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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Benítez Rivera, political force who was first woman to lead Education Dept., dies at 89

In 1972, Celeste Benítez Rivera became the first woman appointed as secretary of public instruction, heading what is now called the Department of Education.

By The Star Staff

Celeste Benítez Rivera, a journalist, professor, and one of the most influential women in Puerto Rican politics, died Sunday. She was 89 years old.

Former governor Alejandro García Padilla confirmed her passing.

“One of the bells in the conscience of the Puerto Rican people is silenced forever,” García Padilla said in a written statement.

“Humanist, educator and politician, thorough woman, Celeste Benítez always knew how to identify the country’s best interests to seek to achieve them,” he said. “Defender of noble causes, Professor Benítez will be missed by us for her intelligence, her accurate and sharp oratory and her ability to achieve objectives. She will be remembered and, hopefully, imitated. May she rest in peace.”

Benítez graduated magna cum laude from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) with a degree in philosophy. In 1961, she completed a master of arts in philosophy and letters at the University of Munich.

In Puerto Rico, she stood out as a professor, director, senator and associate professor of humanities at various UPR campuses.

In 1972, she became the first woman appointed as secretary of public instruction, heading what is now called the Department of Education. A year later, she resigned from her position. Two years later, she returned to politics as an at-large senator from the Popular Democratic Party.

In the upper chamber, Benítez served as an at-large senator from 1977-80 and as the alternate minority spokeswoman during those four years. Her dedication to public service was further demonstrated when she assumed the role of secretary of the Senate from 1989-1991 under Miguel Hernández Agosto’s presidency.

In the 1980 elections, she ran for mayor of San Juan, but lost to the incumbent mayor, Hernán Padilla.

She also worked at leading media outlets as a journalist.

Senate President José Luis Dalmau Santiago lamented Benítez’s passing.

“On behalf of the Senate of Puerto Rico, I wish to express our deepest respect and solidarity to the family of Celeste Benítez Rivera,” he said. “Celeste was an exceptional figure in our island’s public and political life, whose legacy should serve as an example for those of us who currently occupy leadership positions and for new generations of leaders committed to serving Puerto Rico. We will always remember her invaluable contribution as a senator, secretary of the Senate, and secretary of Education. Her dedication and tireless work in these roles left a mark on our social and educational development. May she rest in peace.”

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