In the summer of 1969, the New York Young Lords Party launched a “garbage offensive” to force the City’s Sanitation Department to make more frequent pick-ups in East Harlem. Inspired by the community service programs of the Black Panthers, the campaign was the outgrowth of an extensive dialogue between the Young Lords and El Barrio’s residents and won the trust and respect of the community. Proudly inclusive of their Latino and Black neighbors, the New York Young Lords’ center of gravity were Nuyoricans (Puerto Rican New Yorkers) and the independence of their homeland, Puerto Rico, a central concern.
More than 35 years later, El Barrio is home to more than 100,000 people, half of whom are Latino. New waves of immigrants from around the world and white gentrifiers have changed the face of El Barrio. Spanish is still its most spoken foreign language, followed now by Chinese and other Asian languages, Arabic, and several African languages.
Increasingly, immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere, many of whom lack U.S. citizenship (or any legal status for that matter), make up the Latino face of El Barrio. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 40 percent of El Barrio’s residents live below the poverty line. It is here that the Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB) is emerging. The radical reference point and inspiration is no longer the Black Panther Party but the Zapatistas – an indigenous-based rebel army in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas that has evolved over the past 12 years into a grassroots, social movement that espouses “leading by obeying.”
BUILDING A MOVEMENT IN EL BARRIO
MJB was born in 2004 when residents of El Barrio began to organize against abusive landlords. To support them in addressing their grievances, the St. Cecilia’s Church on E. 106th St. hired Juan Haro, a founding member of the Zapatista Network United in Struggle (or AZUL in Spanish), a Mexican immigrant organization inspired by the Zapatistas. Haro worked with the residents and they successfully forced their landlords to clean up their act. At that point, St. Cecilia’s ended its involvement.
With residents in five buildings organized, Haro and MJB’s founding members decided to make the group into an immigrant-led, community-based organization that would fight for social justice and against all forms of oppression in El Barrio. “What we are doing is organizing ourselves, having meetings,” said Victor Caletre of MJB. “We have leaders from each building that meet monthly to make decisions on how to keep fighting.”
Over the past two years, MJB has employed media tours, court actions, protests and direct actions against landlords, mortgage lenders and city institutions to challenge the unjust housing system in El Barrio. Through this work, MJB has grown to 180 members in 16 buildings. In August of 2005, MJB began studying locally-based social justice movements around the world to better understand their own struggle. They have focused much of their attention on the Zapatistas’ “Other Campaign” (See sidebar).
“The Other Campaign has given us the magic touch to find another way,” Caletre said. This summer, MJB launched its latest initiative, a comprehensive community consultation process called “La Consulta del Barrio.”
On July 23, about 30 residents of El Barrio trickled in to the sparse basement of St. Cecilia’s for the first public meeting of the Consulta. They received bottled water, a photocopied news article about MJB, and copies of a Zapatistas’ declaration to read while waiting for the forum to begin. Young children were invited to draw and play.
Rotating between male and female members, MJB introduced its organization and the reasons for the Consulta. One member summed up the importance of the Consulta with humility, “We are but one organization. How can we make decisions for El Barrio? We’ve learned that we can fight together and that the people themselves can fight without having to be under one leader.”
Through an internal consultation of its membership, MJB had generated a list of the eight biggest problems in El Barrio other than gentrification: sexual harassment of waitresses, mistreatment in the hospitals, bad service at the Mexican Consulate, police abuse, jobs paying less than the state minimum wage ($6.75 per hour), the high cost of public transportation, proposed immigration laws, and the high cost of sending money back home ($4-5 for a $100 remittance) as well as mistreatment received from intermediary companies.
Empowered to speak, nearly everyone in attendance addressed El Barrio’s problems and the possibility of organizing to make change. Some people thought that MJB should expand its organizing beyond the borders of East Harlem and others thought that they should not pick just one problem but, rather, attempt to fight all these problems simultaneously.
When the forum concluded, each attendee filled out a ballot with their name, phone number and address, and circled the top three problems they would like to see addressed by MJB. Before leaving, attendees took stacks of flyers to hand out to their friends, family and neighbors. The flyers provided information on the location and hours of the public voting booths MJB was setting up in El Barrio as part of the Consulta.
After a month of voting, the first stage of the Consulta del Barrio was complete with 782 residents of El Barrio having participated. The three leading problems they identified: 1.) jobs that pay below minimum wage; 2.) proposed immigration laws; and 3.) poor service at the Mexican Consulate. Stage two of the Consulta del Barrio is set to begin.
Community dialogues will be held for each of these three problems, starting with the problem of poor service at the Mexican Consulate (including having to wait in line overnight just to receive service). The second forum will be on below minimum wage jobs and the third on immigration laws. MJB will decide which problem beside gentrification it will prioritize based on the level of community interest expressed at each forum.
THE STRUGGLE IS LISTENING
Amidst the din caused by electoral fraud in Mexico’s recent presidential elections, it has become more difficult to hear the scream for justice coming from Mexico’s Other Campaign.
There are two Zapatista sayings that are well worth remembering: “We walk slowly because we are going very far” and “Walking, we ask questions.” In less than a year since the Other Campaign was announced from the mountains of Southeast Mexico, the campaign has traveled from the Zapatista communities in Chiapas, through Mexico’s 32 states, and across the border all the way up to Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and East Harlem.
The Other Campaign grows not by captivating its audience with flashy advertisements but, rather, through listening. Like the Young Lords of East Harlem’s past, the Movement for Justice in El Barrio is dialoguing with its neighbors today and preparing for surprising results tomorrow. Whether fighting for an array of causes in Mexico or halting gentrification in New York City’s El Barrio, the Other Campaign continues to walk and listen and grow.
RJ Maccani lives in Brooklyn where he organizes with the NYC Childcare Collective and publishes zapagringo.com. This article is adapted from an earlier version that appeared at narconews.com.