Alumna and Presidential Medal of Freedom Honoree Antonia Pantoja Celebrated with Mural in East Harlem

March 18, 2016 @ 10:15 pm

The bustling streets of East Harlem (also known as El Barrio) are host to a large and diverse Latino community in New York City, complete with bodegas, clothing stores, and salsa and hip hop music blasting from cars and apartment windows.

It is not immediately obvious that this historically immigrant neighborhood is host to high unemployment, AIDS, and youth asthma rates, alongside limited affordable housing.

It was this combination of vitality and challenges that made CSSW alumna (MSW ’54) Antonia Pantoja, an educator and activist on behalf of America’s Puerto Rican community, feel so at home here.

A mural honoring Pantoja was erected last November on the outer wall of a housing complex for seniors in East Harlem.

The mural starts with a quotation from Pantoja:

“I am me and my community. All that has come before me and all that will be after me.”

Manny Vega, the Bronx native and Byzantine hip hop artist who designed the mural, wanted to capture Pantoja’s likeness along with her life’s work. Vega and a student apprentice used colored glass and stone to tell the story of Pantoja’s connection to Puerto Rico and New York, and how she worked to educate and empower young Puerto Ricans.

Pantoja, who had trained as a teacher in San Juan, joined the exodus from Puerto Rico to the United States during World War II. Arriving in New York City in 1944, she found a job as a welder in a wartime factory. The process of becoming a Nuyorican (a term for the Puerto Ricans who settled in New York City) soon convinced her that something had to be done to help her fellow Puerto Ricans improve their life prospects. She would spend the next 58 years of her life working to build the political and educational strength of Puerto Rican immigrants to this country, especially in New York City.

Memoir of a Visionary_coverPantoja advocated for the Puerto Rican community through social work, academia, and institution building. She won a scholarship to Hunter College, graduating with a BA in sociology in 1952. Next she enrolled in the community organization program at Columbia’s School of Social Work, then called the New York School of Social Work. She wanted to study policy and administration as she felt traditional social work was too focused on the individual and helping people adjust to situations that might be harming them. According to her autobiography, Memoir of a Visionary: Antonia Pantoja, this stance was vehemently opposed by her academic advisor. Despite this friction and instances of racism she felt she’d experienced at Columbia, Pantoja said the community-organizing skills she learned at Columbia would prove vital to her career.

Pantoja went on to found several institutions, including the Puerto Rican Forum, which promoted economic self-sufficiency, and ASPIRA, a nonprofit encouraging positive self-image and bilingual education among Latino youth. Later, she joined the faculty at the School of Social Work at San Diego State University as an associate professor. There she met her future wife, Dr. Wilhelmina Perry. Shortly after, the couple founded the Graduate School for Community Development in San Diego.

Pantoja and Perry eventually left academia to focus more on activism and institution building, splitting their time between California, New York, and Puerto Rico. Health problems led the two to settle permanently in New York. In 2002, eight months after Pantoja celebrated her 80th birthday, she died of cancer—just four months after being diagnosed. Perry recalls that Pantoja kept so busy in her final days “you would never know she was sick.”

Before and after her death, Pantoja received numerous honors for her community development work, including induction into CSSW’s Hall of Fame in 2010.

Fortunately, she was alive and in good health when she received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Clinton in 1996. She is the first-ever Puerto Rican woman to receive this award.

And now a mural of Pantoja brightens the east wall of the Corsi Houses on 116th Street and 1st Avenue. It is a large portrait of her wearing the Medal of Freedom. It also illustrates her life at various stages, between New York and San Juan, her work with ASPIRA and her desire for young people to connect with their heritage.

—Contributed by Eryn Ashleigh Mathewson