a) Dr. Antonia Pantoja, ASPIRA Founder, Life and Contributions

As an introduction to Dr. Antonia Pantoja life and accomplishment please view the following video.

Early years

Antonia Pantoja was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico where she received her primary and secondary education. She was later able to study at the University of Puerto Rico with the financial help given to her by her wealthy neighbors. There she obtained a teacher's certificate in 1942. In 1944 she moved to New York City where she found a job as a welder in a wartime factory. She subsequently won a scholarship to Hunter College in Manhattan, where she graduated with a Bachelor's degree in sociology in 1952. She then studied at Columbia University's New York School of Social Work, where she earned her Master's degree in 1954.

In 1957, Pantoja founded the Puerto Rican Forum (originally the Hispanic American Youth Association or HAYA), which served as an incubator for organizations and programs promoting economic self-sufficiency. This organization is now known as the National Puerto Rican Forum and is headquartered in The Bronx.


In 1961, Pantoja also founded ASPIRA (Spanish for "to aspire"), a non-profit organization that promoted a positive self-image, commitment to community, and education as a value as part of the ASPIRA Process to Puerto Rican and other Latino youth in New York City. ASPIRA now has offices in six states, Puerto Rico and has its headquarters, the ASPIRA Association, in Washington, D.C.. It has provided approximately 50,000 Latino students with career and college counseling, financial aid and other assistance, and is today one of the largest nonprofit agencies in the Latino community. In 1963 Dr. Pantoja directed a project of the Puerto Rican Forum that resulted in the establishment of the Puerto Rican Community Development Project (PRCDP), funded by the federal War on Poverty.

Reformation of New York's educational system

In 1964, Dr. Pantoja shifted her emphasis from self-help programs to the reformation of the educational system and in 1967 she served on a mayoral committee, convened by the then Mayor of New York City, John Lindsay, that recommended the decentralization of the school system.

In 1970, she established the Universidad Boricua, which is now known as Boricua College (with three campuses in NYC) and the Puerto Rican Research and Resources Center in Washington, D.C.. In 1973, she earned her Ph.D. from Union Graduate School in Ohio. She joined the faculty of the San Diego State University's School of Social Work in 1978, where she became the Director of the Undergraduate Program in Social Work. Later, she would become the co-founder of the Graduate School for Community Development, a private free-standing educational institution. This School taught community development, economic development and leadership skills to people in communities around the United States and Puerto Rico.

In 1972, ASPIRA of New York, under the direction of Dr. Mario Anglada and with the support of Dr. Pantoja, filed a civil rights lawsuit in the Federal court demanding that New York City provide classroom instruction in transitional Spanish for struggling Latino students. ASPIRA signed a consent decree with the NYC Board of Education in 1974, which is considered a major landmark in the history of bilingual education in the United States. Although Dr. Pantoja is credited with bringing this landmark lawsuit, she was actually no longer with ASPIRA at the time and was not directly involved.

Awards and recognitions

Among Pantoja's numerous awards and recognitions are the following:

Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996

  • Inducted into the Hunter College Hall of Fame
  • The Hispanic Heritage Award
  • The Julia de Burgos Award of la Casa Cultural of Yale University
  • A Doctor of Letters Honorary degree from the University of Connecticut
  • A Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Massachusetts Amherst
  • A Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Puerto Rico
  • The Hunter College Professional Achievement Award
  • The Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York State Board of Regents

In 1996, President Bill Clinton presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the first Puerto Rican woman to receive such this honor.

Later years

After 1984, Pantoja moved to Puerto Rico for health reasons, where she established Producir, an organization which provides economic assistance to small businesses, and Provivienda, which works to develop housing for the needy. In 1998 she returned to New York, concluding that she was clearly now a Nuyorican, given her negative personal experiences in Puerto Rico.

In 2002, Pantoja published her autobiography, Memoir of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja. In her memoirs she alluded to being a lesbian and discussed her decision not to go public before then with her sexual orientation.

Dr. Antonia Pantoja died of cancer in Manhattan, New York on May 24, 2002. She was survived by her longtime partner, Dr. Wilhemina Perry. Filmmaker Lillian Jimenez of the Latino Educational Media Center in New York City is completing a documentary on the life of Dr. Pantoja.

Sometime around 2003-2004, a branch of the BPS (Buffalo Public Schools) system, PS 18, was renamed after Pantoja, in Buffalo, New York in 2003-2004]

Written works

  • "Memoir of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja", Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2002
  • "Puerto Ricans in New York: A Historical and Community Development Perspective", Centro: Journal, Vol. 2, No. 5, Spring 1989, pp. 21–31
  • "A Guide for Action in Intergroup Relations", Social Group Work: Selected Papers from the National Conference on Social Welfare, 1961
  • "A Third World Perspective: A New Paradigm for Social Science Research", Research: A Third World Perspective, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, 1967, pp. 1–17
  • "Community Development and Restoration: A Perspective and Case Study", Community Organizing in a Diverse Society. Edited by John L. Erlich and Felix G. Rivera. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998., pp. 220–242
  • "Cultural Pluralism, A Goal to be Realized", Voices from the Battlefront: Achieving Cultural Equity. Edited by Marta Moreno Vega and Cheryll Greene. New Jersey: Africa World Press Inc., 1993, pp. 135–48
  • "Social Work in a Culturally Pluralistic Society: An Alternative Paradigm", Cross-Cultural Perspectives in Social Work Practice. Houston: University of Houston, 1976, pp. 79–95
  • "The University: An Institution for Community Development", Coming Home: Community-based Education and the Development of Communities. Washington, D.C.: Clearing House for Community-based, Free-standing Educational Institutions, 1979, pp. 28–33
  • "Toward the Development of Theory: Cultural Pluralism Redefined", Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare IV, 1976, pp. 125–46