Insurgent Archives

Johanna Fernández, The Young Lords: A Radical History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020); 480 pages; ISBN: 978-1469653440 (hardcover)

• June 2022

Johanna Fernández’s The Young Lords: A Radical History is a comprehensive account of the rise and fall of one the most renowned people of color grassroots political organizations of the 1960s in the United States. By drawing on original interviews with more than a hundred members of the Young Lords and witnesses of the movement, along with personal papers, internal and government documents, and public archival repositories, Fernández details the story of the organization in a readable and heartfelt style. Her insights provide an invaluable addition to the current texts about the Young Lords. The existing literature regarding the organization consists mainly of two oral history accounts and two compilations of political essays and photographs by the Young Lords.1 Fernández’s contribution, with its rigorous historical analysis, expand the range of critical sources and brings a welcome scholarly voice to the conversation.

A recipient of the 2021 American Book Award, along with a handful of other distinctions, The Young Lords opens with the organization’s beginnings in 1968 as a gang established by Cha Cha Jiménez, a Chicago-based Puerto Rican migrant: “Cha Cha was engaged in an internal struggle with himself, begun in his prison cell in the spring of 1968” (13). Through a narration of the astonishing and politicizing experiences of Jiménez, Fernández sets her analysis within the context of a postwar United States, the rise of the civil rights movement, and the isolation of Chicago racialized residents, allowing her to explore a crucial matter throughout the book: what it meant to be Puerto Rican in the United States of America in the 1960s.

One of the main strengths of the book is Fernández’s placement of the Puerto Rican migration debate in conversation with the global forces that brought Puerto Ricans to the US mainland. Her writing illuminates how formations of latinidad—undoubtedly shaped by race and class—need to be understood as transnational phenomena that emerge from and exist in a dialogic relationship with issues of political economy happening in the archipelago, such as Operation Bootstrap and other policies related to the US colonial project in Puerto Rico.

The author also explores in great depth the organization’s early days in New York City, the other nodal geographical point for the foundation of the Young Lords. By going back to an examination of the racial institutional and structural dynamics of the city in the 1940s, Fernández recovers some of the most formative elements of what then became the organization’s political identity. She looks back at New York’s racial criminalization and failure of school integration during the 1940s and argues that the resulting social discontent produced a unique generation of Puerto Ricans nurtured by higher education and the College Discovery Program. This New York–based new generation developed a critical perspective that, teamed up with Jiménez’s Chicago faction, would ultimately bring the organization together in 1969.

The third chapter of the book, “The Garbage Offensive,” addresses some key political deployments of the Young Lords that would later become part of its organizing structure. By examining the organization’s first campaign in 1969, the so-called Garbage Offensive, Fernández analyzes how the Young Lords based its first campaign on the complaints of the residents of El Barrio in East Harlem who, by denouncing the substandard garbage collection in Spanish Harlem, articulated claims of race-based environmental discrimination. These claims were developed by the Young Lords through strategies of civil disobedience and hands-on local community service that, in Fernández’s words, would provide “the laboratory within which the Young Lords developed an approach to local organizing that adopted the model of community service institutionalized by the War on Poverty” (91).

One of the author’s biggest achievements is the use of the testimonies, provided by the organization’s members and some witnesses, alongside mainstream press coverage and law enforcement surveillance archives. Fernández’s analysis ultimately points to the White supremacist rationales that contaminated these media and legal discourses targeting Black Americans and Puerto Ricans. Moreover, her use of oral histories operates as a counterarchive to the New York Times coverage of the movement and the NYPD records and COINTELPRO FBI surveillance files regarding the Young Lords—only recently released after a lawsuit.2 The author uses this counterarchive to debunk some Western narratives of racialized subjects that are deeply embedded in the US collective imagination, such as the image of the “angry” folks of color who engage in practices of senseless violence.

Through this archive/counterarchive interplay, Fernández sets up the discursive scaffolding for the chapters that follow, in which she discusses the rest of the Young Lords’ campaigns, such as the Lead Offensive in 1969–70 (against children’s lead poisoning), the Liberation School, and the Church Offensive. According to the author, the two Lincoln Hospital occupations left an imprint in the organization that led its costly political turn in 1971 and later the beginning of a decline influenced by “COINTELPRO, narrow nationalist currents, and authoritarian figures like Gloria Fontanez and her influence on key members” (377).

