The Young Lords Organization, now known for its
powerful political activism, traces its origins to Chicago’s history of organized
crime. Founded in 1959 by Orlando Davila and six other members, the Young Lords
were a Puerto Rican gang, formed out of necessity, in response to white gang
violence and the need to assert their dominance with regards to land and
status. At this time, one member of the Young Lords, Jose (Cha-Cha) Jimenez, was
in solitary confinement after reports surfaced that he and fellow gang-members had
planned to try and escape jail, thus avoiding their sentences for drug-related crimes.
While incarcerated, Jimenez passed the time by reading the works of Malcolm X
and the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thomas Merton. Inspired
their messages, he served out his sentence and returned to the Young Lords with
a plan to change the very foundations of the gang. Jimenez was elected
president of the Young Lords in 1964, and he transformed the Young Lords from a
group of criminals into the Young Lords Organization (YLO), a civil rights coalition
that emphasized Latinx identity and ethnic pride.
and the Young Lords grew cognizant of the fact that their problems were not
with other street gangs, but with the systemic nature of the society that
continued to oppress them and to deny them equal rights and citizenship.
Drawing on inspiration from the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords thus organized
and defended their communities by whatever means necessary. According to journalist Ortega-Aponte, this perceived
militancy was often challenged, but the Lords were cognizant of the fact that
the power of the ballot gained by people of
color did not upend the use of the bullet against the marginalized communities.”
Further drawing from the Panthers, the Lords devised a twelve-point program.
This document outlined their core beliefs, including the Puerto-Rican right to independence,
socialism, and equality of education. They then implemented these principles in
order to better their communities. In June 1969, while wearing Nationalist uniforms,
the Young Lords led 10,000 people in the Puerto Rican Parade to honor the
fallen Don Pedro Albizu Campos, the former leader of Puerto Rico’s Nationalist
party. This was Chicago’s first march to protest Puerto Rico’s lack of autonomy.
The Young Lords also affected positive change closer to home. They set up day
cares for working mothers, health clinics, a “People’s Park” and breakfast programs,
which were supported through the donations of local businesses. They also held history,
political education, and martial arts classes, in addition to other programs
aimed at educating members about their culture’s role in American history. These
endeavors were all funded through donations, button sales, and revenues from
their newspaper, the YLO. This monthly, bilingual newspaper highlighted
pressing issues in order to educate their communities on current affairs.
order to accomplish these daunting tasks, the Young Lords decided
to take radical action. Around midnight on May 15, 1969, the Young Lords led 20
people into the Stone Academic-Administration Building of the McCormick Theological
Seminary. After entering the building, they forced any administrators who had
been working late out of the building, barricaded the doors, and chained them
shut. They then hung a banner announcing the building’s name change to the “Manuel
Ramos Memorial Building,” and utilized walkie-talkies to finish securing the building.
Ramos was a former member of the Young Lords who’d been fatally shot by law-enforcement
less than two weeks prior. Once set up, the Lords made their demands. They insisted
on $601,000 for low-income housing, a health clinic, legal services office, and
cultural center for the Latinx community. They also publicly shamed the seminary
for their complicity in the displacement of their community, because they
believed that the seminary had failed to teach their students how to aid with
the basic needs of the community that surrounded them. The school’s president, Dr.
Arthur McKay, reminded the Lords that the seminary had already decided to allocate
30% of its endowment to community development and threatened to call the police.
However, according to historian Judson Jeffries, Cha-Cha responded in a press conference by saying that they would not
backdown because they
“made it clear that no warrant to leave, no piece of
paper was going to evict” them.
stand-off lasted almost a week, and classes were suspended for four days while
the two parties tried to reach an agreement. This period of tension finally ended
with a phone call confirming that the money requested by the Lords would be
paid in full for Lincoln Park low-income housing. Later negotiations also
resulted in the Board agreeing to pay $25,000 to help create a healthcare clinic,
make their finances public, make its facilities more open to the community, and to
become a public opponent of the racist Urban Renewal plan.
McCormick Seminary takeover was a small, yet integral component of the action
that the Young Lords took on behalf of the Chicago Latina and Latino community.
Their activism inspired others, leading to the development of branches all over
the country, most notably in New York and Puerto Rico. They also became an integral component of the Rainbow Coalition, a multiracial activist group that focused on freeing
the oppressed, working-class from the Daley machine. Their political activism further
crossed racial boundaries when they endorsed African American Harold Washington’s
campaign for mayor. In fact, once Washington achieved this feat, Cha-Cha Jimenez had
the honor of introducing him to a crowd of over 100,000 eager spectators in
Humboldt park. Unfortunately, despite Jimenez’s claims that the Young Lord’s Organization
is alive and well today, this group could not withstand the tests of time and
constant adversity. One of their greatest allies, the Reverend of the church where
the Young Lords set up their headquarters, and his wife, were found murdered just
nine months after the Young Lords established this relationship. Furthermore, their
endeavors were met with constant repression by the Mayor, the Judicial System, and the
Chicago Police Department, who unfairly targeted the Young Lords' leaders. Trumped up charges consistently
cost the Lords time, money, and resources. Even the government and FBI closely
watched the Young Lords, especially as they continued to advocate for Puerto Rico’s
independence. Furthermore, news outlets continued to publicly misrepresent the
Lords by portraying the them as a group of radical criminals, which served to drive
away sympathizers and potential recruits. This, in addition to infighting, over-zealous
expansion, and a lack of internal discipline, led to the eventual decline of
the Young Lords. While their name may no longer ring as familiar in American society,
the impact that the Young Lords have left on Latina and Latino history, and
American history as a whole, is undeniable. And as long as this community
continues to be treated like second-class citizens, the impact of the Young
Lords will similarly continue to be felt.