An interview with Chicago Puerto Rican historian Mervin Mendez conducted by Erika Rodriguez for the Chicago Gang History Project. In it Mendez explains the context for the development of Puerto Rican gangs in Chicago.
Based on your knowledge, what can you tell me about the political and social conditions for Puerto Ricans in Chicago, and where do the Young Lords come in with relation to all of this?
Well I’m not that old. I’m 40 years old but I know a great deal about that time period. In part by my own personal experience as a child growing up, memories of the 1960’s, what communities were like in the 1960’s, but you know I’ve also been an urban historian with a focus on the Puerto Rican and Latino community in Chicago. So to give a backdrop in terms of where it is that the Young Lords come in, or where some of these early gangs come in, we have to look at where the Puerto Rican community found itself.
The historical context: Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican migration to Chicago is actually a very unique migration, different from that of New York. It begins during the period corresponding with Puerto Rico changing political status from a colony to a commonwealth. This period between 1948 and 1950 is when Puerto Rico for the first time in its history has an elected government. What the transition really symbolized was Puerto Rico changing from a colony whose people were subjected to whoever, to the whim of the United States in terms of who the governor would be, to actually having some participation in a democracy where we would be able to elect town mayors and we would be able to elect a governor and a representative in the Congress (albeit a voice that doesn’t have a vote).
Political considerations aside regarding Puerto Rico’s national status, what we see in Chicago is a migration that is different from that of New York in that while New York the experience of the Puerto Rican who came to New York was of moving from a rural Puerto Rican town to an urban center in Puerto Rico, from the urban center in Puerto Rico to an urban center in the United States, the Puerto Rican migration to Chicago is quite different in that it represents the first migration of Puerto Riquenos that are coming from a rural to an urban center for the first time in their lives, and this time the urban center is in the United States not in Puerto Rico.
So you have some places in Puerto Rico that are rather large, for example San Juan, there’s a part, portion called Santurce, or Ponce which is another large town. These towns in Puerto Rico, these urban sectors, were a place where people learned how to deal with an urban environment, urban reality. The Puerto Ricans who came to Chicago were totally oblivious to any urban reality; this was their first urban reality. The Puerto Rican migration to Chicago is also a response to the employment opportunities in New York becoming saturated. So while you have Puerto Ricans coming directly from the island to Chicago from these rural parts you also have Puerto Ricans that are coming from New York to Chicago because again Chicago is seen as the place where there are employment opportunities.
Those employment opportunities were initially doing migrant work, and subsequently entering into some of the heavy industries that Chicago was very well known for such as steel and the pipe fitting industry in particular, the very initial migration of Puerto Ricans to Chicago were migrant workers, and in fact in an interview Mr. Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez has done there is talk about the little tomateros – the tomato pickers. A lot of people don’t realize that Puerto Ricans in very much the same tradition as Mexicans have historically been migrant workers, and participation in migrant work was facilitated by collaboration between the US Department of Labor and the newly established Commonwealth Office, Commonwealth Government of Puerto Rico. They set up offices in various parts of the United States, in places such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Chicago. The purposes of these offices were to facilitate the transition of the Puerto Rican migrant from Puerto Rico to the United States.
Puerto Ricans in Chicago
Early accounts tell us that Puerto Ricans would arrive at the airport, would arrive at Midway airport or O’Hare airport and would be picked up in buses and taken directly to the migrant camps to work. Eventually Puerto Ricans found themselves scattered throughout the south and southwest side of Chicago in the period of the 1950’s. It was very hard to identify one neighborhood that you could say is the Puerto Rican enclave because we were scattered throughout. We were in communities such as Woodlawn, Marquette Park, … we were all over the place, but we were not in one particular place. That migration followed what the sociologists in area of immigration called ethnic succession – people from the same towns will tend to focus in the same neighborhoods, they would concentrate in the same neighborhoods.
So you had you know blacks of the south side, they were people from San Sebastian, or people from Vega Baja, or people from Lares, but there was not one community area, one enclave you could call the Puerto Rican community. In fact, this period of the 1950’s it’s very well characterized by the institutions that were created by this early Puerto Rican community, and to characterize these organizations, if you read the work of Felix Padilla, he talks about the town clubs. There were very many different town clubs established throughout the city. The early Puerto Rican migrant since he and she they were coming from the rural parts, these were what we’d call Puerto Rican hillbillies
They had a very strong affinity, a strong consciousness associated with the town they were from, and not so much Puerto Rico. It’s interesting that this whole notion of a Puerto Rican consciousness is something that really bubbles up in the period of the 1950’s but before that because of the lack of transportation, the lack of communication that existed from town to town, people had a consciousness that was very Salsa la Tiago oriented, Vega Baja oriented, Bolsa oriented, but there was not necessarily an expression of Puerto Rican consciousness — remember we’re a colony at this moment in history and they just changed the label on us and gave us a few more rights but that’s who we were. And a lot of critics feel that explains why the Puerto Rican independence movement, the nationalist movements failed to obtain independence in the 1950’s. This town consciousness was so strong that it prevailed over a Puerto Rican consciousness. And you could see this happening throughout the history of Puerto Rico, for example in 1868 when the town of Lares declares independence from Spain. It was the town of Lares declared independence from Spain; it was not the nation of Puerto Rico. It was the town of Lares, and it was the flag of Lares that stood on its own. So this whole notion of a town consciousness is very real in Puerto Rico, and we brought it with us to Chicago.
