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The Mujeres of the Young Lords

The Mujeres of the Young Lords

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Published by Virtual Boricua
By Erica González, Colorlines, 2006.
By Erica González, Colorlines, 2006.

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Published by: Virtual Boricua on Jan 02, 2012
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10/29/2012

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“We fought againstthis idea of revolutionarymachismo becausewe said, ‘What isrevolutionaryracism?’” Moralessaid.
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The Mujeres of the Young Lords
By
Erica González
On Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009, the Young LordsParty will have its 40th reunion at the First Spanish Methodist Church in New York City.This article first appeared in Spanish in El Diaro/La Prensa.
Connie Cruz had been told what to do all herlife-by her parents, then her husband. Thatchanged in December of 1969.Then, a group of young Puerto Rican activistswere appealing to a church in El Barrio (East Harlem) for space to house abreakfast program for the poor. The First Spanish Methodist Church had deniedtheir request. Its minister saw the youths as leftist rabble-rousers.But the group-the Young Lords Party-remained undeterred. They planned to putin another request during the church's testimonials."My brother-in-law Mickey came to visit," Cruz said. "He explained the reasonsor thembeing there [at thechurch]-to ask for the community to give up space for a children's breakfast program. I felt that was a very good cause to becomeinvolved in."But her willingness to act was not encouraged. "My brother-in-law at that timesaid this is for men, not for women," she said. "That stirred something in me."She put her timidity to the side and insisted on going to the church. Herbrother-in-law, she said, then asked her what she would do about her 5-year-old daughter. "Well, I'm bringing her with me," Cruz responded.Cruz and the Young Lords took over the church and fed poor, hungry childrenfor almost two weeks until the police rushed in. That was one of many actionsthe group would take.At 25, Cruz became an older member-most of the Lords at the time were intheir late teens or early 20's. But whatever their age, they all had acommitment to challenging the status quo for Puerto Ricans in New York andbeyond. The conditions, they believed, required it.Then, the Puerto Rican community lacked the extent of leadership, organizationsand clout that exists today. The city outright neglected neighborhoods like theLower East Side, East Harlem and the South Bronx, all heavily concentrated withPuerto Ricans. Deplorable housing conditions, police brutality and racial andethnic discrimination in services were the order of the day. Bilingual educationwas not mandated in schools. And even basic health services, like tuberculosistesting, were inaccessible.Across the country, young people were taking to the streets to protest the U.S. 
 
war in Vietnam. And throughout the world, liberation struggles againstcolonialism were inspiring movements for justice and equality.It was in that context that the Young Lords Party emerged in the summer of 1969.Initially, the group served as the northeast branch of a gang-turned-politicalgroup from Chicago. In New York, the Lords, wearing purple berets, quicklylanded on the front pages of major newspapers with their takeovers and face-offs with the police. But on a day-to-day basis, the Lords engaged in communityorganizing to demonstrate that everyday individuals could stand up to abusivelandlords or police officers or a neglectful government."Every action we took was for a purpose that would move our community to thenext level," said former Lord Gloria Rodriguez.Much is documented about the group's actions but little on how women shapedthe party.For Cruz, her experience with the Young Lords Party helped her assert herself.When she got divorced, she demanded that her ex-husband take equal part inthe caring of their children. And she insisted on an equal partnership in her nextmarriage.Iris Morales, another former Young Lord, explained the weight of Cruz's actionsat a time when strict cultural definitions of women were ingrained. "These werevery revolutionary acts-to stand up to a man and say I am going to beinvolved."Those revolutionary acts came with hard knocks.The Young Lords were governed by an all-male central committee. Its 13-pointplatform advocated for "revolutionary machismo."The women began to caucus out of the group's El Barrio office. They talkedabout personal experiences and studied Puerto Rican women in history, fromworkers' advocate Luisa Capetillo to nationalist Blanca Canales. The line onrevolutionary machismo became a focus of discussion-and sharp criticism."We fought against this idea of revolutionary machismo because we said, 'Whatis revolutionary racism?'" Morales said."When we started meeting we were told we couldn't take time to have this 'sillywomen's meeting,'" said Denise Oliver, another former Lord. Most memberswere Puerto Rican. But there were also Cuban, Dominican and Black Americanmembers like Oliver.The women defied the party leaders and demanded change. Their pressureresulted in the revolutionary machismo line being dropped and in women beingadded to all levels of leadership. A new point in the program began with: "Wewant equality for women. Down with machismo and male chauvinism."Change, even in an organization committed to challenging oppression, was noteasy.Women like Cruz who joined the defense ministry, for example, were subjectedto more rigorous tasks than the men. Oliver said they also had to fight againststereotypical assignments, such as being asked to type.
 
"The question of machismo was an ongoing issue," said Rodriguez, who was sentfrom the party's office in the Lower East Side to break into the male leadershipof the party's Philadelphia branch."Men were told they had to go to classes on sexism, to deal with it," said DavidJacobs, a former Lord who worked out of the group's Manhattan and Bronxoffices. "There were guys who didn't like the idea."It's like-here you are, turning your head at women, whistling at women, andnow you are told that the way you are behaving...that you have to change,"Jacobs said.Because the party had a military structure, orders from women leaders had tobe followed, regardless of the attitude toward them, Jacobs said. And when theyweren't, it was brought up in the party's practice of open criticism sessions.Insubordinates could also face discipline.Jacobs said that being raised by a politically progressive mother who wasconscious of sexism made it easy for him to adjust. The changes "affectedmostly the guys who were involved with women in the party," he said. Theywere faced with reconciling their political principles with their treatment of women."It's tough for someone who has been dealing a certain way with women, whosefather was dealing with women a certain way...and now they have to change,"he recalled.Nevertheless, the impact of the women's caucus was far-reaching andtransformative.Half of the content of the Young Lords newspaper,
Pa'lante
, had to focus onwomen's issues. A men's caucus was formed to deal with machismo. The partyestablished a women's union with a publication called
La Luchadora
. And theparty's overall program and work broadened.People were defining revolutionary struggle as only militancy, Morales said. Butthe Young Lords Party, as a result of women organizing within it, took positionsagainst a massive sterilization program directed at Puerto Rican women. TheLords defended a woman's right to abortion and childcare, for example."The Young Lords became known for its positions on women's issues," Moralessaid. "And for recognizing ourselves as Afro Boricuas and of Afro-Taino culture."By 1976, major shifts broke the party apart. A change in political direction (thegroup was renamed Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization anddeployed its members to factories), manipulative leaders commissioningviolence against dissident members and the FBI's Counter Intelligence Program(COINTELPRO) all undermined the party.The division and ultimate dissolution of the party was a heart-breaking periodfor young people who had for years invested their lives into making adifference."In the excitement and enthusiasm of our youthfulness, I don't think we weremature enough to understand what we were up against," Rodriguez said. "Wewere taking on the government. We were taking on huge embedded structures."Some people walked away from political organizing. Others saw it as a fad of  

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