Historian Johanna Fernández makes the case for the Young Lords as profound thinkers as well as highly capable street activists.
“The Lords synthesized ideology with practical political activity pretty much on the fly and constructed an urban version of liberation theology along the way.”
The legacy of the Young Lords is something that has followed me throughout my adult life as a New York–born-and-bred child of Puerto Rican immigrants. The Young Lords’ unrelenting calls for Puerto Rican independence, their various interventions in local politics, their unyielding solidarity with colonized and working-class people everywhere, their stunning presence (often augmented by Che-like berets and street-style military formations) all shaped the way my generation and future ones interpreted the tumultuous late 1960s and early ’70s. They were, along with figures like Fred Hampton, Frantz Fanon, and Lolita Lebrón, a guide for my political and cultural life.
The Young Lords: A Radical History
By Johanna Fernández
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Over the last few years, the Young Lords have again become political and cultural lodestars. Three major exhibitions in New York City—at the Bronx Museum, El Museo del Barrio, and the Loisaida Center—have celebrated their radical vision and activism and examined their inextricable relationship with the arts, culture, and the media. The Young Lords’ status as a model for Afro-Latinx resistance in the age of Trumpian authoritarianism has given them a moment just in time for the recent 50th anniversary of their founding.
In her new book, The Young Lords: A Radical History, historian Johanna Fernández offers us an exhaustive and enlightening study of their history and makes the case for their influence as profound thinkers as well as highly capable street activists. There have been 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 Fernández’s distinguishes itself by providing solid, incredibly detailed historical research, including extensive interviews with the Lords and their contemporaries. It also places them 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—that we face today. Perhaps most important, she offers a useful reminder of just how central anti-colonial and anti-capitalist politics were to them.
“So much of their activism centered on the same issues that we 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. He pioneered the use of the Lords’ signature purple berets (perhaps inspired by the Sharks’ colors in West Side Story) and semi-military code of conduct. But it was only when the New York chapter was founded a year later that the group began to take off and the Young Lords burst into national prominence, adding their unique spin to the moment’s revolutionary politics. A less confrontational variation on the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the New York group and its founders—Meléndez, Morales, Juan González, Pablo Guzmán, Felipe Luciano, and Denise Oliver—were probably the most successful media communicators among these different organizations. They were also representative of two late-1960s phenomena: the Rainbow Coalition of black, Latinx, Native, and white working-class radicals emerging in the era, and the bicultural and bilingual Nuyorican generation. The Lords themselves were a rainbow, since, as Fernández notes, more than 25 percent of the group’s members were African American, including Oliver.
The Nuyorican generation was not represented by the Young Lords alone. It operated in three intersecting spheres of influence: salsa music, which fueled a nostalgia for its Caribbean antecedents, representing the past; the Spanglish poetry of the Nuyorican Poets Café, which anticipated the future’s code-switching, rap music, and spoken-word performance; and political organizations like the Young Lords, which were inspired by the radical internationalism of their day as well as Puerto Rico’s independence struggle.
“More than 25 percent of the group’s members were African American.”
Some key Lords—like Luciano, the group’s early chairman—inhabited 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.” His reading was a contemporary spin on the impromptu bembés that went on during the occupation and featured folkloric music. 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 a grand total of approximately 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 core founding group was active for a grand total of approximately three years.”
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.”
“It was the activism of groups like the Young Lords that forced the creation of Puerto Rican, Latino, and ethnic studies departments.”
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.
The Young Lords peaked in late 1970 when they staged an occupation of Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. Focusing on improving health care for the poor, they demanded lead-poisoning tests for children (which would result in laws banning lead paint in tenements) and worked to expose the hospital’s poor conditions and exploitative division of labor. They advocated for patients, formulating a patient bill of rights, a feature that is now standard in substance-abuse and health care programs—and hospital workers, who were mostly black and Latinx.
One of the more difficult aspects of the Young Lords’ history that any serious evaluation must come to grips with is the group’s painful decline. Fernández documents the troubling events frankly and compassionately. The Lords’ dissolution was largely attributable to a few key problems. Like many radical organizations of the period, their core leaders were in their early 20s, which encouraged impetuous decision-making. The Lords’ early successes caused them to overextend themselves in the United States and Puerto Rico, their shift in focus to Puerto Rican independence created an irreparable rift, and the left’s tendency toward Maoism created a mania for self-criticism and the purging of those perceived as counterrevolutionary. The group’s increasing infiltration by federal law enforcement agents under the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program exacerbated all of these factors.
“The Lords’ early successes caused them to overextend themselves in the United States and Puerto Rico.”
There were signs of trouble as early as September 1970, when Luciano, one of the Lords’ most charismatic and eloquent leaders, was demoted from the chair position. While his demotion symbolized the growing power of women in the Young Lords’ leadership, it also appeared to demonstrate an inflexibility and tendency toward harsh criticism that would only grow.
During a second takeover of the First Spanish Methodist Church in late 1970, the Lords began to show more signs of strain. Ostensibly set off by the death of a popular Lords member, Julio Roldán, in the Tombs jail in Manhattan, this occupation did not have the same feel as the first one. The Lords staged the event accompanied by an announcement that they believed Roldán was murdered, despite police reports asserting that he hanged himself in his cell. Fernández carefully considers the conditions at the Tombs, the suicide data for that year, the report ordered by the city, and the evidence that Roldán may well have died by suicide—and she notes that even if it’s difficult to know for sure what happened, Roldán was murdered by the system either way.
