“¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York”
Bronx Museum of the Arts
Through October 18
El Museo del Barrio
Through December 12
Through December 1
What can you do when your city doesn’t care for you? If the people in your neighborhood are sick, but the city of New York refuses to provide public health services, what then? You can write newspaper editorials, and you can put in requests with the local officials, but if that doesn’t work, well, maybe you just take what you need by force. On June 17, 1970, several members of the activist group known as the Young Lords ambushed and stole a tuberculosis-screening truck to use in their own underserved, Puerto-Rican-heavy neighborhoods. It would be easy enough to dismiss this as a brash, violent prank, but it worked: the city reluctantly supported the effort, and the Lords were able to screen over 770 people in just three days. In the July 3, 1970 issue of Palante — the bi-weekly newspaper edited and published by the Young Lords — group member Carl Pastor wrote, “The YOUNG LORDS PARTY has always said that the time will come when the people take over all the institutions and machinery that control and exploit our lives. On June 17, the YOUNG LORDS PARTY put this idea into practice.”
The Young Lords burned bright and fast: The organization was officially founded in 1969, and officially ended by 1972. They’re not as famous now as some of their like-minded contemporaries like the Black Panthers or Students for a Democratic Society, but the Young Lords’ legacy has an endless, sprawling quality to it, in that it seems to pop up everywhere. Some examples: The Last Poets, a group that arguably laid the groundwork for the entire hip-hop genre, was started in part by Felipe Luciano, who later became one of the first Young Lords. Sylvia Rivera was a legendary transgender rights activist and a Stonewall Riots participant, and also a Young Lord. Juan González, who is well known in progressive media circles as the co-host of Democracy Now!, was also Minister of Education for the Young Lords. Even Fox News has a connection: Geraldo Rivera got his start on TV as a legal spokesman for the Young Lords.
It’s difficult to sum up the Young Lords. They were a Puerto Rican nationalist organization, a creative community with a profound effect on the artistic life of New York City and a powerfully idealistic group of radical revolutionaries who, like the Black Panthers, sought to build a socialist society from the ground up. Also like the Panthers, they were a paramilitary group, with regulation outfits and proudly-brandished assault rifles. Moreover, as the name says, they were young (at age 25, noted activist Richie Perez was one of the older members).
There are now three concurrent exhibitions on display across the city reflecting on the history and legacy of the Lords. “¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York” includes a straightforward documentary show at the Bronx Museum, a playful installation at El Museo del Barrio and a lovingly-detailed historical overview at the Loisaida Center. As institutions, both El Museo and the Center can trace their respective lineages straight back to the Young Lords. In these exhibitions there are newspapers and posters, poems and songs, documentary films and black-and-white photos, and yet, in a way it feels like these exhibits are only just scratching the surface.
One important thing that these shows remind us is that New York used to be a much dirtier place. At the Bronx Museum, we see a spread from Palante with a collaged image of the Statue of Liberty looking down on a trash-strewn city street; “Amerikkka the Beautiful,” the text reads. Nearby is one of the strongest artworks in the show: Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s Archeological Find #21: The Aftermath, a transfigured chunk of street trash (an old sofa) appearing as a sort of bloated, distressed body. Technically this piece predates the Lords, but the Lords dealt with similar ideas in their 1969 Garbage Offensive, in which they spread garbage across 110th Street and 3rd Avenue and then set it on fire in a sort of performance-art protest against urban poverty.
The Garbage Offensive was meant to be offensive in the sense of upsetting and shocking, but it was also an offensive, as in armed attack. Guns are everywhere in the Young Lords iconography. At El Museo, a circa-1970 Party poster (also recreated in a sculpture by contemporary artist Miguel Luciano) shows four assault rifles labeled “HEALTH,” “FOOD,” “HOUSING” and “EDUCATION”; the message is that the Lords were not shy about armed struggle in the name of justice. The tensions between the Lords’ lofty goals and their paramilitary structure raise questions that weren’t answered during their scant few years in New York: Can artistic freedom really flourish within a militaristic society? Can equality for women really exist within a male-dominated hierarchy?
In December 1969, just a few months after the Garbage Offensive, the Lords seized and occupied the First Spanish United Methodist Church on 111th Street. As with the TB truck, it was a violent action in the interest of tenderness and care: For the 11 days that they held the church, the Lords used it to host free breakfast programs and poetry readings. Looking back at the group’s fraught history, in some ways the moment is lost in a had-to-be-there billow of youthful rebellion, societal tumult and ultra-specific local politics. But then, to see what they were seeking in this city — justice, well-being, support and space — it’s hard not to relate. In the July 17, 1970 issue of Palante, Pablo Guzman wrote, “we decided to liberate the church’s potential and open its doors.” In a city growing ever more walled-off, we need more reminders that the potential for liberation is there, waiting for the doors to be opened.