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Young Lords Will Stir Debate Among Puerto Ricans

Maria T. Padilla

August 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

Back in the summer of '69, a Puerto Rican group called the Young Lords, based in New York's Spanish Harlem, burst onto the scene. They sought to address issues of poverty in the Puerto Rican community.

Among their spectacular moves: They took over a Methodist church in Spanish Harlem and began offering free breakfasts to neighborhood children.

Many Puerto Ricans who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s and have migrated to Orlando from either the East Coast or the Midwest -- and there are tens of thousands -- know about the Young Lords. They are a legendary group, but the movement was a hazy memory for me.

Many mothers, including my own, feared they would lose their sons to this "radical" group. They panicked at the sight of their boys in berets and military fatigues -- a la Fidel Castro -- which was the official uniform of the Young Lords. That impression of the Young Lords has stayed with me throughout the years.

But now comes a book, We Took the Streets: Fighting for Latino Rights with the Young Lords, by Miguel Meléndez (St. Martin's Press, $24.95, 229 pages) to shed light on all the dark corners.

Meléndez was a founding member of the group and the first to write its history, a history that includes some surprising successes and, later, excesses.

He still is a firebrand, having been arrested in 1999 for a protest in front of the United Nations in support of ousting the U.S. military from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. Now, Meléndez, whom I met in New York recently, is a middle-aged abuelo, with thinning hair, four grown children and several failed marriages. He speaks and writes wistfully of what surely were halcyon years.

Meléndez dispelled the myth that all Puerto Rican mothers or doñas, as he called them, were against the Young Lords. In fact, at crucial moments, many helped the Young Lords.

Also, the Young Lords were not street thugs, but a band of college dropouts. Initially, they were a nonviolent group that pushed for and obtained regular garbage pickups in Spanish Harlem, also known as El Barrio. They tested and proved that high numbers of El Barrio children living in public housing suffered from lead poisoning caused by paint. The Young Lords also brought to light the high numbers of Latinos infected with tuberculosis.

However, several miscalculations cost them their popularity. The Young Lords took over the Methodist church twice, the second time with guns. In 1977 they occupied the Statue of Liberty for 18 hours, demanding the release of several Puerto Ricans imprisoned since the mid-1950s for attacks on Blair House and Congress. (President Jimmy Carter later released them.) We Took the Streets also depicts the Young Lords' push for Puerto Rico's independence, which created distrust among islanders.

However, Meléndez gives the Young Lords too much credit for achieving results, overlooking the fact that Latinos were already becoming better educatedandmore prosperous and were making significant strides toward escaping the abject poverty of the barrio. He never states exactly how many people joined the Young Lords. And it's embarrassing that some of the Spanish is incorrect.

Still, We Took the Streets is a part of Puerto Rican history that will provoke much discussion among many Puerto Ricans in Orlando.


The Young Lords




In response to Maria T. Padilla's column "Book will stir debate among Puerto Ricans," I want to write to say that I, too, became interested in the work of the Young Lords. I didn't see them as a threat but as a signal that the primarily Puerto Rican community needed to awaken and take control of areas where New York City officials had turned a blind eye.

Sure, the Young Lords gave off a sense of fear to the non-Hispanic majority, which saw them as a threat. I saw the Young Lords as a way of combating the neglect and hopelessness in the many New York City ghettos where many of us Puerto Ricans lived. Unlike many others who feared them, I welcomed the sight of the Young Lords in the local streets and when I boarded the subway late in the evenings when crime was the most prevalent and the sight of New York City Police or Transit Police officers non-existent. It was a relief to have them on board as I commuted from as far as Wall Street to the South Bronx.

The Young Lords also brought awareness to the crisis of poverty, health and education in the Puerto Rican communities. They assembled and protested many of the injustices that the Puerto Rican community was enduring during the late 1960s and 1970s.

I admit that many actions by the Young Lords were radical, but they were also the "squeaky wheel" when no one else was speaking for us.

Joe Perez

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