The first Puerto Rican gangs
We experienced a lot of ethnic conflict among Eastern European, Irish people, and Italian people throughout our experience and our lives in the south side of Chicago. One of the earliest manifestations of what you would call a gang is the group called La Hacha Vieja, the Old Hatchet. La Hacha Vieja was the first turf gang that to my knowledge can be attributed to Puerto Ricans living in Chicago. I don’t know how this coincides with the history of the Latin Kings or other groups but La Hacha Vieja was really a Chicago group and it was adults. It was adult men that formed La Hacha Vieja. You have to remember that the migration, the early migration tended to be very male, tended to be males between the ages of 15 and 34 years of age. So these were adult men, and many of them had families, and La Hacha Vieja was basically a turf gang that was formed as an expression of solidarity to confront the ethnocentric discrimination that we were receiving from our white ethnic neighbors, the tinahuacos.
So what happens between 1958 and 1960 is that we see a big population shift. Interestingly enough this is a period of the civil rights movement, many things are happening in communities such as Woodlawn. The Puerto Rican community failed to see its commonalities with African Americans at that moment in history. I would argue that it took decades for us to see our similarities with the African American struggle.
However regardless of what happens at that, what was happening politically in the United States at that time, what we do experience is a tremendous population shift, and perhaps by a tabulation of the population shift and also of an influx in the Puerto Rican migration from the island but between 1958 and 1960 we see the bulk of the Puerto Rican population instead of being concentrated in the south side of Chicago we see it begin concentrated in the north side of Chicago. In communities like Lincoln Park, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Lakeview, Uptown, these become the sites of the new Puerto Rican population.
Two of these communities can be characterized as an ethnic enclave, and one is, we call La Division and the division is along Division Street between the communities of Lincoln Park and Humboldt Park. It’s pretty much the flagship of Puerto Rican enclaves even to this day. And the second was Armitage Street in the Lincoln Park vicinity. What was different about the south side and the north side was that the housing stock differed greatly. The supply of large apartment buildings was much greater, and since large apartment buildings were run by businesses as opposed to renting done by single-family holders, these buildings were less likely to subject people to housing discrimination. Apartment buildings were practically a magnet for the new Puerto Rican migrant immigrant. (Notice I’m using that migrant a lot, that’s because of the political status. I’ll use it because you know if Puerto Ricans are coming here as citizens, they don’t have to worry about the issues of immigrants but at no time do I mean to disregard the fact that we are a people and a nationality unto ourselves.)
This growth of the Puerto Rican community is also accompanied by a lot of other social problems. The institutions of the city do not know how to respond to our needs or to who we are and the institutions that respond the most ferociously and aggressively against us is the Chicago Police Department. The accounts of people that lived in Chicago at this time indicate that it was very difficult for two Puerto Rican men to have a conversation out in the open, on the street, or in front of a bus stop without being stopped by the police. There were language barriers, language was a big problem. We would use our mother’s maiden name when we say our name. So you know if somebody asked me what is your name I would say Mervin Mendez Rodriguez. Well to an Irish cop that was like oh this guy is messing with my mind, he’s not being straight with me, he’s giving me two last names. What is this jerk doing to me? And so that was an excuse to batter the person, that was an excuse to arrest the person, you know, to accuse the person of resisting arrest or not cooperating with the police.
There were many instances where communication was a big problem, especially when it came to Puerto Rican and police relations. That coupled with the fact that early accounts of Chicagoans living in this town, point to the fact that the Chicago Police Department colluded with street gangs that already existed in Chicago. Organizations that have existed for many years, that had origins that go back to the 1930’s and 1940’s, gangs such as the Gaylords for example. They basically saw those gangs as doing their work while they were committing acts of aggression against these new immigrants.
The Division Street riots
It’s interesting if we look at the headlines in the newspapers of the 1950’s. The perception of the Puerto Rican community is that of hard working people that have come to this land of milk and honey, to work hard and prosper, but there’s something that happens that really changes the relationship between Chicago and the Puerto Rican community and that was a riot that occurred in 1960, between June 12th and June 15th of 1966 on Division Street. We call it the Division Street riots. It occurred before the Madison street riots and it was just as devastating and it you know, the Madison Street riots occurred in 67 and the Democratic Convention riots occurred in 1968.
