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Why Read the Young Lords Today?

Author: Iris Morales and Denise Oliver-Velez

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Foreword to The Young Lords : A Reader, edited by Darrel Enck-Wanzer (2010) New York University Press.

“¡El Pueblo Unido, Jamas Sera Vencido! The People United, Shall Never be Defeated!” Ten thousand people chanted and marched through the streets of El Barrio heading downtown on Lexington Avenue in New York City. The Young Lords had called the march to the United Nations to demand the end of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico, freedom for Puerto Rican political prisoners, and an end to police brutality in our communities. Young people, artists, and community activists joined it, excited to be part of the momentous event. Looking from the hilltop on 100th Street, we saw the bright purple, black, and maroon berets of the Young Lords, the Black Panthers, and the Puerto Rican Student Union. Activists from the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, El Comite, Justicia Latina, and others were also present. Young people wearing jeans and t-shirts, military jackets, dashikis, combat boots, and big Afros carried Puerto Rican flags and huge, almost avenue-wide banners that read, “Serve the people” and “Fight U.S. imperialism.” With confidence, we marched, believing deep in our hearts in the power of poor people to change the world. “¡Despierta Boricua, Defiende Lo Tuyo!” (Wake Up Boricua, Defend What Is Yours!) It was October 30, 1971.

Some of the issues we faced as political young people back in those early halcyon days of the movements of the 1960s and ‘70s have changed. We were “BC”: “before crack.” There was no AIDS pandemic. Youth gangs didn’t have automatic weapons. No one had a computer, a cell phone, or email. There was no Homeland Security or PATRIOT Act. The World Trade Center hadn’t been built, much less destroyed. There were no music videos or MTV. Our rap music was spoken word poetry set to the sound of conga drums or do-wops sung on street corners. Oprah Winfrey didn’t have a TV show, and J-Lo hadn’t been born. The women and men whom we strove to emulate and live up to had names like Lolita Lebron, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Blanca Canales, and Fannie Lou Hamer. The “Rainbow Coalition” was Fred Hampton’s revolutionary vision of unity among poor people, not Jesse Jackson’s poverty program.

When we entered the Young Lords in its early days, the leadership was all male. We helped to change that and to create an organization of young women and men struggling together to change the world and ourselves in the process. We connected to a larger movement in our opposition to the war in Vietnam. Inspired by the Cuban and Chinese revolutions and by the liberation struggles in Africa and Latin America, we believed that we could change the U.S. economic, political, and social system. Puerto Rican and African American youth joined the Young Lords, determined to change the status quo.

We awoke early each day to serve breakfast to school children, went door to door testing residents for lead poisoning and anemia, developed ground-breaking programs to deal with drug addiction, conducted community political education classes, and mobilized demonstrations. We advocated for community control of schools and educational curriculums that included Puerto Rican history and culture. We organized hospital and factory workers and worker-community alliances; and from the beginning, health care was a priority. We organized to change prison conditions and defined the prison system as another form of genocide. We raised awareness about the triple oppression of women of color by class, race, and gender. We wanted to change our communities, and perhaps while doing so, change our brothers. We organized high school and college students, and with the Puerto Rican Student Union formed “Free Puerto Rico Now” committees on college campuses. We published and distributed Palante, a bilingual newspaper, and produced a radio show on WBAI-FM, Pacifica, New York. We inspired, and were inspired by, our artists, poets, and musicians to play to the drumbeat of revolution. We were breaking new ground and lived each day as if there would be no tomorrow, and for some of our comrades and compañeras, the struggle ended in jails, institutions, and the Long Island cemeteries of Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary.”

Latino youth and community activists have tried to keep the Young Lords’ history alive, identifying with the group’s spirit of resistance, its ideas about equality, and its bold and dramatic actions. When Palante, a book of essays and photographs about the Young Lords first published in 1971, went out of print, Latino students reproduced and circulated photocopies, and a bookstore sold a high-quality copy for years. El Pueblo Se Levanta, Newsreel’s cinéma-vérité film produced in 1971, persists as a visual first-hand account. More than two decades later, Puerto Rican young people assisted in the production of ¡Palante, Siempre Palante! The Young Lords, the Latino/a Education Network Service (LENS) documentary that continues to be screened in schools and community venues, connecting the Young Lords with another generation.

