By Rosell Rivas, age 11 and IndyKids Staff
The Young Lords were originally a street gang but turned into a grassroots revolutionary civil and human rights organization in the summer of 1969. They were mostly made up of young Puerto Rican men and women living in East Harlem’s neighborhood known as “El Barrio” and the South Bronx.
They used confrontational tactics to address social inequality that stemmed from poverty, discrimation and exploitation. For example, there was a lack of basic services in their neighborhood, such as regular garbage pickups from the city, inadequate healthcare treatment and education.
“My parents came here from Puerto Rico after World War II, and they were living in terrible conditions, even though they were working every day.” Juan González, a former Young Lord, now journalist and co-host of the news program Democracy Now!, told IndyKids. “A lot of us were coming out of high school and college, and we felt that we had to do something to improve our community.”
The Young Lords occupied an East Harlem church until the police evicted them. It’s here where they provided free meals, medical care and education classes for the Spanish-speaking community. In the evening, they had a performance space for music, poetry readings and history lessons.
They also worked in collaboration other racial justice organizations, such as the Black Panthers, the Young Lords of Chicago and Los Siete de la Raza in San Francisco.
In addition to occupying a church, they also occupied two hospitals — Gouverneur Hospital on the Lower East Side and Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx — publicizing the horrific conditions the hospitals’ Black and Latino patients were subjected to and pushing for better working conditions and medical services for the poor.
They also did sit-ins and protests to demand that the city provide better services to the Latino community. One of the most famous protests the Young Lords did was the “garbage offensive.” The Sanitation Department was not regularly coming to collect the garbage in East Harlem like they did in other neighborhoods, so these activists gathered all the bags of garbage, put them in the middle of Third Avenue and burned all the trash so that no one could pass until the city came to collect it.
They also started a newspaper called Palante (the name, a contraction of “para adelante,” means “forward” or “right on”), which was published every two weeks, in English and Spanish.
The Young Lords stood up for the rights of their community. The effects of their activism are still felt today in many grassroots Latinx organizations such as Mijente. Former Young Lord Iris Morales wrote the book Through the Eyes of Rebel Women, which shows how women in the Young Lords played an important role in supporting women’s rights, as well as the liberation and self-determination of communities of color in general.
Grassroots: The most basic level of activity or organization. Deeply connected to the community and collaborative. Not being directed by those that have political or economic power.
Inequality: Lack of equality.
Racial Justice: The systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all.
Sit-ins: A sit-in or sit-down is a form of direct action that involves one or more people occupying an area for a protest, often to promote political, social or economic change.
Liberation: The act of setting someone free from imprisonment, slavery or oppression
Self-determination: The right of a people to determine its own destiny. In particular, the principle allows a people to choose its own political status and to determine its own form of economic, cultural and social development.
Latinx: The gender-neutral alternative to Latino, Latina and even Latin@.