Interview with Juan Gonzalez: His road to the Young Lords…


by Lillian Jiménez

One of the long standing iconsof th US PuertoOne of the long standing icons of th US Puerto Rican experience are the Young Lords, a political organization of the late 60s/early 70s with roots in Chicago, and presence in New York that fought for their underserved communities. In US Puerto Rican lore, the Young Lords symbolize the kind of action and community building that has allowed Puerto Ricans to leave their mark in the United States. This is precisely why organizations strive to keep their memory alive. Most recently, in commemoration of the Young Lord’s legacy in the US, recently three organizations—El Museo del Barrio (July 22 – October 17), Bronx Museum of the Arts (July 2 – October 17) and Loisaida, Inc. (July 30 – October 10)—co-organized a new multi-site exhibit, ¡Presente!. The exhibit delves deep into the history of the New York Chapter of the Young Lords Party and into their impact into the history, art, and culture of the city. Added to these is CENTRO Journal’s Spring 2015 issue, which includes an article by Frances Negrón-Muntaner on the intersection of the Young Lords’ style and politics. 

As part of these continuous efforts, we also share with you an interview with Juan Gonzalez conducted for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies by Lillian Jiménez on May of 2005. [The full interview, with transcript, is available at the Archives of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.]

If the name Juan Gonzalez sounds familiar it’s because he is a known and beloved figure in NYC. As a staff reporter for the New York Daily News, co-host of Democracy Now!, and the 2015 Andrés Bello Chair in Latin American Civilization and Culture at NYU, he has left his mark in New York in more ways than one. Born in Ponce when his family had already moved to New York, Gonzalez has been involved with his community early on. From tutoring other Puerto Rican students during his youth to running a model tutoring program at Columbia University, Gonzalez was involved in Columbia University’s strike of ’68, and eventually became an active member of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), before leaving the organization to join the Young Lords. His memories give us an incredible access to not only the experience of Puerto Ricans in New York but to the experience of an entire city. We are sharing some of the highlights of this rich interview. You can also listen to it here.

By Suset Laboy

On why his family moved to New York from Puerto Rico:

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Well, my family, my whole extended family came to the United States in the late 1940’s principally ’46 and ‘47, basically because my father and his two brothers had both served in the US military during World War II and they came back from the war, they were in the 65th Infantry in Europe and in Italy, North Africa. So they came back and they, they couldn’t, they were having a rough time, even in Puerto Rico, even though Puerto Rico was in better shape economically during the war, so they all decided to come to the United States and, they came, one by one…

On the trials and tribulation of language and going to school in New York City:

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Yes, well, I did attend public school beginning in kindergarten in New York…and since I entered school only speaking Spanish because basically…between one and four my grandmother would take care of us… And, so when I entered school since my grandmother spoke no English, I spoke no English. [He laughs.]…it was pretty traumatic going to school and, obviously the language that you didn’t know, and, however, I picked it up pretty quickly and, in fact, I’ve often claimed that I’m owed lots of money by the New York City school system because virtually throughout my whole public school experience, whenever a new kid from Puerto Rico arrived and was placed in the class the teacher would put him next to me so that I would translate into Spanish what the teacher was teaching, so I had to not only learn what the teacher was teaching, I had to be able to explain it to the little kid that was always sitting next to me…I remember that one of my biggest, my first important decision was, I think, either in kindergarten or first grade, and one teacher says to me, “Oh, your name is, uh, Juan so that means John in English so I’m gonna call you John.” And, somehow, I got up the courage to tell her, “No, my name is not John, my name is Juan.” So, therefore, my name stayed Juan in school. But it seems to me that was an important decision, looking back on it, for me to be able to stand up to the teacher and say, “No, this is what my name is.”

On his Ivy School Experience at Columbia University:

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…it was great in terms of everything that you learned, but in terms of the…the social clash and the identity problems, it was like, it was horrendous…But basically, there was very little connection that I had with any of the other students. There were no Latinos at Columbia, there were no African Americans to speak of…So there was virtually nobody who had sort of like any sort of cultural connection to me, or that I had a cultural connection to.

On the Columbia strike of ’68 and his involvement with the Students for a Democratic Society

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What happened in the Columbia strike of ’68 was that the strike of ’68 was actually a merger of those three movements. It was the Black students who were fighting the racism on the campus, it was the Students for a Democratic Society who were fighting the Vietnam war, and it was the community organizations and those students, like myself and, Mark Masen, Wil Stein, who were connected to those groups.

