Democracy Now! co-host Juan González recently spoke at the CUNY Grad Center in the final of his three “farewell” speeches in New York before he moved to Chicago. In a speech titled, “Latinos, Race and Empire,” Juan talked about his time with the Young Lords, the future of Puerto Rico, corporate America’s embrace of DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), and more.
JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: Buenos noches. Bienvenidos a todos, y que viva Puerto Rico libre.
It is my highest honor to welcome you this evening to a talk by Juan González titled “Latinos, Race and Empire.” My name is Johanna Fernández. I’m associate professor of history at Baruch College of the City University of New York. I’m teaching at the Graduate Center this term. And I thank Joel Allen for the invitation.
Once again, the title of this talk is “Latinos, Race and Empire.” When I first learned that Professor González was leaving New York, I immediately approached the Department of History’s administrator, Marilyn Weber, and the department chair, Professor Jonathan Sassi, about organizing an event like this one. Both said that this was a job for the Office of Public Programs. Karen Sander, its director, enthusiastically seized the prospect of having Puerto Rican working-class New Yorker Juan González grace the stage. So, that means this would not have happened without Karen. The Office of Public Programs is the main host of this event. Our co-sponsors are the Ph.D. Program in History and the Ph.D. Program in the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies.
“Latinos, Race and Empire” is the kind of event that speaks to the CUNY mission. We are committed to educating and telling the stories of the people who make the city run, the soul of the city, its working class. And we’re committed to teaching and writing the history of New York’s essential workers, its migrants, their culture and the struggles of these peoples for a just society in all of the complexities of these stories.
Juan González was born in East Harlem and grew up in the Cypress Hill projects. And that was fancy working-class housing at the time. He went to Franklin K. Lane public high school, one of the largest high schools in New York City. At Lane High School, he captured the attention of the school’s toughest and most exacting teacher, Pauline Bonagura, and she was the adviser of the school newspaper. Unbeknownst to him, his teacher decided his freshman year that Juan be the editor of the school newspaper his senior year. And these are his words, by the way, from my interviews with him. But she wanted him to go through a training process first. So she sent him to a program for high school juniors at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Chicago.
After high school, the brilliant González went to Columbia University, where he got into good trouble in the year of the barricade, 1968. Thereafter, he joined the Young Lords Organization, later the Young Lords Party. And the Young Lords are the Puerto Rican counterpart of the Young Lords — of the Black Panthers, the Puerto Rican counterpart of the Black Panthers. And during this period, he wrote for its newspaper, Palante. It was there that Juan’s generation asked and answered the question: Who am I, and what is my relationship to this country?
He, Juan González, is award-winning author and journalist. He’s the author of the brilliant landmark book we all know, Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America, which came out in Spanish for the first time in mid-November but celebrated more than 20 years in June.
After the Young Lords, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was the president of the Association of African American Journalists, asked him to be his vice president. And he agreed. This is what solidarity looks like among racialized people.
Juan González is the co-author, with Joe Torres, of the must-read book, News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. Again, a must-read book.
For many years, Juan González wrote for the Daily News. He’s founder and president of the Association of Hispanic Journalists. He is co-anchor, with Amy Goodman, of Democracy Now!, which is filming this event tonight.
He has been active in social movements since he came of age, from his leadership in the Columbia strikes of 1968 and the U.S. military out of Vieques movement — that won — to Mothers Against Police Brutality, following the killing of Anthony Baez in the 1990s, to the Black Lives Matter movement today.
It is truly the highest honor for me to welcome the Richard D. Heffner professor of communications and public policy and professor of professional practice, journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, one of the baddest New Yorkers in town on the low, Juan González.
But first, I’d like to invite Alexa Avilés, who’s city councilwoman for District 38, and David Galarza Santa, who’s a known labor and community activist here in New York and beyond.
DAVID GALARZA SANTA: ¡Buenas noches!
AUDIENCE: ¡Buenas noches!
DAVID GALARZA SANTA: It’s a little cold. You have to wake up those genes, right? ¡Buenas noches!
AUDIENCE: ¡Buenas noches!
