It is a great sadness that the ASPIRA Association
announces the passing of Dr. Pantoja. Antonia Pantoja, an advocate,
educator and community activist in the Puerto Rican community and founder
of some of the nation’s successful Latino organizations and
institutions, died Friday May 24, of cancer at the Cabrini Medical Center
Hospice in Manhattan.
Dr. Pantoja was the first Puerto Rican woman to receive
the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1996), for her lifetime efforts to
provide educational and economic opportunities for Puerto Ricans and other
Latinos. She was one of the most important figures in the development of
the Puerto Rican community in New York City and nationally.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1922, her childhood
was marked by limited financial resources. She attended college with the
help of wealthy neighbors and graduated from the University of Puerto Rico
with a Teaching Certificate. She taught in rural schools in Puerto Rico
before moving to New York City in 1944.
In spite of her prior employment as a teacher in Puerto
Rico, she was not accepted for professional positions in her field of
work. She supported herself by working as a welder in a factory. She won a
scholarship to Hunter College, graduating with a bachelor’s in sociology
in 1952. She earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s New
York School of Social Work in 1954.
She began organizing the Puerto Rican community in the
early 50’s after facing discrimination on her arrival in New York City
during World War II. She founded the Puerto Rican Association for
Community Affairs (PRACA), a social service organization that also
championed leadership development and women’s issues. In 1957, she
founded the Puerto Rican Forum, a business development and job-training
agency for Puerto Ricans and Latinos in New York.
Dr. Pantoja directed most of her energies to improve
the performance of Puerto Rican children in New York schools. In 1961, Dr.
Pantoja and a group of Puerto Rican educators and professionals created
ASPIRA, to address the exceedingly high drop-out rate and low educational
attainment of Puerto Rican youth.ASPIRA,
is a nonprofit organization that encourages educational attainment, self-
esteem, cultural awareness and leadership development. Through ASPIRA, she
influenced five generations of Puerto Rican and Latino leaders. Some
alumni include: Fernando Ferrer, former Bronx Borough President; Judge
Nelson A. Díaz, first Puerto Rican lawyer and Judge in Pennsylvania;
Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties
Union; and Jimmy Smits, award-winning actor.
In 1970 she founded the Puerto Rican Research and
Resource Center and established Universidad Boricua, the first and only
Puerto Rican controlled bilingual university in the United States
In 1973 she earned a Ph.D. from Union Graduate School
in Yellow Springs, Ohio. A pedagogical innovator, Dr. Pantoja served as
Professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work and as Director
of the undergraduate Program of Social Work at California State University
in San Diego. Moreover, while in California State she founded and directed
the Graduate School for Community Development an alternative freestanding
institution of higher education.
Returning to Puerto Rico in 1984, she devoted her time
to establishing PRODUCIR, Inc., a community development organization that
provides economic assistance to small businesses in poor rural areas, and
Provivienda, an organization which works to develop affordable housing.
In recognition of her years of outstanding service, her
passion and commitments to community work, she has received many awards
and honorary degrees including those from New School University,
University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Doctor of Law Degree from Queens
College of City University of New York, Wheelock college, and the
University of Puerto Rico.
She has been recognized by the Hispanic Heritage
Awards, The John Gardner Leadership Award for the Independent Sector, Sor
Juana Inés de la Cruz Award, Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico,
Center for the Study of Women and Society, CUNY Graduate Center, Points of
Light, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, the Hunter College Alumni
Distinction Award, and many others.
Dr. Pantoja is the author of several articles and the
subject of many documentaries, newspaper, magazine articles and journal
articles. Arte Público released her autobiography "Memoirs of a
Visionary", this month. She was working on her second book on the
History of ASPIRA.
A Memorial Service will be held in New York at a later
date. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made
to the "The Antonia Pantoja Scholarship Fund" in care of the
National Puerto Rican Forum, 31 East 32nd Street New York, NY 10016.
Dr. Pantoja is survived by her partner, Dr. Wilhelmina
Perry, brother, Esteban López, sister Haydée López and several nieces
and nephews in Puerto Rico and Colorado, and the many youth of ASPIRA.