Skip to main content

ASPIRA of New York Records

Identifier: MSS 84

Scope and Contents

The records of ASPIRA of New York, Inc. document the administration, programs and civic contributions of this ground-breaking social service agency. Furthermore, they help chronicle the organizational evolution of the institution and the numerous initiatives they undertook to support Puerto Rican and Latino youth in New York City.

A small but insightful collection, highlights of the records include materials on such key programs as the Youth Leadership Development Program, as well as on organizational offshoots like the Office of Research and Advocacy and the ASPIRA Clubs Federation. Moreover, the collection documents the organization’s engagement with current issues in education and politics, and their extensive involvement in and influence on decision making around them.

The materials in this collection span the years from 1959 to 1998 with the bulk concentrating on the years 1970 to 1995. They consist of correspondence, memoranda, minutes, photographs, flyers, clippings, proposals, contracts, reports, speeches, videos, slides and financial statements. The folders are arranged alphabetically and the documents are arranged chronologically. The documents are in both Spanish and English.


  • Majority of material found within 1970-1995
  • 1959-1998

Conditions Governing Access

Open for research without restrictions.

Biographical / Historical

Originating as a concept and subsequent proposal presented to Dr. Frank Horne of the New York City Commission on Intergroup Relations, titled “New Leaders in New York,” ASPIRA of New York, Inc. was founded in 1961 (as ASPIRA, Inc.) by Antonia Pantoja and five colleagues from the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs (PRACA) who would soon help form the newly minted Puerto Rican-Hispanic Leadership Forum (Puerto Rican Forum); among them Blanca Cedeño, John Carro, Francisco Trilla and Frank Bonilla. The first private Puerto Rican organization to receive foundation monies (with funding from the Taconic, New York, Rockefeller Brothers and Field foundations, and the New York Fund for Children), ASPIRA was posed as an alternative to the growing influence of street gangs in the lives of Puerto Rican youth and was conceived to address the severe lack of educational attainment among Puerto Rican students and the concomitant shortage of leadership skills being cultivated by them. Intent on developing a future leadership equally versed in the needs of the Puerto Rican community as well as the developmental rhythms of New York City, Pantoja and her colleagues created ASPIRA to foster the social advancement of Puerto Rican students by formulating programs and sponsoring events that while targeting educational needs, simultaneously sought to cultivate leadership skills, as well as a knowledge and affiliation for Puerto Rican history and culture. Prior to the founding of ASPIRA, several organizations such as the Puerto Rican Scholarship Fund, the Puerto Rican Association for the Encouragement of Higher Education, the Hispanic Young Adult Association (HYAA) (later known as the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs [PRACA]) and the Puerto Rican Youth Bureau had attended in some capacity to the higher education needs of Puerto Rican students. What set ASPIRA apart was its desire not only to encourage university attendance, but more importantly to cultivate a community leadership that would use their university education and training for the resolution of communal problems.

At the heart of their initial efforts were the high school clubs and the Youth Leadership Development Program. Representing the constitutive foundation of ASPIRA’s work among the Puerto Rican student population, the system of high school and home clubs was the primary vehicle through which ASPIRA’s programs and initiatives were administered and the training ground for future community leaders. Structured to encourage independence and selfmotivation, the clubs, although often sponsored by a teacher at each school, relied heavily on the organizational acumen of the student participants and maintained the expectation that they would take a proactive lead in club matters. Indeed, the first club to be organized at Prospect Heights High School by Migdalia de Jesús in 1961 came into existence almost independently of the ASPIRA adult leadership and largely prefigured the creation of any rules and regulations for the formation of the clubs themselves, inadvertently creating a template for them. Within a year of ASPIRA’s founding, five clubs had already been formed across the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, with seventy-five members (called “Aspirantes”) total, and their number only continued to rise as the demand for ASPIRA’s services increased. By the 1963-1964 academic year, clubs could be found at high schools such as Taft and Morris in the Bronx, Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and Bushwick, Dewitt Clinton and Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. Eventually, the clubs would assert their independence further by constituting the ASPIRA Clubs Federation (ACF) which served not only to organize their efforts and to conduct city-wide activities, but also to consolidate their power and influence the governing bodies of ASPIRA; indeed, the ACF had three representatives on the Board of Directors.

