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[ 34 ]
“New Leaders for New York” [Title of original proposal leading to founding of Aspira]
It is clear from its beginnings, that the vision of Antonia Pantoja, the founder of
Aspira, was not only to create a youth agency and to foster postsecondary education,
but also to create a new leadership for the community. The founding of the agency,
in 1961, also witnessed the beginning of the coming of age for stateside Puerto
Ricans as they changed from a community largely based in New York, to one spread
across the country. The post-World War II period had been difficult for the rapidly
growing community. The conventional view was that Puerto Ricans comprised a
poverty-stricken New York community with little chance for advancement.
These views were reinforced by the media and such popular works as
West Side Story
Down These Mean Streets
, and Oscar Lewis’s study,
La Vida
, a portrait of a Puerto
Rican family at the bottom of the social and economic ladder. It was not that these
and many other books and articles were inaccurate, but that they presented a one-
sided negative view of what was by then the fastest growing ethnic community in
the city. However, this image, as well as the realities of the social and economic
conditions, began to change during this period.
The United States as a whole experienced perhaps the most significant social
and economic changes in the modern era. This was especially true for racial and
ethnic minorities across the country. The elections of John F. Kennedy, followed by
Lyndon B. Johnson, and the emergence of Martin Luther King as a national leader,
all had a profound effect on all groups confronting prejudice, discrimination and lack
of opportunity. The War on Poverty, the Civil Rights movement and the radical
change in attitude as to the role of young people and what they could accomplish,
through such confrontational tactics as civil disobedience, had a direct impact on
the future prospects of all these groups.
Speaking at the Aspira of America Annual dinner (1972). Photographer unknown. The Louis Nuñez Papers. Archives of the Puerto Rican
Diaspora. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY. Reprinted by permission.
[ 35 ]
For the Puerto Rican community, the founding of Aspira, its first non-profit
professionally staffed leadership development and educational institution, played
a major role in changing the attitudes as well as the prospects for the community.
Puerto Ricans had begun migrating to New York since the beginning of the 20th
century; mass migration began at the end of World War II. Puerto Ricans were the
latest of a long line of newcomers to the city who had to overcome similar prejudices
and stereotypes in their quest to become fully participating members of the city.
In her study
From Colonia to Community: The History of the Puerto Rican Community
in New York City, through the Fifties
, Virginia Sánchez Korrol presents a different
picture, describing a much more positive story of the early years of the community.
The history of the migration was similar to that of many other ethnic, racial and
national minorities, who during the 19th and early 20th century had moved to New
York. Initially Puerto Ricans migrating to the states settled overwhelmingly in the
city, but by 1960 they began to spread across the country. The 1960 census reported
that 892,513 Puerto Ricans lived in the United States, of which 72 percent lived in
New York City. By 1970 the total number had grown to 1,391,463 persons, and the
percentage living in the city had declined to 59.2 percent.
To serve the needs of this growing community, the government of Puerto Rico,
in the Forties, had established a Migration Office to assist migrants in the states
with the challenges of assimilation into the mainstream. Until Aspira was founded,
this was the only agency, in the city and across the country, with a mandate to serve
the needs of the community. There was a problem, however, for by the early Sixties
it became evident that the needs of the growing community, especially the second
generation, were not exactly the same as the needs of Puerto Ricans living on the
island or the recent arrivals. Although the Migration Office offered valuable services
in terms of employment and social services, it began to run into problems in its
efforts to guide the development of a community leadership. The emergence of a
small but significant college-educated group of second-generation Puerto Ricans,
who had different ideas as to what was needed to advance the community,
presented a challenge to the Migration Office.
By 1960 this new generation had founded the Hispanic Young Adult
Association, which later became the Puerto Rican Association for Community
Affairs. Also created was the Puerto Rican Hispanic Leadership Forum, which is
now the National Puerto Rican Forum. Dedicated to the betterment of the
community, these voluntary organizations developed projects in such areas as
community organization and political development. A key organizer of these
groups was the charismatic social worker, Antonia Pantoja. In her autobiography,
Memoirs of a Visionary
, she relates the history of the period and her work at the New
York Commission on Intergroup Relations, leading to the establishment of Aspira.
