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PRLS Department Commemorates Prominent Puerto Rican Mentor and Activist

Contributors shared their gratitude for Antonia Pantoja’s activism. Left to right: Dr. Wilhelmina Perry, filmmaker Lilan Jimenez, young members of Aspira, and Professor Ortiz. PHOTO/ M.A. Rahman

By M.A. Rahman

Published: March 20th, 2019

Brooklyn College’s Puerto Rican and Latino Studies Department showcased their “Antonia Pantoja Presentation” sharing filmmaker Lilian Jimenez’s latest work in tribute to the early Puerto Rican Civil Rights leader Antonia Pantoja courtesy of Assistant Professor Reynaldo Ortiz-Minaya.

Like many other clubs and organized events as of late on campus, a renewed interest into the efforts and legacy of certain lesser known Civil Rights figures has rekindled the interest of contemporary activists, particularly in light of Women’s History Month.

For Ortiz, the near obscure status of Pantoja (September 13, 1922 – May 24, 2002) a Latino Civil Rights figure known for her work in the 1950s as a pro-union organizer, concerned citizen that called for greater education reform for Latino students, and founder of the Latino youth leadership group: Aspira, has been great injustice.

“She was light years ahead in terms of her vision about what the Puerto Rican community needed in order to address their issues and needs, similarly to any ethnic community,” Ortiz said.

A member of “Aspira” in his youth, Ortiz spoke boldly about the leadership and connections he established in the youth organization that had occupied much of his time in front of a crowd of predominantly Latino students from Luis Munoz Marin Middle School, the same middle school he had once attended.

“This was good because you need to learn these issues at a young age because academia is very eurocentric,” Jasmyn Sosayas said.

Sosayas, a junior, Political Science and PRLS double major and President of the BC Dream Team, while observing the presentation, asserted her opinion that the presentation helped counteract a certain historical narrative that favored depicting the U.S a ‘superpower.’

An apparent narrative that Pantoja herself had found particularly problematic as iterated through Jimenez’s documentary “Antonia Pantoja: ¡Presente!” which chronicled the life, struggles, and accomplishments of the film’s namesake.

“I started to see a world I had never been a part of,” Pantoja narrated elaborating on the culture shock she witnessed shortly after immigrated from Puerto Rico to New York City as a montage of early twentieth century facets were displayed: jazz players, the flashes of cameras and lights, dancers, signs of a bustling and perhaps overindulgent city that contrasted with images of herself.

It did not take long for Pantoja to take notice the tremendous fiscal disparities and social neglect that American society had for minorities and eventually take action by organizing a labor union, a highly scandalous issue to engage in for the time.

According to Jimenez, the very idea of producing this film was made by Pantoja herself recalling “she [Pantoja] approached me years ago, and told me since I do film, ‘Why don’t we just video record this, so that there isn’t a written history we’ll make history’ and I just thought that was brilliant!”

In attendance was Dr. Wilhelmina Perry, Pantoja’s partner, who answered queries from young students and Aspira members concerning Pantoja’s goals and struggles, visibly gratified by the interest in Pantoja’s life and achievements.

“She [Pantoja] believed she could work with other people to make things different and make the world a better place, she really represented the best of Puerto Rican culture,” Jimenez concluded in a melancholy tone.

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