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Antonia Pantoja: Queer Community Organizer and Educational Rights Fighter

On this day, Antonia Pantoja was born in Puerta de Tierra, in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1922.

She studied at the University of Puerto Rico, where she obtained a Normal School Diploma in 1942. Upon graduating from the University of Puerto Rico, she worked as a schoolteacher for two years in Puerto Rico. She cultivated a profound interest in education and addressed 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 making lamps for children.

During these years, which involved long hours of hard work, she was awakened to the harsh experience of racism and discrimination against Puerto Ricans and how this community lacked the knowledge and political power to overcome these and other challenges in the United States. She became an activist in the factory, providing information to other workers about their rights and how to organize a union. These were the most formative years of her life.

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 School of Social Work, where she earned her master’s degree in 1954. In 1973, she earned her Ph.D. from Union Graduate School (now Union Institute & University) in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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 its headquarters are in The Bronx.

In 1961, Pantoja also founded ASPIRA (Spanish for “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. 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.

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.

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 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.



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