[ 36 ]
The Commission, a city agency, had been established to enable the city government,
recognizing the rapid growth of both the African-American and Puerto Rican
communities, to lessen potential group conflicts among these growing groups
and the many other older and more established groups in the city. Encouraged by
the Commission’s director, Frank Horne, to develop a project that would begin to
affect the future of the growing Puerto Rican community, Ms. Pantoja proposed a
project that would, through leadership training and educational development,
lead to a new leadership for the city and community. This project became the basis
for the establishment of Aspira. The Puerto Rican Hispanic Leadership Forum became
the initial sponsoring organization for Aspira. Its mission of fostering leadership for
the whole community and developing specific projects to foster this goal fit with the
mission of Aspira. Underlying these goals was the premise that if the community was to
progress, individual success had to be translated into group progress.
Based on her background as a teacher, social worker and her experiences in
organizing community groups, as well as an assessment of the almost complete failure
of the public school system to provide an adequate education for the vast majority
of Puerto Ricans students, Pantoja developed a project to deal with this priority
concern. The overriding philosophy guiding the “New Leaders for New York”
project was developmental in approach. Rather then just dealing with the educational
deficits of the youth to be served, the Aspira process would focus not on remedial
programs, not on preventative programs, but on building on the innate strengths
of young people. These included their desire to join together and work towards a
common purpose, as well as their desire to feel pride in their culture and heritage.
They would also be given the opportunity of functioning as a leader.
Aspira in New York
“We wanted an upbeat name, one word to express belief in one’s self. The word Aspira
was finally selected. It was chosen because to aspire is upbeat. We all wished the
meaning would be I will aspire and I will attain. The Spanish command form aspira,
of the verb aspirar was perfect” (
From Memoirs of a Visionary
, Antonia Pantoja).
This vision led to the development of such specific programs as the Aspira Clubs
and Federation, and the Areyto ceremony and annual seminars in Puerto Rico.
[ 37 ]
Other developments included programs such as group and career counseling on
the need to stay in school and pursue postsecondary education, and programs to
connect students with role models, members of the community, who while of similar
backgrounds, and despite many obstacles, had achieved some career success.
Aspira opened in 1961 after receiving grants from five foundations, the Rockefeller
Brothers Fund, The New York foundation, The Field Foundation, the Hofheimer
Foundation and the Taconic Foundation. With its budget of less then $100,000 and
with a staff of seven, it had ambitious goals and modest resources; however, it had
one unique resource: the great leadership of Antonia Pantoja. For the first two years
the agency operated out of a loft on West 72nd street. The first year was devoted to
renovating and the recruitment, orientation and training of the staff as to the Aspira
approach, establishing relations with high schools with high enrollments of Puerto
Rican students, and initial work to recruit young people to the program.
This writer joined Aspira in its second year, February 1963, as its business and
administrative officer. Over the next nine years that I worked for Aspira, the
institution was transformed from a struggling small neighborhood agency--albeit
with truly ambitious goals--to a national institution with affiliates in Chicago,
New York, Newark, Philadelphia and San Juan, a budget of several million dollars
and a staff of one hundred people. It gained a reputation as one of the most effective
and professionally managed Hispanic institutions in the United States. As for many
others working or benefiting from its services, it changed my life.
I was recruited by Antonia Pantoja, who convinced me of the exciting prospects
of becoming part of a movement to create the new leadership for the community.
[ 38 ]
My background was representative of that small group of Puerto Rican New Yorkers,
among whom were Jose Morales, Josephine Perez, Paul Caballero, Josephine Nieves,
Charles Cuevas, Maria Valle, Magdalena Miranda, Yolanda Sanchez, Blanca Cedeño,
Frank Bonilla and John Carro, who had managed to graduate from college in the
Fifties and had gone on to professional careers.
What was different about the Aspira approach was not the fact that a small
number of young Puerto Rican New Yorkers had individually overcome many
obstacles to achieve some academic and career success, but that a group process
involving hundreds of young people, not a mere handful, began to occur.
When approached to work for Aspira I was ready for a challenge, having majored
in business administration at City College of New York, and essentially working in
administrative positions primarily in the export field. I met Ms. Pantoja while in
college, in the early fifties, when I became a member of the Hispanic Young Adult
Association (HYAA). This organization provided me with an opportunity to express
my growing interest in serving the community. The invitation to work at Aspira came
at the right moment. I felt my business career was stagnant, and this opportunity
offered me the chance to combine my interest and concerns about the future of the
community into a professional, life-changing opportunity.
