Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City

Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City

Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City

Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City

Synopsis

In the first book-length history of Puerto Rican civil rights in New York City, Sonia Lee traces the rise and fall of an uneasy coalition between Puerto Rican and African American activists from the 1950s through the 1970s. Previous work has tended to see blacks and Latinos as either naturally unified as "people of color" or irreconcilably at odds as two competing minorities. Lee demonstrates instead that Puerto Ricans and African Americans in New York City shaped the complex and shifting meanings of "Puerto Rican-ness" and "blackness" through political activism. African American and Puerto Rican New Yorkers came to see themselves as minorities joined in the civil rights struggle, the War on Poverty, and the Black Power movement--until white backlash and internal class divisions helped break the coalition, remaking "Hispanicity" as an ethnic identity that was mutually exclusive from "blackness."

Drawing on extensive archival research and oral history interviews, Lee vividly portrays this crucial chapter in postwar New York, revealing the permeability of boundaries between African American and Puerto Rican communities.

Excerpt

In the mid-1970s, even as President Richard Nixon’s “law and order” and anti-busing campaigns signaled to many the decline of the civil rights movement, Evelina Antonetty was beginning to reap the fruits of her organizing work in the South Bronx. Antonetty, a Puerto Rican, had been training Puerto Rican and African American mothers to fight for their children’s education in New York City schools since 1965. Standing at the forefront of the bilingual education movement for Spanish-speaking children, she was at the peak of her political activism. Crucially, she was forging national networks with African American, Native American, and Mexican American parents interested in community control of education. She believed that her political work reflected a broader political transformation among Puerto Rican New Yorkers. Borrowing parts of a speech delivered by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. at a Young Men and Women’s Christian Association meeting in 1957, Antonetty expressed her own desire to reclaim her dignity in the face of a racist society: “Maladjusted is a word used perhaps more frequently than any other in modern psychology, and I am calling on the people of this city to be maladjusted. There are many things in this social system to which I am proud to be maladjusted. I can never adjust myself to the evils of segregation and discrimination…. I am sure history has a place for those who have the moral courage to be maladjusted…. Maladjusted like Don Pedro Albizu Campos who believed that [if] even the birds are free, why not Puerto Ricans?”

Puerto Ricans’ claim to being “maladjusted” represented a profoundly new relationship with the North American racial system. Anthropologists and sociologists had used the term “cultural maladjustment” since the 1930s to refer to a temporary stage of adjustment experienced by European immigrants and black southern migrants alike. High crime rates . . .

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