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Antonia Pantoja Papers

Identifier: MSS 93

Scope and Contents

The papers of Antonia Pantoja help document the vibrant and multifaceted life of one of the great institutional pioneers of the Puerto Rican community. In addition, they lend insight into the nature and origins of the organizations founded by Pantoja and the extent to which they chronicle her personal and intellectual growth.

A small but rich collection, highlights of the papers include personal affects from Pantoja’s early years in Puerto Rico, historical materials on the inception and initial growth of ASPIRA of New York, Inc., as well as a vast array of photographs documenting all phases of Pantoja’s life. In addition, the collection documents the evolution of Pantoja’s consciousness as a black Puerto Rican woman and a Nuyorican, and the subsequent contributions of these identities to her professional development.

The materials in this collection span from the early 1920s to 2002 with the bulk concentrating on the years 1960 to 2001. They consist of correspondence, memoranda, photographs, flyers, clippings, proposals, reports, speeches, writings, awards, posters and videotapes. The folders are arranged alphabetically and the documents are arranged chronologically. The documents are in both Spanish and English.


  • Creation: 1922-2002
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1960-2001


Conditions Governing Access

Open for research without restrictions, except for three videotapes that are restricted.

Biographical / Historical

An iconic figure in the Puerto Rican community, Antonia Pantoja reigns as one of the leaders in community development and as a key figure in the founding of several seminal Puerto Rican institutions. Best known for the inception and creation of ASPIRA, Pantoja was also instrumental in the founding of the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs (PRACA) (previously known as the Hispanic Young Adult Association [HYAA]), the Puerto Rican Research and Resources Center, Boricua College (Universidad Boricua), the Graduate School for Community Development and Producir, Inc. Dedicated to the self-determination of the Puerto Rican community, in particular, and communities of color and working class communities, in general, Pantoja sought to empower those around her by enabling them to create their own solutions to the poverty, unemployment and discrimination they faced. Coming from an impoverished background herself, Pantoja was particularly sensitive to and knowledgeable of the lack of opportunities available to these marginalized communities, and maintained the need for them to be agents in the creation of avenues of change and opportunity for themselves.

The daughter of Alejandrina Pantoja Acosta and an unknown father, Antonia Pantoja was born on June 13, 1922 in Puerta de Tierra, Puerto Rico. Due to the circumstances surrounding her birth, she was later legally claimed as the daughter of her grandparents, Conrado Pantoja Santos and Luisa Acosta Rivera, who took the liberty of having a second birth certificate produced re-stating Pantoja’s birth date as September 13, 1921. Pantoja was subsequently raised in Barrio Obrero, a worker’s community on the outskirts of San Juan. Although her mother was not to be wholly absent in her life, it was Pantoja’s grandparents, and to some degree her extended family, who served as her primary caretakers and provided her with some of her most formative memories. After the death of her grandfather, a skilled worker and union leader at the American Tobacco Company, in 1930, Pantoja and her family suffered much poverty and faced economic hardships that left a deep impression on her, contributing to the formation of her character and social consciousness.

Despite her difficult economic circumstances, Pantoja completed both elementary and junior high school, and went on to attend Central High School in Santurce in 1936. Within her first year at the high school, Pantoja contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium for three months to recover, indicative of the respiratory illnesses that would come to dictate the course of her life. Upon graduating from high school in 1940, Pantoja attended the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras where she received a Normal School Diploma in 1942, certifying her to teach in the island’s school system. Per her request, her first teaching job was in the mountain town of Cuchilla 4, teaching grades 1-3. Subsequent assignments included teaching in an experimental program for older students at La Segunda Unidad Padilla and at a junior high school in Toa Alta. During these years, Pantoja was the sole provider in her family and had taken on the burden of supporting her mother and her mother’s children. Overwhelmed by the responsibility, and highly underpaid by the school system bureaucracy, if paid at all, Pantoja, in tandem with a friend, decided to leave the island for New York. Managing to locate passage on the S.S. Florida on November 13, 1944, they landed first in New Orleans and subsequently made their way to New York by train.

