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Rise And Fall Of A Movement — A Review Of “The Young Lords: A Radical History”

Fernandez, Johanna. The Young Lords: A Radical History. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Reviewed by Leo Valdes

In 1969 activists convened at the first Chicano Youth Liberation Conference. Among them were New York Puerto Ricans excited to learn about a group of Chicago activists who wore purple berets and carried a Puerto Rican flag. But their excitement waned when conference organizers chose to exclude Black Americans from fully participating. “How can they say no to blacks? Some of us are obviously black,” recalled Iris Morales, future Young Lord Deputy Minister of Education. Chicanos based their decision on a “narrow interpretation of black nationalism’s race-based unity principle.” When the Puerto Rican contingent decided to leave, Corky Gonzalez broached a conversation, the decision was reversed, and a formal apology delivered by conference organizers. Such was the birth of the New York Young Lords, a Puerto Rican Black Power organization.

Brought to life by approximately one hundred oral histories, The Young Lords beautifully illustrates the rise and fall of a movement shaped by global economic restructuring and urban migrant life. Fernández uniquely draws on an extensive archive of personal papers, audio and visual recordings, press accounts, the Young Lords’ newspaper Palante, COINTELPRO documents, and, most importantly, the records from the Handschu files, a repository of one million NYPD surveillance records covering 1952-1972 (and only made public as result of her lawsuit). Her source base and meticulous research allows Fernández to make several important contributions to our understanding of late twentieth-century urban activism.

The Young Lords begins in Chicago where eleven-year-old Cha Cha Jiménez formed a street-fighting organization to defend against the white ethnic gangs who terrorized local Latinos and Black Americans. After discovering the Black Power movement in prison, Jiménez transformed his gang into a political organization modelled on the Black Panther Party. The Chicago Young Lords inspired the New York organization to which the rest of the book is devoted. Unlike their peers, however, New York Young Lords were mostly high school graduates and the first in their families to go to college. As the children of poor, rural families displaced by Operation Bootstrap, a postwar government program to “industrialize” Puerto Rico, they endured urban poverty, police violence, racism in schools, and the burden of laboring as language and cultural mediators for their island-born parents. Impressed with Cha Cha’s “solidarity with the black underclass,” they merged three different groups into the Young Lords Organization and asserted their alignment with the Black Power movement.

The book’s central chapters follow specific “offensives,” such as the Garbage Offensive, which involved thousands of local residents fighting for better sanitation services. The name was a nod to the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam and, indeed, the Young Lords saw themselves as part of a global decolonial movement. Political education made up the core of their vision for liberation and providing social services the center of their activities. Though short-lived, the YLO claimed several victories, including the passage of anti-lead-poisoning legislation and the first municipal investigation into the prison conditions of the notorious NYC “Tombs.” Fernández attributes their decline to their failed expansion into Puerto Rico, the influence of new authoritarian members, and the designs of COINTELPRO which took advantage of a vulnerable moment as the organization grew. 

Read entire article at The Metropole