Today, December 12, 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of my joining the Young Lords. My start and stop memoirs are an indication of the great personal agony i feel when i write about these experiences. I do not regret nor deny the immense impact these experiences had on me. They have shaped me into the person i am today and the one I will be until the hereafter.
December 12, 2009
August 12, 2009
I recall the day of my first visit as vividly as if it occured yesterday. I was going to the Young Lord’s office in East Harlem. Four decades later and I still remember the address: 1678 Madison Avenue, between 111th and 112th Street. I knew the neighborhood and I knew that block too. My aunt and uncle had moved years before to the new housing projects, Lehman Village Houses, on 108th Street and Madison. My six cousins and I would roam those streets, running through La Marqueta on Park Avenue, swinging down Madison, past the street vendors and the junkies on the corner.
But this was a special day. It was Friday December 12, 1969. I had promised Daoud I would be there after school to join his organization about which I knew very little. Yet it felt right, I felt good about this decision. I had spent two nights thinking about it and wondering what it would be like to be a Young Lord, to be a Puerto Rican warrior just like the Taino Indians Daoud spoke about at Spellman.
I left Cardinal Spellman High School, heading down the hill, on that bitter cold day towards the Baychester Avenue subway station. That short walk turned into an eternity as I was consumed in thoughts. I entered the train. My mind raced through different scenes about how I would be received.
Would they accept a 16 year old? I had forgotten to ask Daoud if the Young Lords had age limits.
Do I go home and change into my street threads or do I go directly to their office looking like Clark Kent in my Catholic school dress clothes? I chose not to go home lest I get caught by my mother. She would be returning from the factory at the same time the my train would be pulling into 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue. She would stop me for sure. And I dared not lie to her again.
I slumped into a two seat bench at the end of the subway car, a place I always chose in case I had to fight my way out, easier to exit through to the doors or escape between the subway cars. But today, the ride took on a different significance. For today I would be joining a Puerto Rican group for the first time in my life. I was filled with excitement, fear, and trepidation as I thought about what to expect.
I imagined a group of battle-hardened men dressed just as Daoud: combat boots, purple berets and green field jackets. I saw them milling around outside the office looking at me strangely as I approached from across the avenue. In my fantasy, the men would stand in front of the door blocking my entrance. They would stare at me with the menacing eyes of street toughs, giving me the glances and looks that I knew all too well from my own escapades as a14 year old gang member with the Devil’s Angels. In this scene, I would stand, stare back hard allowing the silence to create a moment of tension broken by just one word, “Daoud”. I would utter his name with the confidence and courage of someone who had already stared death in the face. If these were true warriors , inheritors of the Taino legacy Daoud talked about in his speech, they would recognize the warrior in me and let me through the door.
Or would they?
August 8, 2009
As I sat in a classroom at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, I wondered what I was doing in this school. I was in detention for two weeks, punishment for getting into a fight with a fellow sophomore. He called me a Spic and I rapped him a good hard shot to the jaw. By Cardinal Spellman’s system of do’s and don’ts, I was to blame. My classmate received not even a reprimand for his racial epithet .
The rules of detention were firm and enforced with equal severity. I couldn’t speak or do homework. I had to sit up, look straight ahead and not utter a single word for two hours. Room monitors would prowl the hall ways, acting like correction officers, listening for any idle chatter. If caught, you could end up doing more time or even face suspension.
It was a Wednesday. I remember the exact date: December 10, 1969. As I stole a glance towards the windows, I noticed the cold creeping up on the glass, the sound of students milling around outside. Minutes felt like hours, I was anxious to reach 5pm. My head pounded with the question I dared not ask? What am I doing here? How did I get into this mess? Why didn’t I take my fight outside after school? As I sat and waited impatiently, I wondered what it would be like to be in a real prison.
Suddenly, the door swung open and the announcement came over the loudspeaker that we were being let out of detention to attend a Forum being held in the cafeteria. I couldn’t believe my luck. The Black students organization and the ASPIRA Club, a Puerto Rican student group, , were holding a special event with speakers representing the various organizations within the civil rights movement. The speakers who came to our school were from the NAACP, The Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), The Black Panthers. And there was only one Puerto Rican group from New York’s East Harlem, the Young Lords. A Puerto Rican speaking from my community? It sounded like a gang I had never heard of.
As I walked towards the cafeteria , I wondered if the reason we were let out of detention was to permit the mostly Black and Puerto Rican detainees to attend otherwise the room would have been empty. Nevertheless, I was grateful for being freed and curious about a Puerto Rican speaking at my school.