DAVID GALARZA SANTA: It is indeed such a great honor to be here with Juan González and all of you tonight. I can truthfully and proudly say that Puerto Rican elected officials, like the Councilmember Alexa Avilés, and troublemakers, like myself, are here today because we stand on the shoulders of giants like Juan González. So, please give it up again for Juan González.
ALEXA AVILÉS: Yes!
DAVID GALARZA SANTA: And so many others who are in the audience, former Young Lords themselves, like Minerva Solla, like Sonia Ivany, like Mickey Melendez, like Santos Crespo. We tip our hats to you for always being the revolutionaries you were then and continue to be today. So thank you all for also being here. Those are the ones I saw — Estela Vázquez.
In this, his third and final farewell talk before taking off for the Windy City, the City Council wanted to offer him a citation — not the kind he got often as a radical student protest leader at Columbia or as a Young Lord, but one that recognizes the vast contributions he’s made to the city, la Gran Manzana.
In his seminal book, A Puerto Rican in New York, and Other Sketches, the great Boricua writer, activist and revolutionary Jesús Colón offers us a sketch of a walking tour through New York City, where, to his surprise and disbelief, he was unable to find a single statue devoted or dedicated to a Puerto Rican in this town.
Flashback to the future, our very own David Gonzalez of The New York Times — and please give it up for the Guild members who went on their walkout a couple of days ago — David updated the story in a column, only to discover that there was a statue dedicated even to an Alaskan sled dog, but still not a single statue dedicated to an illustrious Boricua. How could that be? To date, only the great Roberto Clemente has a statue, at the Bronx park that bears his name.
But what about other figures, like José Ferrer and Miriam Colón and Pedro Pietri and Pura Belpré and Evelina Antonetty, Juan’s comrade Richie Pérez in the Young Lords and the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, Alice Cardona, Ramón Jiménez, and so many others deserving of that honor?
Today, Juan, we humbly offer you this proclamation, not as a — not a statue, because statues are usually done after — right? — you go through another —
ALEXA AVILÉS: Not yet. Not yet.
DAVID GALARZA SANTA: We’re not ready for that one. But please know that your living tribute and legacy remains in the spirit of the students who continue to demand inclusion and access; on the picket lines of the Times, Starbucks, Amazon and The New School; in the police accountability work of the Justice Committee, that comes out of the National Congress of Puerto Rican Rights; in the muckraking investigative stories that uncover graft and lies, as you did in the aftermath of 9/11 and saved many lives; at hospitals that remain open and serving the public, like Lincoln Hospital; and at places of worship like the People’s Church, that have swung their doors open to the community. Your contributions will surely live on and will not be forgotten, because just like that great revolutionary, who you once embodied a little while ago when your hair was a little darker and in your younger years, the true revolutionary is a revolutionary — the revolutionary is guided by great feeling of love. And we know, we feel, and we value that love and commitment, Juan and we love you right back. Pa’lante, Juan. Siempre pa’lante.
ALEXA AVILÉS: So, hello, everyone. My name is Alexa Avilés, and I am the councilmember representing District 38 in South Brooklyn. Thank you. A proud Boricua. Like Juan, a Columbia graduate. Go, Lions, go!
Pero it is my true, true honor to be able to offer Juan this proclamation on behalf of the New York City Council, on behalf of every Boricua that has traversed this great city, and even the one — the city that you’re going to now, which I have a little problem with, but we’re gonna let you go — to say thank you, de corazón, for everything you have done. I am here because of you. We are here because of you. And we honor you, and we thank you, and we indeed love you.
And we just — on behalf — I won’t read it. You can read it later. Pero, obviously, it could be a very long, long tome, because his accomplishments are just quite astounding. But we fought a little bit about how revolutionary City Council wanted to be, and we fought about words in this proclamation. And I would not have them whitewashing this proclamation. So I want you to know. Hopefully it captures your spirit. But we thank you, and we honor you. And on behalf of New York City Council, on behalf of my community, gracias de corazón.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Gracias.
JOHANNA FERNÁNDEZ: We have hundreds of people on Zoom, and we will have questions and answer afterwards. Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Good evening. My thanks to the Graduate Center of the City University of New York’s Public Programs and to its director, Karen Sander, for sponsoring my talk tonight, and especially to Johanna Fernández, history professor at Baruch College, who worked feverishly, in a very short time, to put this event together and for graciously agreeing to moderate the discussion afterward.