Yet it was not the takeover itself that caused the problems but the Lords’ display of weapons during it, which led to an acrimonious internal debate. Tensions continued to rack the Lords in the months that followed, especially as they began to shift their priorities away from local organizing and advocacy and toward the independence struggle in Puerto Rico. A faction of the group led by Gloria Fontanez, who for a period was González’s wife, wanted to focus its efforts on the island because she decided to prioritize reuniting Puerto Rico’s “divided nation” over Guzmán’s proposal to return to the Young Lords’ roots of organizing diverse urban groups in the United States. Despite pushback from the island’s light-skinned pro-independence elite, Fontanez’s stubborn commitment was perhaps a defiant insistence that the real constituency for independence was darker-skinned Puerto Ricans, like the constituency of the Young Lords’ El Caño and Aguadilla branches, which she felt had been neglected by the traditional island independence movement.
In the end, those internal tensions proved fatal. In late 1971, Guzmán visited China with a delegation of radicals for a dialogue with communist leaders and was questioned about the Lords’ deployment in Puerto Rico. The Chinese officials argued that it was a mistake to attempt to lead an independence movement in a place where they’d never lived, and when Guzmán raised this and other issues with González and Fontanez, he was rebuffed. But he had allies, and with them he continued to insist on, as Fernández puts it, a “return to the organization’s roots,” which was what many wanted “but were hesitant to say.” The fight between Guzmán and those involved in Puerto Rican independence led to the Central Committee’s increased garbling of the Maoist principle of democratic centralism. “Debate and discussion,” Fernández explains, “were sacrificed for a greater insistence on party discipline.”
“Fontanez insisted that the real constituency for independence was darker-skinned Puerto Ricans.”
After Guzmán was suspended from the Central Committee and he and Morales were transferred to Philadelphia, the main office of the Young Lords in Spanish Harlem was closed for several months. In 1972, Juan Ramos and Juan “Fi” Ortiz were purged because of “lazy dilettante behavior” and declared “enemies of the people,” and in 1973, González was accused of “petit bourgeois tendencies” and transferred to Philadelphia. Under Fontanez’s leadership, the Lords explicitly embraced Maoism and changed their name to the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization.
Frightful events followed, including the use of kidnapping and torture to discipline and remove members who disagreed with the leadership. Fernández briefly mentions the story of Richie Perez and his partner, Diana Caballero, who were held captive, tortured, and beaten in a New York City apartment. After Fontanez’s separation from González, she became deeply involved with Donald Herbert Wright, who headed the Revolutionary Union, a Maoist party in the United States that was a predecessor of the Revolutionary Communist Party. According to Fontanez’s interview with Fernández, Wright’s behavior was “a microcosm of the violence that gripped the organization.” Coincidentally, it was Guzmán who introduced the couple—he met Wright during his trip to China—and now-declassified documents show that Wright was an undercover FBI agent. The purpose of several of his missions was to destabilize left movements by discouraging unity among different groups representing people of color and to sow discontent by exploiting the conflict between nationalist and class-based or communist interests.
By 1974, all the original Young Lords had resigned from the group, and eventually the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization ceased to exist, too. Despite the Lords’ lasting and powerful legacy, the group’s terrible ending has always hung heavy in my understanding of its history and my interactions with its formers members. The Perez episode was especially poignant because I began my journalism career covering his anti-police-brutality efforts, and he remained one of the most politically active Lords in the 1990s, organizing Latinos in protests against police brutality in New York.
“Now-declassified documents show that Wright was an undercover FBI agent.”
In the early 2000s, I attended the funerals of Perez and Pedro Pietri, probably a few weeks apart, in the First Spanish Methodist Church. Despite their passing, the two men’s unique vision—encompassing the political and cultural essence of the Young Lords and the Nuyorican generation—was embedded in New York’s Latinx community, in the movement that sought to close the US naval training range in Vieques, and among a new generation of activists, educators, and social justice legal groups.
I think the best way to honor the Young Lords is to revisit the complex political problems they grappled with, often ingeniously and with a fearless youthful enthusiasm. One of the most debilitating debates vexing the left at present is the notion that organizing around class issues and marginalized identities (race, gender, sexual orientation) involves ideas that are somehow mutually exclusive. Either you’re supposedly a race- and gender-challenged “Bernie bro” or you’re supposedly a neoliberal “Talented Tenth” identitarian leveraging elite schooling into a powerful establishment position in New York or Washington. Most of us working in social movements and activism today know this is a false binary, and the Young Lords’ history is a reminder that this has long been the case. Although I’d almost forgotten it, the Lords had always helped me see it was possible, perhaps essential, to be both local and international, at once working-class and culturally nationalist. In the space they created, I was at ease with, even energized by, all my contradictions—the black and brown, New York–San Juan, Spanglish-speaking, materialist/spiritualist/revolutionary me.
Ed Morales is the author of Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation, and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico.
This article previously appeared in The Nation.
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