One of contemporary America’s first indications of the emergence of Latinos as a significant segment of U.S. society came with the large-scale migration of Puerto Ricans to many of the nation’s northeastern cities, and especially to New York City, following World War II. Seeking employment and educational opportunities, more than a million Puerto Ricans found their way north to the continental United States during the war and subsequent years. With this migration came the need for new community leadership and institutions to bridge cultural, linguistic, and material divides that separated the growing numbers of Puerto Rican migrants (who had been U.S. citizens since 1917) from mainstream U.S. society.
Antonia Pantoja emerged during the 1960s as a leading figure in establishing the Puerto Rican community’s place in regional and national policy-making. Pantoja was born in 1921 in Puerta de Tierra, a slum of the Old San Juan City in Puerto Rico, and raised in Barrio Obrero, a worker housing community located on the outskirts of the island’s capital city. She was initially introduced to progressive politics through the work of her grandfather, a union leader employed at the American Tobacco Company. But Pantoja’s real politicization came after she migrated to New York City to pursue her interest in education and the larger world beyond Puerto Rico.
Working odd jobs and experimenting with New York’s bohemian culture of artists and musicians, community organizers, and intellectuals, Pantoja found direction and purpose in activist scholarship and youth organizing. She quickly emerged as a strong leader, helping to pull together the first generation of Puerto Rican youth activists on the U.S. mainland to expand social and educational opportunities for