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From Garbage Offensives to Occupying Churches, Actions of the Young Lords Continue to Inspire

September 23, 2015
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Guests

Juan González

co-host of Democracy Now! and former minister of education of the Young Lords.

Johanna Fernández

co-curator of "¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York" at The Bronx Museum of the Arts. She is a professor of history at Baruch College-CUNY and author of the forthcoming book, When the World was Their Stage: A History of the Young Lords Party, 1968–1976, with Princeton University Press.

We look back at the Young Lords, a radical group founded by Puerto Ricans modeled on the Black Panther Party. In late July 1969, the group staged their first action in an effort to force the City of New York to increase garbage pickup in East Harlem. The Young Lords would go on to inspire activists around the country as they occupied churches and hospitals in an attempt to open the spaces to community projects. The group called for self-determination for all Puerto Ricans; independence for the island of Puerto Rico; community control of institutions and land; freedom for all political prisoners; and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, Puerto Rico and other areas. The Young Lords would also play a pivotal role in spreading awareness of Puerto Rican culture and history. While the group disintegrated in the mid-1970s, its impact is still felt today. The Young Lords is the focus of a new art exhibit organized by The Bronx Museum of the Arts called "¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York." It is on view at three different cultural institutions in New York. We speak to our very own Juan González, who served as the group’s first minister of education, and Johanna Fernández, co-curator of "¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York" at The Bronx Museum of the Arts.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: "Que Bonita Bandera," "What a Beautiful Flag," by Ramito. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. That song was adopted by Chicago’s national office as the Young Lords national anthem. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we end the show with a look back at the Young Lords, a radical group founded by Puerto Ricans, modeled on the Black Panther Party. In late July of 1969, the group staged their first action in an effort to force the City of New York to increase garbage pickups in East Harlem. The Young Lords would go on to inspire activists around the country as they occupied churches and hospitals in an attempt to open the spaces to community projects. The group called for self-determination for all Puerto Ricans; for independence for the island of Puerto Rico; community control of institutions and land; freedom for all political prisoners; and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam, Puerto Rico and other areas. The Young Lords would also play a pivotal role in spreading awareness of Puerto Rican culture and history. While the group disintegrated by the mid-1970s, its impact is still felt today.

AMY GOODMAN: The Young Lords is the focus of a new art exhibit that’s organized by The Bronx Museum of the Arts called "¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York." It’s on view at three different cultural institutions here in New York. Tonight, our very own Juan González, who served as the group’s first minister of education, will host the first in a series of programs hosted by the King Juan Carlos Center at New York University called "Latinos and Modern U.S. Society: A Series of Public Conversations." This evening’s discussion includes our guest, Johanna Fernández, as well as Darrel Wanzer-Serrano, Iris Morales and Mickey Melendez.

We’re joined by Johanna Fernández, co-curator of "¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York." She’s professor of history at Baruch College-CUNY and author of the forthcoming book, When the World was Their Stage: A History of the Young Lords Party, 1968–1976, with Princeton University Press.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: But I want to start with Juan, Juan, given you were the first minister of information of the Young Lords. There’s a resurgence of interest in the Young Lords, what, four decades later. Why do you think that is? And why did you and a group of young Puerto Ricans decide to found the Young Lords?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, it is kind of surprising that there is this resurgence in the last few years, not only of the exhibitions, but of scholarly works, like Johanna’s and Darrel Wanzer-Serrano’s and others, that are coming out from academics and even political interests. Last year, the City Council of New York renamed the street where we took over the first People’s—the Spanish Methodist Church, the People’s Church, in 1969, renamed that street Young Lords Way. So, it is kind of baffling that, so many years later, you’d have this kind of interest in an organization that for years was sort of overlooked and not—ever since it fell apart by the mid-1970s.

