Puerto Rico en mi Corazón: The Young Lords
By Julie McCormick
The moment for the formation of the Young Lords Organization was ripe. The Civil Rights Movement and protests against the Vietnam War raised consciousness, incited action, and connected like-minded activists from different groups like the Black Panthers, Blackstone Rangers, Brown Berets, Young Patriots, and the Red Guard Party. Many believed that the kind of sweeping social change necessary to end systematic discrimination was only possible through violent action. For some, it was an important expression of our Second Amendment right and a necessary catalyst for change. Decisive action sat alongside community programming and a deep sense of Puerto Rican nationalism in the Young Lords, a combination that proved to be electrifying, unsettling, and wholly unique to this moment in history.
The Young Lords got their start in the late 1960s. Originally a Puerto Rican turf gang in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, the Young Lords galvanized into a more political force when Mayor Richard Daley launched an urban renewal campaign to “keep Chicago clean.” When the authorities started evicting Latino residents from prime real estate along the lakefront and near the Loop, the Young Lords stepped in to protest. In September of 1968, José “Cha-Cha” Jiménez officially established the Young Lords as a civil rights organization. Under the rallying cry “Puerto Rico en mi Corazón,” they sought Puerto Rican independence, as well as greater self-determination and quality of life for all Latinos and impoverished peoples in the U.S.
Their organizational structure closely followed that of Oakland, California’s Black Panther Party. Like the Panthers, social programming, sit-ins, and demonstrations undergirded the bulk of the Chicago Young Lords activities. Occupying spaces became an important tool for radical groups, both as a way of raising awareness and leveraging demands. In one successful protest organized by the Young Lords, 400 people camped out on land that once housed 35 Puerto Rican families and was slated to become a $1,000-a-year tennis court club. After a week of the occupation, the tennis club removed its bid and the space was turned into a People’s Park.
The Young Lords also staged a takeover of Armitage Avenue United Methodist Church in order to use the space for community programs. The congregation later renamed it “the People’s Church,” and the walls were covered with murals of Latino activists and the Young Lord’s slogan, “Tengo Puerto Rico en mi Corazón.” Here, they established a free breakfast program for children, free community day care, the Emeterio Betances Free Health Clinic, a Puerto Rican cultural center, and a national headquarters office.
The sparks in Chicago erupted into a wildfire that swept the country, with new chapters of the Young Lords springing to life in cities across the United States. In the summer of 1969, Nuyorican poet Felipe Luciano drove to Chicago with a VW full of fellow activists seeking permission to create a New York chapter of the Young Lords, and to observe the revolution in Chicago firsthand. They returned to New York with a new fire in their hearts, and officially signed the New York chapter of the Young Lords into existence.
One of their first acts was to go to East Harlem and ask the residents what changes they wanted to see in their community. Luciano recalls being surprised at the answer: they had expected people to want more affordable housing options, but really, the top priority was dealing with garbage. New York City garbage collectors were infamous for ignoring low-income neighborhoods of color; the uncollected trash would pile up in the streets for weeks at a time. So that summer, the New York Young Lords launched what came to be known as “The Garbage Offensive.” Arming themselves with brooms and bins, the Young Lords cleaned up the streets themselves, and appealed to the city to increase pickups. These pleas, however, went unheard, and in response they piled the trash in the middle of busy streets and lit it on fire. The flames and stopped traffic were impossible to ignore.
Like in Chicago, many of the New York Young Lords’ actions focused on providing access to health care and education. They took over the First Spanish Methodist Church, where they established free day care for working parents, a breakfast program, a clothing drive, and classes about Latino/a history and culture. The organization continued to grow and evolve, and in May 1970, the New York Young Lords peaceably split from the Chicago mother office. They renamed themselves the Young Lords Party (as opposed to the Young Lords Organization), and became the regional headquarters for neighboring chapters on the East Coast. That summer, they commandeered a mobile chest X-ray unit to conduct free tuberculosis screenings in underserved areas. In one neighborhood, they found that a third of the residents showed signs of TB. The Young Lords also went door-to-door testing for lead paint, and occupied Lincoln Hospital for 24 hours to demand more patient services.
Despite their increasing reach and volume, the Young Lords were beset with troubles very early in their history. Key members were constantly harassed by law enforcement, and brought up on charges of variable legitimacy. “Cha-Cha” Jiménez of the Chicago branch was indicted 18 times in a six-week period for charges like assault, battery on police, and mob action. He was jailed multiple times for his political activities, and at one point, Chicago leadership was forced to go underground to continue operations. Organization members all over the country died under mysterious circumstances or were murdered in prison. Many of these deaths were not fully investigated at the time, and remain unsolved to this day. Ideological differences tugged at the bonds between members. Some were resolved, but others were not. Though a certain level of in-fighting is to be expected in a political organization, it was later discovered that much of this was likely incited by police and FBI agents who had infiltrated the Young Lords. Many left-wing and civil rights groups at that time were bedeviled by COINTELPRO, the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program from 1956–1971. The covert operations launched against these domestic political groups were insidious, damaging, and often illegal.
The Young Lords burned hot and bright for just a few short years. Though the formal organization is no longer active, embers still smolder in the memories of those who participated in the movement or were somehow touched by the Young Lords and their programs.