Writing With the Oppressed

Book Review: The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation

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Artwork by: Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez

Artwork by: Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez

By: Jorge Juan Rodríguez V

As a student of Union Theological Seminary in New York City it would be easy for me to do my academic work from the [quite literal] Ivory Tower. At Union I have one of the largest theological libraries in the world at my disposal and across the street I have all the resources Columbia University has to offer. Part of what I study at Union is how my experiences as a DiaspoRican affect how I understand those things that communities make religious. Why did my evangélica mother always take Agua Florida and rub it on my stomach when I had stomachaches as a child? Why did The Young Lords occupy a church, call it “The People’s Church,” declare it theologically bankrupt, and create new liturgy that emphasized the liberation of the poor? In seeking to answer these questions it would be so easy to stay in this Ivory Tower and let “sophisticated” [read: White, overwhelmingly cis-straight men from Europe and the U.S.] give me “philosophical” answers—instead of asking my mother, for example. After all, isn’t that what many of us are taught to do in school? Aren’t many of us taught to seek answers from those in power, privilege how they see the world? Aren’t we taught to study things from the library and not from the hood (where reality occurs)? Aren’t we taught to “objectively observe” from the safety of the tower and ignore how we are implicated in the world around us? It is precisely these teachings that Professor Darrel Wanzer-Serrano seeks to disrupt in his publication The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation.

In this work Dr. Wanzer-Serrano offers a critical interpretation of the writings, speeches, and actions of The Young Lords Party in a way that emphasizes their geographic and socio-political situatedness. Put differently, Wanzer-Serrano doesn’t simply wish to explain what they did or said but rather how, where, and why they did and said. In doing so, Wanzer-Serrano employs a de/colonial method that is mixed with his own expertise as a rhetorician. This de/colonial methodology contests that our approach to life and scholarship cannot continuously privilege those in power. Instead, we need to allow those who have been marginalized—particularly the Global South—to speak for themselves and privilege their way of knowing and being in the world. Part of this involves understanding that life does not occur in a vacuum, rather it occurs in physical locations where the very geography of space is politicized and determines the options set before a people. Further, this methodology emphasizes what in my field would be called scholarship en conjunto. In other words, it is not enough for the learner—because that’s what scholars are—to write about marginalized people, we must write with marginalized peoples (especially if we ourselves are part of that community). This means building relationships, being physically present con el pueblo, being accountable to that community, sharing stories as the community would, and understanding one too is implicated in the narrative. This message changes how Wanzer-Serrano approaches studying The Young Lords Party.

First it affects how Wanzer-Serrano shares the story of The Lords. The first chapter of the book highlights this well. In providing an overview of The Lords, Wanzer-Serrano begins the history of the movement not in 1969 when the group announced itself in El Barrio but in the land called Borikén that Christopher Columbus colonized in 1493. There, indigenous Taínos defended their livelihood as Spanish invaders tried to take ownership of their homes. Unable to fight off sword and disease many of the Taínos were murdered. Those who survived were enslaved and joined in enslavement by West Africans forcefully taken from their communities. Amidst finding themselves subjugated, these people rose up. Slave revolt after slave revolt disrupted the colonizer as would happen in 1868 with El Grito de Lares, in the early to mid 20th century with the Puerto Rican Nationalists, in 1960s Chicago with the Young Lords Organization, and within half a decade with The Young Lords Party. The origin of the last is directly tied to the lived reality of the first: a genealogical connection of beautiful, intelligent, communal people who rose up in struggle.

It would have been easy for Wanzer-Serrano to stay in the Ivory Tower, write a history of The Young Lords Party using the few available books and articles on the movement, and begin the story in 1969. But whose historical method would have been privileged? What community would have been built? How would Wanzer-Serrano have been implicated? Instead Wanzer-Serrano decided to go be with former members of The Young Lords Party—to spend enough time in El Barrio to encounter community members yelling at him as an “outsider” as well as experience being harassed by Police as an “insider” (10). What this led to was not sharing history “conventionally” [read: as we are taught to do by those in power] but to share the history of The Young Lords Party as The Young Lords would, to privilege them and how they themselves understood their story.

