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Antonia Pantoja (1922 2002)

Antonia Pantoja was regarded by many in the Puerto Rico Latino community as one of the most important leaders in the United States. She was a charismatic and visionary leader. In 1997 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Clinton during a ceremony at the White House. He praised her work as founder of ASPIRA, an organization that promotes cultural pride, education, leadership training and community service for Latino youth.

Pantoja also helped found the National Puerto Rico Forum and Boricua College. "Peace and respect - these are the values that define the work of Antonia Pantoja" Clinton said in presenting the award. "Her contributions to her people and, therefore, our country are unsurpassed," he added, calling Panjota "the most respected and loved member of the Puerto Rican community." "The impact of her work and her contributions to our community has had reverberations so profound and so broad that for generations to come, she will continue to be an inspiration for young Puerto Ricans," declared then NASW Executive Director Josephine Nieves at a reception following the presentation.

She was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1922 and studied at the University of Puerto Rico. She later moved to New York City where she received a BA in 1952, and MSW in 1958 from Hunters College. In 1973 she received a Ph.D. from Union Graduate School. She was on the faculty of the School of Social Work, San Diego State University and later founded the Graduate School of Community Development in San Diego, an institution that served communities and neighborhoods throughout the nation. She was involved in a variety of community and professional organizations, all working toward the goal of building stronger Puerto Rican and minority communities, including the Ford Foundation, the National Urban Coalition, the Museo del Barrio, the National Association of Social Workers, the Council on Social Work Education, and several other groups and organizations.

One of her many friends and colleague wrote that "she never had a conversation with her when she was not addressing, or worrying about, a social concern or an in justice...her work was constant, her mind never rested, and everything she did was steeped in her values and ethics. As a result, her friends and admirers were in both high places, and in the Barrios, they were politicians, fundraisers, policy gurus, and in the arts. They lived in the contiguous United States, in Puerto Rico, and many parts of the world. Her friends and admirers were of all ages and all ethnic groups."

She was the author of MEMOIR OF A VISIONARY as well as many other publications and speeches. She also received numerous awards and recognitions throughout the years.