Well the '66 riots is actually one of the very first riots that happen in the civil rights period. And unfortunately because the Puerto Rican community has been invisible to the eyes of historians, when we talk about the Civil Rights period we fail to talk about the 66 riots. Perhaps one of the reasons why we fail to see that is part of the same civil rights period is that the Puerto Rican community refused to have Martin Luther King come in as a mediator between the city and the Puerto Rican community. As I said, it has taken us a long time to see our commonalities with the African American community, and that’s attributed to our own legacy of racism in our country, a country that also had slavery.
The cause, the root cause of the riot was white racism. The initial cause was police brutality. Then the police became the metaphor for everything that was wrong with white society and we lashed out for three consecutive days against the police. After these riots, the perception of the Puerto Rican community is very negative. But at the same time the power of the community, of the Puerto Rican community has, had increased tenfold. The clout of the Puerto Rican community had increased quite a bit. For example we were able to change the regulations, the height and weight requirements for police officers and subsequently we eventually were able to get more police officers of Puerto Rican descent and Latino descent in the police department. We were able to get the city of Chicago to advertise its programs to the Latin American community, to really be bilingual, Spanish and English for the first time.
But the price was, the price for fighting back was this perception of being evil, bad people of being that negative element. We became the fearful other. Instead of being the welcomed other, now we were the fearful other. And this happened by about 1966. Lincoln Park is an area that you know again is that second enclave. It booms around the same time as Division Street. And by this time you have a number of different turf gangs and I think that you know the Young Lords who were definitely not the first Puerto Rican turf gang, again point out there was La Hacha Vieja, but there were other groups so… I’ll make reference to an interview I’m gonna share with you with Carlos Flores who talks specifically about those groups.
You precede the discussion of the Young Lords with these events, like for example Division Street riots. Gien this breakdown of all these time periods, what’s the rough estimate, or what is it to your knowledge of where they’re a real identifiable presence?
The Young Lords
Well the Young Lords existed before the riots.
I mean the accounts of the Young Lords go back to like… depends on whom you speak to but they occur between '58 and '60, it manifests as a group. The group is a turf gang. And if you’re going by the characteristic definition of a turf gang. They weren’t a criminal enterprise, they weren’t selling drugs, at that time in history, gangs didn’t deal drugs. Drugs were bought at the home of adults. It isn’t until the 1970’s that we see the phenomenon of the gang becoming a commercial enterprise. But gangs in Chicago at that time had a lot to, the emergence of it had to do with you know, part of it had to do with poverty but part of it also had to do with this fear that we have of the other.
Ethnocentrism. If you were to go back to the first race riot in the history of Chicago in 1919; it was attributed to a gang. A white Irish gang, I should say white ethnic because it included people that were Jews eventually, called the Hamburgs. The Hamburgs were a social club; they weren’t called a gang. They called themselves a social club. But then what’s the difference? They caused the first race riot in the city’s history. So when we look at turf gangs or social clubs, their birth, their existence for being had a lot to do with 2 things – one keeping you know things white, and secondly eventually with power, some form of power. These gangs, the Hamburgs were not drug dealers, but they sure as hell knew the value of a vote, and the currency of votes. So it was no accident that out of the blue called the Hamburgs, you have judges come up, you have state representatives come up, you have the sheriff come up which was Daley, you have two mayors come out of the Hamburgs. You have Kelly and Daley. The machine is born later but it really is exemplary of the power of gangs in terms of how Chicago is run right?
The thing to keep in mind though, we talk about gangs in this light is that gangs, in Chicago history, are these relationships, these social contracts with people that occur when the institutions of society fail the people. And the Irish were a group that was disenfranchised from American society in many regards, just starting with the fact that they were Catholic. That was a big obstacle for them. And other ethnic groups have had their struggles as well.
So we come as Puerto Ricans to this society and the institutions of this society are failing us left and right. The turf gang becomes a way of protecting ourselves. Like La Hacha Vieja is a way of protecting your family. It might seem like a vicious way but it was all about protecting your family. The Young Lords when they formed, they formed because there were other ethnic groups, there was another gang called the Roma Boys, which were major rivals to the Young Lords; there was a tremendous amount of conflict between Puerto Ricans and Italians in the Lincoln Park community of that era. And gangs were where that drama played itself out. Played itself out in the hands of the children more so than the adults. But then the adults also colluded. They followed when possible.
So you are saying that the initial agenda of a group like the Young Lords was neighborhood and family based protection, if so then where did the Young Lords become so political, so militant?
Well I think that this was happening in the period of the '60’s, and it had a lot to do with the formation of the Young Lords. When I’ve spoken to them, the '66 riots was a major moment. That they began to see themselves and their community and young people, you know as young people, they began to see themselves differently. Part of the response to what happened with the '66 riots was to work with youth right? So for the first time in the history of the community as a result of the '66 riots, you actually see a new generation of leadership come out and they’re young. They’re young. They’re you know the people that are between the ages of 18 and 21 at that time. Many of them are the sons and daughters of the immigrants that came in 1950. And never had set foot in Puerto Rico, they are born here or they came here at a very early age so they’ve been socialized and raised here. This is their world. So for the first time you see that new generation take voice.
