August 30, 2005

Antonia Pantoja: Abriendo Camino (Forging a Path) is the remarkable portrait of a woman who changed the New York City educational system – and the lives of Puerto Ricans throughout the nation. Antonia Pantoja's personal story evokes the experience of generations of Puerto Ricans who migrated to the U.S. in the latter part of the 20th century. But Pantoja was also a prime actor in the civil rights struggles of a turbulent era, and Antonia Pantoja: Abriendo Camino is a long overdue account of the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers of Puerto Rican heritage who fought for basic educational rights in the urban heart of the very country that had forcibly taken over their homeland.

Poverty on the island, the mainland's need for labor, and the siren song of Hollywood images brought nearly a third of Puerto Rico's population to the metropolitan area beginning in the 1940s. By 1960, Puerto Ricans numbered more than 600,000 in New York, with other large communities developing along the East Coast. But what these "immigrant citizens" found in the States was far less Oz than West Side Story – an America divided by racial prejudice and economic inequality, and tettering on the edge of violence.

If Antonia Pantoja: Abriendo Camino is a story of injustice, it also recounts a time of hope and dynamic change. While many Anglo-Americans in the 1950s regarded Puerto Ricans as black – and foreign despite their U.S. citizenship – the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement could hardly be lost on Puerto Ricans. Some of those lessons Antonia Pantoja had already absorbed from her grandfather, a cigar maker in Puerto Rico who was brutally injured during a strike against the American Tobacco Company. By 1960, when Pantoja was a young social worker in New York City – after having been a factory worker and union organizer – she was ready to step forward to demand an equal education for the Puerto Rican children who were entering city schools in record numbers.

Many immigrant parents had accepted low-paid work and poor neighborhoods with implicit faith that America's educational system would give their children better opportunities. But the schools were clearly failing Puerto Rican children. In 1960, the high school dropout rate for Puerto Ricans was an astounding 85%. In 1963, when the Puerto Rican population was soaring, less than 1% of the city's high school diplomas were being awarded to Puerto Rican students. At City College, the "Harvard of the working class" that had been so instrumental in empowering other immigrant groups, Puerto Rican registration was under 3%. Unable – or unwilling – to handle the influx of Spanish-speaking students from the Island, the city's educational system enforced English-only rules and even relegated Puerto Rican students with poor English to classes for the mentally retarded.

Antonia Pantoja had been a university graduate and school teacher in Puerto Rico. In the U.S., she had put herself through school, earning advanced degrees from Hunter College and Columbia University. She received her PhD in 1973 from the Union Graduate School in Ohio. In lieu of a dissertation, she created Universidad Boricua in Washington, DC as a "demonstration of excellence" requirement for the PhD. But it was her personal and intense focus on education – not to mention the "feistiness" much noted at the time – that captured the ear of the city and ultimately the nation.

Antonia Pantoja’s mission was not to make heartfelt pleas for equal treatment to a New York City educational establishment that had systematically under-funded and under-managed minority schools in favor of white schools. She was for dramatic action that forced the city establishment to deal with the ingrained injustices that afflicted Puerto Rican and other minority schools. She and her allies demanded bilingual education, equal funding for minority schools, and greater community control over the schools. They also wanted greater access to the city university system.

Pantoja's activities led to the founding in 1961 of ASPIRA – which took its name from “aspirer”, from the Spanish for "to aspire" – which has since become one of the nation's leading youth leadership development programs. They also led in turn to the takeover in 1969 of City College, when young Aspirantes successfully demanded Open Admissions, bilingual education, and Puerto Rican studies.

Throughout the turbulent 1960s and '70s, as ASPIRA and the indefatigable Pantoja were leading the fight for equality in the city's fractious "school wars," they were also training a new generation of Puerto Rican activists and leaders. ASPIRA alumni include talents as diverse as Fernando Ferrer, running for Mayor of New York, and actor Jimmy Smits. The skills and commitment of Aspirantes continue to make their presence felt in equal rights struggles throughout the East Coast and beyond.

And both Antonia Pantoja and ASPIRA keep going. Pantoja herself went on to co-found a Graduate School for Community Development and the Multicultural Artists Institute, to foster the careers of minority artists, and a Woman's credit union in San Diego. Even after retiring to her native Puerto Rico, Pantoja launched a community development project in hydroponics agriculture and another credit union. In 1996, she received the nation's highest civilian decoration, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, becoming one of only four Puerto Ricans to be so recognized, and the first Puerto Rican woman.

Exuberant and lyrical, Antonia Pantoja: Abriendo Camino uses the voices and memories of many of the key participants, most especially the philosophical reflections of Pantoja herself, to tell a too little-known civil rights story. Newly unearthed archival footage and home movies capture the times and spirit of America's uniquely immigrant-citizens as they overcame social injustice. Antonia Pantoja's own story – that of a determined woman, who took a seminal stand for civil rights – is all American.

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