A History of the Young Lords Revolution (Part One)
We must think about all the ways we have been brainwashed un-consciously and fight against it. It is a hard struggle, because everything around us is sexist — the books we read, the t.v. shows we watch, the institutions of our society. We will never be free until we have broken all the chains of our “non-conscious ideology” and our colonized mentalities — Darrel Enck-Wanzer
It was 1969. On a Sunday in El Barrio (East Harlem), New York City. Piles of rotting trash had been left to decay in the Puerto Rican community, even though the Sanitation Department mover was just up the block. For weeks, the people of East Harlem swept the streets and bagged the trash themselves, waiting for the city to do its job. The community tried every avenue and gave the city every chance to fulfill its most basic functions.
But the city bureaucracy didn’t respond. Young and old, hospital orderlies, students, and store owners began dragging the trash that had been left rotting in the summer sun into the middle of the street, building barricades four feet high. And to make to sure traffic on Third Ave. wasn’t going to move, they set the trash on fire. When the city finally came, it was the NYPD and the Fire Department, not the Sanitation Department. The community greeted them with a hail of rocks, bottles and trash.
The Young Lords had been involved in organizing the street cleanup for weeks, and now they were leading the offensive. “The streets. I belong to the people! The moon belongs to people! Power to the people!,” the community cried. As the hapless cops tried to drag the smoldering trash away the Young Lords celebrated their first victory, winning the hearts of the Puerto Rican community and the ire of the NYPD.
In her new book, The Young Lords: A Radical History, historian Johanna Fernández offers readers an exhaustive study of the group’s history. Other books on and by the Lords, including Darrel Wanzer-Serrano’s The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation, Iris Morales’s Through the Eyes of Rebel Women: The Young Lords 1969–1976, and Miguel Meléndez’s We Took the Streets. But Prof. Fernández’s new work provides detailed historical research as well as interviews with the Lords and their contemporaries. The Young Lords: A Radical History also places the group in the context of the political and social debates that shaped the era and reveals how so much of their activism centered on the same issues — housing, health, education, and the marginalization of women, the LGBTQ community, and the working poor. All of the issues that we still face today.
The Young Lords were established in Chicago in 1968, led by a street activist named Cha Cha Jiménez, who organized the group to fight local gentrification, police brutality, and racism. Jiménez pioneered the use of the Lords’ signature purple berets — many scholars claim that this was inspired by Sharks colors in West Side Story. But it was only when the New York chapter was founded a year later that the group of activists became known nationally. Not as confrontational as the Black Panther Party, the New York group and its leaders Meléndez, Morales, Juan González, Pablo Guzmán, Felipe Luciano, and Denise Oliver — were probably the most successful media communicators among these different organizations.
The Nuyorican generation was not represented by the Young Lords alone. It operated under three influences: salsa music; the Spanglish poetry of the Nuyorican Poets Café; and political organizations like the Young Lords.
Prominent Lords like Luciano, the group’s early chairman — incorporated all three spheres, while others had varying affiliations with black revolutionary nationalism (Guzmán), the roots of intersectional feminism (Morales), and radical students’ and workers’ movements (González). But central to almost all of their activism was the Nuyorican generation’s dedication to its cultural and political commitments. During their takeover of the First Spanish Methodist Church, when the Young Lords set up a free breakfast program for children and ran a “liberation school,” they invited Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri to perform his signature poem, “Puerto Rican Obituary.” Years later, another Young Lord, Eddie Figueroa, continued this cultural tradition, masterminding a performance space called New Rican Village on Avenue A and Sixth Street in Manhattan, at the site of what later became the gender-bending Pyramid Club during the 1980s East Village art explosion.
Given their influence and wide-ranging activities, perhaps one of the most surprising things about New York’s Young Lords is that for all their permanence in the Nuyorican memory, the core founding group was active for only three years. There were only a few major events that marked their activism: the Garbage Offensive, in which they forced the Sanitation Department to clean the streets in Spanish Harlem; their two takeovers of the neighborhood’s Methodist church; and a couple of brief occupations of Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx.