I can’t say enough in praise of Johanna, whom I first met many years ago when she was a graduate student at Columbia’s School for International Affairs. Over the decades, she has made her mission to research, rescue and champion the legacy and history of the Young Lords Party, an effort that culminated several years ago in her curating simultaneous exhibitions about the Lords in three different museum spaces, and then in the release of her epic book, The Young Lords Party: A Radical History, the result of more than 15 years of her research. Her book was showered with multiple national academic prizes, including the prestigious Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians. But her teaching at CUNY and her scholarship on the Lords are just two facets of her work. She has been for years a tireless advocate of the campaign to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal, one of the country’s most famous political prisoners, even producing a wonderful documentary, Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. And she’s also been the host of her own radio show, a talk show on WBAI.
As many of you know, I’m leaving New York this week — tomorrow, actually — departing permanently from the city I have called home for most of my life, the place where I grew up, where I was educated and shaped professionally and politically, and will instead be relocating to Chicago, the hometown of my wife, Lilia Fernández, who is a terrific professor of history now at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
It’s not an easy thing to do at my age. I just turned 75 a few years ago — a few weeks ago, excuse me. A few weeks ago. Those of us lucky enough to be somewhat lucid at that age have a tendency to reflect frequently on the past and wonder, “Where did all the time go? Did we manage to achieve some greater good, beyond just security and success for ourselves and our loved ones? Did our lives make a difference?”
I decided the best way to answer such questions for myself, while also bidding goodbye to many friends, comrades and colleagues, was with some farewell talks that would try to sum up the insights I’ve gained from my considerable battles as a radical activist, as a journalist and as a student of history, maybe to reveal in the process some incidents from those battles I had never had the chance to mention publicly but which could provide lessons to a younger generation who are still determined to practice good journalism and still devoted to making a better world possible. Consider these remarks the first draft of a possible memoir, or simply chalk them up to my inability to shake off my old role in the Young Lords as minister of education.
My first talk at Columbia Journalism School on November 18th centered on journalism and the media, looking back on my decades of using advocacy journalism as a means of challenging racial and class stereotypes, and my lifelong effort to deconstruct the myth of objective journalism. The second, at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies on December 9th, explored my little-known, behind-the-scenes experiences as a labor organizer, and my many eyewitness news reports and columns on working-class movements throughout the United States and Latin America. Tonight, in this final talk, “Latinos, Race and Empire,” I hope to use the lens of my work in a variety of grassroots Latino organizations that fought to achieve social and racial justice, to oppose colonialism and imperialism, with a special focus on what they can teach today’s generation.
In retrospect, this area was perhaps my most important life’s work. It eventually led to my writing of Harvest of Empire, which, to my complete surprise, became perhaps the best-selling work in the United States on Latino history of the past 20 years. The book’s main thesis is that the massive Latino presence in the United States today — more than 62 million people and growing — is a direct result of the late 19th and early 20th century penetration and pillaging of Latin America by U.S. banks, corporations and the military. Latinos, quite simply, are the harvest of the empire — an unintended harvest, for sure, but one nonetheless. Tonight’s event is meant, in part, to commemorate the release earlier this year of a new and updated edition of Harvest, and also the publication, as Johanna mentioned, just a few weeks ago of the first Spanish-language translation of the book, titled La cosecha del imperio.
But there’s another reason why I feel the need to speak out now, before my departure, a deep concern that an unhealthy trend has begun to take hold in recent years among some sectors of Black and Latinx progressives, especially among intellectuals and academics, a trend that needs to be challenged directly through a principled but respectful debate, one that draws vital lessons from the Latino community’s long and heroic history of grassroots struggles. I’m referring to a false fixation in many progressive circles with anti-Black racism as the burning political question of the day, to the point that some well-meaning but misguided folks now claim the concept of Latinos itself or the existence of Latin America are anti-Black and white supremacist in essence.
