Johanna Fernández is a historian of social movements and the author of The Young Lords: A Radical History, a deeply researched history of one of the most vibrant and fascinating social movements of the 20th century.
From their origins as a Chicago street gang in the early ’60s, the Young Lords became an effective grassroots radical movement, the Puerto Rican counterpart to the Black Panthers. They helped produce an early version of the “patient’s bill of rights” in medicine, organized lead testing for children, protested inadequate garbage collection, and demonstrated a model of how to fight for the rights and dignity of a marginalized community. Though short-lived, the Young Lords offer a great many lessons for those in our own time who want to work on the same kinds of issues. In this interview, Prof. Fernández recounts the history of the Young Lords to show us how they succeeded and why they ultimately fell apart. It’s an important story that everyone who wants radical social change should be sure to familiarize themselves with.
Nathan J. Robinson
The subject of the book is the Young Lords. Not only is your book a compelling story of a 1960s revolutionary social movement, but the Young Lords offer a wealth of practical lessons for today’s organizers. You write:
Their intrepid organizing campaigns, literature, bold political analysis, and media savvy reclaimed the dignity of New York’s hardest working and most exploited workers and replaced stereotypes with powerful images of radical, strategic, and articulate militancy.
If you want to understand the lessons of organizing in the past for organizing in the present, you should turn to The Young Lords: A Radical History.
Yes. Social movements change history, but the freedoms we enjoy in society today are the product of struggle by ordinary people. Something that we take for granted today is the Patient Bill of Rights. It’s something that we assume has always been a right of human beings and Americans in particular. Few people know that the first known Patient Bill of Rights was written by the Young Lords. It was drafted during a struggle at a hospital in the Bronx alongside hospital workers, nurses, doctors, and people in the community demanding that doctors properly, carefully, and patiently explain health problems to patients and see them as partners in their care. That was a new concept in the 1960s.
Part of what I do in the book is outline their brilliant strategies as a kind of primer for activism. So, what did they do? They identified problems, often by consulting the community. They organized a strategy around it which aimed to stop business as usual—for example, the operation of a hospital. They engaged in an enormous amount of political education. They wanted to know: What are the root causes of this problem, how can we educate the public about it, what would we best imagine as the solution, and then how can we organize a campaign and a series of demands around those solutions?
It’s striking to look at the original Patient Bill of Rights that was drafted in 1970 by the Young Lords and others. You listed them in your book. There are things we now take for granted, like having access to your medical chart. But you also see unfinished work, like demand number 10 to receive free healthcare, which is something that we still don’t have.
That’s the demand that is most urgent—free healthcare for all—especially in the aftermath of the biggest national crisis we’ve seen in 100 years, the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s the thing that connects us all to our deepest humanity. When we’re sick, we’re in need of dignified care that’s accessible and won’t put us in a hole financially. So, yes, that is unfinished business for sure.
In going back to the agenda of the Young Lords, one does get the sense that, in many ways, we really ought to pick up where they left off. But, I want to go back to the start. I think for our listeners and readers, it would be helpful if you could explain the origins of this group, and perhaps even before that, the context in which this group originally arose. The Young Lords comes, as you note in the book, out of the mass migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland United States.
The Young Lords formed as part of a larger movement in the 1960s that we know as the New Left. And the New Left is, essentially, a movement composed mostly of young people, many of them college students, but many not, such as the Young Lords, who accomplished three major things. The New Left radically changed the relationship between white people and people of color in the United States through the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Brown Power movements; challenged the country’s assumptions about issues of gender and sexuality through the women’s movement; and made it acceptable to question how the United States government conducts U.S. foreign policy, accomplished through the movement against the Vietnam War.