Despite the tough image they projected, the New York Lords were not involved with street gangs. In fact, they represented the best and brightest of the city’s high school students. González, for example, was a Columbia undergraduate who was active in the SDS strike of 1968. Guzmán, Oliver, and David Pérez attended the State University of New York College at Old Westbury. By May 1970, the Lords were beginning to organize workers in the city, and they eventually broke with the Chicago chapter over its failure to “cast off the vestiges of gang culture from its daily political routine” (though this was probably unfair, given the Chicago branch’s later involvement in the first Rainbow Coalition).
The First Spanish Methodist Church takeover proved to be the New York chapter’s formative moment, showing how the Lords synthesized ideology with practical political activity pretty much on the fly and constructed an urban version of liberation theology along the way. Fernández writes that Guzmán, the Lords’ minister of information, “crafted a sophisticated communications strategy” by combining the Lords’ “knowledge of scripture, which some had acquired in the religious milieu of their childhood, with the searing critique of organized religion they had adopted as teenagers and young adults in the 1960s.” By demanding that the conservative neighborhood church institute a free breakfast program modeled on the one created by the Black Panthers, the Lords tried to force its anti-Castro Cuban pastor to live up to a precept of Christ’s: solidarity with the poor.
The church occupation put the Young Lords on the map in a big way. It attracted celebrity visitors like Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Elia Kazan, along with tons of local media coverage and, more important, hundreds of recruits. From their headquarters in East Harlem, the Lords expanded into cities like Philadelphia; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and eventually San Juan, Puerto Rico. They established their influential newspaper Palante (Spanish for “forward” or “right on”), which published a number of groundbreaking essays about decolonization, racism within the Latinx community, feminism, and revolutionary nationalism.
Hitting their stride relatively late in the 1960s, the Lords were able to react in real time to the radical experiments of the era and create some of the most forward-thinking analyses of the left’s weaknesses. They took a measured position on the use of violence, they incorporated the emerging feminist and gay rights movements into their political platform, and they offered a critique not only of American racism but also of the tension between darker-skinned mainland Puerto Ricans and the island’s lighter-skinned elites.
The Young Lords’ racial analysis of Latinx identity reached an interested public well before the subject became a significant focus of academics in ethnic and Latino studies. It was, in fact, the activism of groups like the Young Lords that forced the creation of Puerto Rican, Latino, and ethnic studies departments in places like the City University of New York and Columbia. According to Fernández, the Young Lords’ use of “Latino” was “one of the first public uses of the term.” It was always linked to a vision of “self-determination”; for them, Puerto Rico’s fight to become independent was part of a larger struggle that included the rights of “Chicano people [who] built the Southwest…to control their land,” as well as support for the people of the Dominican Republic in their “fight against gringo domination and its puppet generals” and for “the armed liberation struggles in Latin America.”
The strong influence of the Cuban Revolution on the Lords resulted, at first, in the lionizing of male anti-capitalist guerrilla leaders and in rooting revolutionary thinking in a kind of righteous masculinity. The 13-point plan the group issued in late 1969, modeled after the Black Panthers’, originally included this point: “We Want Equality for Women. Machismo Must be Revolutionary…Not Oppressive.” The Young Lords soon embraced feminism outright, and after some internal resistance, gay liberation as well. The women, organizing around Oliver and Morales, fought back against a dynamic in which female Lords were assigned to so-called women’s work; they adopted the practice of having consciousness-raising circles from white feminism, read Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and denounced what they called sexual fascism. They forced the inclusion of women on the group’s Central Committee and changed the point about revolutionary machismo to one that read simply, “Down with Machismo and Male Chauvinism.” The legendary drag queen Sylvia Rivera, a key figure in the Stonewall rebellion, began to collaborate with the group.
Ed note: Part two of A History of the Young Lords will run tomorrow.