The confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has stirred a wide sense of pride among Puerto Ricans. But some the roots of that Puerto Rican pride, many would argue, took hold 40 years ago this summer, with the founding in New York City of the Young Lords, a group that used confrontational tactics to bring services and attention to the residents of East Harlem, or El Barrio, and beyond.
The young men (and a handful of women) — a half-generation older than Ms. Sotomayor — deployed attention-grabbing strategies to draw attention to social inequality. They piled garbage on Third Avenue and set it ablaze. They took over a church and ran a free children’s breakfast program. They seized hospital equipment and moved it to where it was needed most. They went through neighborhoods testing for lead paint poisoning and tuberculosis.
“Now these things — breakfast, lead poison — are considered ‘of course,’” explained Pablo Guzmán, a founding member of the New York City’s Young Lords, who is now a correspondent for the WCBS-TV. “But back then, bringing environmental factors like lead-based paint into the discussion — or even connecting poverty and health — that was all new.”
Many of the members of the Young Lords were the children of rural migrants from Puerto Rico who arrived in New York in the 1930s and 1940s. “We were the linchpin between the cane cutters and Sotomayor,” said Felipe Luciano, the founding chairman of the Young Lords in New York City. “We started from the same pool as Sotomayor. We started in the projects. Many of us were working-class kids.”
The campaigns electrified the Puerto Rican community and generated headlines, bringing abuelas and abuelos out into the streets to cheer. “Had we all not raised a little hell, we might not have fanned the spark within Sotomayor that made her want to connect to her people,” Mr. Guzmán said. “I guarantee you a 16-or-so-year-old Sonia Sotomayor heard about it.
Inspired by the Black Panther Party, the militant black civil rights organization founded in Oakland, Calif., in 1966, Mr. Luciano said he originally thought about starting a group called the Brown Tigers, but members of the Black Panthers, he said, told him to “Do your own thing.” So early in the summer of 1969, a group of New York Puerto Ricans drove in a Volkswagen to Chicago, where the Young Lords had its origins in a 1950s gang that eventually took on a more political character, for permission to start a chapter in New York. (The New York group eventually split off from the Chicago faction in 1970.)
The New York chapter of the Young Lords began its short but eventful existence during summer months on 1969, officially declaring its existence on July 26. They began by polling the East Harlem residents as to the most pressing issue on their minds. “I thought they were going to tell us housing,” Mr. Luciano said.
Instead, the residents identified garbage — la basura, left rotting in the streets because of ineffective sanitation services — as the biggest problem.
“It left me stunned,” he said.
But so be it. The Young Lords spent time cleaning the streets with their house brooms and bagging garbage in what they called the Garbage Offensive.
Then they went to the neighborhood sanitation depot to borrow higher-quality brooms. The sanitation officer refused, Mr. Luciano recalled, but he decided he would get the equipment anyway.
“All I did was push him to the side and went inside and got the broom myself,” said Mr. Luciano, who had spent time in prison for a gang fight. “It sounds almost cute. It sounds benign. But it was the most revolutionary thing that I could do at that point.”
Mr. Luciano said it changed the group’s attitude. He said the Young Longs were “not willing to confront in those days.”
“That is a very Puerto Rican trait,” he added. “It emboldened them.”
But for weeks, sanitation service in East Harlem continued to be poor. Frustrated, the Young Lords took the bags of garbage and built five-foot-tall barricades across Third Avenue, halting traffic. Then the group’s members set the garbage on fire, which brought out police and firefighters (though not sanitation workers). As a result, the garbage service improved, though it was never what it was in wealthier neighborhoods.
In December 1969, the group seized the First Spanish Methodist Church on Lexington Avenue and East 111th Street by drilling six-inch railroad spikes into the door. They began an 11-day occupation in which they provided free breakfast and clothing programs, health services, a day care center, and a liberation school from the church. The occupation attracted celebrity visitors and food donations from business leaders. In the end 105 people were peaceably arrested.
Then the Young Lords focused attention on health care. In June 1970, the members seized a mobile chest X-ray unit from Lexington Avenue and 116th Street. Within another month, the Young Lords took over the decrepit Lincoln Hospital for about 12 hours, demanding door-to-door preventive health services, maternal and child care, drug addition care and senior citizens’ services
The group eventually disintegrated during the early 1970s, in part because of political infighting and F.B.I. infiltration. But the members’ short burst of activity catalyzed Puerto Rican pride and political and cultural activism. Many of the Young Lords of that era went on to visible careers in the news media and inside government.
“At one point in every revolutionary’s life, you have to know when to take the sword and pound it into plowshares,” Mr. Luciano said. “You do it, and you do it in a progressive manner.”
Members of the New York Young Lords held a 40th anniversary celebration on Sunday, at the First Spanish Methodist Church, the site of the 11-day occupation. In recent years, their experiences have been well- documented in books (such as a memoir by Miguel Melendez), and documentaries (like one by Iris Morales).
The progress of Puerto Ricans in New York has over the past few decades has been mixed. Many are still among the poorest of the poor, whereas in other cities like Tampa, Fla., and Los Angeles, their household income is comparable to that of other Latino groups.
But Justice Sotomayor’s success is one that many of the Young Lords alumni view as their own. “When you look at her face, that is our mother, that is our sister, that is our grandmother, that is our auntie,” Mr. Luciano said.
“I mean, there was a joke in the neighborhood,” said CBS reporter Pablo Guzman, “that if you got stabbed on this side of the street, crawl over to the other side so the ambulance wouldn’t take you to Lincoln.”
But then came the revolutionaries.
The Young Lords, a radical Puerto Rican activist group similar to the Black Panthers, decided to take it over one day. Guzman was among them.
And that day changed everything.
Special thanks to WNYC archivist, Andy Lanset, Professor Johanna Fernandez, Dr Oliver Fein, Dr Charlotte Phillips, Dr Fitzhugh Mullan, Merlin Chowkwanyun and the Pacifica Radio Archives.