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The Young Lords: Exploring the Legacy of the Radical Puerto Rican Activist Group 50 Years Later

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Image Credit: Getty Images/Anthony Pescatore

Fifty years ago this week, a group of young radical Puerto Ricans took to the streets of New York City to announce the formation of the New York chapter of the Young Lords. Formed in the same radical tradition of the Black Panther Party, the activists soon became a force in the community that inspired people around the nation. The Young Lords occupied churches and hospitals to offer services to the community, and educated people about Puerto Rican culture and history. They 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. While the group disintegrated in the mid-1970s, its impact is still felt today. Ahead of a commemorative event at the Schomburg Center in Harlem Friday, we speak with three former Young Lords: Denise Oliver-Velez, Carlito Rovira and Democracy Now!'s Juan González, who helped found the organization and served as its first minister of education. We also speak with Johanna Fernández, associate professor in the Department of History at CUNY's Baruch College. She is the author of the upcoming book “The Young Lords: A Radical History.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as massive protests rock Puerto Rico and Governor Ricardo Rosselló is expected to resign today, we turn now to look back at the Young Lords, a radical group founded by Puerto Ricans, similar to the Black Panther Party. The New York chapter began 50 years ago this week, when the group announced their formation at a rally in Tompkins Square Park to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

Soon after, the group launched an effort to force the city of New York to increase garbage pickup in East Harlem. It was known as the Garbage Offensive. Members of the Young Lords cleaned the streets of the Barrio and then piled the garbage into the middle of Third Avenue and set it on fire.

The Young Lords would go on to inspire activists across 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.

AMY GOODMAN: The Young Lords would also play a pivotal role in spreading awareness of Puerto Rican culture and history. While the group would disintegrate in the mid-’70s, its impact is still felt today. On Friday, a number of former Young Lords will gather at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to kick off a series of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the New York chapter.

We’re joined right now by four [sic] Young Lords, four [sic] former Young Lords. Denise Oliver-Velez was the first woman on the central committee of the Young Lords. Carlito Rovira is one of the original members of the Young Lords. And our own Juan González, who helped found the organization and served as its first minister of education. We’re also joined by Johanna Fernández, associate professor in the Department of History at CUNY’s Baruch College, who’s the author of the upcoming book, The Young Lords: A Radical History. So, three Young Lords here.

Juan, we have to begin with you, as you talk about the history, I mean, the moment—I want to go back to that clip that we played at the beginning, that we played in the billboard of this show, because it was a clip of you talking about the significance of what was happening back then.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We asked ourselves, after the death of Julio: Do we have to wait for number two or number three or number five or number 15, before we realize that that’s all that this system has in store for us? So we felt now is the time for us to say exactly how we’re going to respond to the killings of our people. We’re not going to sit by and allow more Julios and allow more Carmen Rodriguez abortion deaths. We have to begin to stand up as a people, the Puerto Rican people, and say, “That’s enough.” That’s enough.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what were the circumstances of 50 years ago and the founding of the Young Lords.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I think the key thing to understand is that the Puerto Rican community in the United States, and especially in New York City, where it was the largest, was effectively an invisible community for the rest of the city. It wasn’t—none of—Puerto Ricans, effectively, were second-class citizens, were subject to discrimination on a regular basis. And it was really the rise of this second generation of young people, the sons and daughters of the original migrants who came in the ’40s and ’50s, that began to demand respect for the Puerto Rican and Latino community. And so, the Lords arose out of that, out of the—most of us were children of parents born in Puerto Rico. I was actually born on the island but came here as a baby.

And so, the uprisings against the conditions in the ghettos of East Harlem and the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn was what got us going. And I think—and the fact that we constantly dealt with the direct issues confronting the community on a daily basis, whether it was garbage or healthcare or lack of—or the lack of teaching of Puerto Rican and African-American histories in the schools. These were the issues that we originally organized around.

The most important thing to remember is that the group was extremely young. I think Denise and I were the oldest people in the leadership, and we were like 21, 22. Everyone else was 18, 17. Carlos, over here, was what? Fourteen years old, when he joined the Young Lords?

AMY GOODMAN: And you had just come out of the Columbia uprising, the Columbia strike—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —that you were helping to lead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, yeah, but that was previously, yeah. And we were inspired by the Young Lords group in Chicago, which itself was inspired, to a great degree, by the formation of the Black Panther Party. And so, the group just blossomed and really recruited hundreds and hundreds of people in a very short period of time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were 14, Carlito?

CARLITO ROVIRA: Unbelievable, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you live, and why did you join? What inspired you?

