In 1922, Antonia Pantoja was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She was raised by her mother and her grandparents. Antonia’s grandfather was a laborer and union organizer. Antonia developed severe asthma at a young age, a medical condition that would shape her entire life.
Antonia’s family struggled financially. When Antonia was seven, a huge hurricane hit Puerto Rico and destroyed large portions of the island. Five years later, the Great Depression caused the island’s economy to further worsen.
Antonia was very lucky to attend school. Many children in Puerto Rico had to work to help support their families. When Antonia graduated from eighth grade, her grandparents wanted her to work too. With the help of an uncle, she convinced her grandparents to allow her to go to high school. Many of Antonia’s classmates looked down on her because she walked to school and had holes in her shoes. But Antonia was happy to be learning. And, after school, she worked.
After graduation, Antonia moved in with her mother, who was now married. Antonia’s stepfather rarely worked, so she and her mother were responsible for supporting the family. Together, they saved enough money for Antonia to attend college.
Following her graduation, Antonia took a job teaching in a one-room school in a remote rural community. She commuted by horseback and lived at the school Sunday to Friday. On the weekends, she returned home. Although Antonia loved her students, she was increasingly frustrated. She and her mother fought about why Antonia was not married and never dated. Antonia resented that she was expected to financially support her mother and stepfather.
In 1944, Antonia migrated to New York City. Antonia was part of a major migration. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, the population of Puerto Ricans living in the contiguous 48 states grew from 69,000 to 887,000. The majority of the migrants settled in New York City.
Despite the fact that Puerto Ricans are American citizens, they faced severe racism in the United States. Antonia first took a ship from Puerto Rico to Louisiana. The train she traveled on from Louisiana to New York was segregated. Antonia had never experienced anything like that before. She quickly understood that even though she was an American, she was not necessarily welcome in America. Life in New York City was not what she had imagined. People called her names on the street. And most jobs—including teaching jobs—were not open to her.
Antonia shared an apartment with a high school friend and worked in a factory where she earned double her teaching salary in Puerto Rico. Inspired by her grandfather, Antonia organized a union at her work and helped negotiate for better working conditions.
Antonia soon joined with other young politically active people to form the Hispanic Young Adults Association (HYAA). HYAA was interested in understanding why Puerto Ricans lacked access to education, health care, and stable incomes in New York City. They used their research to create community outreach initiatives that could address the inequities around them. Eventually, the group was renamed the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs (PRACA). Antonia supported this change because she wanted to acknowledge the unique experience of Puerto Ricans in New York.
While helping to manage this advocacy group, Antonia continued her education. In 1954, she graduated from Columbia University with a master’s degree in social work.
I started to get ideas as to the rights of people . . . the rights of people to fight for the problems that affect them.
Throughout the 1950s, Antonia developed a special interest in educational equity. She wondered why the dropout rate for Puerto Rican high school students was so high. After interviewing high school students, she learned about the unfair treatment Puerto Rican students faced. They were ridiculed for speaking Spanish and struggled in English-only classrooms. They sometimes felt ashamed to be Puerto Rican and were scared of being targeted by both gangs and the police.
Antonia determined that Puerto Rican teenagers needed a support system from within their own community. In 1961, she founded ASPIRA, an organization that takes its name from the Spanish word for “aspire.” ASPIRA offered students tutoring, Puerto Rican history and culture classes, and leadership training. It empowered students and encouraged them to advocate for change.
Some education activists argued that more experienced organizations were more qualified to do the work of ASPIRA. But Antonia disagreed. She thought grassroots organizations were critical to bring about lasting change. Puerto Rican students needed to see leaders who looked like them. Eventually, ASPIRA grew to have a national presence. In 1966, Antonia stepped down from leading ASPIRA to take on new work, including a teaching role at Columbia University.
Leaders in the Democratic Party encouraged Antonia to run for office. She refused because she enjoyed being a grassroots organizer and valued her privacy. Antonia had been hiding a particular secret for most of her adult life: she was a lesbian. She had been in relationships with women, but never publicly. She worried that a public campaign could result in a painful and unwelcome outing.
Antonia was busy with other pursuits as well. She contributed to New York City’s desegregation efforts. She taught college courses. She established the Puerto Rican Research and Resource Center in Washington, D.C. And she developed a vision for a bilingual university in New York City that resulted in the opening of Boricua College in 1974.
Antonia also worked with ASPIRA’s leadership and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense fund to sue the New York City Board of Education. Their complaint was that the Board of Education’s refusal to offer education options denied Puerto Rican students access to an equal education. In 1974, the court ruled that this complaint was valid. New York City had to offer bilingual education. It was a huge achievement that left a lasting impact on the school system.
Through all of this, Antonia struggled with asthma. She returned to Puerto Rico for nearly two years to rest, but never stopped working. Eventually, she moved to California where the climate helped her breathing condition.
While teaching at San Diego State University, Antonia met Wilhelmina “Mina” Perry. Mina was a former New Yorker and professor who cared deeply about racial equality. Antonia and Mina quickly became partners in work, pursuing advocacy projects together, and in life. While they kept their relationship a secret, they were deeply in love.
In 1984, Antonia and Mina retired to Puerto Rico. But their retirement was not restful. Together, they started an economic development project, an early education program, and a college readiness program. In 1996, Antonia became the first Puerto Rican woman to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 1999, Antonia and Mina moved back to New York City. Antonia immediately began to organize. She started an ASPIRA alumni association and hosted a symposium to promote bilingual and cultural education.
Antonia was still working when she died of cancer in 2002. ASPIRA continues to be an important advocate for Puerto Rican youth to this day.
asthma: A medical condition that makes it difficult for a person to breathe.
bilingual: Speaking two languages.
Boricua: A person born in Puerto Rico or descended from someone born in Puerto Rico.
grassroots organization: An organization that uses collective action by local residents to make change.
migration: Movement from one place to another within the same country.
Puerto Rico: An island in the Caribbean that is a commonwealth of the United States.
How do you think Antonia’s life in Puerto Rico shaped her later work as an activist and grassroots organizer?
What role did education play in Antonia’s life—both as a student and as an activist?
Why did Antonia believe in grassroots organizations? What was significant about her approach to leading PRACA and ASPIRA?
What was ASPIRA, and why is it important in the history of education in New York City and beyond?
Antonia often faced criticism for creating organizations that specifically focused on Puerto Ricans. What do you think of this debate?
Why didn’t Antonia pursue a career in politics? What do you think about her decision?