And Luis Garden Acosta, the founder and president for more than 35 years of the nationally known El Puente youth and community leadership program in Brooklyn, and long regarded as one of New York City’s foremost human rights and Latino community activists, died Tuesday night following a long illness. He was 72. A former seminarian who had been active in the Catholic antiwar movement in Brooklyn, Garden Acosta joined the Young Lords Party in 1970 and later founded that group’s Massachusetts chapter while he was still a student at Harvard Medical School. In 2009, Garden Acosta told Democracy Now! about his participation in the Young Lords’ takeover of the First Spanish Methodist Church in East Harlem in late 1969, which the group used to house free breakfast and clothing programs, health services, a daycare center, a liberation school and community dinners. The occupation ended in January 1970, when police raided the church, arresting 105 members of the Young Lords.
Luis Garden Acosta: “Here I am, very much involved in Catholic Social Action. I am a former seminarian for the Catholic priesthood, a former monk. And so, the question of liberation theology was very much a part of my life, and my whole struggle was against this war in Vietnam. But at the same time, as I said, there were many missing issues that weren’t connecting, I thought. And then I heard that young people, who were trying to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, deal with the imprisoned, who were actually trying to perform the Christian mandate of what we call the Corporal Works of Mercy, had been bloodied in a church by police officers who had come in. That is an unprecedented thing. It sent chills up my spine. In a church! A sacred space. So I immediately, the next Sunday, went to investigate and be part of it.”
Luis Garden Acosta went on to pioneer successful nonviolent direct action campaigns against segregated public schools and against environmental racism in New York City. In his later years, together with his wife Frances Lucerna, Garden Acosta created an alternative public high school geared toward human rights activism, the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice.