“We change ourselves, through the course of changing society.”
– Iris Morales
Iris Morales’ book, Through the Eyes of Rebel Women: The Young Lords 1969-1976 documents the perspective of women cadre in the formation of one of the most important radical party organizations in Latinx- American history. As one of the primary leaders of the party, the author, Iris Morales is effective in offering an intimate account of the internal politics and dynamics of the organization. In an age now of gender politics being central to how we move our grassroots political agenda, Ms. Morales’ narrative is a relevant and essential political education tool.
Originally a group based in Chicago, the Young Lords Organization (YLO) fought against the displacement of Latinx (predominantly Puerto Rican and Mexican) communities in Lincoln Park and for the independence and self determination of the island of Puerto Rico.
Young radicals and activists based in East Harlem, El Barrio, NYC, also a majority Puerto Rican/ Latinx neighborhood, were inspired by meeting the founders of the organization in Chicago and expanded and formed the Young Lords Party (YLP) in NYC in May 1970. Initially, the central committee of the Party had an all male leadership until the women pushed for female representation. In the next month, June 1970, Denise Oliver became the first female leader of the central committee, appointed as minister of finance, in the first of many victories to come from the women in the organization. Early on, women made the Young Lords more accountable to women’s issues and confronting patriarchy more than many of the radical organizations of the time.
Similar to today, in the 1940s-50s, there was a mass exodus of Puerto Ricans to the US due to an unsustainable economic model. Today, the exorbitant debt crisis and a deteriorating economy have led residents from all class sectors to leave the Island. In the 1950s, it was predominantly agricultural workers and the poorest families that were displaced during the country’s industrialization process, Operation Bootstrap. Puerto Rican families migrated in massive numbers to New York and took the lowest paying jobs in workplaces like garment factories, laundries, and restaurants. They faced intense poverty and discrimination.
The Lords, inspired by the Civil Rights movement and the Black Panther Party, were young, some first generation out of college. They hoped to point out the daily challenges of working people including substandard housing, a poor education system, and lack of adequate health services. They did this not just by identifying the problem in discourse and narratives, but by creating a tangible revolutionary alternative to capitalism that the people could feel and experience in their neighborhood.
Simultaneously, the Young Lords advocated and educated the community about the colonial status of Puerto Rico, the inequality in capitalism and the benefits of a socialist alternative.
Some of their community actions included uniting doctors and activists to liberate a tuberculosis testing truck. When the city was not stationing tb trucks in poor communities, the activists and doctors took it upon themselves to administer lead and tuberculosis testing directly to the community. This type of direct action forced the city to station tb testing trucks in poor neighborhoods.
A direct action takeover of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx helped establish a holistic detox program for people addicted to drugs. Breakfast programs were established by the Party when schools did not meet the need. In what became known as the “1969 garbage offensive,” the Lords acknowledged that community residents were angered that garbage was not being picked up by the city. In response, the Young Lords swept and cleaned up the neighborhood and set the garbage on fire. As police brutality was rampant in El Barrio, the Young Lords often intervened directly, leading to direct protection of residents and confrontation with the police.
The Young Lords education program under the leadership of Juan Gonzalez and Iris Morales led thirteen-week cycles of political education. As Morales states,” some sessions featured guest speakers and screened films…about Vietnam, Cuba, and Palestine, or about people’s struggles in the United States such as “Salt of the Earth,” about a Mexican workers’ strike.”
The information team published a bimonthly newspaper called Palante and ran a radio show through public radio station WBAI under the direction of “Yoruba” Guzman. Known for its dazzling graphics and provocative headlines, Palante was the equivalent of the sexiness of political memes today.
Though much of this history is well documented, the book offers the perspective of the women cadre, who did all of the day to day revolutionary work on of running this type of organization and yet struggled to be represented, recognized and appreciated as central to the work.
Structured in three parts, Part 1 tells the history of the Lords and the rise of the Women’s Caucus and Women’s Union. It also documents the internal divisions and role of government surveillance that led to the downfall of the organization. The second part of the book offers testimonies and stories from women in the Lords from a diversity of backgrounds. Last, there are archival documents like the Young Lords Position Paper on Women, Why a Women’s Union? In 1971, and the Women’s Union 12 point program that help provide context to the demands of the time.
In some of the initial anecdotes, Morales describes how the central committee was initially almost all men who had appointed themselves. Yoruba Guzman, one of the founding central committee members describes, “ the first time we heard about Women’s Liberation, our machismo and male chauvinism said, “Well these chicks are all frustrated- that’s their main problem. What they really need is a good-you know.” That was the thing that we were coming from. (p. 46, Rebel Women)
Sentiments like these and the recognition that women literally had to jump through hurdles to be seen as strong as men, led to the formation of a women’s caucus. Through this caucus, the women defined their demands and transformed the organization. Ms. Morales cites Fidel Castro addressing the impact and importance of women in the Cuban revolution and calling for the “revolution within the revolution.” The sentiment behind the quote was that there could be no socialist revolution without the full recognition and liberation of women. Some of the demands won by the women’s caucus were:
- Women’s history was included in the political education curriculum
- Women became key writers of the Party newspaper Palante
- The statement “Machismo must be revolutionary” In the Young Lords Party’s original 13 point program and platform (where it talked about equality of women) was removed due to women saying that if racism was not revolutionary, neither was machismo.
