Antonia Pantoja, a social worker by training and social architect by instinct who filled a leadership void in the Puerto Rican immigrant community by building several lasting educational and political institutions, died of cancer May 24 in a New York City hospital. She was 80.
Her best-known contribution is Aspira, a national nonprofit organization that she launched in 1961 to address the poor educational attainment of Puerto Rican and other Latino youths. It won a landmark class-action lawsuit in 1974 that led to bilingual education in New York City schools and has trained several generations of Puerto Rican leaders.
"She really stands out as a unique figure in our history," said Angelo Falcon, senior policy executive at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. "She was the single most important figure in the development of the Puerto Rican community in New York City and nationally."
Aggressive, opinionated and articulate, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1996.
Born out of wedlock, Pantoja was raised by her grandparents in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where childhood experiences awakened her to injustice. In a memoir published last month, she recalled seeing her grandfather, a factory foreman, carried into the house after he had been burned with hot lard by strikebreakers.
She trained as a schoolteacher at the University of Puerto Rico and taught disadvantaged students for two years after graduating in 1942. Although she found teaching satisfying, she felt constrained by social and cultural expectations. As an unmarried woman, she was expected to support her mother, who had married and whose husband was jobless because of a disability. "Suffocating with emotions and responsibilities" and yearning for a freer life, she left Puerto Rico for New York City in 1944.
She found work as a welder on the assembly line of a radio factory, and later as a designer in a company that made lampshades. In the latter job she began to organize workers to improve conditions in the factory.
In 1950 she enrolled in Hunter College, where she earned a bachelor's degree in sociology. In 1954 she obtained a master's in social work from Columbia University. She later would earn a doctorate from Union Graduate School in Ohio.
At Hunter, Pantoja began to connect with other Puerto Rican immigrants in New York--"Nuyoricans," she called them. Most people in the growing number of immigrants were poor, lived in substandard housing and were not well educated. But they lacked the influence to draw policymakers' attention to their needs. In 1953 Pantoja formed the community's first major advocacy group, the Hispanic Young Adult Assn., which later was renamed the Puerto Rican Assn. for Community Affairs. She served as its first president.
In 1958, she helped establish another major group, the National Puerto Rican Forum, which was conceived as a launching pad for institutions to serve the Puerto Rican community.
Its first offspring was Aspira, which was born out of discussions Pantoja had with Puerto Rican high school students in New York. Hearing about their poor self-images and problems with teachers, gangs and the police, Pantoja wanted to find a way to empower them and make them leaders.
Aspira's name was taken from the command form of the Spanish verb for aspire. "We all wished the meaning would be 'I will aspire and I will attain,' " Pantoja wrote in "Memoir of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja," published by Arte Publico Press.
Aspira fostered the development of high school clubs to support students who wanted to attend college. To compete with the gang fascination with initiations, Pantoja conceived a ceremony based on a ritual of the Taino Indians in which students light candles and pledge to pursue educational excellence. Her idea for the group's insignia was the pitirre, a small bird known for its speed and ability to soar to great heights.
Today Aspira is a federation of clubs that serves 50,000 Puerto Rican and other Latino students, providing career and college counseling, financial aid and other support. Its graduates include Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union; Fernando Ferrer, a former Bronx borough president who ran for New York City mayor last year; and the actor Jimmy Smits.
Aspira's advocacy for Spanish-speaking students in New York City resulted in a federal consent decree in 1974 that allowed them to be taught some subjects in Spanish. The settlement affected as many as 65,000 of the city's 1.1 million pupils.
Pantoja directed Aspira from 1961 to 1966, then turned her focus to higher education. She founded the bilingual Universidad Boricua (now Boricua College) and the Puerto Rican Research and Resource Center in Washington in 1970.