Initially, Ms. Pantoja gave me two major assignments, the first being to create
an administrative and accounting system with adequate fiscal controls to enable
the agency to be audited and to file with the Internal Revenue Service. Second,
she wanted me to implement her decision to purchase a small building on lower
Fifth Avenue. In her opinion the purchase of the building was essential in creating
an atmosphere where Aspira was viewed as a permanent entity, not a temporary
agency renting loft space. These tasks were accomplished by the end of 1963.
The importance of maintaining adequate administrative and financial controls for a
nonprofit organization cannot be over- emphasized. Over the years, I have found that
one of the primary reason nonprofits get into trouble is inadequate financial records
and controls. It soon became evident that my primary duties would need to change
from administrative to development (fundraising). It was apparent that there was a
need to expand the program and broaden the base of support, and I found myself
spending most of my efforts in this area.
Although Ms. Pantoja had both a theoretical grasp of and a genuine commitment
to fundraising, and had been instrumental in securing the initial funding, her growing
responsibilities as both the chief program developer and implementer did not give
her sufficient time to implement a consistent funding strategy. My task was to
follow up and implement her initial fund raising plans. We immediately instituted
a process of identifying and reaching out to additional foundations for support,
started the process of creating a corporate funding base and launched several
community fund-raisers. We began with a radio marathon, a fund-raising event and
individual solicitations. With the support of Dr. Franciso Trilla, at that time the
Chair of the Board and a general practitioner with a commitment to the community,
we were able to secure the support of Governor Luis Muñoz Marín, and get a direct
grant from the government of Puerto Rico. By 1964, I may well have become the first
professional fund-raiser in the community.
Aspira through 1965 remained essentially privately funded; however, with the
launching of the federal War on Poverty and the involvement of the New York City
government, through its creation of a Council against Poverty, substantial funds
became available to support nonprofit agencies with a mission to serve the poor.
[ 39 ]
Ms. Pantoja, aside from her leadership of Aspira, had in these years become a
citywide leader in the struggle of the community to gain a fair share of the funding
becoming available, as a result of the significant increase in federal support.
Through the Federal Office of Economic Opportunity and the New York Council
against Poverty, the other agency designated to administer the program, substantial
funds became available to support the programs of Aspira. Initially, in an effort to
coordinate community and neighborhood programs, all seeking support from the
city, the Puerto Rican Hispanic Leadership Forum received a planning grant,
through the efforts of Ms. Pantoja, from the city government in 1964. The grant
was intended to help develop a citywide strategy in the Puerto Rican community
to deal with the overriding issue of extreme poverty.
Ms. Pantoja, in 1964, took a one-year leave of absence from Aspira to head
up the planning group, and Blanca Cedeño, a board member, was appointed
acting director during this period. I was also granted a half-time leave of
absence to head up the administrative support for the planning task force.
The job necessitated arranging numerous community meetings, recruiting
numerous consultants and the preparation of a final report. The findings
and recommendations of the report documented the dire state in which
most Puerto Ricans lived in the city, but also revealed that in less than one
generation, a new leadership had emerged capable of analyzing and proposing
realistic solutions for the problems of the community.
[ 40 ]
Although the recommendations of the report were not fully accepted, the Council
against Poverty, recognizing the lead role of Aspira in dealing with youth and their
educational future, made a grant to Aspira that quadrupled its program and budget
and enabled it to open additional centers in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx;
the staff grew to over 50. I returned to full-time status at Aspira as Assistant Director
with additional responsibility for establishing the new centers, recruiting and training
the additional staff and instituting a more sophisticated program reporting system.
Throughout 1965 and 1966, the agency was involved in the process of transforming
a local agency to a citywide institution with an increasing relationship to the City’s
administration, the Board of Education and other community groups. During this
period, many of the agencies developed at the local level faced major program and
administrative problems in implementing their programs. Although we at Aspira
encountered many similar problems, the fact that we had been in existence prior to
the massive influx of new government funding for community groups, and the fact
that we had in place a proven organizational structure and core staff for managing
citywide programs, made the expansion much easier.
We were also able to attract, as a citywide organization already gaining a reputation
as a professional organization, many talented recent college graduates. Our growing
reputation for excellence in the delivery of programs was a double-edged sword.