- Childcare was developed for mothers who wanted to participate in movement work
- Increased leadership and representation in core committees of the Party
All of these things women accomplished, including developing their own all women-run publication, La Luchadora. The YLP recognized that at the forefront of the struggle for women was the fight against sterilization and the need for quality health care and safe abortions.
Ms. Morales points out that abortions for women of color were often shoddy, so having just a strict demand for abortion was not sufficient. Also, there was a massive sterilization campaign on women in poor communities and on the Island. Last, contraceptives that were not regulated were also tested on poor and working class Latinx and Black women.
The women’s caucus also seeded the creation of a groundbreaking lesbian and gay caucus. This was unique for radical organizations at the time that were struggling with how to address gay rights. Sylvia Rivera, cofounder of Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and one of the leaders of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, was a deep ally of the work of the Young Lords.
The Demise of the Lords
A key aspect to what Ms. Morales covers in the history is the demise of the organization after having such a profound impact on the community and serving as an inspiration to radical movements in the U.S.
The central committee in 1971 presented a plan to begin mobilizing and setting up organizing work in Puerto Rico. The rationale was that there were over a million Puerto Ricans in the US and 2/3 remained on the Island, and that though the people were in two different nations, Puerto Ricans still constituted one nation. (p.95, Rebel Women) And therefore, the YLP needed to organize on the Island as well.
The YLP leadership also raised concerns that the movement on the island of Puerto Rico for independence and sovereignty at the time, was being directed by middle and upper classes. It was thought that the YLP could have a greater impact on mobilizing the working class, the lumpen and the afro-Boricuas. As the YLP started pouring a lot of resources into developing the organization in Puerto Rico, the main base of the party located in the United States suffered. There were growing divisions about this strategy and especially about the YLP’s effectiveness in organizing Island residents. Most of the Lords were influenced by US Latinx diaspora and African- American culture. The central base of people the organization had developed were located in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of the US which had very different dynamics regarding race, class and gender politics. Members of the Lords made the argument that the Young Lords were not best positioned to lead the movements on the Island.
Due to this strategic mistake, the connection to the local community in New York began to deteriorate, as did the base of over 20% of African Americans who participated in the work of the Lords. Black members were asked to learn Spanish better and were being less acknowledged for their contribution to organizing in the Lords. The first woman on the central committee, Denise Oliver, who was of African American descent, left to join the Panthers because of the differences in strategy and lack of recognition of the race issues in the organization and on the Island.
To adhere to an effort to organize workers more efficiently, there was also a call to dissolve the Women’s Union, which was considered a mass organization that helped grow the base of the Party. Ms. Morales recalls a comrade once saying that there were not enough resources to organize both women and workers. And her response was that women were workers. “Our struggle is a class struggle. The members of the Women’s Union are workers, homemakers, students, unemployed.” She pointed out that historically, women like Luisa Capetillo, one of the most prominent labor organizers in Puerto Rican history, managed to fight for all workers and for the issues of women. This call was later rescinded as an error and recognition of the important organizing that was done to form the women’s union.
Last, the infiltration of the government and the COINTELPRO program escalated these divisions and contradictions. Under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, FBI agents were asked to monitor, disrupt and discredit and neutralize movement organizations. In Puerto Rico, known as the carpetas, police collected data and thousands of files on activists of the Puerto Rican independence movement that were only discovered by activists and researchers decades later. There were physical attacks on members by other members, and raids of homes by both the police and party members that created more disillusionment. The book shares detailed incidents on the actual victims of these raids. Some Lords members accused COINTELPRO of actually killing YLP members. Ms. Morales documents that from the very launching of the YLP in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park, there were agents present and to this day the role of surveillance in our contemporary radical movement is one of the most pressing of our time.
Lessons for Movements Today
It is important to note that the Young Lords were not funded by grants or government agencies. YLP members dedicated time to the organization, by either not working, or working on evenings and weekends and contributing to the organization financially. While sometimes this could lead to unsustainability, the political analysis and ability and agility to act based on their revolutionary ideals was essential to their work. They were internationalists and had an analysis of the U.S.’s role as an imperialist nation. They met internationally with workers to connect issues. There was an integration of issues that faced the Puerto Rican/Latinx community, and this meant that there was less siloing of issues as we see today. As Ms. Morales said, “ you could have the Inmates Liberation Front ( a mass organization of prisoners connected to the YLP) address the issue of women’s sterilization.”
While online organizing is essential, it has to complement and not replace the base building on the ground and the creation of a program that meets the need of the local community. It is crucial to act in solidarity with movements that are gaining momentum as opposed to defining an agenda where there is little or no interest in what the organization may have to offer. The best work of the Lords occurred when they met the needs of the people with a radical imagination.
Surveillance then was conducted by agents, now many of us reveal our movement work openly through social media. There is a need for a community discussion on this and also a discussion on ways that movements begin to destroy each other rather than advance a common agenda.
Most of all, the process of growing oneself, is participating in the struggle. And this will mean recognizing class, race, ableist and gender privilege and addressing it in respectful and thoughtful ways together that strengthens rather than divide our organizations and movements.
You can purchase Through the Eyes of Rebel Women: The Young Lords 1969-1976 here.