Pantoja, Antonia 1922-2002

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PANTOJA, Antonia 1922-2002

PERSONAL: Born 1922 (some sources say September 13, 1921), in Puerta de Tierra, San Juan, Puerto Rico; died 2002. Education: University of Puerto Rico Normal School, diploma (education), 1942; Hunter College, City University of New York, B.A., 1952; Columbia University School of Social Work, M.S.W., 1954; Union Graduate School, Union of Experimenting Colleges and Universities, Ph.D., 1973.

CAREER: Educator, political and social reformer, and writer. Worked variously as an elementary school teacher in Puerto Rico, 1942-44, a welder in a radio factory, a worker in a lamp factory, and a counselor at a community center; Columbia University School of Social Work, assistant professor, 1967; University of Puerto Rico School of Social Work, 1968; San Diego State University, faculty member and director of social work program, 1972; Universidad Boricua and Puerto Rican Research Center, Washington, DC, founder, 1970, chancellor, 1973; San Diego State University, associate professor, social policy and community development, mid-1980s. Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs, founder, 1953; National Puerto Rican Forum, founder, 1958; Aspira, New York, NY, founder, 1961; Univeridad Boricua, founder, 1970; Puerto Rican Research Center, founder, 1970; Producir, Inc., Puerto Rico, founder, 1985.

AWARDS, HONORS: Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1996.


Memoir of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja, Arte Público Press (Houston, TX), 2002.

SIDELIGHTS: An active educator and dedicated proponent of Puerto Rican issues, Antonia Pantoja was the founder of a number of organizations that serve the Puerto Rican community in the United States, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. Pantoja worked as a union organizer as well as a teacher. She "has been a pioneer and leader among Puerto Ricans by motivating them politically and intellectually," a biographer wrote in Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. "Her 'dare to dream' message is the impetus behind every project with which she becomes involved."

Born in Puerta de Tierra, San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1922 (some sources say September 13, 1921), Pantoja was exposed early by her parents to issues of workers' rights and to the benefits of education. She went to live with her grandfather, a cigar maker and union organizer, in Barrio Obrero. There she saw first-hand the fight for cigar workers' rights and witnessed one of the earliest successful strikes in Puerto Rican history. She discovered the importance of the workers' movement, "a belief she would carry with her through her life's work," a Dictionary of Hispanic Biography writer observed. "My grandfather's efforts at organizing resulted in severe physical violence against him and against his fellow workers," Pantoja once said in an interview in Harvard Educational Review. "They won the strike, but the company then packed up their machinery and left Puerto Rico. Everyone lost their jobs. I can still remember the sense of outrage and powerlessness that we all felt. We literally had no rights. My life's work has always been influenced by the memory of this inequity."

Pantoja graduated from the University of Puerto Rico's two-year education program and worked as a teacher in the rural areas between San Lorenzo and Las Piedras. "While the job was rewarding, the pay was very low," the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography writer noted. "Pantoja sought alternatives to helping her family obtain an improved economic life, and she decided to go to America."

In November 1944, during World War II, Pantoja came to America, taking a dangerous ten-day ocean-liner journey across Atlantic waters amid enemy submarines. She landed in New Orleans and took a train to her final destination, New York City. There, "I first lived with a group of artists in Greenwich Village in an old church," she said in the Harvard Educational Review. "I imagine we were early 'hippies.' We talked a lot about the arts, but we also talked a lot about social conditions in the world. Many of my friends had parents who had come from Europe and had fled countries of oppression. Our house was a hub of activity for people with progressive political ideas." Pantoja lived in this setting for five years, she said. "This was the environment where I became a New Yorker and where I learned of the oppression and colonization of other people," she added. In the process of learning about a variety of political movements throughout the world, "I learned to speak English fluently," Pantoja said. "This house in which I lived was a living school."

While living in New York, Pantoja worked as a welder in a factory that made radios for submarines. Despite severe asthma, she worked long, difficult hours at the factory, threatening her health further. "At one point she was so tired that her welding tool fell from her hand and burned her, causing her foreman to label her accident-prone," remarked the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography writer.

Eventually, Pantoja left the radio factory for work in another factory making children's bedroom lamps. "It was during this period that she realized the oppression of the Puerto Ricans in the city," the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography writer commented. "Puerto Ricans were discriminated against and paid sub-minimum wages, mainly because of their lack of knowledge and political power. With the memories of her grandfather's fight against the tobacco company still vivid in her mind, and with an inherent sense of leadership, Pantoja organized her coworkers, informed them of their rights, and taught them about unions."

After organizing its workers, Pantoja left the lamp factory. After years of living with the artists in Greenwich Village, "I reached out for some order in my life," she once said in the Harvard Educational Review. "I took a job working with children and also returned to school" at Hunter College.