We were accused of being an elitist organization. The fact that almost our entire
professional staff was composed of young college graduates gave us an advantage in
rapidly training and orienting them to the Aspira philosophy and work ethic.
As we moved more aggressively to seek private and public funds, it became
apparent that the unique organizational structure under which Aspira operated, as
an agency of The Puerto Rican Hispanic Leadership Forum, was becoming a source
of confusion and a possible obstacle to our growth. Aspira had no legal life as an
agency of the Puerto Rican Forum. The Forum’s primary mission was to provide an
organizational structure for the emerging leadership in the community, not just its
youth; it also saw its mission to act as an incubator for developing other programs
such as Aspira. The continued expansion and growth of Aspira was seriously
distorting the framework of the Forum and its other programs goals. Ms. Pantoja
and I began to see the necessity of separating the organizations. We also accepted
the responsibility to ensure that the Forum secure additional funding to enable it
to move forward on its next major goal, the establishment of a community-based
economic development project. In 1966 we were able to secure funding from the
Ford Foundation and a commercial bank, Manufacturers Hanover Bank, now part of
JP Morgan Chase Bank, to establish the Forum as the first economic development
institution serving the growing small business community. Aspira emerged as an
independent agency with its own nonprofit status and Board of Directors.
[ 41 ]
In 1966, we were all disheartened to learn that Antonia Pantoja had decided to
resign to accept a position as an assistant professor at the Columbia University School
of Social Work. Ms. Pantoja had been the founder, the initial fund-raiser and the
developer of the Aspira program. During this period her reputation as one of the most
farsighted and ethical leaders in the community, and in the city as a whole, had grown.
To succeed her, the Board of Directors selected Frank Negron, the director of the
Brooklyn Center as its new Executive Director; I was appointed Associate Director.
The late 1960s marked a dramatic change in the attitude of young people,
both nationally and locally. No longer did they accept traditional authority figures to
lead them. I had been appointed a member of the New York City Board of Higher
Education, the governing board for the City University of New York. In a one-
year period, one-third of the college presidents resigned and another third resigned
under pressure, mainly because of their inability to deal with the increasing militancy
and the lack of acceptance of traditional leadership by the students. At Aspira we
encountered similar problems; our focus on Leadership Development and training
of youth leaders to be aggressive and at times confrontational was turned inward.
It became evident that a new style of dealing with youth was required. Several of
our program directors could not deal with this new environment. Within a year,
Frank Negron, having encountered increasing difficulty in dealing with these new
attitudes, resigned. I was selected as the new Executive Director in 1967. In less than
five years, my responsibilities had changed from primarily administrative and fundraising
duties to an overall role as Program Director of training, community and government
relations and with primary responsibility for dealing with the student leadership.
As I assumed the role as executive director, I realized we faced many immediate
challenges. The city was already cutting back on support for organizations such as
Aspira; foundations with their differing funding priorities could not be depended
on to continue to make grants to support ongoing programs on a continuing basis.
‘The Puerto Rican community’ welcomes Gov. Luis A. Ferré to New York (1969). From left: Gilbert Ortiz (Chairman of Aspira), Teodoro
Moscoso (Chairman of Commonwealth Oil Refining Co.—CORCO), Governor Luis A. Ferré, George Moore (Chairman of Citibank)
and Louis Nuñez. Photographer unknown. The Louis Nuñez Papers. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora.
Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY. Reprinted by permission.
[ 42 ]
Their priorities were to support new programs. Much more extensive corporate
funding appeared to be one area of possible significant growth. In this regard,
Ms. Pantoja had left us with a series of contacts that now had to be more directly
involved in providing additional financial support. Prior to her departure,
Ms. Pantoja and I had met with Samuel J. Silberman, then Chief Executive of
Consolidated Cigars Corporation, one of the largest employers in Puerto Rico
at that time. With extensive experience working in Jewish philanthropies,
a commitment to social work education, and a major interest in Puerto Rico,
he agreed to support us and help recruit other corporate leaders to broaden support.
He introduced us to Teodoro Moscoso, who became a key leader in helping us in
expanding our funding base. He had recently resigned as the Administrator of the
federal program “Alliance for Progress,” and at that time was the highest ranking
Hispanic in the federal government. He had previously served as the Administrator
of Fomento, the Economic Development Administration of Puerto Rico,
and was considered the architect of the economic development of Puerto Rico.
