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The Young Lords

Johanna Fernandez,
Baruch City College, NYC
interviewed by Claire Richard

I grew up in the Bronx, in the 1980s. And as you probably remember, New York City and the nation was undergoing a pretty serious urban crisis, with the crack epidemic and the rise of AIDS. And I learnt in college that a very young group of radicals, who considered themselves revolutionaries, had addressed many of the issues that were gripping the Bronx in the 80, but they had done so in the 1960s. They were young people like myself, and I was shocked that I had not learnt anything about the organization, while growing up in the Bronx. 

The Young Lords were the children of the first large wave of Puerto Rican migration to the North East of the United States, in cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Hartford.

The Young Lords was begun not in new York, interestingly enough, but in Chicago. And it was initiated by the efforts of the leader of the Young Lords, who initially in Chicago had been a gang. Cha Cha Jimenez, who was the leader of that gang, worked with a leader of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, to transform this gang into a political organization.

They modeled themselves after the Black Panther Party, and they organized in neighborhoods like East Harlem, the Bronx, but also neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Chicago and Hartford. They fought for Puerto Rican independence, but they also fought to address the conditions of poverty under which Latinos, Puerto Ricans, but also African-Americans lived during that period. And they focused mainly, interestingly enough, on issues of public health.

So in East Harlem, they launched a series of demonstration against the fact that the Sanitation department was not regularly picking up the garbage. They also organized around the very problematic issue of childhood lead poisoning. They occupied Lincoln Hospital, they also conducted door to door testing for childhood lead poisoning but also for tuberculosis.

They also had a very popular breakfast program for children. The Young Lords and the Black Panther should be credited because they popularized the idea that if children went to school hungry, they weren’t going to be able to learn. And if today we have a regular breakfast program for poor children in public schools, it is because of the efforts of the Young Lords and the Black Panthers.

The Young Lords, like the Black Panthers, initiated a series of educational program in the community, which they called P.E., Public Education. They would host meetings in the projects, in churches, in community centers, in which they discussed a particular issue, like imperialism. Or the subject could be the history of the Puerto Rican independence movement, or the character of US colonialism in Puerto Rico.

The Young Lords adopted a 13 points program, and within this 13 points program, they called for the liberation of all Third World people and Third World nations.

One of the points of the 13 points program called for women’s liberation, it took a position against racism in the United States, but also against racism within the Latino community. And in fact, the Young Lords were amongst the first radicals to theorize the ways in which racism manifested itself in Latin America rather than in the United States.

They also organized women’s caucuses within the organization. Groups of women came together, who were Young Lords, to address the ways in which the organization practiced sexism on a day-to-day basis, how men were projected as leaders and public speakers, while women sat back and did the secretarial work of the organization. And in fact, the women of the Young Lords forced the organization to change its platform, and its position on women. You had people like Iris Morales and Denise Oliver, Minerva Soya and others, who lead the struggle and forced the men of the organization to own up to their sexism.

They did believe in armed struggle, and they believed that eventually, the liberation of Puerto Rico would come as the result of a Revolution, in which the people of Puerto Rico would take up arms against US imperialism.

It was a position that went back to the history of resistance in the African-American community here in the United States but also Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico. That in the face of oppression, people who are under attack, who are experiencing the terrorism of the State and the terrorism of racism, have the right to defend themselves.

The Young Lords were under the violent surveillance of the government of the United States, through its surveillance program, COINTELPRO, the counter intelligence program of the FBI. So the Young Lords suffered the same fate that the Black Panther Party did: government agents would infiltrate the organization and create confusion and battles, political battles within the organization, which lead eventually to its demise.

The end of the organization was also the product of the end of the movement. The Young Lords emerged in the late 1960s, and by the early 1970s, the entire movement was experiencing movement exhaustion.

What we see happening, in the aftermaths of the movements of the 1960s, is a conservative reaction to the gains of the civil rights, the Black power, women’s movements. And so the history that emerges of that period in the 1980s is one that focuses on the good civil rights movements, rather than the more controversial Black Power and Brown Power movements of the late 1960s, that challenged the very essence and basis and economy of American society. The Black and Brown power movements of the late 1960s challenged American capitalism. 

The Young Lords is important because it’s part of a legacy of radical resistance to oppression in the United States, that goes back to the slave rebellions, in the 18th and 19th century. They’re important because they helped address the issues of racism and class oppression, and part of what they argued was that, at core, the problems of racism and poverty were connected to the broader problems of capitalism.

They were part of a movement, of a broader movement, that transformed the culture of American society. There wasn’t a revolution in the 1960s as a result of these movements, but there was a cultural shift, that opened up a space for people of color, not just African-Americans, but Latinos, that address issues of discrimination amongst women, but also gay oppression. There was a gay caucus in the organization!

So they formed part of a broader movement that truly changed the face of American society.

Pour citer ces ressources :

Johanna Fernandez / Claire Richard. 01/2013. "The Young Lords".
La Clé des Langues (Lyon: ENS LYON/DGESCO). ISSN 2107-7029. Mis à jour le 12 septembre 2016.
Consulté le 25 novembre 2017.
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Institution incontournable de la scène culturelle à Lyon, la Villa Gillet rassemble artistes, écrivains et chercheurs du monde entier pour nourrir une réflexion publique autour des questions de notre temps à l'occasion de conférences, débats, tables rondes, et lectures.
Mise à jour le 12 septembre 2016
Créé le 22 janvier 2013
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues