Mujeres of the Young Lords

Forty years after the Puerto Rican activist group took over an East Harlem church, a look at the women who shaped their politics.

By Erica Gonz?lez Aug 19, 2009

On Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009, the Young Lords Party will have its 40th reunion at the First Spanish Methodist Church in New York City. This article first appeared in Spanish in El Diaro/La Prensa.

Connie Cruz had been told what to do all her life-by her parents, then her husband. That changed in December of 1969.

Then, a group of young Puerto Rican activists were appealing to a church in El Barrio (East Harlem) for space to house a breakfast program for the poor. The First Spanish Methodist Church had denied their request. Its minister saw the youths as leftist rabble-rousers.

But the group-the Young Lords Party-remained undeterred. They planned to put in another request during the church’s testimonials.

"My brother-in-law Mickey came to visit," Cruz said. "He explained the reasons for them being there [at the church]-to ask for the community to give up space for a children’s breakfast program. I felt that was a very good cause to become involved in."

But her willingness to act was not encouraged. "My brother-in-law at that time said this is for men, not for women," she said. "That stirred something in me."

She put her timidity to the side and insisted on going to the church. Her brother-in-law, she said, then asked her what she would do about her 5-year-old daughter. "Well, I’m bringing her with me," Cruz responded.

Cruz and the Young Lords took over the church and fed poor, hungry children for almost two weeks until the police rushed in. That was one of many actions the group would take.

At 25, Cruz became an older member-most of the Lords at the time were in their late teens or early 20’s. But whatever their age, they all had a commitment to challenging the status quo for Puerto Ricans in New York and beyond. The conditions, they believed, required it.

Then, the Puerto Rican community lacked the extent of leadership, organizations and clout that exists today. The city outright neglected neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, East Harlem and the South Bronx, all heavily concentrated with Puerto Ricans. Deplorable housing conditions, police brutality and racial and ethnic discrimination in services were the order of the day. Bilingual education was not mandated in schools. And even basic health services, like tuberculosis testing, were inaccessible.

Across the country, young people were taking to the streets to protest the U.S. war in Vietnam. And throughout the world, liberation struggles against colonialism were inspiring movements for justice and equality.

It was in that context that the Young Lords Party emerged in the summer of 1969.

Initially, the group served as the northeast branch of a gang-turned-political group from Chicago. In New York, the Lords, wearing purple berets, quickly landed on the front pages of major newspapers with their takeovers and face-offs with the police. But on a day-to-day basis, the Lords engaged in community organizing to demonstrate that everyday individuals could stand up to abusive landlords or police officers or a neglectful government.

"Every action we took was for a purpose that would move our community to the next level," said former Lord Gloria Rodriguez.

Much is documented about the group’s actions but little on how women shaped the party.

For Cruz, her experience with the Young Lords Party helped her assert herself. When she got divorced, she demanded that her ex-husband take equal part in the caring of their children. And she insisted on an equal partnership in her next marriage.

Iris Morales, another former Young Lord, explained the weight of Cruz’s actions at a time when strict cultural definitions of women were ingrained. "These were very revolutionary acts-to stand up to a man and say I am going to be involved."

Those revolutionary acts came with hard knocks.

The Young Lords were governed by an all-male central committee. Its 13-point platform advocated for "revolutionary machismo."

The women began to caucus out of the group’s El Barrio office. They talked about personal experiences and studied Puerto Rican women in history, from workers’ advocate Luisa Capetillo to nationalist Blanca Canales. The line on revolutionary machismo became a focus of discussion-and sharp criticism.

"We fought against this idea of revolutionary machismo because we said, ‘What is revolutionary racism?’" Morales said.

"When we started meeting we were told we couldn’t take time to have this ‘silly women’s meeting,’" said Denise Oliver, another former Lord. Most members were Puerto Rican. But there were also Cuban, Dominican and Black American members like Oliver.