Through their increasing involvement and influence, we developed fund-raising
campaigns in both Puerto Rico and the United States.
Antonia Pantoja, although no longer at Aspira, continued her interest in the
organization and the issues of school reform. She was appointed by the Mayor as a
member of a city commission on school reform, chaired by the President of the Ford
Foundation, McGeorge Bundy. The recommendation of the Commission calling for
a complete decentralization of the school administration was accepted by the city
government. It, however, caused a firestorm of opposition by school administrators,
the Teachers Union, local organizations and political leaders, who were satisfied
with the system as it was. This was the period where “maximum community
participation” was a cornerstone of the “War on Poverty.” Aspira, as an institution
calling for new leadership and reform, supported the effort to implement the school
decentralization plan, which was soon characterized as community control.
The fact that our program focused on change gave an opportunity for our youth
leaders to involve themselves in an important issue, the reform of the largest public
school system in the nation, which was failing our community.
With staff support, our youth leaders, the Aspirantes, participated in public
hearings, press conferences and demonstrations. We were criticized for getting too
involved in a controversial public issue. It was our contention that our involvement
was proof that our program to develop leaders who could take public stands was
working. Also, having a major institution in the community take a public position,
gave legitimacy to the efforts to overcome the opposition to school decentralization.
Building a National Institution
By 1968 it was clear than an institution such as Aspira could deliver effective
programs in the fields of education and leadership development, as well as carry
out meaningful advocacy initiatives involving its constituency and staff. Having an
agency in place with its administrative resources: copy machines, telephones and
typewriters, and a staff devoted to pursuing public policy issues, strengthened the
community. Many other community organizations established during this period
had similar advocacy goals, but Aspira was the pioneer.
The growing reputation of Aspira had brought it to the attention of community
groups in other cities with rapidly growing Puerto Rican populations. We received
letters and visits from groups interested in our program in different parts of the
[ 43 ]
country, for instance, from some in Chicago, Illinois, and Newark, New Jersey.
Although there was still much to be done in New York, an exciting prospect
emerged, the expansion of Aspira into a national organization.
There seemed to be possibilities for funding an expansion. Ms. Pantoja, prior to
her departure, introduced me to Mitchell Svirdoff, the administrator of the city’s
Human Resource Administration, who, during this period, resigned to accept the
position as Vice President of the Ford Foundation’s community programs, at that
time, the major philanthropic financial supporter of community organizations in
the nation. Shortly after I assumed my new duties, I approached him about the
possibility of support for Aspira. Mr. Svirdoff pointed out that although he had great
respect for the agency and what it had accomplished, the foundation’s major funding
priorities were to support new and innovative programs capable of being replicated.
He led me to understand that if we could come up with an innovative program for
Aspira, the Ford Foundation would give it serious consideration. We had also been
in contact with Barbara Feinberg, a program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of
New York, who gave us a planning grant to look into the possibility of expanding the
Aspira program nationally.
The Carnegie planning grant enabled us to review the prospects for expansion,
and to determine what cities would provide the most favorable sites for expansion.
In 1968 we began a six-month planning process. We commissioned a study of the
educational conditions confronting Puerto Rican students in cities with rapidly
growing communities in the Northeast and Midwest. We hired a consultant,
Richard Margolis, who focused on seven cities to gather information from Puerto
Rican community leaders, teachers, students and administrators (in Bridgeport, CT;
Chicago, IL; Philadelphia, PA; Newark, Hoboken, Paterson, N.J.; and New York
City). He visited 16 schools in those seven cities and out of those visits, a report
was issued: “The Losers.” The report pointed out the almost complete failure of the
public schools in the cities surveyed to provide an adequate education to Puerto
Rican students. It also highlighted the need for new and effective approaches
for dealing with Puerto Rican students. We believed that the Aspira program
represented one off those new approaches.
We also convened a conference on the status of Puerto Rican education
nationally, and brought together educational and community leaders from the
various communities. We hired Victor Alicea, now President of Boricua College,
who was a young New York-based community organizer who had received a
[ 44 ]
scholarship through Aspira to obtain his social work degree with an emphasis
on community organizing. He was given the assignment of visiting the various
communities around the country, meeting with local leaders and assessing the
feasibility of organizing Aspira affiliates in those communities. These efforts led
to the preparation of a proposal to expand Aspira nationally to be submitted to
the Ford Foundation.