CARLITO ROVIRA: Well, I grew up in the Lower East Side. And at the time, the Lower East Side was going through a transition from being a white neighborhood to a black and Latino neighborhood. And so, I got to experience directly the events of the West Side Story, the real events of the West Side Story, the racism, the being picked on and everything else. And when I joined the Young Lords, it was sort of like a vengeance for seeing the intensity of discrimination against not just my family, but many Puerto Rican families that we knew.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Carlos, as I recall, you were originally organized or gotten involved in politics by a former Black Panther—

CARLITO ROVIRA: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and then went La Raza Unida, the famous La Raza Unida conference in Denver in—what was it? 1968? Or…

CARLITO ROVIRA: You know, as you get older, you tend to forget what years. But, you know, at that time, I was involving myself in some of the effects of oppression—drugs, doing some stuff on the street that you shouldn’t be doing. And it was thanks to Bob Collier, who is now deceased—you know, he was a leader of the Black Panther Party in the Lower East Side and one of the Panther 21. Thanks to him, I’m alive today. And I was able to join the Young Lords, because he put me on a bus that went to the first Chicano Moratorium in Denver, Colorado. And that’s where I met Iris Morales. I met quite a few other number of people, on that bus trip, that eventually joined the Young Lords.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You also met Cha Cha Jiménez in Denver.

CARLITO ROVIRA: I met Cha Cha Jiménez. He was one of the first people I met, as soon as I got off the bus.

AMY GOODMAN: And his significance in Denver?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Cha Cha was the—for people who don’t know, who is Cha Cha?

CARLITO ROVIRA: Well, Cha Cha was the founder. He was the founder of the Young Lords. And he was impacted by the work that the Black Panther Party was doing in prisons. He was in prison at the time. And when he came out, he vowed to transform the—what was once a street gang into a revolutionary political entity.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This was in Chicago.

CARLITO ROVIRA: That was in Chicago, correct.

AMY GOODMAN: Denise Oliver-Velez, how did you get involved? Where were you born?

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: I was born in Brooklyn in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood. But I had been working at an organization in East Harlem called the Real Great Society. They were founded on the Lower East Side, where Carlito’s from. They had been a street gang, the Assassins. And they transformed themselves into a sort of—under the sort of Great Society rhetoric, and there was money, anti-poverty money, that came in. And they were rehabilitating buildings, because the slum buildings and the tenements on the Lower East Side and in East Harlem were horrific.

So, I met them at Howard University. And they recruited me to come and teach at a prep school for high school dropouts in El Barrio. And that was where the Sociedad de Albizu Campos, the Society of Albizu Campos, was founded. And then, we all—

AMY GOODMAN: Albizu Campos, who was revolutionary Puerto Rican figure.

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: Revolutionary leader from Puerto Rico.

AMY GOODMAN: Imprisoned and—

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: Tortured.

AMY GOODMAN: —experimented on—

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —in prison for decades.

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: So, some former Peace Corps people came to RGS, recruited a bunch of us to go to an experimental college on Long Island called Old Westbury. And when we got out there, there were 16 students on campus who were not white. So we formed a Non-White Caucus and banded together. And it was there that Juan came out to Old Westbury. Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán was a student at Old Westbury.

AMY GOODMAN: Who would become another newscaster, another journalist.

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: Who would become a newscaster. David Pérez came in from Chicago. And the core group—Felipe Luciano was a SEEK student at Queens College. He came out to Old Westbury. And a group of the young people decided to go to Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion and also find out why Johanna Fernández is writing a book on the Young Lords. Our guests are Carlito Rovira and Denise Oliver-Velez, Juan González, one of the co-founders of the New York chapter of the Young Lords. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Pa’lante” by the Puerto Rican musician Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

In December of 1969, Young Lords took over the First Spanish United Methodist Church in East Harlem, which became known as the People’s Church. For 11 days, Young Lords used the space to provide services to impoverished people, mostly black and Latino. They ran a breakfast program for children, provided basic healthcare, ran a daycare with Spanish language lessons and taught Puerto Rican history. This is a clip from the documentary El Pueblo se Levanta, produced by [Third] World Newsreel. This is Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán addressing the crowd at the People’s Church.

PABLOYORUBA” GUZMÁN: And it ain’t just y’all in this church. You know, it ain’t just East Harlem. Remember, we relate to an international struggle. So, it may sound ridiculous, but this all links up to what’s happening, from Vietnam to Puerto Rico to Watts. Don’t ever forget that, that without you here, see, y’all children have had it. What you do here today and what you do after you leave this church, no matter what happens, whether we get busted or whether we have to walk out, either way, it’s still a victory. Whatever happens on after that is going to be important for the fate of the world, because we’re in the belly of the monster, and people all over are waiting for us to take care of business. Now, I don’t like people to be too optimistic, because I’m kind of a pessimist, you know. But remember that no matter what happens, one way or the other, we have won. We have a victory here today. They can never take that away from us. Everybody here, go out, and you go out proud, no matter what happens, because this church is ours. This is the People’s Church.

CROWD: Right on! Right on!

