The Young Lords in El Barrio: Latino Revolutionaries of the Civil Rights Era

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Cindy Barbosa

In the early 1960s, El Barrio, Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem, was teeming with life. Home to a large Puerto Rican and Latin American community after mass migrations post-World War II to New York City, El Barrio has been a multicultural hub since the early 20th century. Yet, even with U.S. citizenship, migrants have been treated as foreigners and not Americans, their community deemed second-class citizens, effectively invisible to the rest of the city. The community faced discrimination, police brutality, and gentrification through urban renewal projects that further segregated Harlem and amplified social issues; El Barrio, one of the hardest hit areas, struggled with municipal neglect, facing problems ranging from housing to healthcare, education, and poverty. However, not only had Puerto Ricans migrated into the United States, they had migrated into the Civil Rights Movement. The 60s were characterized by the revolutionary spirit of civil rights leaders, the national demand for social and political justice felt deeply amongst the youth of El Barrio.

“We had seen their suffering and discrimination, and we ourselves had lived it.”

The sons and daughters of the migrants who had come to the U.S. in the 40s and 50s had grown up witnessing their parents’ hardship and experienced America’s unjust treatment of the poor and non-white first hand. They began to demand respect for the Puerto Rican and Latino community, setting the stage for the formation of the Young Lords.

Originally a Chicago street gang, The Young Lords was transformed into a social justice organization seeking structural change by José “Cha-Cha” Jiménez in 1968. The organization was part of the Rainbow Coalition, founded by Fred Hampton of the Chicago Black Panthers, an anti-racist, working class movement composed of various established, radical community-based groups. At this time in New York, a group of first generation college students was looking for an organizing agenda. Miguel “Mickey” Melendez, a student at SUNY Old Westbury, had brought the group of around seven people together, most of whom were Puerto Rican. Juan Gonzalez, a member of this original group, had recently been expelled from Columbia University for his leadership during the student strike of 1968. He recalls this year: “In my senior year of college, Martin Luther King was assassinated. There were riots in 125 cities in the United States the week after.” In the wake of King’s assassination, they’d have meetings alternating between community-based spaces to a dorm at SUNY Old Westbury. In June of 1969, they read an interview with Cha Cha on the Chicago Young Lords Organization (YLO) in the weekly Black Panther Party newspaper. Feeling an immediate affinity for YLO, the group took a road trip to Chicago and got the green light from Cha Cha to start a Young Lords New York chapter.

Black and white image of a crowd of men holding the Puerto Rican flag.
The Young Lords.[6]

While the Young Lords centered around the Puerto Rican community and independence, the group itself was multi-ethnic, with 25% of group members being African American and another 5% of its members non-Puerto Rican Latinxs. They considered themselves revolutionaries, wanting to fight the conditions of their communities in East Harlem, South Bronx, and the Lower East Side. Taking inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement and Marxist philosophy, they mounted direct action campaigns to call for improved sanitation services and healthcare along with establishing programs for community development, occupying churches and hospitals to offer services locally. What was so revolutionary about the Young Lords was their ability to break down artificial barriers between groups dealing with their own hardships and unite people over the common struggles that oppress the working class. They were one of the most active and successful organizations of the time despite being extremely young – the oldest members in leadership were between 21 and 25 – recruiting hundreds of people in a short period of time. Their mission was to fight racism and highlight the struggles of colonialism, teaching civil resistance and Puerto Rican history.

Crowd holding a sign and marching through the streets.
“The Young Lords Party Serve and Protect the People.”[8]

On July 26, 1969, the Young Lords publicized their formation at a rally in Tompkins Square Park, announcing their purpose of activism in New York. Their first course of action had been what they called “the Garbage Offensive,” demanding the city increase garbage pickup for adequate sanitation in the streets of East Harlem which were piled with rotting garbage and structural abandonment. This forty-square-block zone was littered with piles of various refuse from rotting animal carcasses to bulk household items and industrial waste. Having only six city garbage cans and being 50% more densely populated than other neighborhoods in Manhattan, East Harlem was extremely dirty and posed a health hazard to its residents, especially children playing among the waste.

