Ana Livia Cordero: Puerto Rican Physician and Social Activist

Cordero’s son donates her papers to the Schlesinger
Ana Livia Cordero. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryAna Livia Cordero. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
By Amanda Strauss, Research Librarian

Early in her career, Ana Livia Cordero (1931–1992)—a Puerto Rican physician and social activist—helped bring medical services to rural Puerto Rico. Now the Schlesinger is pleased to announce the acquisition of her papers.

Cordero became involved in politics at age 15, when she served as treasurer of the Puerto Rican Pro-Dominican Democracy Committee. She graduated from Columbia University Medical School in 1953 and returned to Puerto Rico, where she worked with rural communities. In 1961 she and her husband, the civil rights activist Julian Mayfield, moved to Ghana, where Cordero ran a women’s health clinic and served as W. E. B. Du Bois’s personal physician until his death, in 1963. When President Nkrumah fell from power, Cordero was expelled from Ghana. She and Mayfield divorced, and Cordero again returned to Puerto Rico, where she continued her medical work and grassroots activism.

For three years, Cordero was a member of the Movimiento Pro Independencia (a pro-independence group) before she began working in 1967 to form Proyecto Piloto de Trabajo con el Pueblo (Pilot Project for Working with the People). Proyecto offered community training in basic skills such as driving and cooking, along with anticolonial and neo-Marxist political and economic analysis. Cordero was arrested in 1968 for her activism. She and Proyecto maintained connections with the African American liberation movement in the United States.

Ana Livia Cordero and Malcolm X, with whom she corresponded. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryAna Livia Cordero and Malcolm X, with whom she corresponded. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

The Ana Livia Cordero Papers were donated to the Schlesinger by her eldest son, Rafael Mayfield. The story of how these papers came to the library illustrates the Schlesinger’s strong ties with Harvard students. Sandy Placido PhD ’16, a Harvard graduate student in American studies, learned about Ana Livia Cordero when she found a letter from Cordero in the Malcolm X papers at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Placido began researching Cordero and made contact with Mayfield. She had conducted research at the Schlesinger and felt that the library would be an excellent repository for this important collection. Library staff members worked with Placido and Mayfield to survey and organize Cordero’s material.

Ana Livia Cordero used this medical bag and its contents to deliver care to patients in rural Puerto Rico. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerAna Livia Cordero used this medical bag and its contents to deliver care to patients in rural Puerto Rico. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library. Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer

The collection includes material in English and Spanish and documents both Cordero’s activism and the state backlash against her projects. Proyecto in particular is well documented: The papers include its curriculum, a member’s diary, and a community history. Also contained in the collection are police files spanning the 30 years from 1950 to 1980. The files contain material from the Puerto Rican Police Department Intelligence Division, which was primarily tasked with suppressing nationalists; independence and leftist activists and community organizations; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and the Negociado de Investigaciones (NIE), an arm of the Puerto Rican Justice Department that is similar to the FBI.

The collection also includes Cordero’s personal correspondence; photographs; passports, school transcripts, and other documents; and articles and political analyses Cordero wrote. A notable item is her medical bag, which she carried during trips through rural Puerto Rico. The papers will be processed shortly and, once opened, will serve as a rich resource for scholars.

Search Year: 
2014