Hard for me to believe it was 40 years ago that a group of young Puerto Ricans, African-Americans and other Latinos, most under the age of 20, would found an organization that would radically change the future of Puerto Ricans in the US, and affect issues around health care, education, culture, and justice for years to come. The Young Lords challenged racism, redefined what it meant to be Puerto Rican; no longer "Spanish", but Afro-Taino, in culture. To be proud to be "Boricua" or Nuyorican. To fight for basic human rights of food, clothing, shelter, health care, and justice. But most important to me as a woman, and former Young Lord, was the hard won stance taken by the YLP, as a whole, to address issues of "machismo", sexism and male chauvinism in our community as part of our political platform. For this I salute my sisters, and those brothers who struggled with us to throw off centuries of patriarchal enculturation to embrace our own brand of feminism.
Why address this here at Daily Kos? Because 2 generations of young people have been born since then, and many of the current crop of Puerto Rican female health care activists, union organizers, lawyers, Democratic Party politicians and yes, even judges, would not be where they are today without the groundbreaking work done by the YLP, and its Women's Caucus.
El Diaro de La Prensa, just published an article, in a special addition, on The Mujeres of the Young Lords. The original was in Spanish, but the writer, Erica González, has now put her English version online.
Erica opens with the voice of Connie Cruz.
Connie Cruz had been told what to do all her life-by her parents, then her husband. That changed in December of 1969. Then, a group of young Puerto Rican activists were appealing to a church in El Barrio (East Harlem) for space to house a breakfast program for the poor. The First Spanish Methodist Church had denied their request. Its minister saw the youths as leftist rabble-rousers.
But the group-the Young Lords Party-remained undeterred. They planned to put in another request during the church's testimonials."My brother-in-law Mickey came to visit," Cruz said. "He explained the reasons for them being there [at the church]-to ask for the community to give up space for a children's breakfast program. I felt that was a very good cause to become involved in."
But her willingness to act was not encouraged. "My brother-in-law at that time said this is for men, not for women," she said. "That stirred something in me." She put her timidity to the side and insisted on going to the church. Her brother-in-law, she said, then asked her what she would do about her 5-year-old daughter. "Well, I'm bringing her with me," Cruz responded. Cruz and the Young Lords took over the church and fed poor, hungry children for almost two weeks until the police rushed in. That was one of many actions the group would take.
The Lords later took over Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx along with health care workers and a group of doctors, after the wrongful death of community member Carmen Rodriguez. We "liberated" a TB testing truck, parked in a rich area of the Bronx with no tuberculosis, and brought it into our community where it was needed. We tested every child in East Harlem for lead poisoning, which led to the city of NY establishing new laws about lead paint use by landlords. We established a 10 Point Health Program, which became a model for later struggles around health care which we hear reflected in today's debate.
Ten-Point Health Program
1. We want total self-determination of all health services through an incorporated Community-Staff Governing Board for the Hospital. (Staff is anyone and everyone working at the hospital.)
2. We want immediate replacement of all government administrators by community and staff appointed people whose practice has demonstrated their commitment to serve our poor community.
3. We demand an immediate end to construction of the new emergency room until the Hospital Community-Staff Governing Board inspects and approves them or authorizes new plans.
4. We want employment for our people. All jobs must be filled by community residents first, using on-the-job training and other educational opportunities as basis for service and promotion.
5. We want free publicly supported health care for treatment and prevention. We want an end to all fees.
6. We want total decentralization--block health officers responsible to the community-staff board should be instituted.
7. We want "door-to-door" preventive health services emphasizing environment and sanitation control, nutrition, drug addiction, maternal and child care, and senior citizen services.
8. We want education programs for all the people to expose health problems --sanitation, rats, poor housing, malnutrition, police brutality, pollution, and other forms of oppression.
9. We want total control by the community-staff governing board of the budget allocations, medical policy along the above points, hiring, firing, and salaries of employees, construction and health code enforcement.
10. Any community, union, or workers organization must support all the points of this program and work and fight for that or be shown as what they are--enemies of poor people.
Many of those "revolutionary" points in that program are what we are still fighting for today. Access to quality care and prevention.
Connie later went into health care, as did many of our sisters. Two of the most prominent Latina organizers for 1199 and SEIU today were members of the YLP Women's caucus.
During the rise of second wave feminism few women of color were part of that movement. We decided to apply feminism to our own community, opting not to separate but to educate. But this was not an easy struggle. Key was the formation of a women's caucus.
The Young Lords were governed by an all-male central committee. Its 13-point platform advocated for "revolutionary machismo."
The women began to caucus out of the group's El Barrio office. They talked about personal experiences and studied Puerto Rican women in history, from workers' advocate Luisa Capetillo to nationalist Blanca Canales. The line on revolutionary machismo became a focus of discussion-and sharp criticism.
"We fought against this idea of revolutionary machismo because we said, 'What is revolutionary racism?'" Morales said.
"When we started meeting we were told we couldn't take time to have this 'silly women's meeting,'" said Denise Oliver, another former Lord. Most members were Puerto Rican. But there were also Cuban, Dominican and Black American members like Oliver.
The women defied the party leaders and demanded change. Their pressure resulted in the revolutionary machismo line being dropped and in women being added to all levels of leadership. A new point in the program began with: "We want equality for women. Down with machismo and male chauvinism." Change, even in an organization committed to challenging oppression, was not easy.
Women like Cruz who joined the defense ministry, for example, were subjected to more rigorous tasks than the men. Oliver said they also had to fight against stereotypical assignments, such as being asked to type.
"The question of machismo was an ongoing issue," said Rodriguez, who was sent from the party's office in the Lower East Side to break into the male leadership of the party's Philadelphia branch.