So, what happened is, in April of ’68 all the groups sort of came together and after some SDS students had been suspended everybody marched from the campus to the gym site. There was a huge protest at the gym site…and then we started occupying lots of buildings on campus. It started with one building, Hamilton Hall, on April 23rd but then it expanded eventually to, uh, to five buildings on campus…We occupied the buildings for a week. From April 23rd to April 30th. On April 30th, the City sent in several thousand cops, and they, and all the buildings were barricaded, so they broke through all the barricades, and, it was, at the time it was one of the most traumatic battles that American university, ‘cause they arrested over 700 people…And the attack of the police was so disproportionate to the situation that basically the entire university then went on strike for the rest of the year, about ten thousand students. And there were no more classes that year at Columbia. Basically, the classes were cancelled…

About the first stirrings of the Young Lords in New York

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I joined SDS in the summer…and I ended up getting elected as one of the leaders of the chapter even though I was no longer in school. So, I stayed around for a year at Columbia, not being in school, but leading the chapter…[I]n that period of time that I was heading the chapter…Mickey Melendez started visiting me…Mickey was then trying to put together a group to go back to East Harlem to sort of organize the community and Mickey was the glue who, basically who knew all the people who eventually founded the Young Lords group…So, he came to visit me a few times and he says, “Listen you gotta come, you know, I’m starting this group and we’re going to be meeting in East Harlem. You gotta get back to your roots, you gotta get back to your community.”

And, at the same time SDS was to me increasingly showing sort of its, uh, arrogance and elitism towards people of color. They were increasingly like trying to, I felt had really bad attitudes toward the Black and Latino communities, and they were increasingly moving into a division between what eventually became the Weathermen faction and the Progressive Labor Party faction. And, so, in the summer of ’69 myself and the ringleaders of the second Columbia struggle were all like for thirty days for contempt of court. And, uh, so, luckily we were in jail when the big SDS conference happened that split the two groups…And, so, during that time I got to do a lot of reading about, you know, it was the first time I read Franz Fanon and other books on Third World struggles, so, when I came out of I decided, “I’m not going back to SDS, I’m not gonna go join Weathermen, I’m not gonna join PL. I’m gonna go to these meetings that Mickey is talking about in East Harlem.

…basically we would meet once a week and just discuss what the problems were in the community, what needed to be done and to sort of begin organ, building political organization in the Latino community and the Puerto Rican community.

And, uh, and it was a shifting group of people. There was a guy from City College, Diego Pabón, who was active with the group at City College, ‘cause the City College strike was in the spring of ’69, so, he had just come out of that strike…There was Mickey, [Unintelligible.] Felipe, David by this time, I think, had moved from Chicago to New York because he was getting ready to go to Old Westbury and so there some other folks.

There was a strange guy by the name of José Martínez who was a sort of an elusive figure. He was a Cuban American who was from the Lower East Side, who was very charismatic but no one quite knew what his background was or how he had appeared on the scene. He wasn’t from East Harlem, he was like from the Lower East Side….So we just would meet. It was sort of like a study group, you might call it, to try to figure out what to do in the Latino community…

[W]e found about the Young Lords through the SDS newspaper, in one of the SDS, issues of the SDS newspaper there was an article about this group in Chicago that had taken over a church, that they had been a former gang that was led by this guy named José “Cha Cha” Jiménez. And, um, so we read about the group and how it had developed and José Martínez had heard about them first and he was actually trying to start a Young Lords group in the Lower East Side. Some of the people he recruited were Carlitos Rovira, who was one of the people he had recruited into that group. He had basically recruited some high school kids…but he had no authorization, he just did ‘cause he felt he wanted to do what, follow after the Young Lords in Chicago.

So, and Martínez was coming to our meetings. So, basically what happened is a bunch of us decided to go out to Chicago to see, to see what the Young Lords were doing. And, so we all got into a Volkswagen…So, we go out to Chicago and we meet with Cha Cha and we meet with Luis Cusa (?) and, and Omar López and the other members of the Lords in Chicago. And, of course, they were a very different group because the Lords had started out as a gang. They had, they, Cha Cha was in jail for a while for drugs and he met, he meets Fred Hampton, the Black Panther Party leader.