The Young Lords become a Maoist organization. Mao Ze Dong wrote this book called the Little Red Book and it was very popular with youth movements in the United States, particularly the Black Panthers. So the Young Lords they were very influenced by people like Fred Hampton. Those influences were direct. They spoke quite often. In the fashion of the Black Panther party the Young Lords developed the Ten point program, they articulated their values. But this doesn’t happen till much later.
This happens in December of 1968. So there’s all this history that occurs before. The '66 riots occur right? And there’s an organization formed, two organizations formed as a response to the '66 riot. The Spanish Action Committee, which was predominately Puerto Rican, and the Latin American Defense Organization which is a similar organization but more Latin Americanist. And incidentally that is the organization that germinated the Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. The murals that we saw upstairs, the John Webber murals, are our tome of lore in the '66 riots. There’s a cross fertilization of people holding…
For example Obed Lopez was the older brother to another fellow named Omar Lopez, and Omar Lopez becomes a Young Lord when the Young Lords become a political organization. So you have this crossing over of different experiences but the riots definitely did a number of things to awaken the Puerto Riquenos. What? We recognized that we weren’t here alone. That we were many in number and remember we didn’t have a Latino institute at that time to tell us how many of us were around. We just looked around and we saw this ocean of Puerto Rican faces, fighting the police and said to ourselves, wow we’re here. We’ve arrived. We’re not a minority group. We’re not a small group; we’re a powerful block. And this small notion that yes we can fight back and live is important.
Cointelpro and the Red Squad
Of the organizations which we born out of the riots, was the “we can fight back and win” mentality a staple of their existence?
Well that’s one of the things that comes up. Along with that comes virulent repression and you know it’s interesting this is the period of the Cold War. And Mayor Daley, King Richard the first, did not like having federal intervention in his town. So rather than to have the FBI playing the role that it was playing throughout the nation, this particular campaign called COINTELPRO encounter part of his program with the FBI which incidentally begins in Puerto Rico – the earliest records of COINTELPRO were surveillances towards members of the Puerto Rican independence party so this is something that was brought over, imported back to the mainland and used against Native American, African Americans that insisted on making America what it should be about right?
In the case of Chicago there was a group of the police department called the Red Squads. The Red Squads were former CIA and FBI operatives that were hired by the city of Chicago to do much of the same work that the FBI was doing only Richard the First had control over what happened here. Immediately there is this tight repression and groups within it’s focus… the Spanish Action committee and the Latin American Defense Organization they try to break these groups up from the inside. They bring in infiltrators and the place where the damage is seen the greatest , is the Spanish Action Committee where members pretty much turned on one another and accused one another of being Communists. With this group one of the members reported another set of members as Communists, and the way you proved that you weren’t a Communist was by cooperating with them and hurting other members of your group.
So they tried to destroy the groups from within. Creating a paranoiac atmosphere and harming relationships that could have been very positive. This actually affirmed what many who believed in the independence of Puerto Rico believed in. So while on the one hand the repression is trying to put us down, the darkness of the repression gives light to a vision for Puerto Rico’s independence that is expressed a little more strongly in any other part of the United States than it is in Chicago.
The expressions of this, is the period where the people who just got excarcerated and pardoned by President Clinton were coming up, they were going to high school, were growing up and forming their way of looking at the world. It’s interesting when we look at the FALN and that group, and it’s… cause you know some people, you know I wouldn’t typify them at all as a gang but they are people that fought for the independence of Puerto Rico, they did what they felt was right. I’m not gonna agree or disagree with what they did but what’s important to notice is that they never, most of them never lived in Puerto Rico yet they were willing to die for Puerto Rico.
And it was because they saw the darkness here, and the darkness paranoiac. This is the most, one of the most disgraceful periods in United States history is the Cold War and the Communist witch hunts that began with McCarthyism in the 1950’s and continued silently trudging along through the '60’s, '70’s and even to this day. The Soviet Union no longer exists but the repression still does. So this really kind of taught young people like the Young Lords, to be rebellious to, you know, we didn’t see ourselves as part of the society and we saw the contradictions of the society and were quick to point them out. Sure at the time we weren’t as quick to point out our own contradictions and our own flaws but that’s part of human nature, that’s part and parcel of human nature.
So what would you say was agenda for the Young Lords or the agenda that they were beginning to form, living during such turbulent times?
Well they were a turf gang. And they wanted to protect their turf. And here you have a collection of people that weren’t all originally from Lincoln Park, there were other communities that formed you know during that transition period of '58 and '60, like around Madison Avenue, over on Clark Street, La Madison, La Salle, and I remember talking to poet David Denandes and his family was in an area near Sanpran village and they offered to fix his mother’s place up and told her that they were gonna make all these nice changes to her home and it was gonna be really pretty and you know there would be nice windows and a nice walk and all of these wonderful improvements and she was given a voucher so she could move on to put the paint on and once they put her new sewer down she was assured that she could come back to live. But there was one thing that she wasn’t told and that was that the rent was gonna double.
