‘One cannot live a lukewarm life’
For Dra. Antonia Pantoja, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, life was anything but tepid. For six decades, she brought passion and activism to the cause of education and justice for Puerto Ricans and other minority communities.
Dra. Antonia Pantoja was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1922 and studied at the University of Puerto Rico, where she obtained a Normal School Diploma in 1942.
After graduating, she worked as a schoolteacher for two years in Puerto Rico and cultivated a profound interest in education and addressing the needs of disadvantaged children.
In November 1944, Dra. Pantoja arrived in New York City and found work as a welder. Those years involved long hours of hard work, and Dra. Pantoja learned first-hand the harsh experience of racism and discrimination against Puerto Ricans.
She came to realize that her community lacked the knowledge and political power to overcome these and other challenges in the United States. Dra. Pantoja 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.
Within a few years, the women who welded pieces of filament for submarine radios would rise to fuse together a fragmented community much in need of leadership and vision.
After great personal initiative that included extensive research on academic scholarships, Dra. Pantoja received a scholarship from Hunter College, City University of New York, where she completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1952.
She went on to acquire a Master of Social Work degree in 1954 and was bestowed a Ph.D. from the Union Graduate School, Union on Experimenting Colleges and Universities in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1973.
Then, in her most profound contribution to the Puerto Rican community in the United States, Dra. Pantoja joined a group of young professionals in 1958 to create the Puerto Rican Forum, Inc. That organization paved the way for the establishment of ASPIRA in 1961.
ASPIRA was Dra. Pantoja's dream, but it was not the only organization she help build for the Puerto Rican community. As a graduate student at Columbia University in 1953, she joined with other students to create the Hispanic Youth Adult Association, which later became the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs (PRACA).
In 1970 she wrote a proposal and secured funds to establish the Universidad Boricua and the Puerto Rican Research and Resource Center in Washington, D.C. Three years later, she became its chancellor. For health reasons, Dra. Pantoja moved to California in 1978 to become an associate professor at the School of Social Work, at San Diego State University. There, in collaboration with another successful educator, she founded the Graduate School for Community Development in San Diego, an institution that served communities and neighborhoods throughout the nation.
She became the president of this organization, devoted to imparting people with knowledge and skills necessary for solving problems and restoring their communities. She was involved in a variety of community and professional organizations, all working toward the goal of building stronger Puerto Rican and minority communities. Those partnerships included the Ford Foundation, the National Urban Coalition, the Museo del Barrio, the National Association of Social Workers, the Council on Social Work Education and several other groups and organizations.
The creation of ASPIRA in 1961 was the result of considerable hard work and collaboration with educators and social work professionals concerned with the high dropout rate of Puerto Rican youth in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s. The organization flourished and quickly grew into a major national organization dedicated to empowering communities and especially Puerto Rican youth to take control of their future.
Dr. Pantoja's work has not gone unnoticed. She is "one of the foremost figures in community activism from the 1950's to the present," said 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.”
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, joining Govs. Luis Muñoz Marín and Luis Ferré, as well as Sr. Isolina Ferré.
"One cannot live a lukewarm life," Dr. Pantoja once said. "You have to live life with passion." And after nearly 60 years as an educator and activist, she continued 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 that she helped to build, she worked to raise awareness about the value of nurturing students to be proficient in multiple languages.
In 2000 she participated in a panel discussion on "Latinas Making History" at a midtown Manhattan hotel. A small woman with a powerful voice and no-nonsense attitude, she wore a poker face that broke 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.
But the "total immersion" of Spanish-speaking students in an English-only environment was "a stupid, stupid thing," she said. "If we are already bilingual, why should our children lose their language and only speak one language, English?"
To the end, Dra Pantoja remained unapologetic for her forceful opinions. "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."
This was Antonia Pantoja. She left us on May 24, 2002.
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