Central to ASPIRA’s programming mission, the Youth Leadership Development Program was structured to develop community leadership vis-à-vis the educational counseling and peer-group work being performed in the high school and home clubs, and to be at the frontlines of attempts to curb the severe dropout rate amongst Puerto Rican youth. Serving to reinforce the possibility of Puerto Rican student success, the Youth Leadership Development Program provided leadership training, academic services, cultural enrichment activities, creative workshops, career guidance and public policy training, as well as coordinating annual trips to Puerto Rico. This program would continue to be a central component of ASPIRA’s work with the student community throughout its various permutations, with its methodologies being adopted by the subsequent affiliates that would comprise the organization in the years after the formulation and founding of the New York office.

Guiding these efforts was what came to be called the “ASPIRA Process” which was made up of three components: Awareness, Analysis and Action. The first component indicating the process of becoming aware of one’s cultural background and history, the second the process of finding out about oneself and the world through critical thinking and the third as the process of putting the knowledge and skills one has acquired to use for the benefit of self and others. These principles, conceptualized early in the existence of ASPIRA, would permeate the work of the organization throughout its history and see its application in the various communities in which ASPIRA would perform its work.

In 1965, ASPIRA decided to break with the Puerto Rican Forum, with whom it had been affiliated since its inception, citing differences in mission as well as the need for independent growth. By the time of its departure from the Forum, ASPIRA was a solid institution with much promise and a proven track record in the schools and in fundraising. In August of 1966, Antonia Pantoja resigned as ASPIRA’s first Executive Director; she was succeeded by Frank Negrón, the former director of the Bronx Center.

By 1968, ASPIRA had commissioned two studies, funded by the Carnegie Corporation, which sought to determine the shifting population patterns and movements of Puerto Ricans, leading to the discovery that among the 1,500,000 living stateside, significant pockets could be found in Chicago, Philadelphia, Northern New Jersey and Boston. This discovery led to the expansion of ASPIRA and the establishment of affiliates in the majority of these cities by September of 1969; a location in San Juan, PR would be added in 1970 when Antonia Pantoja’s organization Adelante Boricuas: Acción Social, Inc. joined the fold as an ASPIRA affiliate. Simultaneously, ASPIRA received a development grant from the Ford Foundation in order to explore the possibility of establishing an ASPIRA of America office to administer all of the affiliates, including the original New York office. Although this new administrative entity would initially be located in New York, its eventual move to Washington D.C. would further confirm the shift of power and focus from the original New York office (which was now christened “ASPIRA of New York, Inc.”), and New York as the epicenter of Puerto Rican activity, to a national office that sought to maintain a broader perspective and agenda on the Puerto Rican Diaspora and the needs of its communities. That same year, ASPIRA held a conference titled “The Special Education Needs of Urban Puerto Rican Youth,” which brought together Puerto Ricans from Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, Rochester, New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as Chicano scholars, to discuss the issue of the precarious educational positioning of the Puerto Rican student.

Entering its second decade, ASPIRA continued to face a grim educational picture. Although by the end of the 1971-1972 academic year ASPIRA had 36 clubs and 2,800 members borough wide, the Puerto Rican high school dropout rate still remained high. Starting in the fall of 1971, ASPIRA attempted to get to the heart of this phenomenon by experimenting with its own school and pedagogical approach. The CREO (Creating Resources for Educational Opportunity) Program was an initiative funded by a two-year grant from the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Educational Opportunity and was comprised of an initial pilot group of Puerto Rican juniors from Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem who all shared the characteristics of low attendance and poor scores on standardized reading and achievement tests that made them drop-out risks. Using an intensely personal approach towards academic counseling that involved parents and teachers in the negotiation of family and school related problems, the CREO School attempted to combat the depersonalization and inattentiveness that normally alienated and drove away this student population. But what was central to the curriculum at the CREO School, and what portended one of ASPIRA’s main contributions to the rethinking of education for Puerto Ricans and Latinos in New York City, was a bilingual structure that gave equal weight and importance to both Spanish and English. This bilingual approach to education stood in contradistinction to the emphasis on English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction and English immersion techniques at the time prevalent in the New York City public school system.

