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Puerto Rico Profile: Dr. Antonia Pantoja

November 17, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Education was the key to Antonia Pantoja’s escape from a childhood of poverty in the slums of San Juan, and education is her gift to all the children whose lives she has touched in more than half a century of teaching and activism in Puerto Rico and New York City. As a young woman living in sometimes desperate conditions, Dr. Pantoja insisted on staying in school and receiving the best education possible. Her life’s work has, in turn, been based on providing other children of misfortune with the tools and inspiration to follow the same path to knowledge and empowerment.

Antonia Pantoja’s childhood in the 1920s and ‘30s was marked by hunger, disease, and want. She recently recalled eating meals of sugar water and a piece of bread just before going to bed, so that "when the stomach wakes up, you’re already asleep and you don’t feel the hunger." During her first year of high school, she contracted tuberculosis and was sent to the country to recover. There, for the first time in her life, she ate three full meals a day.

Poverty was not, however, the deciding factor in Dr. Pantoja’s early life. "I was not only a child from a poor family," she said. "I was a child from a family where political ideas were very early coming into the picture." Her grandfather, who worked in a cigar factory, organized his fellow laborers into a union and led a successful strike for higher wages. The company subsequently moved away, leaving everyone jobless, but the power of organized protest was not lost on young Antonia. She avidly read Marxist pamphlets that her grandfather brought home, and she "started to get ideas as to the rights of people: the rights of people to organize, the rights of the people to fight for the problems that affected them."

She certainly fought for an adequate education, and through the force of her determination she completed high school and enrolled in a teaching program at the University of Puerto Rico. Two years later, in 1942, she received her certification and began teaching small children in remote rural areas in the hills of Puerto Rico.

She left Puerto Rico for New York City in 1944, joining the stream of Puerto Ricans who would migrate to the mainland in great numbers over the next 20 years. She found work as a welder, but the racism and discrimination she experienced in New York convinced her that the challenges facing the city’s Puerto Rican community required strong leadership and better organization.

Pantoja was able to return to school after several years of grueling factory work, and in 1952 she received a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College, of the City University of New York. She then obtained a fellowship to study at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, where she graduated with a master’s degree in 1954.

While a graduate student at Columbia, Pantoja created the Hispanic Youth Adult Association, which became the Puerto Rico Association for Community Affairs, or PRACA. In 1958, she joined together with other young professionals in New York to form the Puerto Rico Forum, Inc. That organization was the genesis of Dr. Pantoja’s most famous endeavor.

In 1961, Pantoja, concerned with the high levels of drop-outs among Puerto Rican students, founded ASPIRA. The organization takes its name from the Spanish verb aspirar, "to aspire," and its mission is "to empower the Puerto Rican and Latino community through advocacy and the education and leadership development of its youth."

ASPIRA has been described as "Dr. Pantoja’s dream," and it certainly embodies the principles of educational empowerment and community organizing that she has upheld throughout her long career. Since its establishment, it has grown from a single office catering to Puerto Ricans in New York to a nation-wide network of programs and services for all members of the country’s Latino community.

In 1972, ASPIRA joined with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund to sue the City of New York for not providing adequate educational programs for "Limited English Proficient" (LEP) students. In 1974, the case resulted in the "ASPIRA consent decree," which guarantees either bilingual education or English as a second language (ESL), depending on the number of LEP students per class, in all New York City schools. That system remains in place.

After establishing ASPIRA, Antonia Pantoja continued to look for ways to invigorate the mainland Puerto Rican community. She secured funding in 1970 for the Universidad Boricua in Washington, D.C., the nation’s first and only Puerto Rican-controlled, bilingual institution of higher learning. In 1973, she obtained her Ph.D. and became the Universidad Boricua’s Chancellor.

For health reasons, Dr. Pantoja moved to the West Coast in 1978 and took an assistant professorship at San Diego State University. Unable to resist creating yet another community-based educational organization, she founded the Graduate School for Community Development in San Diego and became its President.

In 1985, Dr. Pantoja decided to return to her roots. She went home to Puerto Rico to set up and run Producir, Inc., which serves the poor in the island’s rural areas. After over forty years, she was back where she first began her teaching career.

Dr. Pantoja’s work has not gone unnoticed. Virginia Sánchez-Korrol, Professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College and Co-Editor of the forthcoming Latinas in the United States: An Historical Encyclopedia, has called her "one of the foremost figures in community activism from the 1950’s to the present." In 1996, Dr. Pantoja received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor bestowed upon civilians by the United States government. She became one of only four Puerto Rican recipients of the award, which has also been presented to Governors Luis Muñoz Marín and Luis Ferré, as well as Sr. Isolina Ferré.

"One cannot live a lukewarm life," Dr. Pantoja has said. "You have to live life with passion." After nearly sixty years as an educator and activist, she continues to display that passion and vigor. In 1999, she interrupted work on her memoirs to return to New York City and lend her assistance to a new initiative. Alarmed by reports of threats to the city’s bilingual education system - a system which she was instrumental in initiating - she is working to raise awareness about the value of nurturing students to be proficient in multiple languages.

She appeared earlier this month as part of a panel discussion on "Latinas Making History" at a hotel in midtown Manhattan. A small woman with a powerful voice and no-nonsense attitude, she wears a poker face that breaks periodically into a beaming smile.

"I am for the fact that our children must learn English for their livelihood, and because they should know that other language of the place where they live," she explained. However, she described the "total immersion" of Spanish-speaking students in an English-only environment, as "a stupid, stupid thing,"

"If we already bilingual," she asked, "why should our children lose their language and only speak one language, English?"

Unapologetic for her forceful opinion, she added, "Sometimes people think that you shouldn’t express yourself directly and say what you’re thinking, but you have to. You have to be open and direct and say what you mean. Call things by their name."

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