These experiences led to the founding of Pantoja's first group dedicated to Puerto Rican issues. "I was an older student and I sought to make relationships with others," Pantoja once recalled. "I learned that there were two or three Puerto Rican students on campus, and we began to meet. The group extended itself to other Puerto Rican students in other colleges of the city. We became a family, and because I was older and had more experience, I became the leader of the group. We used this group to politicize ourselves, as well as to find social supports. The group further extended to include factory workers and other young adults who were eager to meet, discuss ideas, and organize for action." The original group became known as the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs, or PRACA, which remains an active social service organization in New York City.

Pantoja earned her B.A. from Hunter College in pre-social work and was awarded a fellowship to attend Columbia University's School of Social Work. She earned her M.A. in 1954 and took a job as supervisor of the adult division for the Union Settlement, with responsibilities for supervision of staff, development of leadership skills, and program direction at summer camp.

In 1958 Pantoja and a group of other young professionals organized the Puerto Rican Forum, Inc., "an agency for business and career development dedicated to creating Puerto Rican institutions in New York City," according to the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography writer. The Puerto Rican forum led to the development of the Aspira Club. Aspira, which is the Spanish word for "strive" or "aspire," was founded in 1961 and promoted higher education among Puerto Ricans. The group's goal was to aid those Puerto Ricans continuing their education in professional, technical, or artistic fields. "It also provided a vehicle to encourage self-confidence and identity among Puerto Ricans" the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography contributor explaine. "Aspira Clubs have been formed in many high schools throughout New York, conducting workshops and conferences for both educators and youth. Between 1961 and 1968, Pantoja devoted almost all of her time to Aspira."

For Pantoja, "Aspira has had the greatest impact on my life, and on the lives of Puerto Rican youth in New York City and other cities where Aspira is established," she once noted in the Harvard Educational Review. "I feel proud and rewarded that the basic model and philosophy of work remain fundamental to Aspira's operation after all these years."

In July of 1967 Pantoja was working as an assistant professor in Columbia's School of Social Work teaching a course in community organization. In addition, she continued her work for the Puerto Rican community, serving as delegate-at-large for the 1967 Constitutional Convention of New York State, and lecturing at locations such as the New School for Social Research, Center for New York Affairs.

Pantoja's asthma forced her to return to Puerto Rico in 1968. There, she taught at the University of Puerto Rico's School of Social Work, developed additional Aspira Clubs throughout Puerto Rico, and served as consultant on a number of public and private projects.

Pantoja returned to the United States in 1970 and wrote a proposal and secured funding to establish the Universidad Boricua and Puerto Rican Research and Resource Center in Washington, D.C. The resource center's purpose was to "develop an informational base of resources and art objects about Puerto Ricans," the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography writer remarked. "With the resource center as a base, she developed the theoretical foundation for a university that would serve Puerto Ricans in the United States and provide innovative, bilingual, career-oriented programs for professionals, technicians, and workers—a foundation that would also be her doctoral thesis." The university was created through grants, and in 1973 Pantoja became chancellor of the Universidad Boricua.

Due to worsening asthma, Pantoja relocated to San Diego, California, where she became associate professor at San Diego State University, teaching social policy and community development until conflicts with the college bureaucracy led to her departure. Shortly after leaving the university, Pantoja and Wilhelmina Perry founded the Graduate School for Community Development in San Diego, with Pantoja as president. "Serving communities nationwide, its main objective was to teach people to develop institutions in society, change them, or create new ones," the Dictionary of Hispanic Biography writer noted.

In the mid-1980s Pantoja returned to Puerto Rico and collaborated with Perry in the development of Producir, Inc., a company dedicated to promoting Puerto Rican self-sufficiency through a community-based organization that creates jobs in the local economy. In 1989, Pantoja delivered the keynote speech at the Bella Abzug Conference at Hunter College. In 1996 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton "in recognition of her work in organizing Puerto Ricans to challenge the barriers of poverty, increase political involvement, and promote economic development," wrote Vanessa Bush in Booklist. In her Harvard Educational Review interview, Pantoja once remarked that she considered that all her work "has always been about community development and providing resources for people to develop their personal and social strengths within the context of their cultural origins and the physical or national communities in which they live."

"Very early in my life I came to understand that one has a responsibility to make the time and length of your life count for something worthwhile," Pantoja once said in the Harvard Educational Review. "I always felt that this was a noble cause—to live a life of meaning."



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Notable Hispanic American Women, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.


Booklist, February 15, 2002, Vanessa Bush, review of Memoirs of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja, p. 989.

Ebony, November, 1996, "The Medal of Freedom Awards," p. 28.

Harvard Educational Review, summer, 1998, Wilhelmina Perry, "Memorias de una vida de obra (Memories of a Life of Work): An Interview with Antonia Pantoja," pp. 244-258.

Hispanic, December, 1996, Concepcion Hopinks, "Pantoja, ASPIRA Founder, Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom," p. 9.

Publishers Weekly, February 18, 2002, review of Memoirs of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja, p. 91.*


Aspira, (November 17, 2002).



Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2002, Elaine Woo, "Antonia Pantoja, 80; Activist helped Puerto Ricans in U.S.," p. B-19.*