And so that type of story happened to many Puerto Ricans and the Young Lords remember those things happening to their families when they were little children and so in the true tradition of a turf gang, the Young Lords become a political entity but it’s really an affirmation of being a turf gang. They’re protecting the neighborhood from the gentrifiers, from those who threaten to displace us. They acknowledged Lincoln Park as their neighborhood. I think that that’s another you interesting phenomenon because you know up until that point we had moved around a bit and here we’re saying wait this is our neighborhood why should we leave?
Okay so going back to what you were talking about the presence of politics as a reaffirmation of this whole idea of a turf gang.
Well you know the thing is, if you’re looking at the history of the Young Lords and what has been written it’s a book that starts on chapter 3 instead of chapters 1 and 2. Chapters 1 and 2 would be the Young Lords as a turf gang in Chicago and chapter 2 would be the conscienticizing of the Young Lords as a result of the '66 riots, as the result of the emergence of a young leadership, right, as a result of the example held up by the Black Panthers, okay. And as a result of other influences that come into the community for example members of the Communist party, the Socialist party, were always at that time looking to recruit new members. Or looking to conscienticize. So there was this you know influence that probably would identify with people that today are white liberals that at that time were Communist or Socialist or that may be Communist and Socialist to this day.
But the whole spirit of the '60’s, it was a tumultuous period. It was a time when people were being very critical of the United States. There was a total resistance of what had come before. It’s a rebellion that began in the '50’s, it’s a cultural rebellion in many ways, it’s a coming of age as a country. It’s you know this country’s struggling to heal itself from slavery still, that’s not resolved. It’s still not resolved but you know it’s this period of the '60’s were you really you know for the first time in the 20th century that we really begin to address the questions of race in the civil rights movement. It was big big part of that.
It’s also a period where there’s a lot of things going on in Latin America. The Cuban Revolution was another thing that really influenced the Young Lords. See the Young Lords were moving toward the direction of being socialist so Fidel Castro and Guevara being sovereign Latin American leaders were their role models. In fact the Young Lords traveled to Cuba as delegations as part of the Venceramos brigades, the first brigades that there were to Cuba. And this made them all the more threatening to the Red Squads, to those that feared Communism, who feared differences in ideology, who feared the very freedom that this society claims to be predicated upon. Which is freedom of thought.
So going off of what you just mentioned about the Young Lords being viewed as threatening because they are this whole different set of ideologies, they operate counter to what is considered American, tell me how is the community accepting of the Young Lords? Or how is the community reacting and by community I mean the areas where the Young Lords are concentrating their efforts, where they live, where they reside? Not the community in terms of other populations or the police or anything like that but the community where they’re pushing their services into, where they’re attempting to make these improvements and changes?
Well this is what happens, is that when the Young Lords become a political organization they have a lot of the problems they have. That any group of youth would have – substance abuse problems, they have you know prison record problems, you know juvenile delinquency type of issues. But they, as they begin to do work for the community and begin to change that perception of self that they have, they are embraced by the adults in the community. They use as one of their bases the church.
And by using the church as a base, both the Catholic Church and the Christian church, a Presbyterian, I believe the People's church was Presbyterian. They used the Church institution as a way of bringing together the different elements you know that make us up as a community as a neighborhood. So you know they are embraced by the adults. They present an agenda that had not been presented, a voice that had not been heard. They attack the problems. Instead of trying to assimilate into American society they confront American society.
And actually that’s actually the most, the greatest act of acculturation to American society because when you look at you know one of the milestones for any group in American society, United States society, is the point when people rebel against it and become critical of the society so they could shape the society in much the same way that they needed. The Jewish community did it. Though you don’t hear about it much because, but the thing was they held onto the coattails of the black civil rights movement. But that black civil rights movement gave Jews in this country a great deal of power. Many rights. There was a rebellion. You know, they were part of that rebellion. The civil rights movement was a form of rebellion for blacks in this country and for Jews. To be critical of it so they could make it something that gives them freedom.
Women had to do it; they had to rebel. White middle class, upper class women, the women’s movement becomes a very classist movement. It’s not about poor women; it is about poor women initially and it is started by poor women. But obviously this large sector of women in the United States had not declared their freedom and really it happens with rebellions. And there are all these points of rebellion that make us more American. That might sound like a contradiction but I think that that’s what we call growth.
So some of this rebellion that you speak of with relation to the Young Lords, what stands out in your mind? In terms of the Young Lords and their efforts to not only confront their living and breathing conditions but to also improve them?