Fred Hampton introduces him to political education, tries to change his way of thinking, and Cha Cha comes out and decides he want to start a, he was to turn the Young Lords into a political organization. And, of course, their takeover of the church was really not a takeover because the minister who was assigned to the church basically supported their takeover. So, it was not an antagonistic takeover in that sense since they had the support of the minister, who was doing it. But it had a big impact in Chicago at the time and, uh, it was well covered by the news media.

About how the New York Chapter of the Young Lords got started:

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Well, I think the main thing we brought back was that the Lords had a great relation with the local community. This whole issue of “serve and protect” the community, ah, and being able to understand what were the key issues that were important to the community that sense of, which was their motto, “Serve and protect,” which also happened to be the motto of the Chicago Police Dept., on every police car in Chicago, that’s where they got it from. And, then that was key. Also the, their willingness to sort of cut through bull and take direct actions of one kind or another, which was important. And, I think those were the critical things, and also their connection to Puerto Rico, their button, for instance, which was a map of the Island with, with a rifle and the words “Tengo Puerto Rico en mi Corazon” around it, that sort like, that connection to Puerto Rico, this land that most of them had never seen, although Cha Cha had come as a child, and he was like David, he’d been raised part of his life in Puerto Rico…And, we also took back Cha Cha’s authorization to become the, the New York City chapter of the Young Lords.

On their First Project—The East Harlem Garbage Strike:

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So, then the question became “well, what do we do?” (He laughs) Now that we decided what we want to be what is, what do we do? And, uh, so we had then decided that we were going to start this, on the basis of “serving and protecting” and listening to the people that we were going to start this project of every Sunday sweeping streets, picking a street that was filled with garbage and sweeping it and cleaning it and putting all the garbage, organizing all the garbage on the street…

So we kept coming back on Sundays and the people at first thought we were like kind of crazy. Who are these kids coming here and sweeping the street. So, um, at a certain point, I think it was about the second or third Sunday, we realized the brooms we were using, which were like house brooms, were not good enough, so we, somebody said there was a sanitation office, or sanitation barn by 109th near the East River. So, a bunch of us went down there to see if we could get the Sanitation Department to give us some of their big brooms that they use for street sweeping. And, it was. I remember, I was there, Felipe, two or three other people. So, we all went down to ask Sanitation, you know, for some brooms that we could borrow. And, the guys from the depot we kind of like arrogant and they said, “Get outta here, we’re not gonna lend you any brooms.”…and basically, Felipe went on a war path and told them, “M. F you, we’re taking these brooms whether you want it or not.” And he just grabbed the brooms away from some guys, and we grabbed some other and we walked out with the brooms. So, we took the big brooms and we then were able to sweep the street even better and, uh, I can’t remember whether we returned them. I’d like to say we did but I’m not sure [He laughs.] and I don’t want to be inaccurate.

So, basically, we, about the third or fourth Sunday we had gathered a lot of garbage and the Sanitation trucks weren’t picking it up. So, we then came up with the idea of forcing them to pick it up by blocking Third Avenue with the garbage bags, ‘cause we had a lot of garbage bags. So, um, we blocked the avenue, Third Avenue and 110th Street. And, uh, and it sort of, it evolved rapidly from there. Basically, other people started, another block started tossing their garbage out into the street, because people were complaining that the Sanitation trucks hadn’t been by in several days.

And, before you knew it somebody set fire to some of the trash and traffic jams were all over the place. So this gradually became, you know, came to be known as the East Harlem Garbage Strike. Basically it was sort of like an organized protest about the garbage conditions. And as a result—this was when our group first began to become known—the Young Lords became known because basically it was our first sort of public activity as an organization, as an organized group. And it got quite a bit of coverage in the local media and Arnie Segarra, who then worked for Mayor Lindsay, came down and tried to negotiate some kind of an arrangement for better garbage pick-up.

And, so basically that was our first sort of like mass activity as an organization and it immediately created enormous upsurge of people who wanted to join the organization.

On the Larger Meaning of the Strike

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…East Harlem was very dirt. And, the reality was that many outsiders blamed us for the problem. They said, “Well, you know, look at these Puerto Ricans, they don’t even pick up their garbage, they, you know.” Rather than, “Hey, the City is not providing the kind, given how tightly packed people are in these tenements, the City is not providing the kind of sanitation service that a heavily populated tenement neighborhood like this needs.”…

So, we thought, on the one hand, it was something that bothered people in the community, on the other hand, it sort of broke with a stereotype, it upended a stereotype that others had about the community and it also raised the issue of the lack of government services to the community. So, you know, in a way, it sounds like it was minor, but it wasn’t. It was actually, it was actually very, very physical and real and something people felt very strongly about.

