Dr. Antonia Pantoja Fellowship, Inc.

Developing Leaders of Integrity

Biography: Dr. Antonia Pantoja

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.

Dr. Pantoja knew first hand the struggles of the Puerto Rican community in her own country and in the United States. Raised by her grandfather and grandmother, the family lived from her grandfather’s earnings as a cigar maker and union activist. In a workers’ neighborhood in San Juan, she learned an early lesson about the value of joining together to fight for common goals.

Photo Copyright: The Antonia Pantoja Papers. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY. Photographer unknown.

Newly arrived in New York City in 1944, she supported herself by working as a welder in a factory.In spite of her prior employment as a teacher in Puerto Rico, she was not accepted for any professional position in her field of work. She accepted the rejection and obstacle placed by the New York City Board of Education, but she held fast to her ambitions and beliefs in education as the key for self improvement. She completed her four year Bachelor’s Degree from Hunter College by taking night classes while continuing to work during the day.

After completing her Bachelor’s Degree from Hunter College, a Master’s Degree from the Columbia School of Social Work and a doctoral degree from The Union Graduate School, she became an Assistant Professor at Columbia School of Social Work in 1966. Her major contributions have been in her work with the Puerto Rican communities of the United States and Puerto Rico.

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 New York, Chicago, Miami, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Puerto Rico. ASPIRA has prepared a cadre of young educated and committed leaders in the Puerto Rican and Latino communities in New York City and other major cities of the United States.

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 San Diego, School of Social Work.

Her contributions to the City of New York include her participation as a delegate-at-large in the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1967 and her participation in the New York City School Decentralization Panel named by Mayor Lindsay.

In 1984, she returned to Puerto Rico and created PRODUCIR, Inc., a community economic development corporation that promotes economic self sufficiency and leadership development for community residents.  The organization has generated two subsidiaries: PROVIVIENDA, Inc., a corporation that owns four high rise buildings that provides affordable housing for low-income people in the metropolitan area of San Juan, and PRODECO, Inc., a community trust that teaches, promotes, encourages and provides loans for community development efforts in low-income communities of Puerto Rico. 

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 New School University, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Doctor of Law Degree from the Queens College of City University of New York (CUNY), Wheelock College, and the University of Puerto Rico. Dr. Pantoja has been recognized by the Hispanic Heritage Award, The John Gardner
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, CUNY Graduate Center, Points of Light, the
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.

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Dr. Pantoja's Memoirs

You can purchase Dr. Pantoja's memoirs, entitled Memoir of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja, at DAPF events. Proceeds from the book's sale support DAPF's mission. For more information, please email us at info@drantoniapantojafellowship.org.