Academic journal article Centro Journal

The Look of Sovereignty: Style and Politics in the Young Lords

Academic journal article Centro Journal

The Look of Sovereignty: Style and Politics in the Young Lords

Article excerpt

The day was October 18, 1970, and a young man by the name of Pablo "Yoruba" Guzmán was doing all the talking. Armed with an Afro, U.S. military fatigues, and Cuban shades, Guzmán-the Minister of Information for a radical group called the Young Lords-demanded that any police officer who came into the East Harlem Methodist Church step aside. The Young Lords had occupied the church after a funeral march to protest the suspected murder of one of their members, Julio Roldán. To make sure that arms would not be planted on the premises, Yoruba styled his actions with great care: dressed as a commander himself, he body-searched the captain in charge of the operation, forcing him "to assume the position spread" (Guzmán 1998: 165). The order produced the desired results. Not only did the police fail in finding any weapons, the very next morning, one New York newspaper headline read: "Policemen Frisked by the Young Lords" (Meléndez 2005: 186).

The Lords' road to citywide recognition had been both long and short. Launched on July 26, 1969, the New York Lords were initially a branch of the Young Lords Organization of Chicago, a street gang turned political group led by José "Cha Cha" Jiménez. In existence since 1959, the group's primary goals were to defend Puerto Rican neighborhoods and demand respect from rival Italian, Appalachian, and Latino gangs.1 The radicalization of the Chicago Lords unfolded after Jiménez received a 60-day sentence on a drug possession charge over the summer of 1968. While in prison, Jiménez read works by Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; he also became familiar with the thought of Puerto Rican nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos and the Black Panthers' concept of self-defense (Fernández 2009a: 66).

Perhaps as a sort of poetic justice, the founding Lords, who had initially carved a name for themselves as a turf gang, invested much of their political capital in fighting gentrification in Chicago's Puerto Rican communities. From the outset, however, the New York Lords were different from Chicago's.2 For one, they had little association with street gangs. In fact, a number of the Lords' core leadership had some college education and had belonged to traditional left groups before joining the organization. Furthermore, if the Chicago Lords had tense relations with the media, and in the eyes of the public never quite shed their gang origins, the New York Lords were another story. In the words of former Lord-in-Charge-of-Arms Miguel "Mickey" Meléndez, "We had different working methods [from Chicago] and the New York media at our disposal" (2005: 136). The groups' divergence eventually became official when, in May 1970, the New York group broke off from the Young Lords Organization of Chicago and became the Young Lords Party.

To this day, scholars debate to what extent the New York Lords changed public institutions in the city or achieved revolutionary goals. Yet often overlooked is how the Lords significantly disrupted a symbolic economy founded on the stigmatization of Puerto Ricans as both criminally inclined and politically docile. In the process, the Young Lords transformed not only how the world saw Puerto Ricans but also how they saw themselves. Equally critical, they equipped an already upwardly mobile sector of the community to fully participate in New York's political and cultural life. In more ways than one, the Lords' afterlife has shown, and this is an important choice of words, that some Puerto Ricans could "make it" at the same level of New York's other historic ethnic minorities, particularly European Jews and Italians. Or, in Yoruba Guzmán's terms: "The concept of winning, right, that is the number one contribution of the Young Lords Party-that is what we are, man, the concept of winning" (1971: 82-3).

But how did the Young Lords' leadership turn what one Chicago Lord called a "ragtag army" into a winning (political) party? After all, they identified as and were identified with one of the most politically disempowered communities in New York. …

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