By: Jacqueline Lyon
In their three short years of existence from 1969 to 1972, the Young Lords Party (YLP) in New York City marched their way into history following in the footsteps of the Black Panthers. The Young Lords Party sought to expand the image of their community beyond the local, advocating for what they referred to as the “divided nation thesis.” The Puerto Rican community, they argued, stretched from the island to the mainland, having been divided by U.S. colonialism and resulting in massive migration from the island, a strategy they viewed as weakening the independence movement.
In their bi-weekly publication, Pa’lante, the Young Lords emphasized this theme, asserting the connection between mainland and island communities. Drawing from the collection of the Young Lords’ writings at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, I explored the Young Lords transnational activities on the island as central to the organization’s philosophy. Although FBI infiltration is often cited as the reason for the decline of the organization, my archival research uncovered that the question of identity was a major point of contention for members of the organization.
The Young Lords were not the only group debating “the national question” at the time. The Puerto Rican Socialist Party and El Comité also wrote extensively about Puerto Rican identity and its relationship to contemporary political struggles. Identity was an increasingly challenging question given the rapid transformation of the Puerto Rican community in the diaspora. From 1950 to 1970 the the proportion of the Puerto Rican population born in the U.S. nearly doubled, increasing from 25 percent to 45 percent. New York City’s Puerto Rican communities were also undergoing a major demographic change. In 1950, over 80 percent of Puerto Ricans in the diaspora called the city home but, by 1970, at the height of the YLP, that figure dropped to 58 percent (Whalen and Vázquez-Hernández, 2005).
The Young Lords responded by opening offices in cities throughout the Northeast such as Hartford and Philadelphia. At the same time, the organization was making plans to open offices in Ponce and Santurce, Puerto Rico. Under the name Operación Rompecadenas, the YLP sought to unite the island and the diaspora in their struggle against U.S. colonialism. In Pa’lante they wrote:
“[T]he one major thing that holds us back in our fight to liberate Puerto Ricans and all oppressed people is a lack of unity… a nation divided is a weak nation. We have been divided geographically, with one third of the nation on the mainland and two thirds on the island… Many of these divisions that exist are a result of colonization” (Enck-Wanzer, 22).
Further, they argued that the proper place for Puerto Ricans was on the island and that independence for Puerto Rico would result in the “majority of our people who now live in the United States will leave the U.S. because they never wanted to come here in the first place” (Enck-Wanzer, 60).
With the liberation of the island as one of the main goals of the organization, the YLP expanded their presence to Puerto Rico in 1970. Their first action was to participate in a march commemorating the Ponce Massacre of 1937. Accounts of the March 21 action described it as a touching demonstration affirming the divided nation thesis. The move was so profound for the YLP that one of the members of the Puerto Rico contingent wrote in Pa’lante, “I feel very much at home [...] This was an important day for the Puerto Rican nation. Save this newspaper for children, and tell them it was one of our people’s finer moments” (vol. 3 no. 6; 6).
After a year on the island, the party failed to meet many of its goals, contrasting sharply with their success in the U.S. In 1972, when a faction of seven Lords left the organization, the party vehemently rejected their criticisms of the party line; the main contention was the move to Puerto Rico. The YLP saw the faction’s arguments as indicating that “Puerto Rican workers in the u.s. should devote most of their time to struggles in the u.s. and not the national liberation of Puerto Rico” [sic] (Pa’lante June 1972). Later that month, the party held the “People’s Assembly” in Santurce and island residents echoed the criticisms of the seven detractors. Participants condemned the Lord’s lack of knowledge about the island, their inability to speak Spanish and the idea that independence for the island could be achieved by action in the states. Later, central committee member Juan González remarked that the move to Puerto Rico was one of the main reasons behind the Lord’s split. Members who were not of Puerto Rican descent felt alienated and believed that resources were going to the island instead of being invested in the communities they came from.
By the end of the month, the Young Lords Party had changed its name to the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization (PRRWO). With this change, the organization also abandoned work on the island and its main focus became organizing a multi-ethnic communist party. One of the first statements released by the new group was in rejection of the divided nations thesis. The PRRWO wrote, “[o]riginally, we felt that the Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. together make up a divided nation, and that the one party must be built to serve the interests of the workers of this divided nation. This was wrong. The Puerto Rican nation is not divided; it is in Puerto Rico” (PRRWO, 1972; 29).
Often seen as an example of political activism in the Puerto Rican Diaspora, the Young Lords’ history as a transnational organization is little known. As myself and many other Puerto Ricans in the diaspora have experienced, going “home” is often disenchanting. The Young Lords’ struggles to articulate an identity rooted in both U.S. Black and Latina/o populations and on the island proved a difficult balance. This shows a much more messy and complicated picture of transnationalism than that promoted by scholars. Examining the Young Lord’s negotiation of identity reveals a fuller picture of both the role of identity in the organization and the development of a Puerto Rican diasporic identity.
- Abramson, M. (1971). Pa’lante: Young Lords Party. McGraw-Hall, New York, NY.
- Enck, Wanzer. (2010). The Young Lords: A Reader. New York University Press, New York, NY.
- Whalen, Carmen and Vazquez-Hernandez, Victor. 2005. The Puerto Rican diaspora: Historical perspectives. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA.
- Young Lords Party (Publications and Pamphlets), Microfilm Reels. A La Izquierda: The Puerto Rican Movement. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College of the City University of New York.
Jacqueline Lyon is a Ph.D. student in sociocultural anthropology at Florida International University in Miami. Her research interests include race and diaspora. She aspires to become a university professor.