There was a generation of young people reared in the 1950s during the Cold War that were alienated by these drills that were constant in public schools warning of the possibility of the dropping of atomic bombs on our soil, especially among white students who were reared in the suburbs for the first time in the history of the country, and folks who were people of color migrating to the cities in large numbers. In the aftermath of World War II, there was a great migration of Black Americans to cities in the South, like Montgomery and Birmingham, but also to the North to Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Philadelphia. You also have Puerto Ricans migrating in the post-World War II period out of the island to cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia as a result of U.S. economic policy on the island by the name of Operation Bootstrap, an industrial project that displaced more farmers than could be absorbed in the emerging industrial economy. The program had a contingency plan, and that was migration.
So, a third of the people of the island were displaced to cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and during this period, Chicanos or Mexican Americans were also leaving rural areas to go to cities like Los Angeles, Austin, Dallas, and beyond. Mexicans were coming from Mexico, and Native Americans were also becoming urbanized during this period. For people of color, this was the big moment of their urbanization, and it was that movement of people of color from rural areas to cities that transformed their power politically. Economically, they became part of the working class for the first time and got a sense of their power in numbers in the cities. It was the urbanization and proletarianization of Black Americans that made them less vulnerable to the terror of the Klan in the South and made possible the launch of the Civil Rights movement.
Previous to this moment, Black people fighting Jim Crow were up against a high incline. The KKK was more powerful than they were when they were atomized and isolated in rural areas, but it was the urbanization of people of color that made possible the rise of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and that’s something that happened in the South and in the North. So, that’s the context for the emergence of an organization like the Young Lords, which, critical to your audience, is the Puerto Rican counterpart of the Black Panther Party.
One of the fascinating things about the Young Lords is that it began as a street gang.
That is one of the most fascinating elements of this history, and it’s the subject of the first chapter of my book. Gangs were a fixture of life in urban centers like Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Philadelphia. The preexisting gang formations were built by white working-class youth, and they had been around for at least 200 years in cities like New York and Chicago when people of color began to migrate to the cities in the North en masse. Young people were forced to replicate these preexisting formations for self-defense because they were not welcomed, unfortunately, by their white ethnic neighbors. They were literally driven out of parks and pools and playgrounds. And the scuffle between white kids and Black and Latino kids in the playgrounds and in the streets is the form that racism took.
The Young Lords is one of these many gang formations led by Puerto Ricans and Mexicans that emerged in Chicago, but it was transformed by its leader who was imprisoned in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was politicized in prison by reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s book, Where Do We Go From Here?, but also The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and even the biography of Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk. He decided that when he left prison, he was going to transform his gang into a political organization.
Listen to this interview on our podcast.
You document that in the early 1960s, in the first years of the Young Lords, most of the gang’s activities were things like stealing cars and getting into rumbles. There is a fascinating thing you mentioned: “The Young Lords ran roughshod through de facto white spaces, and over the course of many rumbles, succeeded in opening up spaces that their parents had been afraid to enter.” They didn’t consider themselves to be civil rights activists, certainly, but they almost had that effect through establishing strength in numbers and going into places where they wouldn’t have been able to go if they hadn’t been so tough and menacing.
I know! That was one of the most amazing findings. Essentially, they went to the beach in Chicago. I remember interviewing José “Cha Cha” Jiménez, the leader of the Young Lords, and he said, “Because of de facto segregation in urban centers like Chicago, we had to go around the world to get to the beach because we couldn’t go to the beach that was just a mile away because it was segregated. One day, we decided, you want to go to the beach? Yes, I want to go to the beach. Do you want to travel two hours to get to the beach? No? Well, let’s go.” And they got into a rumble with the local white gang at the beach, and after that, Puerto Ricans and Black Americans waltzed into the beach that had been segregated as if it had never been. That happened with playgrounds and other urban spaces.
We think of the Civil Rights movement as something that was orchestrated from on high by leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that he led. And it was a product of that, for sure. But it was also a product of the migration and urbanization of people in mass numbers and their aspirations to live better lives in a free America.
You mentioned the politicization of Cha Cha Jiménez, and one of the most fascinating things is how he managed to start turning what had been a gang mostly interested in hanging out with women, driving cars, and getting into fights into a radical political organization. Can you discuss the transitional moment for this group and how it turned into such a different organization over a couple of years?