Once in New York, Pantoja stayed with an old school friend from Puerto Rico who lived on Fox Street and St. John Avenue in the Bronx. Among her first jobs was working on an assembly line in a factory that produced radios for submarines on Vesey Street in Lower Manhattan. She would eventually wait out the end of the war at the Office of Price Administration, a federal office in charge of wartime rations. Afterwards, she took a job painting animal figures on lamps in a factory, later becoming a designer for the same company. It was at the lamp factory that Pantoja met Reba Josephs who was a key figure in inaugurating the next phase of her life. Through Josephs, Pantoja became involved with a milieu of artists and designers, predominantly female, which helped greatly expand her knowledge of art, politics, music, philosophy and literature. She came to live with many of these individuals in an apartment located on the fifth floor of a community house of a Greek Orthodox Church on Houston Street on the outskirts of Greenwich Village. Attracting a wide array of artists, writers and intellectuals, the apartment was a focal point of activity that introduced Pantoja to New York and its world of ideas; a sharp contrast to her life in Barrio Obrero and the requisite social mores and restrictions of the island.

Reevaluating her life’s direction after a few years in Greenwich Village, Pantoja and fellow housemate Helen Lehew decided to strike out on their own and look for an apartment, eventually locating one on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Baruch Place near Houston and Rivington. At the same time, Pantoja began to work as a youth worker at the 110th Street Community Center where she had greater contact with the local Puerto Rican community through her interviews with parents in East Harlem. Subsequently, at the encouragement of fellow co-workers at the community center, Pantoja began to attend Hunter College, on scholarship, in order to complete her baccalaureate degree, and returned to her work as a designer at the lamp factory in the interim. It was at Hunter College where Pantoja made additional connections with Puerto Ricans born stateside and where she began to familiarize herself with the issues at the forefront of their concerns. Finding herself alienated from other student groups at the university, Pantoja was fortunate enough to locate like minded Puerto Ricans who demonstrated an interest in meeting together in order to discuss the social factors determinant of the Puerto Rican experience in New York. Gathering initially in Pantoja’s living room and later on in a space at the Good Neighbor Community Center on 106th Street, this group of individuals, which included Pantoja, Hunter College students Marta Valle, Maggie Miranda and Sandra Canino, as well as employees of the Migration Division of the Department of Labor of Puerto Rico such as Charlie Cuevas, José Morales and Paul Caballero, discussed questions related to the representation of Puerto Ricans in the media and the ways that they were perceived and stereotyped in the broader community.

Eventually evolving into the Hispanic Young Adult Association (HYAA) in 1953, the young people meeting with Pantoja were interested in fostering leadership within the Puerto Rican community and in supporting the establishment of organizations that would speak to their specific needs and problems. Although the Migration Division had been established to attend to questions of employment, social welfare and housing, among other things, the members of HYAA perceived the role of the Migration Division as limited in tending to the everyday needs of the community and not instrumental in addressing the social ills confronting them on a daily basis. With Pantoja as its President, HYAA took up a number of projects in the community including the refurbishing of a church and a voter registration drive, and planned and held the first Puerto Rican Youth Conference. In time changing their name to the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs, members of the original group included such well known community figures as Alice Cardona, Josephine Nieves, Yolanda Sánchez, Luis Nuñez and Eddie González.

Upon graduating from Hunter College in 1952, Pantoja was admitted to the New York School of Social Work (now known as the Columbia University School of Social Work) where she studied under scholarships from the Antoinette Cannon Foundation and the John Hay Whitney Foundation. It was in her second year, under the auspices of the John Hay Whitney Foundation, that Pantoja got additional hands on experience in the Puerto Rican community when, as a requirement of her scholarship, she helped organize an Association of Puerto Ricans in Bridgeport, Connecticut slated to focus on issues of housing and poverty. Immediately after graduating from Columbia University in 1954, Pantoja began to work at the Union Settlement House where the confines of her work as a social worker became even more evident. Interested in the formulation of social policies that would have greater ramifications on lives of Puerto Ricans and other people of color, Pantoja decided to apply for a Fulbright to study at the London School of Economics. She received the scholarship and was ready to make the move abroad when her professional direction was fatefully altered when she was asked to join the staff of a new city agency called the Commission on Intergroup Relations. Headed by Dr. Frank Horne, the Commission’s membership was comprised of individuals’ representative of major racial and ethnic communities in New York and intended to identify and address the bevy of problems affecting these communities. Solutions to these problems were to be formulated in dialogue with community members and to promote cross racial / ethnic communication.

