Young Lords turn 40

CHICAGO — Community and political activists are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Young Lords, a national youth grassroots group that helped spur a movement for Puerto Rican and Latino community control and empowerment.

Founded in Chicago in 1969 as the Chicago Young Lords Organization (YLO), the group started as a youth gang. Yet under the leadership of a young man, Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez, it was transformed into a community and political organization. 

The Young Lords were part of a historical moment in the U.S. where youth questioned and challenged many decisions of government and experimented with alternatives to deal with issues of civil rights, racism and social justice. These were the times of the anti-Vietnam War movement, Students for Democratic Society, The Black Panther Party, and in Puerto Rico, it was the resistance against the conscription of Puerto Ricans in U.S. wars, getting the ROTC out of the college campuses, the surge of a new movement for Puerto Rican independence and its support of the Cuban Revolution and growing interest in socialism.

While in prison Jimenez read books and articles about the political and organizing ideas of civil and human rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  Consequently, he became more interested in reading about Puerto Rican and Latin American struggles and history. Figures and organizations that had major influences on him were Don Pedro Albizu Campos, political and nationalist leader of the Puerto Rican independence movement and Argentinean Ernesto “Che” Guevara, leader of the Cuban Revolution.  Jimenez mentioned Puerto Rican independence fighters Lolita Lebron,  Blanca Canales and Juan Antonio Corretjer (who let Jimenez and his wife, Mary Lou Porrata, sleep at his home), along with Movimiento Pro Independencia and the Nationalist Movement. 

Later, the Young Lords learned from community people, like Obed Lopez and this author, who opposed the Vietnam War draft.

Fred Hamptom, leader of the Chicago Chapter of The Black Panther, served as an advisor in helping Jimenez structure the new political organization. The survival programs of the Young Lords were modeled after the Black Panthers.  

The struggles of the Chicano community of the Southwest also inspired the group.  Young Lords leaders took a trip to Denver and met Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales and learned about Cesar Chavez, Reis Lopez Tijerina and the take-over of towns and police stations.

Jimenez was convinced through readings and experience that the problems in the neighborhood were political. He concluded that the real enemies of the community were the city government of then-Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration. Plus, the colonial policy of U.S. government that forced Puerto Rican families to leave their country. He did not consider the gangs to be the main problem.

He convinced gang members that fighting other gangs would not lead to the changes they wanted in their neighborhoods. He worked to declare a truce with other gangs. They agreed to work to change conditions in their neighborhood and challenge the police abuse and Chicago’s lack of response to impoverished conditions found in their neighborhood, 

In Chicago, the unjust conditions found in the Latino and Black communities led to the 1966 spontaneous revolt in the predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park. The revolt served as the impetus for the Puerto Rican community to found independent political activist organizations such as the Spanish Action Committee and the Latin American Defense Organization, and influenced the development of Young Lords Organization. 

Before 1966, most Puerto Ricans participated in social clubs where people from the same towns met, celebrated family activities and holidays, listened to music, danced and played dominoes. There was a failed attempt to organize a structure to bring these groups together under El Congress Puertorriqueno.  The Caballeros de San Juan, a Catholic organization led by priests and nuns, involved community members in civic affairs and its members helped to form a credit union that continues to serve the community as a subsidiary of Credit Union 1. Politically, the Democratic Party mobilized the community to come out and vote for party candidates.

The Young Lords organized and mobilized around issues that affected them immediately: police harassment; substandard housing and government urban renewal projects that moved their families from their neighborhoods to other slum and blighted areas; lack of childcare, health services, employment and educational opportunities.  The Young Lords challenged the domestic policy and the political and social structures that generated such conditions.  The challenge put them face to face against city government, its departments and agencies and brought the ire of Daley.

The Young Lords confronted racism, a force that demeans an individual and community through negative stereotyping. It’s a force that can destroy people as well. In this case Puerto Ricans were stereotyped as being lazy, stupid and dumb, as in the phrase commonly used in the 1960s “dumb Puerto Ricans.”

But the Young Lords researched and discovered Puerto Rican and Latin American heritage, culture and history.  The symbols, struggles and heroes of Puerto Rican and Latin American heritage became interwoven into their call for justice, not only in their communities but also in Puerto Rico and the rest of Latin America. 

They also challenged U.S. imperialism in the world, especially aggression toward Cuba and Chile. Independence for Puerto Rico became an important call for mobilizing the community tying political power and self determination in urban communities with the island’s independence and the struggles for social justice. 

Many members of the Puerto Rican community and the Young Lords charge that J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO, an acronym for a series of covert, and often illegal projects conducted by the FBI, placed spies in the YLO to destroy it.

The legacy of the Young Lords continues to inspire youth of the need to organize at the grassroots, independently of the two major political parties. The legacy inspires many to contribute to the ongoing struggle for better social services, universal health care, workers rights, independence of Puerto Rico and an end to U.S. military aggression and corporate domination in Latin America and the world.

Photo of Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez is used through Creative Commons,