We proposed to reorganize Aspira as a national organization with four affiliates.
The national umbrella organization was to be known as Aspira of America, and
the four affiliates were to include the original one, Aspira of New York, and three
additional ones: Aspira of Illinois, based in Chicago; Aspira of New Jersey, based in
Newark; and Aspira of Pennsylvania, based in Philadelphia. The Ford Foundation
approved a two-year grant, later extended for an additional two years, to support the
expansion. Several months later, another affiliate, Aspira of Puerto Rico, based in
San Juan, was formed. The idea of expanding to Puerto Rico was not an original part
of the national strategy. The organization of Aspira in Puerto Rico came about for a
variety of reasons. Antonia Pantoja had moved back to Puerto Rico and was working
with an education group there that fit the Aspira model. Pantoja approached me
and said the group would easily fit into the national expansion scheme. I wasn’t
enthusiastic about the idea because I was practically overwhelmed with what we
had started already, but Pantoja pushed and suggested that she could secure the
funding from the Ford Foundation for this group. Under that condition, I agreed
that we could go forward with this plan. Thus, Aspira of Puerto Rico was founded
with Sammy Segui as its first director, who in the first year was replaced by Hilda
Maldonado, who served as the Director for the next 38 years. The initial two-year
grant from Ford to Aspira was for more than $600,000. --an extremely large grant
then, as it still is today. It was the largest grant the Ford Foundation had made to a
Hispanic organization up to that time. Ford made it clear that this was seed money
to establish the national organization, and that after the initial two years, we would
be expected to sustain the Aspira organizations without their support. Although we
did not meet this goal in the initial two-year period, we were able to meet it in 1972.
Expansion to a national level presented new challenges. Having been appointed
National Executive Director, I initially retained the directorship of Aspira of New
York, but after a year, it became evident that the responsibilities at the national
office were more than full time. I resigned as Executive Director of Aspira of New
York and moved the national office to separate locations in downtown New York.
It took more than a year to organize the affiliates, create a local board of directors,
hire directors and staff and provide the necessary training. Luis Alvarez, who later
became the National Executive Director, was a member of the New York staff who
transferred to the national office as well, had begun to assume my responsibilities for
fundraising. He was given the additional assignment as a coordinator, troubleshooter
and liaison to the various communities and their leadership. Dr. Gilbert Ortiz,
a practicing obstetrician, who had replaced Dr. Trilla as chair of the board of
directors, also played an invaluable role as a community leader. The community
and I will always be grateful for his volunteer services and the amount of time he
was able to take from his busy practice to travel and meet with community leaders
in the cities where the affiliates were established.
Equally challenging was the necessity of developing a national funding campaign to
sustain the total structure. Teodoro Moscoso helped us secure the support of Luis A.
Ferré, at that time the most prominent industrialist in Puerto Rico.
[ 45 ]
Ferré’s family fortune was made in banking, engineering services and cement
manufacturing, among other industries. In 1969, he became Governor of Puerto
Rico and we organized a major dinner to welcome the governor to New York’s
Puerto Rican community and its corporate community. The success of this activity
enabled us to significantly increase the number of national corporations, either with
operations in Puerto Rico or based in cities with concentrations of Puerto Ricans
that supported Aspira. Although difficult and arduous, by 1972 we were able to raise
sufficient funds in the private sector to sustain our basic operations, without added
Ford Foundation support, in all affiliates.
The establishment of Aspira as a national institution and the involvement of key
Puerto Rican leadership from the island caused a change in attitudes. No longer
could the leadership on the island view the stateside community as a problem that
needed assistance and orientation from the island government and private sector.
It would now have to be recognized as a growing and vibrant community that could
marshal other resources, and that secure government and private sector support to
develop programs would benefit the entire Puerto Rican community both on the
island and the states.
Interestingly, the major issues that arose in this period were not so much
financial, but ones of governance and maintenance of a uniform program.
The organizational model for Aspira and its affiliates was partly based on the
Urban League’s organizational model; a national office tied to its affiliates through
a written agreement. Many of the community leaders recruited to serve on local
boards were products of the social turmoil of the late Sixties. Each local board,
as well as the national board, had two Aspirantes (youth participating in Aspira
program) serving on the board. At the national level, we encountered increasing
difficulty in maintaining a uniform quality of service.
