The Young Lords: The Puerto Rican Activists Who Shook Up NYC
By BETH HARPAZ
They made headlines, organized protests, and confronted institutions from city hospitals to City Hall. They were the Young Lords, a group of Puerto Rican activists who shook up Chicago and New York in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. A new book called The Young Lords: A Radical History, by Professor Johanna Fernandez (Baruch College), tells their story.
The Young Lords “spoke and amplified and explained the problems of their generation,” Fernandez said in a podcast for CUNY’s Book Beat and the Gotham Center for New York City History. “They are the equivalent of black Twitter then, but they did it in the streets.”
The Young Lords started out as a Chicago street gang. In the late 1960s, their leader, Jose Cha Cha Jimenez, was inspired by the work of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and others to turn the Young Lords into “the Puerto Rican counterpart of the Black Panther Party.”
Soon, a chapter of the Young Lords was established in New York. Many of its members were first-generation college students whose families had moved here from Puerto Rico after World War II. They’d grown up helping their Spanish-speaking parents navigate schools, welfare offices, and other bureaucracies. “Instinctively,” Fernandez said, they “understood that there was this thing called power and inequality, and that they were on the losing end.”
Because they’d served as interlocutors for their parents, these young activists were also skilled communicators and negotiators. And they put those skills to work, organizing neighborhoods, leading marches, pressuring officials, and getting media coverage. Among their biggest campaigns: a “garbage offensive” to clean up East Harlem while getting the city to improve trash pickup; a takeover of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, supported by doctors; and the occupation of a church that they sought to use as a center for helping the community.
As pragmatic as they were, though, the Young Lords were also firmly grounded in a radical understanding of the structural reasons and “root causes for social problems” like poverty and unemployment. The Young Lords, said Fernandez, “tapped into the anger that existed in the streets, gave it organizational form, explained the origins of the crisis, … and put forth a vision of a new society.”