By: Andre Lee Muñiz and Jonathan Morales
Dr. Antonia Pantoja (1922-2002)- Educator, organizer, visionary. Photo: The Antonia Pantoja Papers; 2003-002; Box 25; Folder 11; Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños Archives, Hunter College, CUNY.
Born on June 13, 1922, Antonia Pantoja was raised largely by her grandparents in Barrio Obrero, a working class neighborhood on the outskirts of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Pantoja experienced the hardships of poverty at an early age after her grandfather, a worker and union leader with the American Tobacco Company, died in 1930. His death left her the caretaker of her mother and five other children. Despite this demanding situation, she completed her schooling and attended the University of Puerto Rico, earning a teacher’s certification in 1942 at the age of twenty. She then taught at different schools for more than a year, but the school system repeatedly failed to pay her on time, if at all. Residing in public housing at the time, she decided to quit her job and began to reflect deeply on her situation. Dissatisfied with the overwhelming family responsibilities she had inherited, and highly disillusioned with the attitude towards women in Puerto Rican society at that time, Pantoja chose to leave Puerto Rico for New York City in 1944 with a neighborhood friend.
Once in New York City, Pantoja resided first in the Bronx, followed by time spent in Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side. She worked various factory jobs, including making radios for submarines during WWII and painting, and later designing, children’s lamps. During her time in Greenwich Village, Pantoja lived in what has been described as a kind of commune, where a number of artists and intellectuals lived together and where she engaged in lively discussions and activities. Eventually taking a job as a youth worker in a community center located on 110th Street, it was there that one of her coworkers influenced her to enroll in Hunter College. There, on scholarship, she completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology in 1952.
It was during this time that Pantoja became more socially and politically active in order to address the unique needs of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, of which she was becoming increasingly aware. With the network of Puerto Ricans she began establishing, and while working towards a Master’s in Social Work at Columbia University in 1954, Pantoja helped form the Hispanic Young Adult Association (HYAA), created to address the everyday needs of the community that the Migration Division of the Department of Labor of Puerto Rico was unable to by design. These activities would soon lead to her involvement in the creation of those organizations she is most well-known for, some of which are still in existence today.
After HYAA became the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs (PRACA), a number of its members, including Pantoja, would go on to form what would eventually become the Puerto Rican Forum. Their goal was to more clearly and directly address the needs and concerns of the Puerto Rican community in New York City. With support from the Commission on Intergroup Relations and five other foundations, Pantoja and a number of colleagues founded ASPIRA in 1961. The organization was based on Pantoja’s own vision of community-oriented leadership development. ASPIRA would grow away from the Puerto Rican Forum not long after its founding, and Dr. Pantoja would serve as its President until her resignation in 1966 to teach in Columbia’s School of Social Work. The key area where ASPIRA excelled was in developing leadership among Puerto Ricans that focused on community-level needs. In order to aid this development, it supported students in transitioning from high school to college, and also assisted these students in learning about, and securing, sources of financial aid. Advocating for an educational system in New York City that was more considerate of community needs, ASPIRA maintained these broader institutional goals while at the same time offering a group setting for Puerto Ricans to develop their cultural and social awareness.
ASPIRA, together with parents and students, would go on to win a class action lawsuit filed in 1972 against the New York City Board of Education (NYCBOE). The Consent Decree signed between the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, acting as the attorney, and the NYCBOE, required the Board to provide bilingual education. It is this level of achievement that led U.S. President Bill Clinton to award her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, the highest civilian award attainable. Other organizations/ institutions that Antonia Pantoja was a major figure in the formation of include:
The Puerto Rican Research and Resources Center, an institute established in 1972 Washington, D.C.
Universidad Boricua, a bilingual university established in Washington, D.C. in 1974 now known as Boricua College and located in New York City
The Graduate School for Community Development, an alternative graduate school established in San Diego, California in 1975
Producir, Inc., a community-run project established in 1986 in Canóvanas, Puerto Rico focused on developing independent and sustainable local solutions to the needs and concerns of the town on the slopes of El Yunque.
Between the establishment of the Puerto Rican Research and Resources Center and Universidad Boricua, Pantoja was also able to complete a Doctorate Degree in Sociology in 1973 at the Union Graduate School in Ohio. Dr. Pantoja was able to accomplish an incredible amount as a community worker and social justice advocate. Her life is an exceptional example of leadership and vision, one that deserves to be remembered and honored by present and future generations.
Read here on the current Dr. Antonia Pantoja Mural Project.
The Center for Puerto Rican Studies is currently the repository of the Antonia Pantoja Papers collection. While offering a considerable resource for study of her work and activities, the finding aid/guide to her collection also includes a detailed Historical/Biographical Note.
Pantoja describes her decision to leave Puerto Rico and her journey to New York City, Oral History Transcript.
Jonathan Morales is a New York City born and raised graduate of Hunter College where he studied Anthropology and Africana-Puerto Rican/Latino Studies. He works at an ethnic studies research institute and is in the process of applying to graduate school. He has family in Lares and Quebradillas, Puerto Rico.