PABLOYORUBA” GUZMÁN: All power to the people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán, the first minister of information of the Young Lords in New York. And, of course, a few days after Pablo speaks there, 105 of us were arrested by the New York City Police Department. I’m wondering, bringing in Johanna Fernández—Johanna, you’ve been doing a lot of research and interviewing on the Young Lords now for years. Your sense of what the importance of the People’s Church was to the Puerto Rican movement in this country?

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Well, as was said previously, Puerto Ricans were a super-exploited class in New York City, in many ways treated like people from Latin America who are migrating here are treated today—demeaned, demonized. And part of what the Young Lords did was that they amplified the dignity of an entire people. And at the church, they amplified the United States’ quiet colonial project on the island. And they explained to the people of New York and the world that the reason why so many Puerto Ricans migrated to New York—and they were migrating in larger numbers than African Americans at the time—was because of U.S. economic policy on the island, Operation Bootstrap.

So, in many ways, the church occupation gave Puerto Ricans a coming-out party. And it changed the perception of Puerto Ricans, because here you had incredibly talented, articulate, dynamic, strategic radicals, whose image was very different from the image that most New Yorkers had of Puerto Ricans, from what they read in the newspaper. It also inspired a massive arts movement of Puerto Ricans, the Puerto Rican arts movement.

And, you know, the Young Lords are an understudied part of the period of the ’60s. The ’60s transformed the way white people think about black people. It transformed how we understand issues of sex and gender. And the Young Lords really brought to the fore the idea that there were other people who were oppressed in the United States beyond African Americans. And all people of color stand to benefit from those struggles of the Young Lords today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Denise, one of the issues that, of course, you’ve raised, but many of us have raised over the years, is that while the Lords centered on the Puerto Rican community and the independence of Puerto Rico, the group itself was multiethnic, multinational, included many African Americans, Mexican Americans, Dominicans and Cubans, as well.

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: I think that what is so revolutionary about the Young Lords was we created a bridge. We broke down a lot of barriers between groups that were dealing with their individual communities. And that also has a lot to do with, when you talk about Spanish Harlem, El Barrio, you had about a third of the population in El Barrio was African-American. And you also had marriages between black Americans and Puerto Ricans, so we had people in the Lords who identified as both. The fact that we’re having this event at the Schomburg is really key. Arturo Schomburg, which a lot of people don’t know, was a black Puerto Rican, who had a parent from the Virgin Islands.

So, we were able to cross over a lot of those artificial barriers, because we had the same objective conditions of oppression and were able to unite. And that doesn’t mean that we didn’t have to struggle with issues of race or of gender or of class. But I think that we were successful in that. And it was also amazing that we did it with a group of 17-year-olds addressing those kind of issues.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the role of women, Denise?

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: The role of women, initially, in a cultural context, was, on one hand, to be passive. That’s what we were programmed into believing. But when we started studying history—and Juan, as minister of education, made sure that we learned about radical women leaders in Puerto Rico. And so, for most of us, including those of us who had been to college, we had never heard of people like Mariana Bracetti. We had never heard of even Doña Fela, who was the mayor of San Juan for so many years. And we began to examine—remember, the women’s movement was also—the second wave—was also coming along. We laid out our newspaper at The Rat, which was taken over by women. So, we began to push back against the ideas of—in the program, it said revolutionary machismo. And we said, “That’s really ridiculous. Machismo is not revolutionary; it’s oppressive.” And the young men in the organization joined with us women, and we made that change.

AMY GOODMAN: And you mentioned that this week, Friday night, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the New York chapter of the Young Lords, big event at the Schomburg, starting at 6:00. Johanna, you’re going to be moderating. All three of you are going to be speaking at this. And this is all happening in this remarkable week that is unfolding in Puerto Rico right now, where it looks like we’re on the cusp of the governor, who—a week ago, many people would not have thought this was possible, whether or not he was popular—is going to be resigning, after massive protest. The significance of this for you, Carlito?

CARLITO ROVIRA: Well, legacies are born out of traditions. And the Puerto Rican people have been fighting since the birth of our nation. And it’s a warning to those who come after Rosselló, that we will not be pacified by his resignation. Boricuas will continue fighting. That’s what we’re about. That’s how we came into existence. And we will be fighting until Puerto Ricans are free, in Puerto Rico and in the United States. We are a revolutionary people.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Denise, what this means to you?

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: I was amazed when I saw people on the island coming from a whole spectrum of politics. I mean, Puerto Rico has multiple political parties, and then it has some people who are like, “Ehh,” you know. But the fact that I saw people who were from the “ruling party” in the streets, people from the populares, independentistas, all making the same demands—

AMY GOODMAN: People for statehood, commonwealth and independence.

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: Yes, yes. And this is amazing. That would be like imagining a bunch of Trump people getting together with a bunch of people—Bernie Sanders folks, you know, out in the streets. So, that’s really key.

