The Young Lords were a somewhat unique political formation. Their primarily Puerto Rican membership focused their organizing on the neighborhoods they lived in. Despite the Marxist foundations of their political philosophy, they were able to gain popular support for their programs among the traditional Catholic Puerto Rican population. As Johanna Fernandez patiently explains in her newly released book The Young Lords: A Radical History, this success could be attributed to several factors. Most importantly were the rootedness of the Young Lord’s members in the communities they organized and the issues they decided to organize around.
Like other community organizations of the period, the Young Lords were mostly young and angry. Angry at the poverty they experienced and saw around them; angry at the refusal of the politicians and their system’s refusal to address the issues causing the poverty; and angry at the police, whose racism and brutality many of the Young Lords knew of firsthand. Tired of accepting this situation and inspired by other New Left groups—especially the Black Panthers—the Young Lords took it upon themselves to demand some justice for their people. They established breakfast programs for children, provided medical screening and assistance for everyone who wanted it, and set up liberation schools for young and old alike. In addition, the Young Lords provoked elements of the establishment, including churches and city governments, into providing services they were legally bound to provide but had neglected.
Although the Young Lords were the brainchild of Cha Cha Jiménez and other Puerto Ricans in Chicago, Fernandez’s text is primarily a history of the Young Lords in New York. This is because New York is where the organization truly took hold and became a nationally recognized force to be reckoned with. Jiménez initiated the Chicago Young Lords after a stint in prison for his gang activities and a subsequent visit to Puerto Rico. It was during this time that he embraced his roots and gained a political awareness of Puerto Rico’s colonial status and the effects it had on Puerto Ricans in the continental United States. In 1969, the New York Young Lords came together when a group of students were looking for a way to organize the East Harlem Puerto Ricans that transcended the existing organizing efforts emanating from government-funded efforts under the aegis of the War on Poverty. After conversations with Cha Cha and the Chicago Young Lords, the New York Young Lords came into being.
Their first major campaign had to do with garbage. Fernandez details the failure of the companies contracted by New York City to fulfill their contracts in certain neighborhoods—mostly Black and Puerto Rican. This meant that garbage would pile up on certain streets for days and sometimes weeks before the contracted collection services would do their jobs and pick it up. Besides the appearance of squalor this neglect produced, it meant that rats and the health issues associated with them and other vermin plagued the neighborhood. In response, the Young Lords organized a series of actions that were both media savvy and invited their neighbors into the action. Some of the more spectacular elements involved dumping piled up the trash into the streets, blocking major intersections. This caused traffic jams and backups, which in turn got the city involved, who then ordered the trash companies to pick up the garbage in the streets. Eventually, as the campaign grew more popular and involved many more people who dumped their piled-up trash in the street, the city began negotiations with the Young Lords. Ultimately, an agreement was reached where the trash pickup was increased to a few times a week, resulting in a cleaner neighborhood. The success of the campaign brought respect and support for the Young Lords while attracting unwanted attention from the police and associated agencies.
Other campaigns initiated by the Young Lords focused on the nature of health services for Puerto Ricans and other poor people of color in New York City. Like the garbage campaign, the actions undertaken by the Young Lords attracted the media while also actually providing services to the previously underserved populations. As Fernandez points out throughout her text, the Young Lords understood the nature of the mainstream media and how to use it in a manner that furthered their issues into the public consciousness. At the same time, they understood the fickle nature of that media and who it really served. Consequently, they published their own newspaper called Palante. At its peak, Palante had a circulation of more than twenty thousand. Young Lords were required to sell the paper and kept half of the sales proceeds to live off of.
The Young Lords: A Radical History is more than a timeline of the organization’s actions and campaigns. It is also a discussion of the organization’s politics and internal debates. Like virtually every other New Left organization (especially those composed of and for non-whites), the Young Lords were infiltrated by various law enforcement agencies. This fact would eventually lead to a climate of fear and mistrust intentionally fostered by those infiltrators, with members facing off over ideology and personal relationships. When combined with an effort by the Nixon administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to destroy the New Left, an omnipresent fear settled over leftist political organizations throughout the United States. The repression was real and occasionally fatal. As Fernandez notes, this wave of repression occurred simultaneously with a decline in membership for many groups on the Left, the Young Lords among them. In addition, many groups were turning inward and intensifying educational efforts among their members. These efforts usually took the form of study groups where various Marxist-Leninist texts were read and discussed. While the Young Lords had always conducted these study groups and applied those lessons to their work, this period saw an intensification of the study groups while the community work declined. In part, this phenomenon can be linked to the decision by the Young Lords’ central committee to set up an office in Puerto Rico and organize for independence. This was a controversial decision, to say the least. Fernandez details the debates around the decision and the ultimate failure of the effort. In a similar manner, she discusses the organizational changes that followed that failure, the eventual splintering of the organization and the creation of the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization (PRRWO). Interesting to note in this period was the presence of a law enforcement agent who was not only on the Central Committee but was married to the leader of the group at the time. That infiltrator’s name was Donald Wright, whose cover as a member of the Revolutionary Union (RU) enabled him to gain the trust of the Young Lord’s leadership. (An interesting side note to Wright and the RU can be found in the works of Aaron Leonard, who has written two excellent books on the government infiltration of the Revolutionary Union, one of the largest groups in the New Communist Movement of the 1970s).
When I lived in the Bronx and attended Fordham University in 1973-1974, one of the guys I would party with was a member of the Young Lords. He and I would discuss politics while we hung out in a dorm room listening to music, drinking a Rheingold and maybe sharing a joint. When the Allende government was overthrown, he and I went to a demonstration in Manhattan where he met up with his people from the Barrio and I got hooked into selling papers with the Attica Brigade. Little did I know at the time that his organization was crumbling. A little over a year later, I was living in Maryland and taking classes at the University of Maryland where I started attending meetings of the Revolutionary Student Brigades—the youth wing of the Revolutionary Union. It was at one of those meetings that the subject of the formation of the PRRWO came up and where I discovered that it was no longer associated with the RU. As Fernandez makes clear, this was a period of defeat for the US left; a period it has never recovered from, in my opinion. The government program known as COINTELPRO had done its job.
The Young Lords: A Radical History is a contextualized and comprehensive discussion of an organization that was emblematic of its time and important beyond its numbers. Like so many other organizations in the United States that were both leftist and radical, the Young Lords’ history has been removed from most recollections of the period known as the Sixties until now. Fernandez’s work is a bold, brilliant and engaging challenge to this omission. Its publication in 2020, when the people of Puerto Rico are under attack from the colonial regime in Washington, DC is an almost perfect synchronicity. Indeed, as the Puerto Ricans people attempt to recover from decades of exploitation exacerbated by a recent series of natural disasters, the example of the Young Lords stands before them.