For Pantoja, her work and experiences within the Commission proved to be educational on many fronts. Besides cultivating key institution building skills that would serve her well in the establishment of an assortment of organizations, she also garnered an eye opening education on discrimination towards other racial and ethnic groups in New York. It was while working for the Commission that Pantoja brought to fruition her idea for the creation of ASPIRA. Asked by Frank Horne to devise programs that addressed the needs of the Puerto Rican community, Pantoja presented him with a proposal for the creation of a home grown leadership titled “New Leaders in New York.” An idea and proposal originally presented to Joseph Monserrat at the Migration Division and to the leadership of the Union Settlement House, “New Leaders in New York” offered the possibility of creating a Puerto Rican leadership that was not honed from the island, but rather cultivated from among Puerto Rican students in New York. With this proposal, Pantoja was interested in laying the groundwork for a future leadership class that would be intimately aware of the issues facing the Puerto Rican community in New York and invested in devising solutions to ensuing concerns in direct dialogue with its constituency.

With Horne’s encouragement, Pantoja put together a group of colleagues from PRACA and formed the Puerto Rican-Hispanic Leadership Forum in order to bring the project to fruition. Modeled on a group formulated by Horne earlier in his career, the Puerto Rican-Hispanic Leadership Forum, whose name would later be shortened to the Puerto Rican Forum, was established as an institution building agency that sought to foster the growth of organizations within the Puerto Rican community whose mission was to contend with and alleviate the community’s particular problems. ASPIRA was one of the first organizations formed and the initial members of the Puerto Rican Forum, among them Frank Bonilla, its first President, Blanca Cedeño and Francisco Trilla, served on its first Board. Thus, with the approval and support from the Commission and monies from the five foundations, Pantoja and her colleagues at the Puerto Rican Forum founded ASPIRA in the fall of 1961, appointing Pantoja as its first President. ASPIRA later became independent of the Puerto Rican Forum as it grew and their missions diverged, but it remained one of the latter’s greatest achievements and Pantoja’s point of pride.

Outside of a brief leave of absence in 1964 when she directed the Puerto Rican Community Development Project, an organization created to target and reduce Puerto Rican poverty, Pantoja served as ASPIRA’s President from 1961 until 1966. In 1966, she resigned her presidency in order to take a position as an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Columbia University, her alma mater. She taught at Columbia for the next two years. During the intervening years, she was elected to be a delegate-at-large for the 1967 New York State Constitutional Convention, which was charged with re-writing the state constitution, and was named by Mayor John V. Lindsay as a member of the Bundy Blue Ribbon Panel, which was to design a legal process for the decentralization of New York City’s public schools. Suffering from severe asthma owing to extreme cold temperatures and pollution in New York, Pantoja returned to Puerto Rico in 1969. There, after a much needed recovery and failed attempts at locating a government job, she started the organization Adelante Boricuas. Funded initially by the federal Office of Education’s Talent Search Program, Adelante Boricuas was similar in format to ASPIRA insofar as it emphasized the formation of clubs slated to instill leadership skills in youth and empower them to create solutions for the problems within their communities. Sponsored by a local organization called Acción Social, Adelante Boricuas eventually became an ASPIRA affiliate when Pantoja was no longer able to locate funding to maintain it.

