Claiming Space in El Barrio with the Dr. Antonia Pantoja Mural Project

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By: Andre Lee Muñiz and Jonathan Morales

In the years after the passing of Dr. Antonia Pantoja in 2002, Puerto Rican filmmaker Lillian Jiménez directed the documentary Antonia Pantoja ¡Presente! as a way to remember the educator, organizer, and visionary. Released in 2009, the film has since been screened periodically, most recently on September 28, 2013 as part of an event hosted by El Museo del Barrio, which featured a panel with artist and muralist Manny Vega, art historian Yasmin Ramírez, and sociology professor Clara Rodríguez. Moderated by Maite Junco, editor of Voices of NY, the event, attended by both youth and elders, featured a discussion after the film centered on the significance and legacy of Dr. Antonia Pantoja. Special attention was given to a mural project created to honor her through a public mosaic in New York City’s El Barrio community.

Panelists from left to right:

Maite Junco (Moderator; Editor, Voices of NY); Lillian Jiménez (Director, Antonia Pantoja ¡Presente!); Manny Vega (Muralist; Painter; Sculptor; Scholar); Dr. Clara Rodríguez (Professor of Sociology, Fordham University); Yasmin Ramírez Ph.D. (Art Historian; Independent Curator)

During the conversation, each of the panelists shared their thoughts on Antonia Pantoja as both an individual and community leader. Yasmin Ramírez spoke on the less well-known importance of art in Pantoja’s life, calling her a poet, and adding that beyond being a collector of art, she also promoted a holistic approach to life that included the arts as a key experience. Tying Pantoja’s love of art to her activism, Ramírez pointed out that “she wasn’t preaching ‘go make art to get into a museum.’ She was really saying ‘go make art to make yourself more human, more aware, more conscious.’” Lillian Jiménez supported this sentiment by explaining that when Pantoja first organized ASPIRA she brought in artists to teach youth, explaining further that “art was an integral part of her organizing.” Speaking more on the significance and impact of Pantoja’s vision, professor Clara Rodríguez stressed, “There was nothing before ASPIRA came into being that would help young people get into college.” Connecting the mural project and the historical significance of Pantoja to the Puerto Rican community, Rodríguez also stated, “We need to have something like this mural so that people will ask and begin to think about what it was like then, and about the people that stood up and struggled and accomplished in their own ways.”

Speculating on the activities Pantoja might have been engaged in today, Jiménez explained that while in her lifetime Pantoja did not fully come out as a lesbian, despite her long-time partnership with Dr. Wilhemina Perry, she might have been less private about that aspect of her identity and more involved in LGBT politics and organizing. Jiménez also pointed to police brutality as an issue she would have addressed today, describing Pantoja’s involvement in street demonstrations around the police murder of Amadou Diallo in 1999. Speaking on the role of social media in today’s society, and particularly amongst young people, both Rodríguez and Ramírez suggested that Pantoja might have been disappointed with the way young people commonly engage with it, while at the same time supporting a transformation in its use so that it can be of  social benefit in terms of both organizing and entrepreneurship.

Specifically in regards to the mural project, artist Manny Vega elaborated that, “mosaics are about permanency; it’s about doing this thing that’s going to be up five-hundred years from now. It sends a message that ‘estamos aquí, y estamos aquí para siempre’, we’re here forever, because her story is a story that should be perpetuated.”

The project, which will be partially funded by an fundraising campaign that seeks to raise $30,000 by November 27, 2013 is in this sense both a way to remember and honor Pantoja, as well as a way to claim space in El Barrio, a neighborhood whose most recent historical experience was defined largely by its Puerto Rican population. At the same time the project is meant to be an authentic community effort, with Vega, a resident-artist in El Barrio, coming together with the community to work on the mural, whether through donating to the fundraising campaign, actually cutting tiles for the mosaic, or just hanging out with Vega in his studio. Jiménez commented on this gap that often exists between artists and the community, stating that Vega is a perfect artist to take on this project specifically because of “his ability to reach out to young people and engage them in creating art.” Vega himself also describes the project as a way to “perpetuate her passion” beyond simply honoring, celebrating, memorializing, and keeping Pantoja alive in our memories, but also by coming together through a mutual effort in the spaces that are rightfully ours.

The spirit of Antonia Pantoja is alive and well, remembered and honored in ways that support the development of our identity as individuals and as a community. While she rightfully deserves this acknowledgement, it is important that we keep her own insistence against idolizing in mind, and use her legacy as inspiration and motivation to address the needs and concerns we face in the present, with the resources and abilities at our disposal. Let us use her example of vision and creation to organize, because doing so will lead us to make the very liberating actions that make us more human.

Articles about the Dr. Antonia Pantoja Mural Project:

‘Honoring Dr. Antonia Pantoja With A Mural’, by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies

‘Legendary painter Manny Vega is back in East Harlem doing what he does best: creating another mural masterwork’, by Clem Richardson (NY Daily News)


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.

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Andre Lee Muñiz

Andre Lee Muñiz is a Boricua born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. His family settled in the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn in the late 1950s/ early 1960s from the Puerto Rican towns of Caguas and Añasco. As a public housing resident near Coney Island, Andre Lee attended local public schools and Kingsborough Community College. At KCC, he earned a minority student transfer scholarship to NYU, going on to earn a B.S. and M.A. degree, while also developing his interest in Puerto Rican history and culture.