With the success of the CREO Program, ASPIRA of New York, Inc., with the support of ASPIRA of America and the representation of the newly created Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDF), filed a suit against the New York City Board of Education on September 20, 1972 which led to the eventual signing of the ASPIRA Consent Decree on August 29, 1974 establishing the right of Puerto Rican/Latino students with limited English proficiency to receive bilingual education. Motivated by the continuing desire to better the educational conditions of their Puerto Rican/Latino constituency, ASPIRA brought the suit against the Board of Education after years of advocacy work in the schools and after being emboldened by the proven success of the CREO Program. Evidence suggests that discussions regarding bringing a suit against the Board of Education began as early as January of 1970 when María Santiago de Mercado, then Director of the Scholarship and Loan Center, produced a memorandum outlining some of the major issues involved and inviting stakeholders to a meeting with one of a number of legal groups spearheading the organization of the suit at the ASPIRA Manhattan Center.

Although intimately involved with the process of organizing the suit and ultimately becoming the representative body bringing it against the Board of Education in court, ASPIRA of New York, Inc. had the support of a coalition of community groups and organizations that also were engaged in this debate and committed to negotiating a radical change in the Board of Education’s pedagogical approach to immigrant and minority students. Rather than subject these students to a learning model based on English as a Second Language, ASPIRA and these other stakeholders were interested in applying a concurrent learning model that, much like the CREO Program, emphasized bilingual education allowing for the retention of native languages while at the same time acquiring needed English language skills; thus increasing the chances for the maintenance of cultural knowledge and easing the transition into life in the United States.

Although faced with fiscal challenges throughout the 1970s, ASPIRA nevertheless persevered and, even while advocating for Puerto Rican and Latino students in the courts, continued to expand and innovate its programs and services. Besides the two year CREO Program which begun in 1971, this period also saw the inauguration of the Parent Training Institute, the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Research, the Adult Work/Study Miniversity and the Parent/Student Guidance Center. All of which sought to expand the sphere of community participation in and awareness of ASPIRA’s efforts to encourage students to focus academically and attend college and graduate school. This work was made difficult by the increasing cuts in financial aid at the state and federal level, the end of tuition free universities in New York City and what some articulated as a growing disinterest in promoting educational opportunities for poor and urban youth. After the steady growth in the number of Aspirantes going on to college in the years immediately following the opening of ASPIRA, the 1970s would demonstrate a definite fluctuation, if not decrease, in the amount of students able to pursue higher education due to the fact that many of them were faced with fewer resources and/or the need to contribute financially to their households. With a growing recession and eventual veering away from a national focus on remedying the problems of minorities and the urban poor, ASPIRA’s programs and efforts, whose primary work was to counteract the detrimental effects of these problems on Puerto Rican youth, were bound to suffer. These conditions and shifts in social and economic policy would unfortunately follow ASPIRA into the next decade and pose challenges to the continuation and expansion of its work.

Throughout the following decade, the number of ASPIRA clubs in the high schools would drop significantly in comparison with the numbers seen in the period from 1961 until 1968, reflective of a shift in social and political climates that was already in evidence during the 1970s. This did not totally hinder ASPIRA’s work in the community and/or the number of programs it was to offer. By participating in an assortment of partnerships with city, state and federal governments and corporations, they continued to offer new opportunities for Aspirantes and to diversify their in-house capacities. By the 1980-1981 academic year, they had in place the Youth Employment Training Program and the Mayor’s Scholarship Program, that latter of which was an outreach program supplying financial aid counseling, assistance and information to students as well as applications to the Mayor’s Scholarship itself; providing city donated grants to undergraduate residents of specific locations within New York. Five years later, shortly after collaborations were struck with the Puerto Rican/Latino Roundtable, the Coca-Cola Hispanic Education Fund, Advocates for Children and the Educational Priorities Panel, ASPIRA, through funding from the New York Community Trust, opened the Office for Research and Advocacy. Headed by Luis O. Reyes, this division focused on advocacy work and policy on such issues as dropout prevention and bilingual education, and was expected to produce regular reports on related topics, as well as to establish a resource library. Other programs that commenced during this time period included Project A.W.A.R.E. (ASPIRA to Win through Academic Retention), the CCNY/ASPIRA Student Support Services Program, the Encuentro/Encounter Program, High HOPES (Hispanic Opportunities through Parent Educational Support), the Talent Search Program, the Consolidated Youth Program and the Health Careers Program. In 1983, ASPIRA also commissioned a report titled “Minority Secondary Education in New York State and New York City,” written by Ronald Calitri that detailed the state of public secondary education in New York City. Among this report’s findings was included the lack of evident complicity on the part of the New York City Board of Education with the 1974 Consent Decree and the related and ongoing drastically rising rate of Puerto Rican/Latino high school drop outs.