School curricula pay lip service to Black history, but Puerto Ricans didn’t make the cut. Martin Luther King is an icon on a postage stamp, no longer part of an ongoing mass movement; but the struggle for human and civil rights did not end at his death. The Black Panthers, Young Lords, Brown Berets, I Wor Kuen, American Indian Movement, and the followers of Malcolm were too dangerous to even pay lip service to and have been relegated to the obscurity of a few documentary glimpses in art film showings. In 1996, public television broadcast two documentaries about Puerto Rico and the role of Puerto Ricans in America’s history, both on the Island and in the United States, but since then it has not broadcast anything else.

We were there, and a body of our work remains, mostly unpublished until now, scattered about the country in old trunks, closets, and a few libraries, and on microfilm, waiting patiently to see the light of day, to give testimony to our struggle. Why is it important for us to look back across the years and bring the Young Lords back into view, into the classrooms and the homes of those who may not have even been born when we first began to struggle? What is it that we hold in common with you, the reader, who may not have even heard of the Young Lords, or who may not be Puerto Rican or African American?

Though on the surface things appear different now, sadly, little has changed. The poor have gotten poorer, and the rich, richer. War is promoted as a fact of life. Big corporations move jobs globally to pay the lowest wages, forcing unprecedented numbers of human beings to migrate in search of a livelihood. Undocumented immigrants take on low-wage jobs in this country, without benefits or security, living in constant fear of deportation. Labor unions lose membership, and the national health care we called out for still eludes us.

New waves of brown and tan faces have replaced the ones in our old neighborhoods— where there were once African Americans and Puerto Ricans, there are now Mexicans, Dominicans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorians, Koreans, Africans, West Indians, South Asians, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Pakistanis, Arabs. . . . The demographics have shifted, but the objective conditions remain the same.

Where are you today? Are you sitting in the university deconstructing the latest paradigm shift, while your sisters in the street collect the next “baby daddy” and then die of AIDS? Are you watching your young brother trade in the newest Nikes for prison shoes with no laces?

Where are you? Are you worrying about how to make ends meet, pay off school loans, find a partner, or get out of a dead end job or relationship? Obsessing about being too fat or too thin, not pretty enough, smart enough, sexy enough? Trapped in isolation, assuring yourself that if you just study harder, compete better, you’ll get that job, that raise, the success dangled in front of you to keep you chasing the American dream? While you subdivide yourselves into yet another group or caucus, the world needs you to take action. (One campus has a Black students group, a West Indian/Caribbean Black group [no African Americans allowed], a Puerto Rican group, a Chicano group, a Dominican group—and the lone Brazilian on campus doesn’t know which to join.) You are our daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, goddaughters, and godsons, cousins, coworkers, students, lovers, and friends. We are saddened by much of what we see, but also encouraged by the young people who are resisting the relentless pressure to remain part of the problem and who are moving toward a solution.

If you don’t know your history, you cannot assess where you are today, and where you are going in the future. The Young Lords’ ideas about a just society opened up the imagination, offered hope, and inspired action. Its commitments connected the organization and the community to a national and international agenda. The Young Lords, situated in the relatively recent past, between the civil rights movement and the era of conservatism of the 1970s, offer insight into what was and was not effective in mobilizing communities.

Motivated by love for our people and outrage against an unjust system, we believed that the community’s survival and well-being depended on collective action. We dedicated ourselves to organizing out of storefronts throughout New York City barrios and other urban centers, and later in Puerto Rico. Passionately guided by the idea of “serve the people,” community organizing was our life, “twenty-five hours a day, eight days a week.” We did it because it had to be done. We were young people from working-class families—primarily Puerto Ricans, first-generation born or raised in the United States, but also Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Panamanians, Colombians, about 25 percent African American and one-third women. We woke up each day to serve the people and went to sleep analyzing what we had accomplished, and at night we dreamed about the new society that we would create, convinced that the richest country on the globe had sufficient resources to make a better world. Granted, when we were young in the 1950s and ‘60s, there was a “movement” to join. By the time we were teens, some of us were veterans of demonstrations. We had joined the NAACP, CORE, SNCC, SANE, SDS, Black and Puerto Rican Student Unions, labor organizations, and a string of other movement groups prior to becoming Young Lords in our late teens and early twenties. We had role models.