AMY GOODMAN: Can we go back for a minute to a clip of you, actually, from Third World Newsreel, from the film, El Pueblo se Levanta, The People Are Rising?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We came here because you have a big church, because you are Christians, because this church is not open at all during the week. And what we ask you for is for space. That’s all. We will supply the manpower. We will supply the food for the children. All we ask is for the space of this church for this community. Now, we don’t think that you people are our enemies. We do think that the reverends who call the police in, who have had the police here every day since we’ve been here, and would not allow us to speak, that that reverend is an enemy, and he’s not a Christian. He may be a reverend, but he is not a Christian, because he does not serve poor people, and he does not help the poor people of this community.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, set the scene for us. Where were you?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this is—this was December of 1969, and we are in a series of protests at the First Spanish Methodist Church in East Harlem, trying to get space for a breakfast program. The reverend had already called in the police and had several of us arrested and beaten a few weeks earlier. And this was actually the day we took over the church. We said, "This is enough." And so, we actually occupied the church in East Harlem for 11 days, as I recall. Maybe Johanna knows better, because she’s got all the documentation. I forget sometimes. But we occupied the church for 11 days and established all of these various programs before, finally, 105 of us were arrested, called in by the New York City Police Department. But in the process, the People’s Church became sort of a liberated zone. I mean, people who were participating in Occupy and the Occupy movement will understand what I mean by that. But it became an area where we attempted to implement a lot of the social programs that we believed were necessary for the Puerto Rican and Latino community. And it also became a place of political ferment, and many of the people who would later become leaders of the Puerto Rican community were either participants in that occupation or supporters of the occupation, so it became sort of a seminal moment in the history of the Puerto Rican community in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from Third World Newsreel, from The People Are Rising, El Pueblo se Levanta.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The main thing that we’re clear on is that it’s such a simple thing to give us space. And now that we’ve gotten into this church and eaten here and been here for hours, we know what a big place it is. It’s incredible, the space in the church, all unused, you know, never open to the community. And it’s just incredible to us how such a simple thing like granting us space has resulted in so many heads being busted and so much struggle in East Harlem.

And our only understanding of that has to be that religion, you know, organized religion, has so insulated our people, has so destroyed their minds to thinking about salvation in the hereafter, they refuse to deal with the conditions that they have now and with the oppression that they have now. The people who come to this church are mostly Puerto Ricans who have already raised themselves to a certain standard. Many of them have left the community. They no longer relate to the community except to drive in on Sundays and go to services.

And it’s amazing to us that people can talk about Jesus, who walked among the poor, the poorest and most oppressed, the prostitutes, the drug addicts of his time, that these people can claim to be Christians, right, and they’ve forgotten that it was Jesus who said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And they forget that it was Jesus who said the last shall be first and the first shall be last. And they forget that it was Jesus who said feed the hungry and clothe the poor. And this is what we’re after. We’re after following the tenets and the spirit of Christianity, not the letter of Christianity, of those Bibles that have perverted Jesus’s real revolutionary and social consciousness.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Juan González, at the time minister of the Young Lords, minister of information, in the church that you occupied. You are sounding a little bit like Pope Francis as you sit in the church.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, not quite with all the accoutrements of power that he has, but definitely I paid attention when I attended church.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the church’s response to the occupation?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well—

AMY GOODMAN: At the beginning and then at the end.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the local minister was definitely opposed, because he had been—he was actually a Cuban refugee from the Cuban revolution, and therefore had distinct ideas about what social change meant. But the church hierarchy, the Methodist Church hierarchy, eventually sided with us, dropped all the charges, and pretty much made peace with the Young Lords in the years that followed.

AMY GOODMAN: Johanna Fernández, you have spent many years writing this forthcoming book on the Young Lords. As you watch Juan and you are part of this discussion tonight over at New York University, the King Juan Carlos Center, your thoughts on their significance, placing them within the pantheon of social movements?

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Well, I think it’s important for us to note that approximately a third of the people of the island of Puerto Rico migrated to the United States after World War II. As a result of Operation Bootstrap, the industrialization project of Puerto Rico, many peasants and working people were displaced, and they settled in New York. In the postwar period, more Puerto Ricans settled in New York than African Americans. The Young Lords were important because they helped their generation make sense of that vast transfer of humanity to New York and helped Puerto Ricans understand the relationship between the state and their island, and the colonial relationship that impelled that migration.

And the Puerto Rican people entered into a condition of urban crisis and deindustrialization, mass poverty, precisely at the moment that the civil rights and black power movements were emerging. And the Young Lords were inspired, motivated, trained by the civil rights and black power movement, by the antiwar movement. Juan González himself was a leading member of the Columbia strike of 1968 that protested the Vietnam War, but also protested the gentrification of Harlem by the university. What we see is that the movements of the 1960s, what is known as the New Left and the black power movement, transformed the relationship between people of color and white people, challenged U.S. foreign policy, but also transformed our understanding of gender and sexuality. And those were the issues that the Young Lords were concerned with. The Young Lords are important because, in my opinion, from my research, they are the single group in the New Left that was most effective and most active, even though we know very little about them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Johanna, one of the interesting things—I’d like you to comment on this, because I got a chance finally to see one of the exhibitions, because all of the three exhibitions have different themes, and I got to the one in—