The first starts really with their own political formation, the development of the newspaper that the Young Lords start putting out. They’re articulating their thoughts, they’re giving themselves a voice, giving themselves a set of values and principles from which to operate from. The Young Lords start recognizing the role of women. Even though it’s an extremely sexist group throughout its existence, you have the emergence of the Young Lordettes. Something that’s kind of, for a time it was kind of like a pattern with gangs that you had the female counterpart of the gang.
What were their accomplishments?
They come to this realization. They see what’s happening in the neighborhood, they see that people are being pushed down, they see, they recognize the role that different institutions, for example there’s a Lincoln Park Conservation association that was very conservative and didn’t include any poor people at all. They begin to confront these entities. They begin to make the observation that these institutions in the community such as the McCormick Theological Seminary, such as all the hospitals – there’s a lot of hospitals in that area, from Children Memorial to Brant and you know. All these institutions that have predicated upon the service to humanity, they saw as a big contradiction because they were participating in the pushing out of the poorest members of the community, the neediest members of the community. So they had their values all in the right place.
You had the DePaul University, you had the McCormick Theological Seminary, these are Christian and Catholic right? And you know there were Catholic priests that were supposed to live the life of the risen Christ that were not. They were(not as) Christ in the times of Christ; Christ was a man who was associated with the leper, associated with the prostitute, associated with the prisoners of the lowliest station of society because Christ never saw them as lowly. He saw them as beautiful, saw them as human, saw them as part of who we all are.
Well these priests were not like Christ. These priests, these some of these religious men and women were concerned that these people that were different were a threat to the neighborhood, they’re a threat to the community, they’re a threat to the philistine, the stability of the fabric of a place they lived in. And so that justified their, this place in the community. The Young Lords saw right through it. There’s something to be said about the eyes of children. The eyes of children are not hypocritical; they’re very honest, deadly honest. And they just, you know, they just cut right through to the contradictions.
They start you know attacking these organizations and not only do they start you know confronting these organizations but they start doing it with others. They call less with other groups. In addition to the Black Panthers there was another group called the White Panthers which was the white counterpart. Whites they wanted to participate with the Black Panthers and weren’t allowed to because blacks could only self determine for blacks but that didn’t mean that whites couldn’t become a part of that struggle because they knew that it was at war with what their parents and their ancestors had been. There was another group called the Poor People’s Coalition. And between these groups they challenged these institutions.
The Lutheran Church eventually becomes the People’s church and they create a daycare center out of there. And they create a cultural center out of the People’s church. I think this was 1969 they take over the McCormick Theological Seminary which is currently the DePaul’s building on Halstead and Fullerton which is called McGaul Hall. That used to be the library of the McCormick Theological Seminary. They took it over at gunpoint. They took it over. They were armed. Security was provided by a motorcycle gang called Los Hijos del Diablo and they took over the library and they came up with concessions. McCormick Theological Seminary and various institutions gave into a number of concessions. They took over the library, it was for a number of days, it was close to a week. And the threat was that if you come in to get us, we’ll burn it down. And books are very flammable. As much as the Young Lords were a period of awakening there was so much, the cards were stacked against them.
The Vietnam War
What about the Vietnam war?
Well the Vietnam War saw the coming back of, in that, the serious addictions. It taught the people that served in Vietnam, either they didn’t see in Vietnam or they saw in Vietnam but they definitely saw it when they come home. They come home and either they’re addicted to some, heroin or something really bad, or they see the people around them in the neighborhood, all of the sudden addiction is a big problem in the neighborhood. And in the period of the Young Lords you could get 200 dollars worth of heroin for 20 dollars. So somehow, some force in society was making this very addictive drug extremely affordable. And so it’s interesting because when you look at the history of oppressed people in the United States, addictions have been one of the strongest ways of keeping them down. The Native American. The addiction of the Native American going all the way back to the 19th century was alcohol. That was the downfall of the Native American – alcoholism. You look at the Irish. Alcoholism. This is Britain’s greatest weapon against the Irish, alcohol. So conquerors allow the conquered to self-destruct and as they could give the conquered the weapon of self-destruction and ask them to pull the trigger really well. And so this is happening in the United States and this is the period, you know the Vietnam War.
You see, before Vietnam the drug of choice in the United States was alcohol. After Vietnam, it’s when we see all these, you know other drugs come into the picture. I mean we’re not talking marijuana. We’re talking heroin here. Heroin has probably a 90% plus addiction rate for first time users. That was one of the things that went against the Young Lords. The Red Squads were definitely a force that was threatening to destroy the Young Lords. Fred Hampton was assassinated by a state’s attorney Hanrihan. State’s attorney Hanrihan took his orders probably from Mayor Daley himself. It was murder. Hanrihan should have been tried for murder and he never was but he should have been tried for murder. Because when you look at all the forensic evidence at the site of Fred Hampton’s killing, the bullets only went in one direction. The man was killed in bed. And it was a miracle that his wife survived the attack. That set the Young Lords into a period of exile. The Young Lords were, had disappeared to Wisconsin, not knowing what to do. They start trying to think of what to do. Whether to, you know how to fight the revolution as they saw and then we were telling you again. Young people can be very romantic. Okay? They were revolutionaries. Everybody wanted to be like Che, you know, right?
