50 Years Later, the Young Lords’ Legacy Remains in East Harlem

Art by Alan López for Remezcla

On a gate on the corner of 111th Street and Lexington Ave in East Harlem, you’ll come across a large black-and-white photo of the Young Lords, wearing signature berets and filing in a military-styled procession down the exact street in 1969. In the background, a sign reads, “Free All Political Prisoners Now!” with an image of Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos.

Photographed by founding member of the Young Lords Party (YLP) Hiram Maristany, “The Bronx March” is one of the most noteworthy photographs – and protests – from the radical social organization’s now 50-year history. The photo captures a moment in the Young Lords’ march from the Bronx to East Harlem and onto Queens, in solidarity with the Panther 21 – members of the Black Panther Party that were arrested, accused of conspiracy, and ultimately acquitted.

“History is a window of opportunity; it’s there and it’s constantly moving,” says Maristany, who walked backwards throughout the miles-long march to capture the shot. “If you’re blessed enough to be at the right place at the right time to capture it, it is a high honor. I feel very honored and blessed.”

The lasting image of activism is a part of a public art project examining the history of the Young Lords in East Harlem. Organized by multimedia visual artist Miguel Luciano, Mapping Resistance: The Young Lords in El Barrio places 10 photographs from Maristany’s archives in the same location the events occurred to engage with today’s rapidly changing neighborhood. Five decades later, East Harlemites – and the world – are reminded of the young, brilliant organizers who fought tirelessly for environmental justice, health care reform, equitable and just housing, among other societal concerns.

Inspired by the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords Organization (YLO) was founded in Chicago in September 1968. The work of founder Jose “Cha Cha” Jiménez and the YLO inspired a collective of Puerto Rican activists, in their late teens and early 20s from El Barrio, to travel to the Windy City to meet Jiménez and form a chapter. They selected a Central Committee of five men to lead the group: Juan González, Felipe Luciano, Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán, David Pérez and Juan “Fi” Ortiz. On July 26, 1969, New York City’s Young Lords announced its formation with a rally at Tompkins Square Park to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. The self-proclaimed “revolutionary nationalist” group opened its first storefront office on Madison Avenue and 112th Street. (You’ll see an image of González standing in the doorway of the original headquarters today, directly across the street from where it stood.)

González, deputy minister of education, and Guzmán, deputy minister of information, drafted the 13-Point Program and Platform. It detailed a community-led, socialist approach for society, championing self-determination for Puerto Ricans, liberation, women’s rights, racial equality and self-defense, to name a few points. Focused on low-income communities of color, the Young Lords provided “serve the people” programs, including a free breakfast program, political education, health testing and clothing drives.

After speaking to community members to determine their needs, the Young Lords hit the ground running in its first year. Denied access to brooms by the Department of Sanitation in July 1969, cadres took the brooms, swept the streets alongside residents, and piled the garbage along Third Avenue and 111th Street, which served as barricades to prevent traffic from flowing. When motorists attempted to move the piles, the Young Lords set them on fire and police and fire officials had to intervene. But the Garbage Offensive led to better sanitation services.

On December 28, 1969, the Young Lords first takeover of the First Spanish United Methodist Church – commonly known as the People’s Church – occurred. The 11-day occupation received support from Puerto Rican community leaders, like activist and educator Dr. Evelina Antonetty and Pedro Pietri, a Vietnam veteran and co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

Days shy of its one-year anniversary, July 14, 1970, the 12-hour “Lincoln Hospital Offensive” exposed the city’s disregard for communities of color. During this takeover of the Bronx hospital, in partnership with patient-worker group called Think Lincoln committee, the Young Lords implemented TB and lead poisoning testing programs, as well as political education classes for patients.

As more members joined the Young Lords and the group grew in its activism, change was imminent. In May 1970, New York Central Committee leadership split from Chicago’s YLO to form the Young Lords Party. Around the same time, the creation of the Women’s Caucus allowed women within the organization to discuss issues relevant to their experiences, which led to a list of demands for the Central Committee. The demands included equal treatment (ie. appointing women to leadership positions, including writers for Pa’lante), the removal of “revolutionary machismo” from the 13-Point Program, accountability and banning the objectification of women. Denise Oliver-Velez, leader of the Women’s Caucus and former officer of the day and communications secretary, was appointed to the reformulated, all-male Central Committee. Several leaders were suspended or demoted for failure to follow the organization’s rules, including chairman of the YLP, Luciano. He resigned.

“The Central Committee was still all male,” says Oliver-Velez, who is African American, of the time. “A series of incidents took place within the organization and cadres – women and young brothers – brought charges up and they were handled. I was promoted to the Central Committee and then a little bit later another woman in the organization who was doing healthwork [Gloria González] was promoted to the Central Committee, and more women took on the second-in-command positions.”

The women in the Young Lords spearheaded initiatives to provide access to birth control options – safe, legal abortions, affordable health care, and an end to steralization and experimentation on women’s bodies. One of the first women in the party, Iris Morales, wrote Through the Eyes of Rebel Women: The Young Lords 1969-1976, which thoroughly details the history and perspective of women Lords.

“In PE classes, political education classes, we made sure that, and Iris, in particular, made sure, part of the curriculum was knowing the history of women and the role that so many women played; strong, political, revolutionary women played in Puerto Rico…so even with the overarching concerns that deal with machismo and marianismo, you have these clear role models to put up there to say, ‘This is what women can do,’” emphasizes Oliver-Velez.

The Young Lords expanded to the Bronx, the Lower East Side, Newark, Philadelphia and Boston. Though a Puerto Rican-centered group, the Young Lords were comprised of Panamanians, Hondurans, Dominicans, Cubans, and other Latinxs, as well as roughly 20% who were African American. Members acknowledging their Afro-Boricua, Afro-Taino or Black identities was pioneering. Knowing that change couldn’t exist in a vacuum, YLP collaborated and met with various entities like El Comité, Justicia Latina, Resistencia Puertorriqueña, the Black Panther Party, Gay Liberation Front, and Puerto Rican-Venezuelan trans woman Sylvia Rivera.

After scaling back key initiatives and opening up chapters of YLP in Puerto Rico, the organizational restructuring and focus led to a steady decline in membership. By the mid-70s, the shift in political direction, faulty leadership and the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) ended the party.

However, the left-wing nationalist group not only revolutionized the way Puerto Ricans viewed themselves, the party reaffirmed to people of color in the late ’60s and early ’70s to present day that they too deserve racial equity.

Within seconds of viewing Maristany’s work, it’s clear his lens captures both the history and humanity of the movement. “My greatest talent,” reveals the party’s official documentarian, “was that I was smart enough to know we were creating history.”

Mapping Resistance: The Young Lords in El Barrio is open until September 30, 2019. It’s supported by A Blade of Grass, El Museo del Barrio and the Surdna Foundation. Follow The Young Lords NY, which lists 50th anniversary event details.