On the mission of the Young Lords:

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That depends on who you talk to. [He laughs.] Everybody, I think, has a different perspective of the goal was, and in any organization that has any kind of semblance of democracy you’re going to have different views and what you then try to distill, the differences into some kind of principles that everybody can agree on. And that’s what we did with our platform. Because initially there were very, there were, there was a wide spectrum of differences I would say among the original group in terms of what the thrust and direction and, and, uh, purpose, the ideology of the organization was and it was a process of us being able to agree on a minimum, what we all minimally agreed on.

So, um, you know, Pablo had come out of the experience of, his role model had been the Black Panther Party, and had been when he was at the Bronx High School of Science and then going to Old Westbury, he saw the Black Panther and its ten-point program, its rules of discipline as a way that the Young Lords should develop.

And, um, Felipe was more of, um a nationalist in that he had, he developed predominantly within sort of the, the more nationalist wing of the Black liberation movement, the Amiri Barakas and the, uh, the Stokeleys and the Rap Brown, who were the people that he most associated with and saw as role models. And David had, was more of a Puerto Rican nationalist in that he had grown up in Chicago and he was more, what he saw as role models were the people in the Nationalist Party in Puerto Rico and the, uh, sort of peasant small owner, small land owner resistant movement of Puerto Rico.

I had sort of developed as a result of my, my political formation had been more in terms of SDS and in terms of a, you know, more toward a socialist orientation but not really more, uh, not fully developed, you know, just vaguely socialistic and anti-imperialist and, so that, the different folks that came together all sort of had different perspectives. Iris had developed much more with, uh, sort of a socialist and anti-imperialist perspective from her development. Denise had come from a more middle class Black family from out in Jamaica in Queens, and who, she had developed sort of in a nationalist perspective but very, very anti, sort of the male nomination of Muslim nationalist types. And, you know, she would be set off by anybody who tried to like push that kind of perspective and viewpoint on any organization. And, uh, Gloria had come out of a strict nationalist, Puerto Rican nationalist perspective in the Lower East Side where she had been very influenced by Julio Rosado and the Rosado brother and the, Genoveva Clemente and the old, sort of like the longtime U.S. nationalist type figures.

So everybody brought a different perspective into the same group, uh, and it was a question of all of us trying to figure out what we could all agree on and it was not an easy thing. [He laughs.]..

[T]he purpose of the Young Lords was to end oppression in the broadest possible sense of the word, end the oppression of the, of the Puerto Rican people here in the United States and in Puerto Rico and, uh, to achieve a social revolution in the United States that would make life better for, not only for us, but for everyone else in the country and around the world. I mean, if you wanted in the broadest sense of the term, if you wanted, you know to distill the thirteen points of the platform, I would say that that would, that would be the main goal of the organization…Now, again, it was not a Puerto Rican organization, uh, there were, I would say at least 25 per cent our membership early on was African American. Uh, there were, um, quite a few Dominicans, Mexicans, Cuban, that were part of the group. But that it was, its focus, its center was around the, this marginalized forgotten, invisible group called the Puerto Ricans in the United States and also on the island of Puerto Rico.

On how the Young Lords provide a mirror into an era:

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It was was a very intense period, and I think the thing about the, you know, I don’t know if you’ve ever read Ten Days that Shook the World, by John Reed, which is the, about the Russian Revolution that, John Reed has a, has a saying in that book. He says that the Russian people aged ten years in ten days of the Russian Revolution, that in moments of intense conflict people age dramatically and mature dramatically, and think that, uh, really the period of the Young Lords, the most intense period of the Young Lords, from the summer of ’69 to, um, you might say roughly 1972, something like that, which was basically about a three-year period, uh, was, you know, was ten years worth, ten or fifteen years worth of experience. For some people it remains the most, the most important period of their lives. Now, uh, for me it’s not. It was seminal, it influenced me a lot, but I’ve continued to do other things and be involved in other struggles and other struggles even that in some sense have had even more massive impact over, a more long-term impact. But it was definitely a critical experience for me…The times were so intense…The struggle would not have been so intense if the struggle would not have been so intense. You know, I think that people have not really understood that in the late 1960’s the United States was at the point of near total insurrection within the whole country. It was at the point of greatest internal conflict since the Civil War, and so the conditions created that intensity.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 28 August 2015.

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