“We’re on 110th Street and we actually asked the people, ‘What do you think you need? What do you need? Is it housing? Is it police brutality?’ And they said, ‘Muchacho, déjate de todo eso— LA BASURA!” [Listen kid, fuggedaboutit! It’s THE GARBAGE!] And I thought, my God, all this romance, all this ideology, to pick up the garbage? But that’s what they wanted.”

Black and white image of garbage blockading the street.
Garbage Offensive.[13]

Over the course of three consecutive Sunday mornings, the YLO started sweeping neighborhood sidewalks with brooms they had pilfered from the sanitation department. When no sanitation workers showed up to pick up the garbage, the Young Lords turned to civil disobedience, creating garbage piles in the middle of Third Avenue and 110th Street and setting them on fire. Hundreds of residents began joining in as this theatrical display of civil disobedience amassed city-wide attention. Heaping piles of burning garbage blocked several intersections and at one point a Puerto Rican flag was planted atop a pile, a sentiment of solidarity and pride, sending a message to the city. When police arrived at the scene, the Young Lords took off their berets, blending seamlessly into the crowd. Published in a press release, the Young Lords’ stated their demands to the city which, along with increased sanitation, called for the hiring of more Puerto Rican and Black workers and increased wages for sanitation workers. As a result, national headlines forced a response from politicians looking for votes in the upcoming mayoral race of 1969; the pressure of YLO culminated in improved dumping schedules, mandated use of plastic garbage bags instead of metal cans, a new alternate parking system to facilitate regular sweeping, and more.

Black and white image of people holding flags in a church.
Church Offensive.[21]

The Young Lords’ second big feat took place in December. The First Spanish United Methodist Church was closed all week except for a few hours on Sunday and conveniently located in the center of East Harlem. After months of failed negotiations with the Church and the reverend to open the space to community development, the YLO decided to organize what they called the “Church Offensive.” After Sunday service, the Young Lords nailed the main doors of the church shut, renaming it “The People’s Church.”  During the eleven days of the occupation, the YLO provided vital services to the community that the church had refused to participate in otherwise; these included a free breakfast program for children before school, free medical services and clinic, drug rehabilitation programs, and Puerto Rican and Latinx cultural events for the community. It was in the People’s Church that poet Pedro Pietri read his infamous poem, Puerto Rican Obituary, in public for the first time. With very little money but resources from the community, the Young Lords were able to collaborate with professionals and community residents to “feed, heal, and educate people.” The national spotlight on El Barrio and the articulate, strategic radicals who occupied the  Church, “unseated long-standing distortions of Puerto Ricans…and helped civilize New Yorkers’ perceptions of the city’s second-largest racialized group.” On January 7, 1970, hundreds of riot-gear-clad police officers raided the church, arresting 105 Young Lords, ending the occupation of the People’s Church.

Black and white image of a newspaper cover.

After the Church Offensive, the YLO transformed its newsletter into a bilingual newspaper, Palante. The bi-monthly publication included educational articles on the history and manifestations of racism and oppression along with outlining the organization’s position on social issues. A large portion of the paper was dedicated to art that depicted politics the YLO was involved in because many in the community weren’t completely literate and art could bridge that gap. Palante reported on YLO demonstrations and campaigns, keeping the community informed on all activity. Additionally, the Young Lords published their thirteen-point platform in which they listed their beliefs, including self-determination for Puerto Ricans and all Latinos, opposing racism, and true education of Creole culture and Spanish language. The role of women was fundamental in the creation of the points, specifically point 10. Originally it had read, “Machismo must be revolutionary and not oppressive.” However, the women of the organization challenged this, arguing that machismo is nothing but oppressive. It was changed to say “We want equality for women. Down with machismo and male chauvinism.” Women of the organization also made the demand for provision of child care a priority for YLO; it was clear that free daycare was key to the involvement of women. Not only were the Young Lords vocal about gender discrimination, but they also had one of the earliest lesbian and gay caucuses of any radical group among people of color in the United States.