But interestingly enough when they come back they don’t come back with this revolutionary romantic mentality. They come back to run a campaign for Cha Cha Jimenez to become Alderman in the Lincoln Park area. But pretty much those were some of the things that led to the downfall of the Young Lords. The other thing is that they tried to address the stigma of being a turf gang. They didn’t want to be associated with a being a turf gang and in doing their histories, documenting their stories, they’re really ashamed of having done the things they did as a turf gang. Only at one moment did I get to hear stories about how they used to steal cars and go for joyriding. Type of thing a gang, kids might do, but they didn’t want that and they don’t want that seen as part of their story.
By this time what happens in that the Young Lords become a political group they stop recruiting members into the Young Lords. The process of recruitment stops. Because they actually were their own demise. They saw themselves as a group that mature into a leadership in the community and that would continue working and plugging away at the issues of community but they didn’t, they didn’t have a vision to continue the Young Lords. I mean listen to the name Young Lords, it’s a gang. It’s a gang name. So there was this, as people’s perception of self changed and what they meant to their community the Young Lords catch, they were their own demise as well. They made that choice to not continue existing.
And it’s interesting you know for example the Young Lords form in New York and over there it’s, it becomes the Young Lords Party connoting that there’s something more political, more advanced in terms of their thought, that they were more grounded in you know Marxist thought. They were college students by the way and a very different breed of people from the Young Lords of Chicago.
Well the Young Lord’s Party feed off the energy that was created by the Young Lords of Chicago. The Young Lord’s of Chicago when they become a political organization one of the things they do is they set out to start chapters of the Young Lords in other parts of the United States. So from New York to California. And Puerto Rico as well. And they were successful. The difference is, in the case of New York in particular, and I think that the message of the Young Lords in general really appealed to you know young people across the board and college students are still young people. The only difference is that they’re also the privileged young people and they’re being exposed to a world of ideas that the Young Lords, they weren’t. The Young Lords pretty much their school was experience. Which was very valuable.
Yeah. They didn’t really have anybody there mentoring them like you know you would say the Young Lords in New York. New York is a very different, at this time, let’s look at the intellectual development of the Puerto Rican community in New York and in Chicago. In Chicago, 1970, Samuel Betances becomes the first Puerto Rican Ph.D. present in Chicago. The first. Frank Bonilla is a Ph.D. and practicing sociologist I believe in New York 1945. So you know you have this history of Puerto Ricans being part of the academy in New York that goes back decades already by that point and dying. A population a community that was 40 years old. Okay. And here’s Chicago and you know the community is by this time, we’re looking at a community that about 20 years old. It’s about half the age. And it’s composed not of the sophisticated city slickers from San Juan and Santurce it’s composed of the jibaros, the Puerto Rican hillbillies.
So we weren’t really the most sophisticated in terms of you know our cultural baggage that we brought with us to this country. And also in terms of our acculturation into the society. You know you had New York’s New Ricans they were very very well established at that point in history you have the first Puerto Rican writers coming onto the scene – Pedro Pietre with the Puerto Rican Obituary, or Betty Tomas, powerful stuff. You know there’s a real Puerto Rican renaissance occurring in New York in the 1960’s. Salsa is being, given birth to. Which is Cuban music but the words are poetry about the Puerto Rican reality in the United States. In particular New York. So there’s a very different way view going on in New York.
At the same time there’s a different theme going on in Chicago. Chicago’s a much more Latin American city so a lot of what we’re doing is revolving around a very Latin American consciousness. And it takes us in a different direction. It allows us to see the beauty in the Cuban Revolution. It allows us to see the beauty in the integrity and life of Che Guevara who at that time had just been assassinated in Bolivia by the time that the Young Lords are being formed. Which actually you know these people become martyrs; not just for Latin America but for all who love freedom and who love humanity.
Do you think that the whole dynamic of the New York Young Lords, the fact that they are from a different strata, they are educated or becoming educated, they are, they start with the political platform stuff like that, do you think that has something to do with the fact that it’s always been sort of the New York Young Lords that have been studied? Or have been, they attempt to document them, you know the film that I’m sure you’re familiar with, the documentary, it’s kind of addresses New York Young Lords and sort of leaves Chicago out
Well what’s funny is that the New York Young Lords didn’t last for more than 24 months and there’s all of this about them. Because the Young Lords from New York couldn’t, the Young Lords Party and the Young Lords Organization couldn’t swallow one another. The Young Lords in Chicago were too street for the Young Lords from New York, they didn’t have political, philosophical sophistication that the New York folks did. And there was this, there was this clash. And so the Young Lords in New York, the Young Lord’s Party becomes. I think it was the Socialist Worker’s Party. I have to get you the exact name but they’ve become another organization. They’ve changed their name. And they continue existing as that. But then, with the passing of history, there’s more currency in being a Young Lord than another Socialist Organization. [laughter]
And you know everybody goes back to the romantic. You know the big murder figure in terms of those groups was the Black Panther’s and the assassination of all the different Black Panthers throughout the country. And so New York wanted to affiliate themselves with, they had the people with the name recognition. People like Geraldo Rivera who for a long time called himself Jerry Rivers. People like Felipe Luciano who becomes you know a television celebrity.
