Puerto Rican Marginalization
1965 to the Present
As the garbage burned and the flames grew, people nearby cheered
spontaneously. We all felt the spirit of winning, the triumph of good
over evil, where justice, in this moment, prevailed.
—Miguel Melendez 2003, 105
Mickey Melendez wrote those words more than thirty years after the Young Lords collected and burned garbage in the barrio of East Harlem as a protest to get the city to clean the streets. Today, he and many others view that theatrical summer of 1969 as the high point of Puerto Rican community influence in New York City (Gandy 2002, 733). By burning the garbage in the streets, the Young Lords got Mayor Lindsay to notice and to negotiate a temporary peace with them. Political scientists like to talk about “authoritative values” in the body politic that shape and inform policymaking. It's clear that the Young Lords pushed against the boundaries of acceptable practice between Puerto Ricans and the rest of society. They lessened the deep official neglect felt by Puerto Ricans in New York City, a neglect that permitted public officials and the public to tolerate dirty streets, poor sanitation, and much else in East Harlem. The Lords made the city heed the needs of Puerto Ricans, even if only temporarily and even if only in East Harlem.
Melendez was right. The garbage protest was a moment of influence and power like no other for the Young Lords, if not for all Puerto Ricans. It wasn't the protest itself, however, that gave Puerto Ricans some power. It was the drama of that high pile of garbage burning in the middle of the street that hot summer evening. It was the feverish image of rage and defiance in the faces of old and young Puerto Rican men and women. It was the presence of the television and print media, drawn by the theater and novelty of Puerto Ricans burning garbage. It was the weight of a media sector possessed of the salient recognition that garbage could bring down