Antonia Pantoja’s life was one of an educator, organizer and advocate. Her life was one of overcoming obstacles and finding options for moving ahead and implementing her vision to help others in her community.
Photo Copyright: The Antonia Pantoja Papers. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY. Photographer unknown.
Newly arrived in
After completing her Bachelor’s Degree from
In 1958, Antonia, working with a group of Puerto Rican young people, established HYAA that would become the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs. This organization was formed to address the problems of Puerto Rican children. Dr. Pantoja also founded The Puerto Rican Forum, an institution organized to promote community development. In doing so, she embarked on a career devoted to improving the quality of life for New York Puerto Ricans through the creation and development of Puerto Rican educational, service, and training institutions.
In 1961, she established ASPIRA, a youth service educational institution that has helped thousands of young people to focus on their educational goals, develop their potential as leaders, acquire and sustain pride in their heritage. Today, ASPIRAs exists in
Never one to rest on her laurels, Dr. Pantoja lived by her own belief that an important part of leadership is to open up opportunities for other people and to move to new challenges. Her accomplishments include: establishing and directing a research center based in Washington, D.C.; founding The Puerto Rican Forum, a job training and economic and business development program; founding and presiding as the first President over Universidad Boricua, an institution of higher education that would later become Boricua College in New York City; organizing a new free standing alternative graduate post secondary educational institution in San Diego, California, dedicated to helping minority and low-income students develop skills and knowledge to solve the problems facing their communities. This institution was founded once she completed her tenure as the Director of the Undergraduate Program at the State University of California at
Her contributions to the City of
In 1984, she returned to
Dr. Pantoja passed away in 2002. She was the author of several articles on community development, cultural pluralism, social policy, women’s issues and racism. She has been the subject of many documentaries, newspapers and magazine articles, pictorial visuals, and journal articles. Dr. Pantoja's memoirs, entitled Memoir of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja, was published in June 2002 by Arte Público Press of the University of Houston, Texas.
In recognition of her years of outstanding service to her community, her passion and commitments to community work and people of color, she has received many awards and honorary degrees including those from
Leadership Award for the Independent Sector, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Award,
Fundacion Comunitaria de Puerto Rico, Local Initiative Support Corporation, Center
for the Study of Women and Society,
Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund and many others. In 2001, she received the Hunter College Alumni of Distinction Award.
In addition to her numerous government and private recognitions from community based associations, mayors and city councils, she was the first Puerto Rican woman to receive the prestigious award, The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to civilians (September, 1996). Since her death, she has continued to receive awards and honors in recognition of her life devoted to service.
From the very beginning of her founding ASPIRA, Dr. Pantoja envisioned the organizing of ASPIRA alumni. In 1990 she supported the establishment of the ASPIRA Alumni Association which developed as part of ASPIRA of NYC. Subsequently she was a co-founder of the Aspirante Alumni Fellowship in 2002 only months before her passing. In 2008, the organization changed its name to the Dr. Antonia Pantoja Fellowship, Inc. to honor the legacy of Dr. Pantoja.