As I walked into the cafeteria, I was amazed at the eery silence. The head of the Black students organization gave an introduction, quickly reading from a sheet of notes. He stood a bit nervous at first and then relieved as the room filled with my fellow detention mates.I listened intently to every speaker anxiously waiting for the Puerto Rican to address the room. I recall that it was the first time I heard about lynching of Black people in the South at the hands of the Ku KLux Klan; the vivid portrayals of young students getting on buses in the thousands to conduct voter registration campaigns in Mississippi and Alabama. I was riveted by the testimonials of each speaker and the moving accounts of young people taking extraordinary risks for their something greater than themselves.
The last to speak was the Young Lord named Daoud. He was a slender man dressed in a green Army field jacket, combat boots with a purple beret that sloped low over the right side of his forehead. He spoke in a street style cadence, puntuating his sentences with the type of gestures I knew all too well from my own experiences as a gang member on the East Side of Manhattan since the age of 14. I could only smile inside and wonder if anyone understood what he was saying or, if in fact, he was speaking only to me. I stood in the back of the room watching his every move. I was struck with the awareness that I did not recall experiencing a Puerto Rican such as this addressing a group, any group, anywhere. I looked around to see the reaction of the other students and realized that his delivery was affecting them as well.
And then Daoud began to speak about why hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans had left their homeland, the conditions of poverty and the sweat shops that employed Puerto Rican woman in the garment district. Now I was convinced he was speaking directly to me and my experiences. My mother and my sister were both garment workers on Lafayette Street in an area that was fast becoming a second Garment District around 8th Street and Astor Place, a place for small clothing manufacturers that grew after World War II. We had come to New York in 1956 when I was 3 years old. My sister had arrived the year prior to work in a factory and save enough money to send for my mother and I. She had to drop out of high school at my birth to take care of me so that my mother could work in a plant in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.
I felt he was reaching deep into my psyche, extracting whole pieces of my life and laying them out for all to see. The migration to the US, estrangement of a people treated like foreigners, rapacious landlords, racists policemen, my friends dying in Vietnam. His words tore apart the hypocrisy and falsity that surrounded me. When he finished I looked around to see if our school principal would charge up to confront him . I was overwhelmed by the deep feelings of pride I felt that someone had the courage to speak the truth, a Puerto Rican just like me.
On that day, I received my first lesson on Puerto Rico’s history and on that day I made a decision that would alter my life forever.
I walked to the front of the room and I waited for others to congratulate him . I walked up to him and I asked him how does one become a Young Lord. He looked at me dressed in my Catholic school dress code jacket and tie, short cropped hair and thick glasses in a black frame. I am sure he wondered whether I would be able to make the grade or if it was just a momentary leap of enthusiasm. He received my question with genuine warmth, happy that one person in the room was moved to join his group. I was struck by his disciplined approach and the seriousness with which he responded to my question. I asked for the address and the phone number. I promised I would be at the Young Lords office at at the end of the week since detention was not given on Fridays . I recalled his intensity and presence. He was no gang member. At least he was not like anyone of the gang members I had ever known. And this group he spoke about was not a gang either.
On that very day, I decided I would become a member of the Young Lords.
August 7, 2009
Over the last 40 years, I have lived and relived the many memories of my three years as a member of the Young Lords Party, a revolutionary nationalist organization of Puerto Rican youth formed in New York in the summer of 1969. I joined in the winter of that year at the age of sixteen. I have spoken to close friends about my many experiences and the lessons I learned in those tumultuous years. Always the same questions arise and always I am left with a deep yearning to tell my story.
My friends have encouraged me to write these accounts and to share them so that our youth can learn about the Young Lords. Perhaps we can become relevant to a new generation that seek answers to questions they do not even know how to ask. Many young Boricuas whether born in Puerto Rico or New York are engaged in a relentless search for identity, a search for meaning. The Young Lords belong to them. It is their legacy even more than it is mine.
I have written pieces that I could not complete. I have started doing this exercise many, many times only to stop. But now, I have a new resolve, a sense of destiny that this story must be told so that we can begin to address the deep love that every Young Lord feels, the love that comes from knowing that they were a part of the creation of something truly beautiful. I use the word love and not pride because we were driven by the deepest of love: a love of our families, a love of our people. There was a selflessness in this kind of love that mere words cannot capture.
On this, the 40th Anniversary Year of the founding of the Young Lords in New York, I will tell my story.