Special attention should be paid to chapter 4, “Building the Blocks,” which offers a community-centered historical framework. Here Fernández illustrates the process through which a set of grassroots community-level decisions later crystallize into state-sanctioned practices such as the Patient Bill of Rights. She links this with a close and revealing analysis of the development of the Young Lords’ organizational structure and political platform. Fernández mainly focuses on the group’s community connections, its ministries, and the thirteen-point manifesto that would forge its political identity. According to Fernández, the manifesto included demands such as the self-determination for Puerto Rican liberation, opposition to racism, the true education of Afro-Indio culture in Spanish language, and women’s equality, among others. On the other hand, she underscores the witty avoidance of street police confrontation as an organizational policy to relieve the economic burden of legal defense campaigns.

Another of Fernández’s important contributions is her focus on the horizontal hierarchies, power differentials, and political subjectivities in the Young Lords. According to her insights, the organization’s inception was framed in relation to other political activist formations, such as the Black Panther Party—the example she provides of Jiménez’s feature in the Black Panther Party’s newspaper on 7 June 1969 is particularly telling of these dynamics—and the Puerto Rican nationalist New York City–based organization Sociedad Albizu Campo, with the work developed by welfare mothers and White working-class folks, across racial lines, in the organization. A major strength of the book is Fernández’s attention to gender, as seen in chapter 8. Her argument that the inclusion of women in the organization forced changes in the Young Lords’ global gender perspective underscores the discrimination against women present in other organizations in the New Left that tended to create separate women’s sections.

The final chapter of the book, “Organizational Decline,” focuses on the Young Lords’ 1970s expansion to Puerto Rico. Fernández carefully addresses the complexities of how this geographical placement triggered wide disapproval among the members of the organization. Likewise, the common thread throughout this chapter is Fernández’s assertion that by placing decision making in the highest ranks of the organization, the Central Committee missed the opportunity to build a real internal democracy. According to the author, a context of paranoia about the infiltration of COINTELPRO agents drove the organization from its hands-on community-service model to a Marxist-based political-movement one. This shift implied a disconnection from the real world that contributed to the demise of the Young Lords’ New York office and ultimately of the organization as a whole.

In the conclusion, the book turns directly to contemporary politics as Fernández connects her analysis of the organization with the present day through valuable lessons learned from the Young Lords’ hands-on practices of organizing at a local level. Readers interested in delving into Latinx studies, Nuyorican studies, critical ethnic studies, and civil rights organizations, as well as questions of immigration and citizenship in the field of American history, would benefit from this book. Fernández’s prose is also accessible to a nonacademic audience interested in the subject. Indeed, accessibility is one of the book’s merits.

Despite the number of oral histories and testimonies about the Young Lords already in print, Fernández makes an important contribution to the fields of Puerto Rican, Latinx, and American history. The author’s archive-based analysis, driven by a multiplicity of sources and resources, invites readers to theorize Puerto Rican and Latinx identities as multiracial and diasporic and contributes to the broader task of recovering the experiences of these communities.

 

 

Ricardo M. Coloma is a doctoral student in Latin American, Iberian, and Latino cultures at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, interested in gentrification and contemporary diasporic fiction. He received a BArch and MArch (Arquitecto Superior) from the Universidad Francisco de Vitoria in Madrid, and an MA in Spanish/Latin-American literature from the Universidad de Barcelona. His research interests include literary cartographies, utopian thinking in the age of globalization, spatial literary studies, performance studies, diaspora cultures, migration studies, and barrio urbanism.

 


[1] Mickey “Mickey” Melendez, We Took the Streets: Fighting for Latino Rights with the Young Lords (New York: St. Martin’s, 2003); Iris Morales, Through the Eyes of Rebel Women: The Young Lords, 1969–1976 (New York: Red Sugar Cane, 2016); Darrel Enck-Wanzer, ed., The Young Lords: A Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2010); Young Lords Party, “Palante”: Young Lords Party, with photographs by Michael Abramson (1971; repr., 2011).

[2] Joseph Goldstein, “Old New York Police Surveillance Is Found, Forcing Big Brother Out of Hiding,” New York Times, 16 June 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/06/17/nyregion/old-new-york-police-surveillance-is-found-forcing-big-brother-out-of-hiding.html.