This fixation has dovetailed perfectly with a new strategy by America’s neoliberal capitalists to finance a sprawling new diversity, equity and inclusion industry — they call it DEI — in our universities, in corporate workplaces and in the foundation world, all meant to systematically coopt any movements for radical change, to further divide and deviate the masses of the people from uniting against the real source of our common oppression — American capitalism and imperialism — and to avoid any acknowledgment of the persistence of class conflicts among people of color. It is a project the philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò exposed quite exhaustively in his recent book — and I highly recommend the book — Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else).
We who founded the New York Young Lords more than 50 years ago also confronted and rejected similar efforts. I’ve often been amazed how the image and actions of the Lords as militant revolutionaries continue to spark enduring fascination among young activists, yet too often the content of what we stood for gets lost.
It was July 26, 1969. A few dozen of us, most barely out of our teens, gathered together in Tompkins Square Park in purple berets and green field jackets and announced to the world that the Young Lords were here, determined to become the Puerto Rican arm of a social revolution that was then sweeping the world. I was 21 then, barely the oldest member of the original Central Committee. The average age of our membership was 17.
Over the next few years, we astonished ourselves and everyone around us with what we managed to accomplish, how we freed our minds, taught ourselves history and politics, changed our ways of relating to each other, forced those in power to respond to our community’s demands for systemic change, how we consciously shaped and controlled our own narrative through our own newspaper, Palante, our own radio show on WBAI, and our deft handling of the commercial and corporate press. In almost no time, we awakened an entire generation of young Latinos. I have always felt immensely privileged to have been part of this most talented, dedicated and committed group of people, at all levels, not just leadership, and still marvel at how young we were when we did all these things, how fearless in the face of all those who were older and more skeptical, who kept telling us we wouldn’t accomplish much.
For a brief period, we naively believed nothing could stop us, that a revolution was around the corner. Then came the reaction by those in power, as it always does — the police repression, the COINTELPRO campaigns of the Nixon era, the sectarianism and infighting that weakened us from within and turned us against each other, all of it made worse by our own youthful arrogance, a conceit fueled by all the initial success and all the fawning media attention that went to our heads. Mao Zedong called that death by “sugar-coated bullets.” That was followed by the counterrevolution of the Reagan-Bush era, all-out attempts to bury the memory of everything that radical groups like the Young Lords or the Black Panthers or Los Siete or La Raza Unida or SNCC represented.
But it wasn’t just the daring actions of the Lords that are important to remember — our garbage offensives, our healthcare programs, our occupations of institutions, our confrontations with the police who were terrorizing our neighborhoods, our organizing of prison inmates to demand better conditions, our protests advocating for Puerto Rican and Black studies programs at the universities. Even more significant was our analysis of race, class and empire, an analysis that stemmed from the very composition of our group. We were, after all, the sons and daughters of working-class migrants from the U.S.’s largest colonial territory. Long before decoloniality became a popular school of thought in academia, the Lords began exposing not just the political and the economic facts of colonialism, but its psychological effect, the colonized mentality first identified by Frantz Fanon. Our primitive political manifesto, written in 1972, entitled The Ideology of the Young Lords Party, expressed it best, and I quote: “We can only unchain our minds from the colonized mentality if we learn our true history, understand our culture, and work towards unity.”
The Lords were also perhaps the first Latino political group in the United States whose leadership was primarily Black. And this rarely gets acknowledged. Of the six early members of our Central Committee, three were Afro-Puerto Rican: Felipe Luciano, Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán and Juan “Fi” Ortiz. One was African American: Denise Oliver. And two were light-skinned Puerto Ricans: David Pérez and myself. More than 25% of our total membership was African American or Afro-Latino. Thus, our very existence directly challenged racial prejudice within our own communities.
In that 1972 manifesto, an essay by Denise Oliver eloquently explained what we referred to as the “non-conscious ideology” of racism among Latinos, one that had been instilled in us by colonialism. “We should not be afraid to criticize ourselves about racism,” Denise wrote. “We are all racists, not because we want to be, but because we are taught to be that way, to keep us divided, because it benefits the capitalist system. And this applies to racism toward Asians, toward other Brown people, and toward white people. White people are not the oppressor — capitalists are. We will never have socialism until we are free of these chains on our mind.” That was Denise Oliver in 1972.