During the 1990s, ASPIRA would continue to pursue the expansion of its services while facing difficult financial times. Starting in the late 1980s, the organization underwent a period of negotiated debt with the national office, the New York City Department of Employment and a number of independent organizations, which had ASPIRA going to extreme fiscal measures to guarantee its ongoing existence. This —in combination with continued cuts in government funding— precipitated the severe paring down of services and programs, the closing of satellite offices and the firing of staff. In many instances, programs that had required numerous personnel to operate were reduced to two person staffs. This restructuring, which occurred in different capacities throughout the decade, also affected the organization of the clubs, the ASPIRA Clubs Federation and its adjoining City Council. Furthermore, sudden changes at higher levels in the administration and the Board of Directors in the early 1990s threatened not only internal stability, but the organization’s capacity for fundraising and, in turn, fiscal stability.

To its credit, ASPIRA was able to maintain the operation of many of its programs during much of this time and, in fact, proceeded to win additional grants from the city government to provide more services to its target constituency. In 1993, for example, they received a Beacon Community School grant to supply after school programs at a Beacon school. Called Project B.E.A.M. (Building Educational Aspirations and Multiculturalism), this program served the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx and was based at I.S. 39. It sought to provide leadership development, tutorial assistance, family and academic counseling, parent involvement training, cultural programs and family support services, among other things, to the community after school and on evenings and weekends, all year round. Subsequently, they received a second grant and implemented a similar program called Project BEAM TOO at J.H.S. 22 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In addition, they inaugurated the Amoco Scholarship Program, AIDS Education Peer Leadership Project, Project ADEPT (Aspire to Develop Excellence and Professional Techniques) and Project Safe and Sound (Safe and Sound: A Public Service and Safety Corps for New York City), a collaborative program funded under the federal AmeriCorps initiative that worked towards lessening the violence in the South Bronx through education campaigns and community service projects. In 1994 ASPIRA also managed to help organize ¡Muévete!: The Boricua Youth Conference in conjunction with the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs (PRACA) and the National Latinas Caucus.

Today, ASPIRA of New York, Inc. continues to offer leadership development programs, after school programs and an assortment of in-school initiatives, as well as adhering to the sponsorship of high school and middle school clubs for the administration of their programs and the dissemination of their philosophy, throughout New York City. Currently located in Manhattan, the agency remains a vibrant partner in the struggle against Latino high school dropout rates and in the cultivation of leadership skills among Puerto Rican and Latino youth, and, in conjunction with the ASPIRA Association, Inc. and the other affiliates throughout the East Coast and Illinois, continues to adhere to the principles of the ASPIRA Process and the goals first laid out by Antonia Pantoja and her colleagues more than forty years ago.

Sources / Fuentes:

The Antonia Pantoja Papers, Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY

Interviews with Antonia Pantoja, 1988

Pantoja, Antonia, Memoir of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja, Arte Publico Press: Houston, Texas, 2002

Santiago Santiago, Isaura, A Community’s Struggle for Equal Education Opportunity: ASPIRA v. Bd. of Ed., Princeton, N. J. : Office for Minority Education, Educational Testing Service, 1978


26.0 Cubic Feet (49 boxes plus videotapes and oversize materials)

Language of Materials


Spanish; Castilian


The Records of ASPIRA of New York, Inc. are an integral resource for the study of early and innovative efforts to aid and increase the educational attainment of Puerto Rican and Latino youth in New York City. The collection consists of correspondence, memoranda, minutes, photographs, flyers, clippings, proposals, reports, speeches, videotapes, slides and financial statements.


The collection is divided into the following series:

I. Board of Directors

II. Administrative

III. Programs

IV. Reports

V. Financial

VI. Subject Files

VII. Organizations

VIII. Proposals

IX. Writings and Publications

X. Audio-Visual

Other Finding Aids

English / Spanish bilingual finding aid available, see External Documents.

Records of ASPIRA of New York, Inc.
Mario H. Ramírez with the assistance of Melisa Panchano and Silvia Rodríguez.
August 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

  • June 2011: Revisions made.

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.