You know you see these college-educated people move into prominent positions in the fabric of New York’s life and so you don’t have that in Chicago. What you have in Chicago are you know some guys that ended up in a rehab, you know the very leader of the Young Lords had a lot of personal problems that almost destroyed it. And so with a few exceptions you know you don’t really see the success, the personal success stories that you do in terms of what happens to the New York group.
Well the media coverage by the way, in terms of the Young Lords. The Young Lords in Chicago were very well covered by the press. Cha Cha Jimenez, all these guys they were very charismatic, they become celebrities. That’s kind of, that’s what’s funny. Cause you know Cha Cha Jimenez is like this redheaded white Puerto Rican skinny kid who probably looks more Irish than he does Puerto Rican. Kinda like the character from MAD magazine almost. Really young kid I mean, and he’s just charismatic. There’s a difference I think that there was a, looking at the totality of Young Lords, whether they were New York or anywhere else, the Chicago group possessed the charismatic portion. Whereas in New York it was more along the lines of a rational leadership. People going off to college and have people be expertised and do this or do that right. You know this typologies, Max Webber’s typologies of rational and charismatic leadership.
So another thing I’m interested in since we didn’t really touch on ... the relationship going back to Chicago of the Young Lords with some of the organizations in the community or some of the other gangs or things like that. I’m curious since the Latin Kings were also kind of being born out of this era was there a relationship there or what was the relationship?
There were attempts, and you know again, well this is perhaps something you should cover more like when you get to actually talk to people from those groups. Maybe somebody else has asked that question in some of the other interviews that I have, I can’t recall right now, but the Young Lords pretty much, they do try to influence the Latin Kings. LADO does as well, the Latin American Defense Organization. So there was a period when the Latin Kings had set up a health clinic with help from LADO and some of those people from LADO were also Young Lords so there is that. But there’s also, there has always been this, the Latin Kings has had those kind of moments of like, like they’re not doing their job as a street gang. They’re trying to do something good for a change. But those are very short lived moments.
What’s different about the Latin Kings and the Young Lords is that the Latin Kings are perhaps one of the first really economically minded gangs. And so whenever you would work with the Latin Kings to conscienticize them, or teach them how to become organized what you were doing was you were helping them build their economic and criminal economic empire. That was their basic mission. The Latin Kings had a very different origin I think in terms of the way they conceived of themselves. Part of it is, if you’re looking at the Pontiac Constitution of the Latin Kings for example, what are the Latin Kings holding – prayer. What you’re gonna find are, this verbage, words that allude to Aztec, Mayan, Taino culture, that you know, this association with being Puerto Rican or Mexican but it’s not authentic. It, what it reminds me of, is the ghost dancers of the Native Americans. The ghost dancers, you know who the ghost dancers were? These young men, they were stripped, pulled away from their tribes, and stripped away of their culture and they come back and they realize their still Indians and so they have to reinvent themselves.
Well I always saw the Latin Kings as a reinvention of what it is to be Puerto Rican or what it is to be Mexican or Latino. It’s a fabrication of a cultural identity. Whereas with the Young Lords, there is no fabrication there. It’s very clear who we are and what we’re about and Puerto Rico comes first before the Young Lords. The Latin Kings, mighty nation of the Latin Kings comes before Mexico and Puerto Rico in the consciousness of its members. There’s a very big difference. I think that, you know and this is my opinion because I’m really always trying to understand these groups.
Some people say there’s been talk about the Latin Kings starting in the '40’s. And… I’m sure that’s… There’s a, you know a, the Pontiac Constitution of the Kings goes back I think to '68 or '67.
But it’s all ghost dancing. But I think that the difference here, the words are authenticity and inauthenticity. There’s a great deal of inauthenticity in being a Latin King. Cause you’ve had to fabricate yourself and become something and in the process of that fabrication you become something very real, you do. But in the formation of the Young Lords, you know the formation of the Young Lords, what informed who the Young Lords were was the history of the community, what happened in the community, what was happening in Puerto Rico, their participation in the struggle to excarcerate Lolita Lebron from Carcel Miranda. You know the first wave of Puerto Rican prisoners from the 1950’s out of the US. They were very grounded in the reality of the struggles of the Puerto Rican people. They were very much a Puerto Rican organization. Even though they had Mexican members and they were Latin Americans there was always that Puerto Rican side train that asserted itself.
Conducted on 27th January, 2002. For more information, see DePaul's Center for Latino Research
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