Sojourner Truth asked simply, “and ain’t I a woman?” Rosa Parks sat down and refused to move. Lolita Lebron said, “There is no victory without pain.” Fannie Lou Hamer was “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and opted out of the two-party Democratic/Republican system to join the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Malcolm X said, “The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Don Pedro Albizu Campos said, “Los jóvenes tienen el deber de defender su Patria con las armas del Conocimiento” (Youth have the duty to defend the homeland with the weapons of knowledge). And Che Guevera reminded us that revolutionaries are guided “by great feelings of love.” Those women and men were exemplars who inspired us to join hands with others to build a movement that rocked our generation and changed the world as we knew it. Although we are no longer young, we still believe in the power of young people to change the world. As for us, some of us continue to engage in political struggle, albeit on different fronts and with different tactics. Others moved on, changed focus, and forgot about the movement, grabbing at opportunities that opened up for a slim few who could wiggle through the doors of the system. Still others, who were then uninvolved or on the sidelines, have emerged decades later to claim they were there as activists and not observers. But those of us who continue to fight and speak out have contributed to this book to make it a living will or testament in hopes that it will light a spark or strengthen your commitment to raise questions, confront issues, and take action.

The “movement,” in disarray for a generation, was stifled and squashed by government and police repression, and internal divisions. The FBI counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO targeted citizens, destroyed the sixties movements, and demoralized a generation of activists. Pressure to ensure that a new movement does not gain ground has intensified. Cooptation, media control, consumerism, and other diversions have all had a numbing effect, and we must rebuild.

“But what can we do?” we are frequently asked. “Change the society that creates these conditions,” we say. As has been the case throughout history, each individual has a capacity to make change and to join hands and hearts with others to collectively make a difference. To quote singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, “‘Oh what can I do?’ say a powerless few / With a lump in their throats and a tear in their eyes / Can’t you see that their poverty is profiting you?”

“What can we do?” young men and women in community organizations, in high schools, and on campuses ask. “It was different for you . . . back then,” they say. Our only response is that a movement begins with one person reaching out to join with one other. The Young Lords started with only a handful of us, some of us no older than fifteen, and the oldest, in the beginning, was an elderly twenty-two years of age. We had less access to technology than you do now, and probably fewer skills.

In the post-9/11 world, it has become clear that the United States perpetuates war, global exploitation, racism, and subordination of women, which has awakened interest in building resistance movements domestically and internationally. The world we lived in was not so different from the one we live in today, but the contradictions are becoming clearer as the gap widens between the haves and the have-nots. In some ways, the struggle is more difficult and more transnational. Attempting to grapple with this complexity, today’s young people often tend to focus on single issues—gay rights, women’s rights, the environment, antiwar activism, abortion, and racism—without an overarching vision, organization, or plan of action. The strength of the Young Lords was that we created a program and a platform, modeled on the Black Panther Party’s, with international amendments, that outlined a clear vision of the interrelationships of oppression and of the need for systemic societal change.

In The Young Lords: A Reader, we reach out to those of you we have never met—to share with you our past, to speak simply of who we are, where we have been and where we are now, and hopefully of where we are headed, together, in the struggle. What can we share with you? Our triumphs? There were many. Our defeats? There were plenty of those, too. Our dreams? They are vested in you. Remember—we were never alone in anything we did. There were always other women and men to support us, hug us, dry our tears, share our fears, and march out there united against a world that tried to stifle our every breath and dream. We hope the materials collected here illustrate the potential of people’s power— that they show the infinite possibilities, the power of what people united can do, with very little or no money, but just the will to say, “Basta Ya!” “Enough!”

Pa’lante. The struggle continues.

Ever forward in solidarity.

DMU Timestamp: July 31, 2015 17:03

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