Besides this endeavor, in the two and a half years that Pantoja spent in Puerto Rico, she also opened up a guest house in Old San Juan called La Casa del Sol, which she ran with her friend Barbara Blourock, started a consulting firm, Pantoja Associates, also with Blourock, and briefly taught in the School of Social Work at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. Pantoja left Puerto Rico due to the evident lack of work available to her on the island and returned to the states in 1971. Encouraged by Luis Alvarez of the Puerto Rican Forum to return to the U.S. to continue her institution building work, Pantoja submitted a proposal to the Puerto Rican Forum for funding for a Puerto Rican research center which was to supply information and research on Puerto Ricans to the general public. Once this proposal was approved and monies were in place, the Puerto Rican Research and Resources Center was incorporated in 1971 and formally established in Washington, D.C. in 1972. Among the Center’s projects were the funding of eight graduate fellowships for the study of topics related to the Puerto Rican community, the formulation of a bibliography on Puerto Ricans, a study on Puerto Rican high school student drop outs and the founding of a bilingual community college for Puerto Rican students; the latter, initially slated to be called Ramón E. Betances Community College, evolved into Universidad Boricua and then Boricua College.

In the summer of 1972, shortly after opening the doors of the Center, Pantoja enrolled as a graduate student at the Union Graduate School in Ohio, an experimental university program which promoted independent learning, from where she earned her doctorate in 1973. Shortly thereafter, she was appointed as a member of the Study Commission on Undergraduate Education and the Education of Teachers (SCUEET), a commission interested in designing a new method and process for the reform of postsecondary education and the education of teachers; which exposed Pantoja to other educators also starting their own colleges and universities intended to educate their disenfranchised communities. It was with the informative input of the work of the commission and her colleagues there that Pantoja was able to bring her dreams for Universidad Boricua to fruition. A university seeking to empower its student population, Universidad Boricua’s methodology involved teaching students problem solving skills in order to be able to contribute to the betterment and rebuilding of their communities.

Unfortunately, the strain of working towards establishing the university and directing the Puerto Rican Research and Resources Center, in combination with the evident pollution in Washington, D.C., was a cause for Pantoja’s difficulties with asthma to resurface. Compelled by her doctor to leave Washington, D.C., in particular, and the Northeast corridor, in general, Pantoja settled on a move to San Diego, California which she had visited during her recent stay in Puerto Rico. Contacting the Dean of the School of Social Work at San Diego State University, whom she had met on her first visit, Pantoja was able to garner an interview and subsequent position as an Associate Professor in the school in 1973. Her time at the university was fruitful, in that she became a more innovative and successful pedagogue, but also rife with difficulties and frustrations owing to faculty resistance to the level of programmatic change she was interested in putting into place. Facing increasing opposition to these changes on the part of the faculty and administration, Pantoja, although having been granted early tenure and appointed Director of the undergraduate division of the School of Social Work, resigned from San Diego State University in 1977.

While at the university, Pantoja, Wilhelmina Perry and Barbara Blourock had also been working on the design and foundation of an alternative graduate school that would incorporate some of the innovative and participatory pedagogical principles they had been advocating; with a curriculum dedicated to the cultivation of a student body committed to the principles of community development. The Graduate School for Urban Resources and Social Policy, which would later become the Graduate School for Community Development, was founded in 1975 and was made up of four different modules that included the Multicultural Arts Institute, Institute for Social Development, Institute for the Study of Values and Community Development Institute. The graduate school remained a mainstay in Pantoja’s activities for the next twelve years and she presided as its President until 1982 when Wilhelmina Perry took over the post. That same year, in May, Pantoja received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Mina Shaughnessy Scholars Program that allowed her to retire from a paid position at the graduate school and begin the process of writing a book that was to be titled “Toward the Development of a Theory of a Community Development: The Process of Colonizing and Destroying a Community and the Process of Decolonizing or Redeveloping a Community,” only six chapters of which were completed.

Pantoja’s stay in San Diego lasted well over a decade and proved beneficial both to her health and the further development of her ideas on education and community development. Nonetheless, she would always perceive this time in her life as a period of exile that had separated her from New York, Puerto Rico and her community. It was while writing her book on community development that Pantoja was asked to attend a conference on Puerto Rican independence in Mexico City. The dedication and passion demonstrated towards Puerto Rico and its people during the conference, in combination with the solidarity and self-determination she had witnessed on a recent trip to Nicaragua, inspired her to move back to Puerto Rico and once again attempt to contribute to the betterment of the lives of people on the island. Thus in 1984, Pantoja and her colleague Wilhelmina Perry transferred the administration of the Graduate School for Community Development to students and colleagues and moved to Puerto Rico. Working initially under the auspices of ASPIRA of Puerto Rico in San Juan, their move to the region of Canóvanas, and purchase of a home in the town of Cubuy, precipitated the unforeseen development of one of the last organizations which Pantoja would preside over, Producir, Inc.