Back then, we always distinguished between the individual racial biases imbued in us by colonialism and capitalism, what we referred to as “contradictions among the people,” and the systematically racist policies of the society’s major institutions, which we called “antagonistic contradictions” between classes. How different and clear that analysis is compared to all the claptrap we hear these days about diversity, equity and inclusion, with employee training sessions proliferating everywhere, that supposedly aim at rooting out anti-Black bias among individuals, but only result in confusion, mistrust and division among their participants, sessions run by so-called diversity consultants paid as much as $1,000 per hour by the very forces that perpetuate systemic racial and class oppression.
As a natural outgrowth of the Lords’ analysis, we developed close and excellent working relationships with a variety of radical groups of that era, including the Panthers, the Republic of New Afrika, the Congress of African Peoples, I Wor Kuen, the Union of Democratic Filipinos, Students for a Democratic Society, the Revolutionary Union and the Young Patriots. And we were also founding members of the original Rainbow Coalition created by the late great Panther leader Fred Hampton. In short, we never sought to focus on what divides racial and ethnic groups, but instead to elevate what unites us.
After the Lords fell apart, many of us moved on to other movements and causes, but we always held fast to the slogan, “Unite the many to defeat the few.” By the 1970s, I was working with the African Liberation Support Committee in Philadelphia, helping to raise financial and political support for the liberation movements in Africa against white minority rule in Rhodesia, South Africa and Mozambique.
This was also the era of Frank Rizzo, a notorious, racist, dictatorial mayor and former police chief of Philadelphia, who attempted in 1978 to remove term limits so he could remain mayor for life. In an effort to build the widest possible movement against this power grab, I took a job as co-coordinator of something called the Stop Rizzo Coalition, and, within that broader group, spearheaded Puerto Ricans United Against Rizzo. There, I worked closely not only with liberal Democrats — Paul Tully, for example, the Kennedy Democrat who would later become the chief strategist of Bill Clinton’s presidential victory, was my co-coordinator — but with Republicans, as well, with several ex-members of the Black Panther Party, like Reggie Schell in the Black United Front, housing activists like John and Milton Street, legendary DJ and civil rights leader Georgie Woods at WDAS. And all of us together managed in a few short weeks to register more than 100,000 new voters in the Black and Puerto Rican communities and engineer a massive turnout that overwhelmingly defeated Rizzo’s referendum ploy and paved the way for modern Black political power in Philadelphia government.
One of the early movement’s most inspiring moments was a militant march organized by the Street brothers into the heart of Rizzo territory, South Philadelphia’s Whitman Park area, where a coalition of right-wing whites had prevented the building of a federal public housing project for 25 years. More than 2,000 of us from the city’s Black and Puerto Rican community marched straight through the middle of South Philadelphia to Whitman Park, even as hundreds of angry residents tossed bottles and eggs and shouted racist obscenities at us. More than any single event, the Whitman Park march became a symbol that the era of legally sanctioned racism in Philadelphia was over. Milton Street would eventually become a state senator. His brother John Street would go on to be the president of the Philadelphia City Council and a two-term mayor of that city.
Those of us in the Latino community who took part in that march soon formed the Puerto Rican Alliance, a broad umbrella group of grassroots organizations. Like the Street brothers were doing in the Black community, the Alliance began to organize Puerto Rican families in Philadelphia to take over or squat in abandoned homes owned by the federal government, of which there were thousands in the city at the time. We soon had more than 150 squatter families just in the Puerto Rican community. We orchestrated repeated protests at HUD’s offices to demand the titles to these properties. We held a surprise occupation with the families and their children at Philadelphia’s famous Independence Hall, and an even more dramatic occupation of President Jimmy Carter’s Pennsylvania campaign headquarters on the day before Carter was to face Ted Kennedy in their tight 1980 primary for the Democratic presidential nomination. Carter’s people were so desperate to get our people out of their building, because they needed it for the primary the next day, that his aides secretly agreed to grant the squatters title to their homes if we would just leave before the opening of the polls. It was an enormous victory, a concrete victory that bettered the lives of hundreds of the lowest-income Puerto Ricans in the city. And it came about only because of bold Young Lord-like actions, and thanks to our close work and class solidarity with major African American radical activists, because neither the upper strata of Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican community nor that of the Black community gave a damn about or had any connection to the plight of homeless families back then.