There’s the personal story of Cha Cha Jiménez. He’s my favorite Young Lord to this day. He’s got such a big heart, so humble, and is just a real authentic human being. I’ll tell you one story that really touched me deeply. His mother was a Catholic and was part of the administration of the local Catholic Church—she might have been the secretary—and somehow got Cha Cha a scholarship to attend Catholic junior high school. He told the story of how parents in the school had traditionally organized a kind of celebration or prom independently of the school, and he didn’t know that until he bumped into one of his friends who referenced the party to which he was not invited because his family was Puerto Rican, and the party was organized by mostly Irish and Italian parents. He said to me, “I was devastated. This was the ultimate sign of rejection. This was my friend. How could he have not told me about this? How was I not invited?” He said, “This was the moment that I turned to the streets. The hell with school and the adults. I’m going to find my people and home in the streets.”
He proceeded to get arrested that summer, he said, five or six times. Once you’re on the cops’ roster, you get picked up over and over again. It was in one of these moments of imprisonment that he encountered some migrants who had been in prison in one of these roundups by the Immigration and Naturalization Service that happened at the same time as the riots in Chicago in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. There were urban rebellions, and people were rounded up, or immigrants from Mexico were rounded up, and everyone was put in prison. The Mexican immigrants were being abused by the guards, and Cha Cha was called to translate for one of them. He said, “I felt responsible. These people reminded me of my parents. I knew that they were hardworking and should not be in prison, and I felt like I needed to protect them. The least I could do was translate.” And he said, “I was called by something higher than myself for the first time,” and that really began his study of what was going on in the country: the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
He started reading Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. His mother had high hopes that he would become a priest, and he had a profound sense of guilt about his petty crimes and read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. When he left prison, he found that the neighborhood had changed dramatically and that Puerto Ricans had been driven out of their homes by urban renewal, which was that period’s huge gentrification project sponsored, unfortunately, by the U.S. federal government. He was approached by a housing activist who encouraged him to bring together the members of his gang to stop the next round of displacement of Puerto Ricans from the outskirts of a white neighborhood. And he said, “I thought this crazy woman was a communist, and I called her a f-ing communist b—. She persisted, and I paid attention to her because I could see that the neighborhood had changed in the short time that I was in prison, and it seemed that my parents were next on the chopping block and were going to be displaced.”
So, he proceeded to talk to all of his guys in the gang, one by one at the bar where they hung out, who also dismissed him and made fun of him for being all political now that he’d been in prison. He prevailed in the end after an enormous amount of persistence. They landed at the Office of Urban Renewal, where the plans for eviction of a new wave of working people were being discussed. In gang form, they busted up the meeting and started throwing around chairs. So, they weren’t having a political conversation with the Office of Urban Renewal, but that began the process, which was arduous, of politicizing and educating these young people who were tough. And then, one of them was killed by the cops, and that, he said, really was the clincher. He wasn’t there at the party where the Young Lord was killed by a police officer, but for those who were arrested, the first person they called was Cha Cha. They knew that he was on to something, and that this was such a miscarriage of justice. This was a tragic loss of one of their peers, and they were going to have to mount a fight back.
There’s something remarkable about the Young Lords’ history and transformation. We somewhat associate gang activity with hopelessness or a feeling that, being very much on the margins of society, you can’t participate in it or do anything to change it. And then, not only is there a development of a political consciousness, but anyone who becomes an organizer has to feel as if they have a certain power that they could change things. How do they come to feel that it is worth being part of a political organization that could alter their circumstances?
The film West Side Story was launched in theaters right around the time that they became a gang. They were inspired by it and said that that was the first time they saw the conflict between Puerto Ricans and white ethnic gangs on the big screen and felt affirmed. So, they took on the colors of the Puerto Rican gang in West Side Story. And for them, gang membership was an affirmation of their identity as Puerto Ricans, but also, it was about a reclamation of their right to the city. The gang and its members were engaged in petty criminal activity, but were also in community building activities, like organizing a party, and designing sweaters and jackets. If it was happening and cool, they were wearing it and figuring out how to raise money to purchase them. So in many ways, the Young Lords in Chicago were successful in their other campaigns because they had established pretty wide and deep networks in the community that, when mobilized, showed up to the march against the killing of Manuel Ramos. And they also met the Black Panther Fred Hampton, who was the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, at a conference known as the Third World Students Conference in Chicago that was held in 1969.