Black and white image of a crowd of people in front of a truck
Tuberculosis X-ray Truck.[33]

Healthcare was one of the highest priority issues the Young Lords fought for. At the time, the infant mortality rate in El Barrio was three times that of the national average. Previously, they had tackled the high numbers of tuberculosis cases in El Barrio through door-to-door testing for TB on Saturdays, but it wasn’t enough. X-rays were needed to administer proper care for TB positive patients. The YLO decided to take over the city’s Mobile TB X-ray Testing truck that had only been assigned to an affluent area. Initially the technicians were scared, but once they arrived on site, the line of people waiting to be tested was massive, and they stayed there all day doing tests, later reflecting that they had never x-rayed as many people as they had that day.

Political cartoon displaying doctors as pigs.
Graphic featured in Palante.[36]

The Young Lords’ last large operation was the occupation of Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States. Lincoln Hospital was one of the dirtiest hospitals in the city, with cockroach infestations, improper sanitation measures with blood stains covering the walls and floor, and extreme neglect within patient care. The Young Lords’ believed that healthcare was a right and not a privilege, so after demonstrations, in-person meetings, and conversations with unwilling hospital and city administration, they decided to stage a takeover. Within ten minutes of storming the hospital through a U-haul, they had barricaded themselves inside and assigned floors and exits to cover. To emphasize who they were, a Puerto Rican flag was mounted on the roof, and banners reading “Welcome to the people’s hospital” and “Bienvenidos al hospital del pueblo” were hung from the windows. As press and police arrived on the scene, the Young Lords held a press conference announcing their takeover of the hospital and listing their seven demands, including an increased minimum wage for workers and funding for a new hospital building. After hours of negotiations, the city did not guarantee to meet their demands, but with police ready to mobilize and enter by force, the Young Lords were forced to concede after a 12-hour occupation, escaping through a back door disguised in hospital coats and stethoscopes. It would take seven years for a hospital to be built in the South Bronx and, although the YLO’s demands weren’t met, they had been willing to put their lives on the line to demand quality health care.

Black and white image of a man holding a sign that details the seven demands.
Seven demands for city healthcare.[41]

The Young Lords would eventually disintegrate in the mid 1970s, but their impact in the community is still felt today. Their engagement in savvy and strategic protest won tremendous reform and amplified the dignity of an entire people, spreading awareness of Puerto Rican culture and history. The Young Lords left a legacy not only through the national attention garnered with their occupation of institutions, but the pivotal role they played in the lives of their community.

Black and white image of a radio announcement desk.
Press release during Lincoln Hospital occupation.[42]
Black and white image of the Puerto Rican flag spread out and held by the Young Lords.
Puerto Rican Flag spread among demonstrators.[43]

[1]Research Guides: A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events in the United States: 1968: The Young Lord’s Organization/Party,” Library of Congress.

[2] Emma Francis-Snyder, “How We Occupied a Hospital and Changed Public Health Care | Takeover | Op-Docs,” The New York Times, October 12, 2021, Op-Docs.

[3] Johanna Fernández, The Young Lords: A Radical History, (University of North Carolina Press, 2020,) 13.

[4] Snyder, “Takeover.”

[5] Fernandez, The Young Lords, 49.

[6] Snyder, “Takeover.”

[7] Fernandez, The Young Lords, 5.

[8] Snyder, “Takeover.”

[9] Democracy Now!, “The Young Lords: Exploring the Legacy of the Radical Puerto Rican Activist Group 50 Years Later,” July 24, 2019.

[10] Fernandez, The Young Lords, 98.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Fernandez, The Young Lords, 96.

[13] Snyder, “Takeover.”

[14] Fernandez, The Young Lords, 103.

[15] Ibid., 107.

[16] Ibid., 111.

[17] Ibid., 173.

[18] CUNY TV, “Arts in the City: The Young Lords,” November 18, 2015.

[19] Fernandez, The Young Lords, 181.

[20] Ibid., 176.

[21] Snyder, “Takeover.”

[22] Ibid.

[23] CUNY TV, “Arts in the City.”

[24] Pablo “Yorúba” Guzmán, Ain’t No Party Like the One We Got: The Young Lords Party and Palante, (Michigan State University Press, 2012.) 249.

[25] CUNY TV, “Arts in the City.”

[26] Guzmán, Ain’t No Party Like the One We Got, 251.

[27] Snyder, “Takeover.”

[28] Democracy Now!, “The Young Lords.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] Snyder, “Takeover.”

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Fernandez, The Young Lords, 290.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Snyder, “Takeover.”

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.