"Timing is everything. Chain Reaction was the perfect vehicle to help us reflect on the challenges we face as individuals, as a college, as a university, as a city, and as a nation. It also encouraged all of us to find a niche from which to start a chain reaction to improve the quality of life around us and create a ripple effect throughout the world. Furthermore, I predict that Chain Reaction’s influence will continue to be felt here and elsewhere in ways we’ve yet to envision."
President Félix V. Matos-Rodríguez
Hostos Community College,
City University of New York
THE ANTONIA PANTOJA PROJECT
Hostos Community College/Fall 2011
The play opens with Hector Santillana, a Puerto Rican raised in the Bronx, who is a visiting lecturer at the University of Santo Domingo. Mr. Santillana, also an Aspirante, is a successful aeronautical engineer in the United States. As he is leaving the university, a woman named Mercedes approaches him. She tells him that his lecture reminded her of her granddaughter, Yojaira, who now lives in the Bronx. Mercedes explains to Hector that Yojaira is struggling in college. Hector--being an Aspirante, who took an oath as a young man to give back to the community that helped him succeed--volunteers to advise Yojaira.
The play then turns into a lecture given by Puerto Rican community organizer and educator, Dr. Antonia Pantoja. The audience attending the play becomes her audience at the lecture. During her talk, Pantoja, who is in her seventies, engages the audience with her ideas on community organizing, education and politics. From here on, the lecture drives the play.
Interspersed throughout the lecture are flashback scenes about Pantoja’s life, and present-day scenes about Yojaira’s life. The flashback scenes include Pantoja’s move from Puerto Rico to New York in the early-1940s, life as a new immigrant in the City, living in Greenwich Village in the 1950’s, becoming a community organizer, and the creation of U.S.-based Puerto Rican organizations such as the Hispanic Young Adult Association, the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs, and what she considered her biggest achievement, ASPIRA. ASPIRA was started for Puerto Rican teenagers who were marginalized in the schools and society of 1960s New York.
Yojaira’s story, in the present, offers insight into the lives of immigrant children today—and how they are both similar to and different from the stories of the past. Yojaira is a student at Hostos Community College, a CUNY school in the Bronx, where she is facing many academic and personal challenges. We learn about the circumstances of her life as she seeks advice from her school counselor, Professor Ramos. But we learn most about her as she develops a close relationship with another Hostos student, named Marco. Both Professor Ramos and Marco encourage Yojaira to become a better a student by taking charge of her academic life, and getting more involved in both the school and her community.
As Yojaira tries to make sense of all this advice, she hears from her grandmother in the Dominican Republic, who tells her of Hector’s offer to meet with her. At first, Yojaira resists the idea. But a series of academic failures and a worsening situation at home lead her to take a first step toward change, and she calls Hector. During their meeting, we learn Hector’s story. He explains to Yojaira that a woman named Antonia Pantoja and ASPIRA changed his life. Back in the early-60’s he was a young Puerto Rican struggling in a New York City public high school. Through ASPIRA, he learned to embrace his heritage by learning his history and getting involved in his community. This gave him the confidence and support to stand up for himself, and work toward his goals.
By the end of the play, the support and inspiration that Yojaira receives from Hector, her counselor, and her close friend lead her to take charge of her life. She overcomes her biggest academic challenge: finally passing the university-wide writing exam that had kept her from taking classes in her major, and that made her feel worthless. She resolves to move out of her mother’s apartment, and begins volunteering at an HIV organization in the Bronx. And she decides to finds out more about the life and work of Antonia Pantoja.
In the final scene, Yojaira becomes aware of the ripple effect—or chain reaction--of “getting involved.” She turns to the audience, and asks them: Do you want to be part of the chain? The play closes with a conversation between the audience and cast about the issues explored in the play.