Established in 1986, Producir, Inc. was instrumental to the development of a bakery, a post office, a credit cooperative, a shopping center housing locally run businesses, a Head Start program and several hydroponic lettuce growing systems in the communities of Cuby and Lomas in Canóvanas. Although effective in creating sustainable solutions for some of the community’s immediate needs and concerns, Producir, Inc. met with what Pantoja perceived as resistance and apathy on the part of the local government and residents that hindered the complete implementation of some of the organizations initiatives. These factors, along with Pantoja’s increasing doubts about being able to organize effectively on the island, contributed to her decision to move back to New York and work with Nuyoricans again; although she continued to actively contribute to the success of Producir, Inc. and helped them develop two separate corporations, PROVivienda, Inc., which owns and administers low and moderate income housing, and PRODECO, a community trust created to support community development activities.

In 1999, Pantoja, along with Wilhelmina Perry, returned to New York City, for what would be the last move she would make in her lifetime. Having received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, Pantoja was poised for a well deserved retirement in the city that witnessed the birth of her institution building endeavors. Besides continuing to advise numerous individuals and organizations, Pantoja took this time to start work on her memoirs. Titled Memoir of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja, these memoirs were published posthumously in 2002. Antonia Pantoja died on May 24, 2002 in New York City leaving behind an extraordinary organizational and pedagogical legacy which her papers offer but a glimpse into. In tandem with the Records of ASPIRA of New York, Inc. they provide insight into the organizational history of the Puerto Rican community and its attempts to address the striking educational inequalities existent for them.

References / Referencias: Interviews with Antonia Pantoja, 1988. Pantoja, Antonia, Memoir of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja, Arte Publico Press: Houston, Texas, 2002.


18 Cubic Feet (27 boxes plus videotapes, audiocassettes, artifacts and oversize materials)

Language of Materials


Spanish; Castilian


The Antonia Pantoja Papers provide are an invaluable resource for information on organizational efforts within the Puerto Rican community and the strides in community development achieved by one of its greatest advocates. Collection consists of correspondence, memoranda, minutes, photographs, flyers, posters, clippings, proposals, reports, speeches, videotapes and audiocassettes.


The collection is divided into the following series: I. Personal and Biographical Information II. National Puerto Rican Forum, Inc. III. ASPIRA IV. Graduate School for Community Development V. Producir, Inc. VI. Subject Files VII. Organizations VIII. Writings and Publications IX. Photographs X. Audio-Visual XI. Artifacts

Other Finding Aids

English/Spanish bilingual version of the finding aid is available (see external documents section.)

Processing Information

Processed with a grant from a congressional directed initiative sponsored by Congressman José Serrano and administered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Funding was also provided by the Council of the City of New York.

Antonia Pantoja Papers
Mario H. Ramírez with the assistance of Melisa Panchano and Silvia Rodríguez
October 2006
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Processed with a grant from a congressional directed initiative sponsored by Congressman José Serrano and administered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Funding was also provided by the Council of the City of New York.

Revision Statements

  • April 2007: EAD encoding.

Repository Details

Part of the Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora Repository

Silberman Building, Hunter College
2180 Third Ave. Rm. 122
New York New York 10065

About the Collections

Our collections consist of personal papers from prominent Puerto Rican artists, elected officials, social activists, writers, as well as the records of community-based organizations. Our largest collection, the Offices of the Government of Puerto Rico in the United States (OGPRUS) Records, measures approximately 2,900 cubic feet and contains an extraordinary amount of information regarding Puerto Rican migrants and the government institutions established to assist them. The collections date from the 1890s to the present, and document Puerto Rican communities in the Northeast, Midwest, Florida, California and Hawaii.