The other thing is, is I think that the mainstream media has been focusing on the chat, you know, the exposure of the things said in a private chat. But on the island, people are demanding: One, they want the junta, the fiscal control board, out; two, they have been raising issues about violence against women; three, they’ve been talking about the fact that Rosselló brought an American woman in to revamp the educational system on the island, turn it into charter schools and shut down public education. And parents and teachers are protesting.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And she was then indicted for corruption.

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: Yes, she’s been—you know, and she’s sort of like the Betsy DeVos of Puerto Rico. So, there are a number of things, and I think that we really—

AMY GOODMAN: Making way more than the governor.

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: Yeah. There’s also—

AMY GOODMAN: Way more than Betsy DeVos, not that Betsy DeVos doesn’t have more money.

DENISE OLIVER-VELEZ: One other thing I really want to bring up is that, in September, 900,000 people on the island are due to lose their medical coverage. And that’s going to be—we’re talking about 4,000 people who died in the hurricane. Imagine 900,000 people, where a lot of them are elderly and they’re not going to be able to get their insulin. Children won’t get their asthma medications. I mean, the number of deaths is going to be phenomenal. And I don’t want to see us go, “Oh, this is so terrible. Look at all the dead people in Puerto Rico. Let’s maybe do something now.” So people are raising these issues ahora, now, in Puerto Rico and also in the diaspora.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Johanna, I wanted to ask you about the commemoration, because this event at the Schomburg is actually kicking off several commemoration events that will be happening throughout the rest of the year. But I understand that the responses to this event Friday night is already—they’re ready filled? They can’t get any more people to reserve seats for it?

JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: So, the response has been tremendous. We have 800 people who have RSVP’d, and there are only 400 seats at the Schomburg. We expect to have a packed house. People should get there early.

This is a propitious moment. In many ways, what’s happening in Puerto Rico is an example of the economic and political crisis around the world. Five hundred schools have been shut down in Puerto Rico. Prisoners are not being fed. Five thousand people died during the hurricane, and many, many more later. So, the reason why there are 1.2 million people in the streets is a reflection of the crisis.

And part of what the Young Lords tried to do during their history was to keep alive the heartbeat of resistance and Puerto Rican resistance and the call for Puerto Rican independence from U.S. imperialism. And part of what we’ve being hearing at these demonstrations is that Puerto Rico is not for sale to American businesses. It’s not for sale to capitalism. And we will not have our island privatized. That’s what the struggle is about. That’s what the Young Lords were about. And that’s really what the world is clamoring, the world over, that if we sell our land, our island, to business, we’re not long for this world. The environmental crisis is a sign of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all so much for being with us. Again, that event Friday night is at the Schomburg Center in Harlem at 6:00, and I guess you have to get there early, as you said. And that is called “The Young Lords, New York @50 Activism: Past & Present.” And it’s certainly going on today. I want to thank you all for being with us, Denise Oliver-Velez and Carlito Rovira, of course Juan González, and Johanna Fernández. I very much look forward to reading your book.

We’re going to end with the live testimony, that’s going on right now, of former special counsel Robert Mueller. He’s testifying on Capitol Hill for the first time about his investigation into President Trump. And we will be covering this tomorrow.

REP. DOUG COLLINS: …office would not go beyond our report. “We chose these words carefully. The word speaks for itself. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.” Do you stand by that statement?

ROBERT MUELLER: Yes.

REP. DOUG COLLINS: Since closing the Special Counsel’s Office in May of 2019, have you conducted any additional interviews or obtained any new information in your role as special counsel?

ROBERT MUELLER: In the—in the—in the wake of the report?

REP. DOUG COLLINS: Since the—since the closing of the office in May of 2019.

ROBERT MUELLER: And the question was? Did we do any—

REP. DOUG COLLINS: Have you conducted any new interviews, any new witnesses, anything?

ROBERT MUELLER: No.

REP. DOUG COLLINS: And you can confirm you’re no longer special counsel, correct?

ROBERT MUELLER: I am no longer special counsel.

REP. DOUG COLLINS: At any time with the investigation, was your investigation curtailed or stopped or hindered?

ROBERT MUELLER: No.

REP. DOUG COLLINS: Were you or your team provided any questions by members of Congress or the majority ahead of your hearing today?

ROBERT MUELLER: No.

REP. DOUG COLLINS: Your report states that your investigative team included 19 lawyers and approximately 40 FBI agents and analysts and accountants.

AMY GOODMAN: You have been listening to Congressman Collins, Republican Congressmember Collins, questioning Robert Mueller. And we’re going to be bringing you the highlights of the two hearings today, House Intelligence and House Judiciary, tomorrow on Democracy Now!

That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our website is democracynow.org. Thanks so much for joining us.

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