Between 1971 and 1973, Black and Latino community organizations across the United States filed more than 340 challenges at the Federal Communications Commission against the radio and television licenses of stations in virtually every major city in America, all demanding that people of color be hired in greater numbers and that programming better reflect the composition of the communities those stations served. A succession of racial discrimination lawsuits roiled the major news organizations, such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Associated Press and the Daily News. The result was the first great democratic revolution in the American media, with a sudden influx of young Black and Brown journalists into the nation’s newsrooms who posed the first significant challenge to the reigning narratives about Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and other people of color.
After the Lords disintegrated, several of us in the organization’s original leadership drifted toward careers in the media. I ended up being hired as a young reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News in 1978, right after we defeated Rizzo. At the time, I was the only Latino journalist with a full-time job in the city’s mainstream media, including all the radio and television stations and the four daily newspapers. Then, in the early 1980s, a handful of Puerto Ricans landed jobs as producers or on-air reporters. They began producing reports for local TV, as I did in the newspaper, on the resistance by the Fishermen’s Association of Vieques to the U.S. Navy bombing of their island. Such stories would never had made the news back then were it not for the handful of journalists who were cognizant of Puerto Rico’s history and understood their responsibility to assure a new kind of coverage about the island’s colonial status.
My most vivid recollection in that regard came in January of 1981 with the campaign against the racist Hollywood movie, Fort Apache, the Bronx. Richie Pérez, an old comrade from Young Lords days and later to be a fellow member of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, was then leading the Committee Against Fort Apache in a militant boycott movement against the film that had spread across the country. The editor-in-chief at the Philadelphia Daily News was well aware of my history as an activist, and he insisted that I had to view the film before daring to criticize it in print. So he assigned me to attend an invitation-only press junket and screening that Time-Life Films, the production company, had quietly scheduled for the nation’s movie critics. The film’s producer, David Susskind, its director, Dan Petrie, and its two main actors, Paul Newman and Ed Asner, all enjoyed reputations at the time as Hollywood liberals. Petrie and Newman were scheduled to participate in a Q&A with all the critics during the event.
I immediately telephoned Richie Pérez in New York and alerted him to the date and place of the screening at the hotel in Atlanta — a city apparently chosen by Time-Life to avoid any possible protests. Richie purchased an airplane ticket and booked a room at the same hotel. Once we arrived in Atlanta, I shared with him a copy of the agenda of the two days. It called for a luxurious reception the first evening, after which the reporters would board a bus in front of the hotel for a ride to a nearby movie theater for the screening. But when the reporters filed into the buses, they encountered Richie standing at the door in a suit and tie and handing out glossy press packets, except the packets were not touting the film. They contained literature against it from the Committee Against Fort Apache and press clippings of all the protests. Before the Time-Life security guards even became aware of what was happening, Richie had boarded the bus, introduced himself and made a quick speech to the assembled critics about the campaign. He then announced the hospitality suite in his hotel room after the screening to further discuss the racist anti-Puerto Rican nature of the film. More than a dozen reporters subsequently took him up on his invitation.
The following morning at the press conference with Paul Newman and Petrie, Richie was outside the conference room, again distributing literature. Hotel security guards attempted to remove him, whereupon a short scuffle ensued, with Richie insisting that as a paying guest at the hotel, he had every right to be in the hallway. During the actual press conference, Newman and Petrie were visibly shaken by the commotion outside.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the generally negative reviews of Fort Apache that subsequently appeared in the nation’s newspapers when the film opened the following month were due in no small part to the massive community opposition to the film, and to that contentious press junket in Atlanta that Richie had crashed. For one brief moment, the distorted narrative about Puerto Ricans in America had not simply been challenged; it had been delegitimized.
Richie and I were soon working together again in the newly formed National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, an extraordinary mass organization with several thousand members that functioned throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, combining many former members of the Young Lords, of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, of El Comité, as well as young labor activists and community organizations and elected officials, into statewide groups in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and for a time in Florida. Members of the Congress achieved real political advances for Puerto Ricans in places like Boston, Hartford, Philadelphia, Vineland, New Jersey, and other smaller towns.
