It was 1974, and a group of South Bronx residents were looking for someone to fill a vacant seat on the state Assembly. The pick from the community was nearly unanimous: It would be Evelina Antonetty, surely.
But public office was of no interest to the forty-something activist. Instead, she told her supporters to get behind a young man named José Serrano.
Serrano, now the representative of New York’s 16th Congressional District, went on to win that Assembly seat, was later elected to Congress and—influenced by the woman who had helped him years earlier—funneled millions of federal dollars toward rebuilding the South Bronx. He has never forgotten the way Antonetty changed his life.
“When she said it, it was a done deal,” Serrano said. “She was always interested in promoting younger people. She saw something in me.”
An activist, community organizer, and a mother, Evelina Antonetty was, above all, a driving force behind some of the changes that have reshaped the South Bronx.
On July 6th, almost 30 years after a heart attack cut her life short, the woman everyone called ‘Titi’, or ‘Auntie,’ was honored by the community she fought for, with the renaming of Prospect Avenue and 156th Street as “Dra. Evelina Antonetty Way.”
“Everybody called her that, because whenever she saw a need for anything, she tried to help,” said her daughter, Anita. “I’ve had people tell me if it wasn’t for her, they wouldn’t have gotten their start in this country.”
Antonetty, born Evelina Cruz, grew up in the small city of Salinas in the south of Puerto Rico, in the 1920s. She was the oldest of three children, born to a single mother. She came to the U.S. around the age of 10, alone, on a boat trip that took weeks. She arrived at South Street Seaport, where her aunt Vincenta came to meet her.
“The desperation there must have been, to send your child alone on a boat,” Anita Antonetty said. “This was during the depression.”
Growing up in East Harlem during the Depression, Evelina saw firsthand how the tough economic times affected New Yorkers. She worked for Congressman Vito Marcantonio and labor leader Jesús Colón while in her teens, getting her first taste of community activism.
In the early 1940s, Evelina moved to the South Bronx, where she went to work for District 65 of the United Auto Workers, helping prepare people without jobs for the workforce.
“She was a conduit in that position, helping people to get started in the United States,” Anita Antonetty said.
When she settled down with her second husband Donato Antonetty in 1955 on Jackson Ave, she chose to stay home to raise her three children. But she was still Titi to people from the neighborhood who stopped by regularly for help and advice.
When Anita started school in 1962, Evelina joined PS 5’s parents association, where she began the work that later led her to form United Bronx Parents.
Antonetty fought for school issues big and small for her new organization, from the quality of lunches to decentralization, pushing always for increased community involvement.
Perhaps her biggest impact came from her fight for bilingual education. Dr. Vicky Gholson, a former United Bronx Parents board member, says the scale of Antonetty’s work was massive.
“To just say she was a community organizer in the South Bronx is erroneous,” Gholson said. “She was the spirit and the force behind bilingual education in the United States, to put it simply. It would not have happened in the quick form and fashion that it did if it were not for her energy and her organizing.”
Gholson is also Harlem’s first Ph.D. in Communications, an honor she says is due in no small part to Evelina.
She isn’t the only one Antonetty helped inspire to lofty goals. Federico Perez, the director of special projects and events in Rep. Serrano’s office, met Antonetty when he was 27. He was applying to Bronx Community College, but says he was being denied because of discrimination.
So Antonetty stepped in: She pushed him to persist, and pressured the administration to let him in. He was eventually accepted, went on to earn a Masters Degree in Education, taught for 23 years and became a member of the City Council.
“She was my mentor and teacher,” Perez said.
Toward the end of her life, the struggle continued. In 1984, the year of her death, Ronald Reagan was running for his second term. She organized voter registration, inspired people to vote, and worked on Reverend Jesse Jackson’s campaign.
Twenty-seven years after her death, Antonetty’s legacy lives on, through the United Bronx Parents and other community organizations that use her work as a model.
Now it also lives on on a South Bronx street corner, where children looking up at the street sign can ask their parents who she is, and maybe learn a little about the woman called Titi.