Some have suggested that it might have been better to set up a national office
with branches rather than affiliates reporting to a central office. Given the tenor
of the time, the concept of maximum feasible participation at the local level,
this would have never, in my judgment, been accepted by the local communities.
Also, we encountered difficulties in operating in different areas. For example,
although we had encountered few difficulties in recruiting staff with basic academic
credentials in New York, we encountered considerably more difficulties in other
communities. In Puerto Rico, we found that our program to assist a minority
community to move into a new leadership position required some modification.
[ 46 ]
Puerto Ricans, on the island, were not a minority, and the concept of developing a
new leadership was considered by some, who were already leaders, as threatening.
During the early Seventies, I found myself continually traveling to the affiliates to
resolve problems between the directors and staff, the board and the constituency,
i.e., the
In April 1972, I submitted my resignation to accept the position of Deputy Staff
Director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Reflecting on my nine years with Aspira,
I departed with a feeling of great satisfaction with what had been accomplished during
this period. My mentor, Antonia Pantoja, during the initial years had been a source of
guidance and knowledge to me, and I will always be in her debt. With her departure,
I entered a new phase upon assuming the responsibility for the continued growth of the
organization at the national level. Aspira gave many on the staff a wonderful opportunity
to grow and exercise leadership that no other institution at the time offered.
My perception is that the issues present at my departure are still before the
institution today. These include the relationship between the affiliates and the
national office, the need to deliver a consistent program in different community
environments, and the changing composition of the Aspirantes. It was evident,
even in the early Seventies, that an increasing number of youth being serviced were
not Puerto Rican but other Latino/as. There was clearly a need to modify some
of the cultural orientation of the program, i.e., the development of pride in one’s
Puerto Rican heritage. Finally, Aspira provided an opportunity to build a solid
bridge between Puerto Rican organizations on the mainland and in Puerto Rico.
The Aspira association today, if viewed as one organization, is the largest
Latino organization in the nation, servicing the needs of Puerto Rican and other
Swearing for CUNY’s Board of Higher Education (1967). From left: Louis Nuñez, Frank Keppel and Mayor John Lindsey. Photographer
unknown. The Louis Nuñez Papers. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY.
Reprinted by permission.
[ 47 ]
Latino youth. In addition to the original four affiliates, it has added two additional
ones in Connecticut and Florida. Each of the affiliates has developed in different
directions. Aspira of Puerto Rico is the largest of all the affiliates, and several of the
Aspira affiliates, like Aspira of Illinois, have developed their own charter schools.
The demographic trends noted in the Seventies have come to pass, and the
stateside Puerto Rican community is no longer concentrated in New York City.
Of the nearly four million Puerto Ricans estimated to live in the states, the 2000
census estimated that approximately 23.2 percent resided in New York City. In the
year 2009, it may well be true that the population of stateside Puerto Ricans now
exceeds that of Puerto Ricans on the island. Also, the explosive growth of the Latino
population, which includes Puerto Ricans, now estimated at 15 percentof the total
U.S. population, presents new challenges and opportunities for the work of Aspira.
Aspira’s most important accomplishment was to enable an impoverished
community, with seeming little hope for social and economic advancement at the
beginning of the Sixties, to establish a quality community-controlled professional
organization, which succeeded in developing a cadre of committed and competent
leaders. A significant number of Puerto Rican youth going on to college in this early
period were involved in the Aspira program.
Among the thousands of young people enrolled in Aspira during this period,
I would like to cite several whose careers and service to the community has been
outstanding. Digna Sanchez, an early Aspirante, and an educator and social service
administrator, today is the Assistant Commissioner of New York State Office
of Children and Family Services. Wilfredo Caraballo, who in the late Sixties was
President of the Aspira Club Federation, moved on to become an outstanding
attorney, having served as New Jersey’s Public Advocate and Public Defender as well
as President of the Hispanic National Bar Association. He is currently a professor
of law at Seton Hall University School of Law in New Jersey, as well as a member of
the General Assembly in New Jersey. Perhaps the best-known alumni of Aspira is
Fernando Ferrer, who served as the Vice President of the Aspira Club Federation
also in the late Sixties, and went on to become a New York City Councilman,
the Borough President of the Bronx for 14 years and, most recently, the Democratic
Party candidate for Mayor of New York City. Today Aspira has continued to grow
and face new challenges. What was accomplished in the first decade should be a
continuing source of pride to subsequent generations.