Dr. Antonia Pantoja made such an impact on U.S. society that, in 1996, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Bill Clinton. The honor is the highest that can be received by a civilian, followed by the Presidential Citizen’s Medal.
A highly private person, with little obvious background in political activism specifically denouncing colonialism in Puerto Rico, the inner conflict she faced in receiving the medal might have been unknown to the general public were it not for her friends and biographers. Lillian Jiménez shared the following reflection during a September 28, 2013 screening of her documentary Antonia Pantoja ¡Presente!:
“She told me the story of when she was nominated for the Medal of Freedom by Clinton. She went through all these changes, ‘cause she was like, ‘We’re a colony of the United States, and here I am with a major representative of this imperial power…’ I mean, she said these words – she hardly ever talked in this jargon – but in those moments she would just say, ‘You know, I didn’t want to do it, but then I thought this is an honor to our community, and so we should do it, I should do it.’ So, she was very conflicted about this honor. She did it because she thought it was really important for the Puerto Rican community to be acknowledged, she felt like it was an extension of her.”
Obviously the choice had to be made: to accept the honor or not. Without passing judgment on Dr. Pantoja’s decision, we should reflect on the real issue at hand: the colonial situation of Puerto Rico. Such was the real source of her conflict, for Dr. Pantoja’s work in youth leadership development through ASPIRA and the founding of educational institutions like Boricua College no doubt deserved the recognition. Her story serves as an example of the power of perspective – a medal of freedom to one, may be an accolade of empire to another.