the teaching profession outside the country.
Paraguayan ministers, hearing of their abilities, and in desperation for the reconstruction of the national education system, reached out to these sisters and entrusted them with the education of the country. We have this letter: “Atanasio Riera, Superintendent of Public Instruction, to Master Teacher, Normal Professor and Senator Don Conrado Romero Corrientes, “I know that there are two daughters of this Nation, Misses Speratti who currently practice the profession in the Normal School of Teachers. They, as daughters of this Nation, who today try to rise up on public illustration, I believe that, inspired by patriotism, they would not hesitate to come and contribute their professional knowledge to the work of regeneration in which we are all interested. See, then, those daughters of the Republic of Paraguay, and tell them that the mother country requires their valuable competition to hasten their march along the paths of knowledge and prosperity.”
And so, these sisters still in their 20s, equipped with acclaimed character traits of diligence and honesty, with talents trained as educators, and energized with a passion for people, commenced upon their work that would give birth to a generation, and then generations of educated men and women in Paraguay.
They began their work in the graduate school for girls, but soon their influence rapidly expanded as they were instrumental in the development of the Normal school for teaches. As Directors, they utilized the influential positions to modernize and advance the educational system. The sisters borrowed from the best educational philosophies and teaching methods from sources worldwide. They educated children, trained teachers and established teaching as an honorable profession attracting many into the noble profession. They educated thousands of illiterate girls throughout the country.
From all the villages of the interior came young people eager to learn, and these eager learners became the seed for the creation of yet later schools for the education of yet later generations of Paraguayan girls.
And teach they did; but not simply teach, they cared, and cared in so many ways.
The sisters regularly offered shelter to poor girls who could not pay their way. They were legendary for working to mitigate the pains of the elderly and sick, and routinely served on the board of one commission or another such as the Society of Charity of the Hospital of Charity. They actively collaborated with Professor Rosa Peña, the wife of President Juan Gualberto González in many activities promoting the national well-being including especially the founding of the National Asylum – an institution created to welcome all the people who had been left by the war in misery. In the course of these years, both Adela and Celsa, also collaborated with their writings in a pedagogical magazine published in Concepción del Uruguay, they spoke at cultural centers and wrote their opinions in local newspapers; but his most laborious cultural tasks consisted in organizing the Pedagogical Conferences as a means of promoting the improvement of the professional knowledge of the teachers of primary education.
It may not be too much to say that their efforts did more to rejuvenate an impoverished nation than the combined efforts of all her economic ministers, few of whom are remembered today.
Upon their passing, commemorations poured in from the people. Paeans of praise came forth from national poets at commemorative services. But perhaps the greatest tribute is this sight of our school children proudly marching and happily singing along the crowd lined streets carrying the flags of a grateful nation, Paraguay. If you listen closely, you can hear the music.