Fred Hampton was invited to speak, and he wanted to meet the Young Lords about whom he had heard because Hampton had already begun to try to organize white gangs, the White Patriots in particular, who were migrants from Appalachia, who landed in Chicago and were very poor, working class. When Fred Hampton heard about the Young Lords, who were Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, he thought this was a real coalition that could be called the Rainbow Coalition. The Rainbow Coalition was a coalition of people at the bottom of society coming together across racial lines. He called on Black Americans in the Black Panther Party, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in the Young Lords, and poor whites from Appalachia in the Young Patriots to come together to fight against poverty and for their common interests as working class and poor people. That political transformation came about by the Black Panthers, but also the intervention of housing activists and many others who came together and transformed the Young Lords from a gang into a political organization and also into the university of kids who had dropped out of high school. It became a school where people read, debated, and discussed the root causes of social problems, the origins of racism in the United States, and a strategy for transforming society for the better.
We’ve been discussing the Young Lords and their origins in Chicago, but the organization spread. Most of the campaigns that you focus on in granular detail in the book take place in New York City and over quite a brief span of time, despite being pretty impressive. Could you tell us about this activism that took place among the New York Young Lords in the early 1970s?
The Young Lords in Chicago made a big splash when they occupied McCormick Theological Seminary. Cha Cha told me, “White students were occupying buildings and making demands, challenging the Vietnam War on college campuses, but I knew that if we were going to be relevant, we needed to deploy that strategy in our communities.” During one of the marches against the killing of one of their own, Manuel Ramos, many people showed up, and spontaneously, they entered and occupied McCormick Theological Seminary and put forth a series of demands against housing displacement experienced by Puerto Ricans especially, but also for better schools and affordable housing that was attractive. They didn’t want the projects, for example, to be the model of housing that poor people had access to. They demanded housing that would allow for the building of their communities.
The Black Panther newspaper interviewed Cha Cha, and a bunch of kids in New York City in East Harlem read the interview. Cha Cha captured their imagination because they were trying to organize Puerto Rican youth in East Harlem, so they hopped in a car, drove all the way to Chicago, met Cha Cha and his peers, and asked for permission to start a chapter of the organization in East Harlem.
That summer, they started with an epic garbage dumping campaign. They asked the community, “What’s the biggest problem before you?” They thought that the community was going to say police brutality or the segregation in schools, but the community said to forget about all of that: it’s the garbage. Look at the disaster that the sanitation leaves behind. They take half the garbage and leave the rest strewn. The kind of garbage that cities were producing was epic because this was the moment of the rise of consumer capitalism. The golden age of American capitalism in the 1950s was organized around consumption, and unfortunately, the sanitation systems in urban centers had not caught up with that level of production of garbage that we are so very well aware of today with all of our Amazon boxes that we don’t know what to do with. So, the Young Lords in New York started picking up the garbage and organizing it neatly for the sanitation department to pick up over the course of many days and a number of weeks. The sanitation department didn’t pick it up. They decided that they were going to throw the garbage into the streets, get the community involved, and burn the garbage.
Traffic was stopped for 30 blocks on end in the middle of a major thoroughfare out of the city and to the suburbs. Immediately, they got coverage from the New York Times and other local press. They became so popular that their numbers grew, and they decided to rent an office in East Harlem and professionalize their operation. They did an enormous amount of work around lead poisoning. They went door-to-door alongside technicians and doctors to test children for lead poisoning from the chips of paint that fell off walls and that children put in their mouths. They discovered that a third of the children they tested were lead positive, and lead is toxic to the nervous system and can cause permanent brain damage. They occupied a church in East Harlem, inspired by the action of the Young Lords in Chicago, and finally, they occupied a hospital to dramatize the horrific conditions of health[care given to] the Black American and Puerto Rican communities in the South Bronx. The hospital was built in a different epoch and was falling apart and couldn’t meet the needs of this ailing community.
