Antonia Pantoja transformed an early child¬ hood experience with labor struggles into a lifetime of service to poor and uneducated Puerto Ricans.Born in Puerto Rico in Puerta de Tierra, San Juan, Pantoja lived in the barrio with her grandparents.
Her grandfather was a cigar maker and a union organizer at the America Tobacco Company. His commitment to the fight for the workers’ rights affected her, and she has spent her life dedicated to the cause of the empowerment of Puerto Ricans.
In the early 1940s, Pantoja graduated from the University of Puerto Rico and took a job as a teacher. The pay was low, and she decided to move to the U.S. mainland, where she settled in Brooklyn, New York. Since she could not find work as a teacher, she took a job in a lamp factory.
She was soon helping the workers, most of whom were also Puerto Rican, organ¬ ize into a union.In 1952, Pantoja earned her bachelor’s degree in presocial work from Hunter College. She enrolled at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, where, in 1954, she earned her master’s degree.
At Columbia, she helped form a group that volunteered to clean up Puerto Rican neighborhoods and assist resi¬ dents to register to vote.In 1953, Pantoja and some of her student friends formed the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs (P.R.A.C.A.), which provided services and civic leadership training to the Puerto Rican community.
In 1958, Pantoja and a group of professionals organized the Puerto Rican Forum, Inc., an agency designed to promote business and career devel¬ opment. The Forum, in turn, led to the cre¬ ation of Pantoja’s dream, the Aspira Club of New York. The club’s purpose is to promote higher education for Puerto Ricans.
Pantoja spent much of the 1960s working to expand Aspira into the schools of New York City and Puerto Rico.In 1970, while completing work for her doctorate, Pantoja drafted a proposal for a university that would serve Puerto Ricans in the United States. In 1973, the proposal became reality, and Pantoja became the first chancellor of the Universidad Boricua in Washington, D.C.
During the mid-1970s, Pantoja relocated to San Diego, California. There, she took a job as associate professor at the Graduate School of Social Work, at California State University, San Diego.Pantoja returned to Puerto Rico during the 1980s and helped develop Producir, Inc.
The company teaches self-sufficiency and commu¬ nity organization to help create jobs in the local economy.Throughout her long career, Pantoja was the recipient of many honors and awards, and in 1996, she became the first Puerto Rican woman to receive The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest award for civilians. She died of cancer in 2002.