"Men were told they had to go to classes on sexism, to deal with it," said David Jacobs, a former Lord who worked out of the group's Manhattan and Bronx offices. "There were guys who didn't like the idea.
We did not want to be treated like "young ladies". Those women who had joined the organization full-time took their commitment to being Young Lords "25 hours a day" seriously, and became the backbone of organizing free breakfast programs, health clinics, clothing drives, lead poisoning detection programs, fighting against the sterilization of over a third of Puerto Rican women of child-bearing age.
This struggle against sterilization abuse inspired the 1982 documentary film by Ana Maria Garcia La Operacion"
More than one-third of all Puerto Rican women of childbearing age have been sterilized. So common is the procedure that it is simply called la ó. In this documentary exposé, the personal testimony of sterilized women is conjoined with newsreels, excerpts from government propaganda films and interviews with doctors, birth-control specialists and politicians to unmask the controversial use of sterilization as a tool of social policy. Begun in the 1930s as a means of curbing the "surplus population" and reinforced in subsequent decades, the sterilization of women was tied to America's interventionist economic policies. Women were encouraged to undergo this "fashionable" procedure without being informed about the operation or its consequences. When the jobs promised by the 1950s Operation Bootstrap program failed to materialize, the campaign for female sterilization intensified. In the 1960s Puerto Rican women were used as guinea pigs in the development of the birth control pill. Using data derived from these experiments, the U.S. Agency for International Development promoted sterilization and birth control in developing nations to prevent revolutions troublesome to multinational corporations. More recently, Puerto Rico's dependence on welfare subsidies has caused political leaders to recommend sterilization, a procedure that has also been urged among minority women in the South Bronx.
This same issue would later be brought to the forefront among Native Americans by the women of WARN (Women of All Red Nations)
One critical issue raised by WARN is the widespread sterilization of Native American women in government-run hospitals, an extension of a eugenics movement aimed at impeding the population increase of groups believed by some in government to be poor and/or mentally defective. These programs had ended for most of non-Indian groups after World War II (Germany's Nazis having given eugenics an extremely bad reputation), but they continued on Indian reservations through the 1970s. Wherever Indian activists gathered during the Red Power years of the 1970s, conversation inevitably turned to the number of women who had had their tubes tied or their ovaries removed by the Indian Health Service. Communication spurred by activism provoked a growing number of Native American women to piece together and name what amounted to a national eugenics policy carried out with copious federal funding.
WARN and other women's organizations publicized the sterilizations, which were performed after pro forma "consent" of the women being sterilized. The "consent" sometimes was not offered in the women's language, and often followed threats that they would die or lose their welfare benefits if they had more children. At least two fifteen-year-old girls were told they were having their tonsils out before their ovaries were removed. The enormity of government-funded sterilization, as well as its eugenics context, has been documented by Sally Torpy (1998) in her thesis, "Endangered Species: Native American Women's Struggle for Their Reproductive Rights and Racial Identity, 1970s—1990s," written at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
I had the honor to be invited as a woman of the Young Lords, by my sisters from WARN, to teach about Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans and our struggle as women at the Pine Ridge Survival School. Our movement transcended ethnic boundaries and we met with and worked alongside of Chicanas, Asian women from groups like I Wor Kuen, and with progressive white women to change the face of the women's movement.
Women of the Young Lords fought for open enrollment in the City Colleges of New York and for the formation of Puerto Rican Studies Programs, which have now expanded to include Latino and Caribbean Studies. We fought for bi-lingual education in grade schools. Members of the women's caucus were key in the founding of a Gay and Lesbian caucus within the Lords, members of whom were involved in the formation of the first openly Gay radical group of color in NY - Third World Gay Revolution, in 1970. We fought against racism, alongside of the Panthers, and for the first time, young Afro-Latinas could be proud of their heritage.
We inspired poets like Sandra Esteves, and a new crop of contemporary Puerto Rican spoken word artists like Mariposa
Iris Morales, went on to become a lawyer, work for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund, and then produced the documentary film "Pa'lante Siempre Pa'lante" She has recently founded the blog US-PuertoRicans.org. Five of the eight featured writers are women. Democracy Now has featured the reunion, and has excerpts from the documentary. Juan Gonzalez, co-host of Democracy Now, is a former Young Lord. Sorry, the video won't embed here. Interestingly, during the studio interview one of the former Lords interviewed mentions the "group of young men". Gonzalez picked up on that "slip" and raises the question of the role of women.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Luis, talk about—because Mickey mentioned at the beginning it was a bunch of young men who got together and organized the group, but women played a very important role in the Young Lords. Can you talk about some of the battles and—
LUIS GARDEN ACOSTA: You know, I came out of a seminary, so I never went to a prom, I never went on dates, I never had any of that kind of usual social interaction. So the world of feminism, of women’s liberation, was absolutely new to me.
But let me tell you, Iris Morales, particularly, and Denise, they led a movement to really challenge our thinking. I went into the Young Lords thinking that I was a very liberated male, you know, open to everything, you know? And they forced me to sort of challenge and look at my sort of attitudes. And I, in that weekly—weekly—session on women’s liberation in the Young Lords, began to really understand some of the ingrained aspects of my culture that really was a barrier to that equality.
AMY GOODMAN: Sonia Sotomayor, the new Supreme Court justice, Juan, she was what? At Princeton at the time?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yeah, she was in the early ’70s, I think, a student at Princeton. And I have to think that she, like many of the major political figures in the Puerto Rican and Latino community today, were heavily influenced by what the Young Lords did. In fact, her senior thesis at Princeton was on the Puerto Rican—the Puerto Rican political movement on the island and the whole question of the island’s self-determination.
I am proud of my sister Lords and of the young women of this new generation who now proudly embrace their roles in politics and community organizing.
Pa'lante Siempre Pa'lante
Always a Young Lord.
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