Claudia Raffaele knows the fear of being stopped at gunpoint in Argentina, the bone-tiredness that comes after a nine-hour shift at a Los Angeles factory, and the worry and emotional weight of caring for three children as a single mother.
Yet at Jesuit High School in Portland on a recent afternoon, Raffaele’s past bubbled up the same ways it does every day: in her passion for teaching and an unquenchable desire to learn.
“Claudia has the foundation of any good teacher in that she loves her students, she’s patient and organized,” says Paul Hogan, principal of Jesuit. “But what’s most striking is that she’s constantly growing and hungry to improve herself.
“And you don’t have a lot of people here who fled a military dictatorship,” he adds. “I’m inspired daily thinking where she came from.”
Sit in Señora Raffaele’s Spanish class a few minutes and you’ll see a woman of small stature in constant motion — she’s introducing a new verb one moment, the next she’s weaving between desks answering students’ questions.
Raffaele, almost 60, smiles often in her classroom, and that’s not surprising: She’s living her hard-wrought dream.
‘You were a target’
Raffaele’s parents grew up poor and worked hard for utility companies to give Raffaele and her sister a Catholic education in her native Argentina.
Feisty and driven even as a child, Raffaele can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to teach. While some young girls played house, she played school. “I knew the names of all my students, took roll and gave the imaginary students grades,” she recalls.
Her early memories include the harsh teasing she received for being short; she now stands about 4 feet, 10 inches. But as with many of her challenges, Raffaele discerns their value. “That teasing gave me strength, so I’m grateful for it,” she says.
Most of Raffaele’s childhood was stable, but her country was not. Two years before she was born, Juan Peron, husband to the legendary Eva Duarte de Peron (“Evita”), was sent to exile following one of several military coups. Argentina then entered a long period of military dictatorships with brief intervals of constitutional government.
As Raffaele grew into young adulthood, the political instability escalated.
From 1976 to 1983, the country that gave the world Pope Francis was embroiled in an infamous campaign known as the “dirty war.” Waged by the military against suspected left-wing political opponents, the campaign left an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 people missing or dead. Many were tortured.
With the dirty war as a backdrop, Raffaele tried to focus on studying to be a teacher at a Buenos Aires university.
As a student, however, “you were a target,” says Raffaele. She had a gun pointed at her several times and was told to drop to the ground.
“The country was in bad shape, there was danger and really no future there,” she says.
So, in 1982 when Raffaele was given the opportunity to come to the United States, she took it.
Starting from scratch
The 25-year-old Raffaele arrived in the States with courage, a visa and not much else. “I knew no English,” she says. But she didn’t take a hiatus from her mission to learn. “I got to California on a Saturday, and on Monday I was attending (language) classes at night.”
Raffaele came to the country with her then-husband; the couple divorced many years ago.
Eventually finding a job in a downtown Los Angeles factory, which she refers to as a sweatshop, Raffaele earned menial pay and worked long hours. She took three busses to arrive at her shift. All day she snipped threads and flipped shirts inside and out. Most workers were undocumented, and after overstaying her visa, Raffaele was too.
Having her first son was a defining moment. “I thought, ‘He’s the only documented person in my life, and I’m going to learn this language for him.”
Raffaele dedicated herself to her studies with even greater zeal. After working all day at the factory, she’d come home and make dinner for her son. Then she’d head to school before returning in time to put baby Eddie to bed. A few years later, her son was joined by a daughter, Karolyn.
There were times she thought about going back to Argentina. “But one night as I put my little guy in the crib, I realized, ‘I cannot do that to my kids. They are Americans. We are in this together.’
“I wanted them to have all the opportunities in my mind they deserve,” says Raffaele, who was granted amnesty under President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 sweeping immigration reform bill and went on to become a U.S. citizen.
Raffaele was able to scrimp together enough money to send her children to a Catholic parish school, but the factory work was unpredictable, with frequent firings when contracts were scarce. After one firing, she didn’t see how she could keep her children enrolled. The parish, however, was looking for a Spanish translator to serve parishioners and, due to her improving English, she was offered the job.
“I truly believe no one can succeed without a helping hand, a hand that when you are in a … dark place reaches down and pulls you up into the light,” says Raffaele. “I have many people to thank for all I have received and continue to receive.”
And over the years, she’s done her best to pay it forward.
Moving to Portland in 1994, Raffaele had another son, Jean-Luc, and slowly built up a background in teaching, working as a teacher’s assistant in the Beaverton School District. Her grit and hard work opened doors, as did the helping hands of Jesuit administrators. Eddie longed to attend the Portland high school, but it didn’t fit into Raffaele’s single-parent budget. Jesuit administrators not only found a way to enroll Eddie, but they also gave Raffaele a summer teaching job — which led to a full-time position.
Determined to send all three children to Jesuit, Raffaele often juggled three jobs, working for a time as a translator and at a Fred Meyer grocery store on weekends.
Hogan calls the Spanish teacher “a cornerstone of our faculty,” and she’s now spent 17 years at the high school. Walk into her classroom, though, and there’s nothing routine about her approach. Her energy is contagious, even to a student who is embarrassed he doesn’t know an answer and to his classmate who looks a little droopy after a long day.
When she’s not at the front of a class, she’s a student: Raffaele is at the University of Portland working toward her doctorate in education with a concentration in neuroeducation, studying how people learn based on neuroscience.
If her past has given her tenacity and teaching is her vocation, Raffaele’s impetus and inspiration are her children.
“I know I have had many obstacles to overcome, but God has blessed me with three children who make me proud every day and whose love lets me know I am never alone,” she says. “They are my motivation and the reason for everything I do.”
In 2011, Raffaele earned a master’s degree in education around the time Karolyn earned the same degree and Eddie received a master’s in business administration.
Her children are proud of their mother, the woman who dreamed of becoming a teacher as a little girl in Argentina and then made that a reality in spite of countless hurdles.
“She came to this country with no English and pretty much started from scratch,” says Eddie. “It’s awesome to see where she is now.”
Karolyn adds that their mother is quiet about much of her past, but “her actions speak for themselves.”
“She’s been strong in a way a lot of people don’t have to be in their lifetime,” she says. “My mom continues to teach me every day.”