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Dr. Antonia Pantoja Civic Pioneer for Puerto Ricans Dies

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 mainland.

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.