Through its Justice Committee, the Congress became the leading group exposing the epidemic of police brutality against Latinos, in cases like the murder of David Baez, of Hilton Vega and Anthony Rosario, of Federico Pereira. Richie, in particular, became known throughout the country for his work leading the Justice Committee, and he often was the main person in the Latino community working side by side with Reverend Al Sharpton, Charles Barron and other Black leaders on police abuse cases in the Black community.
But as the Latino population of the U.S. grew, and as the Puerto Rican population of the Midwest and Northeast became more dispersed throughout the nation, the ethnic groups within the Latino community that composed the lower strata of the working class changed. Today, even on the East Coast, it is Mexican and Central American migrants who increasingly fill the lowest-paying and most oppressive jobs in society. At the same time, migration from the middle and upper classes of Latin America has accelerated over the past few decades from countries such as Colombia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and even Puerto Rico, with many Latin Americans from well-to-do families often traveling to the U.S. to study, then staying to fill professional and academic jobs in this country. In the universities, that has led to the phenomenon of wealthy Latin Americans having disproportionate influence over ethnic studies programs that were originally created from the battles of working-class Puerto Ricans and Chicanos raised in the barrios of the United States. Yet the current students of those programs are increasingly Mexican, Salvadoran and Guatemalan children of peasant and working-class migrants. In other words, class differences have sharpened dramatically within the Latino community.
I witnessed this directly when I began teaching at Rutgers University in 2017. The population of New Brunswick, the city where Rutgers’s main campus is located, is about 50% Latino. But that population is largely Mexican and Central American, since the city’s historic Puerto Rican community declined ages ago due to previous waves of gentrification and outmigration. In late 2019, my wife and I became involved in a major community struggle against displacement of low-income Latino families. Neighborhood parents were determined to prevent Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, part of the state’s largest hospital chain, and the Rutgers Cancer Institute from purchasing and demolishing one of the city’s best-performing public schools, Lincoln Annex, to make way for a huge new hospital expansion. Of the school’s 750 pupils, 94% were Latino, mostly from immigrant Mexican and Central American families, with many of the parents unable to vote, so the city’s political elite figured it would be easy to remove them from the rapidly gentrifying downtown area around the hospital.
A broad coalition arose of community residents, progressive Rutgers faculty and students to oppose the sale. The movement spearheaded repeated militant protests and rallies by hundreds of people, social media campaigns, repeated disruptions of Board of Education and City Council hearings, and several lawsuits filed by LatinoJustice PRLDEF. It quickly emerged as a textbook example of oppressed working-class Latinos demanding basic respect and of a university community opposing injustice from its own hierarchy.
Amazingly, at these government meetings, many of the officials backing the gentrification were from the city’s Puerto Rican, Dominican and African American community — excuse me a second here. Can’t separate these pages here. Here we are. From the city’s Puerto Rican, Dominican and African American elite. They were people who had long ago been integrated into local political machines, and who functioned as mouthpieces and defenders for it.
In the midst of the campaign, the coronavirus pandemic erupted, followed by the national economic shutdown, all of which forced the Coalition to Defend Lincoln Annex to adopt new tactics of resistance. Since the city’s immigrant households had been devastated by the pandemic and were receiving no government assistance, as most officials retreated to the safety of their homes and remote work, we in the coalition launched a mutual aid effort and a GoFundMe page to assist those families. We managed, within a few short weeks, to raise more than $23,000 and to rapidly distribute cash grants of $300 to $500 to nearly 70 families. It was a remarkable show of grassroots perseverance and unity in the face of public health crisis and economic collapse.
But what struck me most in the Lincoln Annex battle was not just the betrayal of those Black and Latino officials. It was that the coalition attracted greater participation from the university’s white and African American progressive faculty and students than it did, with a handful of notable exceptions, from the faculty and students of the Latino Studies Program at Rutgers, who in prior decades would have been at the forefront of such a struggle.