In order to do this, however, Wanzer-Serrano also needed to understand how he is implicated in the story—a reality he highlights throughout the work. In the introduction he shares about his journey to the topic as a “born-again Boricua.” He speaks of the three Professors (“all of whom are women, two of whom are women of color”) who pushed him in graduate school to embrace the story of his family and his Puerto Rican heritage—“to jump-start the process of getting [him] to think from a position rooted in Puerto Ricanness and latinidad” (9). As a result, he approaches the topic of The Young Lords Party not as a disinterested, abstracted observer but as someone whose very identity is implicated within the same history the Young Lords articulated. Further, he is conscious of how his own situatedness affects his approach to various topics.

In Chapter 3 of the work Wanzer-Serrano focuses on the “revolution within the revolution” of the organization—the rise of women and the challenge to machismo in The Lords. Within the first pages of the subject he positions himself as author writing that on this topic “I am suspect. I am a man trying to give voice to women in the organization about things that men—in their histories of the organization and in their interviews with me—refuse generally to discuss” (93). In highlighting this point I do not wish to praise Wanzer-Serrano for acknowledging his privilege, limitations, and social location as he should—and indeed, on this topic I too am suspect. Rather I merely wish to highlight how Wanzer-Serrano methodologically chooses not to ignore his own embodiment but rather to expose how that embodiment affects his engagement of the story. This self-awareness arises later in the work when Wanzer-Serrano references some of his previous writings on The Lords where he sought to make the organization fit into radical democratic theory. Rather than referencing his own work as an egoistic hat tip to himself, Wanzer-Serrano highlights this work to openly admit he did an injustice to The Young Lords Party in how he previously approached their activism. “Worst than an injustice,” he says, “I fear my framing of their activism in terms of… radical democracy enacted a kind of symbolic violence by unreflexively reinscribing epistemic coloniality onto their activism” (173). Put differently, Wanzer-Serrano notes fear that his previous work privileged the theories of those in power to describe The Lords instead of letting The Lords describe themselves, speak for themselves, and act for themselves. Thus in these examples we see an author that is not disconnected from their subject matter but rather sees themselves directly implicated within the story.

This book serves, then, not merely as a work on The Young Lords Party but as an example of how scholarship can be done privileging “below.” That said, my main criticism of the work is somewhat ironic as I believe that at times this book can be inaccessible to those who don’t have [access to] a background in philosophy, communication studies, post-colonial, and de/colonial theories. Chapter 5 of the work is a good example of this. There, Wanzer-Serrano explores how The Lord’s articulation of “The People” in the Church Offensive pushes rhetoricians and social theorists to expand the concepts of “ideographs” and “social imaginaries.” While Professor Wanzer-Serrano makes his point well and brilliantly uses the work of The Young Lords Party to advance the argument (emphatically making the work of The Lords push the academy instead of the other way around), for anyone unfamiliar to these terms/ thinkers /movements the material can be dense and inaccessible. Yet, in many respects, my own critique of this work is somewhat unfair as in the beginning of the book the author explicitly speaks of how this project expands conversations in the academic fields of de/coloniality, communication studies, Latin@ studies and the like (10-11).

In this sense, the knowledge base Wanzer-Serrano invokes is within the scope of what he originally set out, bringing me to ask a larger question from the work: how do minoritized scholars, including Puerto Ricans like Wanzer-Serrano, me, and many others, write academic works for the academy and “for Tío?” How do we write books that challenge the academy to include the stories of nuestra gente as critical sources of reflection—as this book does—in a way that nuestra gente, nuestro Tío if you would, can understand? How do we advance scholarship in a way that is accessible, particularly as minoritized scholars working within the archaic limits of an academic institution that never envisioned us being within its walls? Wanzer-Serrano’s critical engagement of The Young Lords Party reminds us that one way is to privilege those on the underside of history, including Tío. But how do we do privilege Tío in a way that Tío can understand?

While that question far exceeds the scope of this review the reality is that Dr. Wanzer-Serrano’s work is a powerful step towards answering it. The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation shares the story of The Young Lords Party in a refreshing way by employing a methodology that privileges their own voices, all while expanding conversations throughout various fields in the academy. In this, the work’s importance cannot be understated as it is not merely a regurgitation of The Lords story but rather a conversation with them. For that “epistemic disobedience,” for choosing not simply to stay in the Ivory Tower as it would be so easy to do, this work deserves praise.

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Jorge Juan Rodriguez V is the son of two Puerto Rican migrants who moved to urban Connecticut a year before he was born. He is currently a Master of Arts Candidate at Union Theological Seminary in New York City where he focuses on Liberation Theologies and is writing a Thesis on The Young Lords Party. Follow him on twitter: @JJRodV

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