We mentioned at the beginning that the Young Lords offer plenty of practical lessons for organizers today by taking on the everyday demands of the community on pretty mundane things, like the garbage, or like not having our children poisoned by lead, and to have people treated well in the hospital and have decent hospitals. Taking their cues from the needs of the people, they were there to serve, and this really helped make them quite successful and popular in a short amount of time.
Absolutely, and I think you hit the nail on the head. Issues of quotidian life that everyone is concerned about. Is my neighborhood clean? Do I have access to a hospital that will save my child in an emergency? Lead poisoning disfigured the lives and learning possibilities of children and is a problem that people cared about. These issues had been debated and discussed in New York City and in other cities for some time, but no organization had mounted a political education campaign around it and a strategy to force the city to respond.
So, part of what the Young Lords did, when they discovered that a third of the children they tested were lead positive, was to organize a series of press conferences—literally, the media—exposing the city and its inactivity. They also occupied the office of the head of the health department of the city of New York and didn’t leave until he offered a series of solutions to the problem. And in 1974, the American Journal of Public Health—this is what I discovered over the course of many years of research—credited the Young Lords’ muckraking and militant activism in the streets for the emergence, for the first time in the history of the city, of the bureau of lead poisoning and anti-lead poisoning legislation that forced landlords to strip down the old lead paint from tenement buildings or be fined exorbitantly. The youngest Young Lord was 13, and the oldest in New York was maybe 20, and the actions of these young kids influenced public policy in the cities of Chicago and New York. They were also active in Philadelphia, Hartford, and beyond.
As one reads your book, the prevailing feeling is excitement and inspiration, seeing, as you said, these perfectly ordinary young kids who are raised in very difficult conditions finding their power, getting together, and organizing to accomplish real meaningful things for people. They succeeded, and it’s incredible. But then, after these really innovative actions and good results, the Young Lords come to an end rather quickly. There are obviously many practical lessons for how movements should operate if they want to extract concessions from those in power, but there’s also certainly a lesson here as to what movements need to do to avoid dissolution and decline. Could you tell us why, after having so much success in organizing, the Young Lords faded away?
Grassroots organizing and connection to communities is something that new generations of organizers and activists have to take seriously. The Young Lords were connected to their neighborhoods, to their families, and to their communities, and they did the rounds. They held meetings in their buildings, churches, and schools. They also sold their newspaper Palante, which means “forward in struggle,” which, fascinatingly enough, they published regularly and sold in the community, and each Young Lord had a paper route. They sought to regularly engage people in the streets, bodegas, and churches. And it was through those consistent, meaningful conversations with people in the community that people took them seriously and trusted them. So, trust is one of the building blocks of organizing and activism. To establish trust in the community, you have to be consistent, honest, and determined.
The Young Lords also had a political worldview, an analysis that identified the structural roots of social problems. They were self-proclaimed socialists who were inspired by the revolutions that were happening around the world against European colonial rule. They also engaged in campaigns and developed well-thought-out strategies that were not always spontaneous. They thought through how to get the city to respond, and they understood that they needed to use militant action. When they stopped consulting the mothers, the fathers, the old ladies, and the grandpas—when they started disconnecting from the community—they made themselves vulnerable to attacks by the counterintelligence program of the FBI, known as COINTELPRO. But also, their decline is connected to the broader decline of the movement.
They emerged in the late 1960s at the height of radicalization when a significant minority of American society had, I would argue, a pretty sophisticated analysis of what was wrong with society, and this had been acquired over the course of almost two decades of struggle in the Civil Rights, Black Power, anti-war, and women’s movements. So, the movement was experiencing exhaustion by the early 1970s. That combination of disconnection to the grassroots, the persecution of the organization by COINTELPRO, and the fact that the broader movement had reached its zenith and now was on the decline, together led to the decline of the organization. But, I can’t overstate the level of repression that all the movements confronted.