The women defied the party leaders and demanded change. Their pressure resulted in the revolutionary machismo line being dropped and in women being added to all levels of leadership. A new point in the program began with: "We want equality for women. Down with machismo and male chauvinism."

Change, even in an organization committed to challenging oppression, was not easy.

Women like Cruz who joined the defense ministry, for example, were subjected to more rigorous tasks than the men. Oliver said they also had to fight against stereotypical assignments, such as being asked to type.

"The question of machismo was an ongoing issue," said Rodriguez, who was sent from the party’s office in the Lower East Side to break into the male leadership of the party’s Philadelphia branch.

"Men were told they had to go to classes on sexism, to deal with it," said David Jacobs, a former Lord who worked out of the group’s Manhattan and Bronx offices. "There were guys who didn’t like the idea.

"It’s like-here you are, turning your head at women, whistling at women, and now you are told that the way you are behaving…that you have to change," Jacobs said.

Because the party had a military structure, orders from women leaders had to be followed, regardless of the attitude toward them, Jacobs said. And when they weren’t, it was brought up in the party’s practice of open criticism sessions. Insubordinates could also face discipline.

Jacobs said that being raised by a politically progressive mother who was conscious of sexism made it easy for him to adjust. The changes "affected mostly the guys who were involved with women in the party," he said. They were faced with reconciling their political principles with their treatment of women.  

"It’s tough for someone who has been dealing a certain way with women, whose father was dealing with women a certain way…and now they have to change," he recalled.

Nevertheless, the impact of the women’s caucus was far-reaching and transformative.

Half of the content of the Young Lords newspaper, Pa’lante, had to focus on women’s issues. A men’s caucus was formed to deal with machismo. The party established a women’s union with a publication called La Luchadora. And the party’s overall program and work broadened.

People were defining revolutionary struggle as only militancy, Morales said. But the Young Lords Party, as a result of women organizing within it, took positions against a massive sterilization program directed at Puerto Rican women. The Lords defended a woman’s right to abortion and childcare, for example.

"The Young Lords became known for its positions on women’s issues," Morales said. "And for recognizing ourselves as Afro Boricuas and of Afro-Taino culture."

By 1976, major shifts broke the party apart. A change in political direction (the group was renamed Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization and deployed its members to factories), manipulative leaders commissioning violence against dissident members and the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) all undermined the party.

The division and ultimate dissolution of the party was a heart-breaking period for young people who had for years invested their lives into making a difference.

"In the excitement and enthusiasm of our youthfulness, I don’t think we were mature enough to understand what we were up against," Rodriguez said. "We were taking on the government. We were taking on huge embedded structures."

Some people walked away from political organizing. Others saw it as a fad of their youth. Many, 40 years after the Young Lords Party was established, have remained active.

"Every career I’ve had since has been affected by that period of time," said Oliver who worked in public media and who, as a cultural anthropologist, has developed coursework based on the life experiences of Caribbean and Latina women.

Rodriguez, a psychologist, founded the group De Almas to specifically help women of color empower themselves by addressing issues of self esteem.

Morales produced the documentary ¡Pa’lante Siempre Pa’lante! about the Young Lords.

Whether it’s been in their professional lives or raising families, many of the Young Lords women continue to instill and share the same values-chiefly, a commitment to advancing communities and to the dignity of women.

"It’s really key that women from that period learned lessons not only about raising daughters a certain way but also sons a certain way," Oliver said.

The party changed the way Puerto Rican women-and men-looked at themselves and this may be its lasting impact. Some of the proof is in the subsequent generation of sons and daughters. Cruz’s daughter Lisa Morales – the one she took to what was renamed the People’s Church-is a former emergency services worker who plans to organize around occupational safety issues. She says she has never been afraid of standing up for herself and questioning worker abuse.

She attributes that to her exposure to the Young Lords. "There were a lot of visions of courage, a lot of visions of hope," she said.

Erica González is the opinion page editor for El Diario/la Prensa, the oldest Spanish-language daily newspaper in the country.