AMY GOODMAN: This is The Bronx Museum of the Arts.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Bronx Museum of the Arts, the El Museo del Barrio and the Loisaida Cultural Center on the Lower East Side. So I finally got to the Loisaida Cultural Center over the weekend, and one of the interesting things about that is, there, they’ve tried to focus more on part of the history of the Lords that people—most people are not aware of, that we had one of the earliest lesbian and gay caucuses of any radical group, certainly among people of color in the United States. And they focus sort of on the impact of the Lords on the cultural renaissance in the Puerto Rican community, but also in terms of, as you’re saying, gender—gender politics and equality for women. And I’m wondering, when you were putting together the exhibitions, the decision of the Loisaida to try to focus on that area.

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Well, the Young Lords have their coming-out moment in the Lower East Side at Tompkins Square Park, where they give a speech, and they announce their purpose and activism in New York. And the Lower East Side was a hub of political activity, where, in 1969, there was an emergent movement for gay rights. And the Young Lords, in 1970, formed both a gay caucus, but also a women’s caucus, to address gender discrimination and discriminations against gays and lesbians. So that’s one of the least explored elements of this period, that in fact it was people of color, Puerto Ricans and African Americans, that helped create a culture in New York and in the nation that was tolerant of gay people. And one of the members of the Young Lords who was active and in the gay rights movement, gay and lesbian rights movement, is Rivera.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sylvia.

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Sylvia Rivera, is Sylvia Rivera. So, we conduct—

AMY GOODMAN: Sylvia Rivera, who was the—who was really the key force in Stonewall—

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —the uprising that launched the modern-day gay, lesbian, trans movement.

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Right. One of the least written-about aspects of the gay and lesbian liberation movement is that it was people of color who rioted against their oppression in the Lower East Side. And Sylvia Rivera was part of that movement, and she was a member of the Young Lords.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Iris Morales, Iris Morales of the Young Lords, in another clip from El Pueblo se Levanta, The People Are Rising. Maybe you can introduce Iris and talk about her significance in the Young Lords, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Iris was one of the most important leaders of the Young Lords, most respected leaders of the Young Lords. She’ll also be at the panel we’re having tonight at NYU. And she really was—with me, helped develop the education programs for the members and for the community.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the clip.

MICKEY AGRAIT: When we talk about housing, we shouldn’t even call it housing. We should call it the rat holes that our people come to live and die in. We can’t call this housing. We just call them dumps. Roaches live with you—they don’t pay no rent, but you do. Your children eat lead-poisoned paint. The roof fall on you. And most of the time, when you go to the bathroom, you better take an umbrella along with you, because you’re about to drop in in a rainy hangout.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this is a mistake in the choice of the clip here. That was not Iris Morales. That was Mickey Agrait, another member of the Young Lords who has since passed away, who was talking about the housing situation. That was on the Upper West Side, because there was a whole squatters’ movement that the Young Lords participated in and supported with El Comité-MINP, another group, that was on the West Side of Manhattan, to preserve whatever affordable housing there was in the Upper West Side in those days.

AMY GOODMAN: What did it mean to be minister of education?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as minister of education, I was in charge of—I actually became minister of education and health at one point, but the titles kept changing. But it was basically to develop the education programs within the organization, the political education classes for the members, as well as community education classes, which we would have weekly in other various branches of the organization, showing films, anything from The Battle of Algiers to films about the war in Vietnam and about Cuba. And we would actually do those in the streets and for the community, as well as for our members.

AMY GOODMAN: What caused the Young Lords to dissolve?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: It’s a combination—and I think Johanna has probably done the most research on—

AMY GOODMAN: Johanna?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in terms the COINTELPRO and the development of repression as well as internal divisions.

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Well, the decline of the Young Lords, I think, begins with the second church occupation, that happens in October 1970.

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Essentially, a combination of government repression at the hands of COINTELPRO, but also a decision on the part of the leadership to move its operations to Puerto Rico, which undermined its connection to the grassroots, and the fact that the mass character of the movements had declined by that time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Johanna Fernández, for joining us, co-curator of "¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York" at The Bronx Museum of the Arts and other institutions, professor at Baruch College. Tonight, the event that Juan will be moderating is online?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, it’s already filled up, but people can go online to kjcc.org.

AMY GOODMAN: The King Juan Carlos Center.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: To watch it live-streamed.


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