Ed Morales (author of Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation, and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico) reviews historian Johanna Fernández’s The Young Lords: A Radical History (University of North Carolina Press). [See previous post Forthcoming: The Young Lords: A Radical History.] Here are excerpts; see full review at The Nation.
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.
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.
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.
[. . .] 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).
[. . .] 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.” [. . .]
[Juan González (left) of the Young Lords in New York City, 1969. (Bev Grant / Getty Images)]