It’s important to bear in mind that we can look at all the mistakes of the 1960s movements, but also they were operating in conditions where the state was actively trying to destroy them.
Exactly. The state launched the homicidal campaign against the Black Panther Party, but also against anti-war activists. There’s a film about how we found out about COINTELPRO through the actions of anti-war activists in Pennsylvania who decided that they were going to break into the local military recruitment office because they wanted to burn the draft cards. These predominantly white kids, also muckrakers who were part of the anti-war movement, busted into the military recruitment office looking for draft cards. They found all of these documents naming all the organizations that they knew well, both local and nationally, and realized that this was some kind of sting operation against movement people that nobody knew about. It identified those who were infiltrators employed by the FBI to infiltrate and destabilize these movements and create infighting within them.
The activists knew that they would be caught eventually, and so they put all of these papers into bags and suitcases and reconvened in the middle of nowhere in the woods in Pennsylvania with a plan to send these documents to the New York Times and the Washington Post, but also to the activist organizations and leaders named in them. In these papers the word COINTELPRO was printed, over and over again. We later found out that it stood for the counterintelligence program of the FBI. That’s how we know about this entity. Immediately, Congressional hearings began into the illegal activities of this entity that violated the First Amendment rights of so many Americans in that period.
It’s easy to look at these organizations’ failures, but then also Fred Hampton, mentioned earlier, was murdered by the FBI. We know why Fred Hampton’s organizing didn’t succeed, which is because he was killed by the state. So, the decline is a tragedy. Some things can be averted through the choices of movements, and sometimes movements just get suppressed. Is there anything you want to add to the question of why people today should read about, study, and understand the work of the Young Lords in the 1960s and 1970s?
If you’re interested in transforming society, you need to understand it. It’s important to walk into the struggles of this period with knowledge of the struggles that came before you and their successes and failures. Unfortunately, history and its study, as you well know, is under attack across the United States. But, there is a rich tradition of struggle in the working class, unions, and communities, and many of the issues that young people and a new generation of organizers are mounting today were issues that folks fought for just four decades ago, or even a decade ago. These histories, foremost, inspire, educate, and offer political theory and analysis of the problem because ultimately, what we want to do is to win. We need to equip ourselves with all the tools we can get our hands on to mount a struggle against injustice for the purposes of winning. Strategy, strategy, strategy, strategy is important.
Coalition building beyond your very narrow issue is important, as is connecting your narrow issue to the broader problems of society and figuring out: How is it that this issue is connected to structural inequality? There are so many reasons. Reading history independently of struggle, and whatever you might be doing today in terms of organizing, is a profoundly satisfying endeavor. It helps you situate yourself in the country’s trajectory. It helps answer, at least for these young people and other people of color and their descendants, the quintessential existential question: Who am I? What’s my relationship to this nation? What can I do to expand the definition of democracy and freedom as others have in the past?
The Young Lords were Puerto Rican activists, all working class, who connected the crises in urban centers—like police brutality, deteriorating schools, joblessness, deindustrialization—that began and hit communities of color first in urban centers before disfiguring working-class white communities across the country. They connected these problems of permanent joblessness, poverty of the schools and of the hospitals, and racism to the United States’ quiet imperial project on the island of Puerto Rico. They believed in Puerto Rican independence and that these struggles were connected. It’s a rich history that was being written every day of the 1960s.
There are different elements of the tradition of struggle in this country. For example, in the early 20th century, Italian workers who began to organize cigar makers in Florida were lynched in the South for their organizing efforts with Black Americans. When all oppressed working-class people come together to fight for a different world and assert their rights as working people, we have a better chance of winning. Fred Hampton was so dangerous because he identified this coalition. He said we need to come together on the basis of shared class interests. And yes, we need to fight against racism, and understand the role of racism in society and its roots, but ultimately, we are all suffering. And the question is, how can we come together to continue to expand the meaning of freedom in this country?
Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.