And my fear is that this is no anomaly. Across the country, ethnic studies departments, born out of community activism of the 1960s, that once championed publicly engaged scholarship, and which still claim to be the voice of the marginalized and oppressed, are increasingly disconnected from the working-class Latino populations that often reside just steps from their ivy-covered walls. At some of these universities, Black and Latino scholars eagerly line up to apply for new diversity, equity and inclusion grants, that will increase their personal prestige, bring them greater pay or win them release from teaching loads, while they remain eerily silent about their own universities’ neoliberal policies of cutting teaching expenditures, and ignoring or displacing the low-income communities around them, or endlessly raising student tuition. Many of those students, meanwhile, are forced to burden themselves with ever-growing debt, while receiving instruction largely from part-time, poorly compensated and contingent lecturers, who themselves face little job security and inadequate working conditions.
Quite simply, the inconveniences, injustices or racial slights of academia and other professional sectors do not compare to the magnitude of the very real social and economic problems confronting more than 60 million people of Latin American descent in the United States, or that of the more than 3 million Latino students in higher education today.
Little wonder that Kwame Nkrumah, the legendary Pan-African socialist and first president of Ghana, noted in his last book, Class Struggles in Africa, quote, and I’m quoting Nkrumah, “The intelligentsia always leads the nationalist movements in its early stages. It aspires to replace the colonial power, but not to bring about a radical transformation of society. The object is to control the system rather than to change it, since the intelligentsia tends as a whole to be bourgeois-minded and against revolutionary transformation.”
My references tonight to Fanon and Nkrumah and the evolution of class struggle among colonial peoples is for a reason. In the Young Lords, the colonial condition of our homeland was always central to our identity. Our iconic button featured a map of the island and the slogan, ”Tengo Puerto Rico en mi corazón,” “I have Puerto Rico in my heart.” And an end to U.S. colonial control was a key plank of our program. The lessons of that for today are important to grasp.
Fifty years ago, we used to say that the Puerto Rican people were a divided nation, one-third of us living in the United States, and two-thirds in Puerto Rico. Today, those statistics have been dramatically reversed. Some 5.8 million Puerto Ricans now reside in the United States, while just 3.2 million reside on the island, according to the 2020 census. Five-eighths of our population, in other words, is now here. There are today four Puerto Ricans in Congress with a vote: Nydia Velázquez, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ritchie Torres from New York and Darren Soto from Central Florida. There is only one in Congress from the island, Resident Commissioner Jennifer González. She has no vote. The bulk of the political power of the Puerto Rican people, in other words, is now here in the United States.
All of these changes affect how activists and scholars approach the real-world solutions to Puerto Rico’s colonial condition, especially in the wake of the debt crisis, PROMESA, Hurricane Maria, a series of earthquakes, all of which have combined to bring unprecedented calamity to the island’s residents.
As I have urged repeatedly for years, there’s an urgent need for more anti-imperialist scholars to dedicate themselves to analyzing how changes in the world capitalist economy have manifested themselves in Puerto Rico over the past 20 or 30 years. It is time we acknowledge that globalization has rendered historic concepts of national independence almost meaningless. You no longer need foreign armies to control the population, when you can read everyone’s mail, tap everyone’s phone, empty a country’s coffers and paralyze its economy from afar through satellites, instant wire transfers and simple cancellations of bank credit lines. Today, small nations need more creative and flexible tactics to defend themselves from bullying by larger ones, to assert national sovereignty in an increasingly interdependent world. And Puerto Rican activists will never successfully tackle such problems with rote references to conditions 50 years ago.
I don’t claim to have all the answers, only that we must work harder than ever to find solutions, and that we must never forget to ask what class interest is served by any solution. My observations tonight are not meant to needlessly cast fault on anyone, only to emphasize that the crucial test of our ideas and actions, no matter how high-sounding the words, comes in the crucible of popular struggle, especially if that struggle requires confrontation with the very institutions to which you belong or that employ you. That is how it was more than 50 years ago when I first became a Young Lord. And judging by the widespread youth rebellions across the nation, the Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights and climate change movements, that is how it will continue to be in the future, because all the accumulated knowledge and experience of radicals and progressives and revolutionaries mean nothing unless we draw the right lessons, unless they lead us to a freer, more just world, one where the fight against class oppression and empire remains at the center of everything we do.
So, that’s the sum of my remarks. I’m certainly open to discussion with Johanna. Thank you.