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Dr. Antonia Pantoja

Dr. Antonia Pantoja was a leader with a vision. She was the founder of and the inspiration for numerous organizations that addressed the social needs and educational aspirations of the Puerto Rican community and Latino youth. She was a leader, an activist, an educator, an author, and a social worker. Dr. Pantoja led by example and her legacy includes inspiring others to overcome life’s hurdles and become successful leaders in their own right. She overcame obstacles through determination, discipline, and creativity. An energetic woman with a wonderful sense of humor Dr. Pantoja was also indomitable. Her work was recognized and appreciated by individuals, community leaders, and Presidents.

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1922. After receiving a teaching certificate from the University of Puerto Rico she worked as a schoolteacher for two years in Puerto Rico where she cultivated a profound interest in education and addressing the needs of disadvantaged children. She arrived in New York City in November 1944 where she got a job as a welder in a factory. During these years she was awakened to the harsh experience of racism and discrimination against Puerto Ricans in the United States. She saw education as the means to liberate herself and young Puerto Ricans from the constraints placed on them.

Dr. Pantoja attended Hunter College of the city of New York from where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952. With financial assistance from the Antoinette Cannon and John Hay Whitney Foundations she went on to the Columbia University School of Social Work from which she received a Master’s degree in 1954. She received a Ph.D. from the Union Graduate School in 1973.

As a graduate student at Columbia University Dr. Pantoja joined with others to create the Hispanic Youth Adult Association which later became the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs (PRACA). In 1961 as a member of the Puerto Rican Forum, Inc., a group of young professionals, she founded ASPIRA. ASPIRA, under Dr. Pantoja’s leadership, has become one of the most effective organizations concerned about the high dropout rate of Hispanic students and the socio-economic conditions faced by the families of these students. The organization continues today as a leading national organization dedicated to education and leadership development of Latino youth.

In 1970 Antonia Pantoja developed the proposal and secured funds to establish the Universidad Boricua and the Puerto Rican Research and Resource Center. In 1978 as an Associate Professor at the School of Social Work, San Diego State University in collaboration with others she founded the Graduate School for Community Development in San Diego. In 1985 she organized PRODUCIR, a community organization in Puerto Rico that has helped a rural community create its own cottage industries to generate employment and other services.

She was involved in numerous other community and professional organizations throughout her life, all working towards the goals of building stronger communities and supporting her focus on Puerto Rican and minority communities. These organizations included the Ford Foundation, the National Urban Coalition, the National Association of Social Workers and the Council on Social Work Education.

Dr. Pantoja was the recipient of numerous awards perhaps the most notable of which is the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This medal awarded to her by President Clinton in 1997, is the highest honor the nation bestows on a civilian.

Her last book Memoir of a Visionary was a story about her life. At the time of her death she was working on a documentary about the history of the Puerto Rican community in New York City.

For further information, contact Alice Ricks at aliricks@naswdc.org

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