What did “self determination” mean to the Young Lords?

Self Determination

Written by Selena Pacheco

Imagine living in a different time, do different in fact that people are in the streets, everyday, demanding their right to control their own destinies. There is a war abroad in Vietnam, and as black and brown bodies are being sent to die people are shouting about the war here, at home. The war at home deals with brown and black bodies being brutalized by racist police forces, a federal government that enforces racist policies, an educational system that places American history on a pedestal as if white people were the only subjects of our history.

Everyone was a part of the movement and by movement, I mean the struggle to fight against any form of imperialism, capitalism and white supremacy that aims at hurting, stunting and controlling the lives of people of color. Once the civil rights movement had passed, people saw how the federal government twisted their demands to maintain the status quo. Organizations formed to demand more from the federal government and to remind them that the revolution had not ended, but it had just begun. Organizations such as the Black Panthers for Self-Defense, the Brown Berets, the Red Guards, the American Indian Movement and the Young Lord Party represented African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and Puerto Ricans’. These organizations were formed by the people to serve the people with a common struggle for liberation.
Where do you stand in all of this? Let’s say that you lived in East Harlem your whole life, a part of New York city that was rich in Puerto Rican culture but poor in terms of services or assistance on behalf of the federal government. What did this mean? It meant that the city didn’t care enough about your neighborhood to listen to the demands of the community to improve it. You saw as garbage became piles on the street, almost as if the city was sending you a message, telling you that you and your people are “garbage”. Siblings of your friends continue to fall ill because of the lead poisoning in the walls. You feel the sudden urge to do something, to help in any way you can to improve the life of the people you call family and friends. You saw something amazing, you saw youth grab all the garbage in the street and block busy streets in prominent parts of the city. This was your first taste of resistance, you had begun to see what it was like to take control of a situation, and how it empowered people to take control of their own lives in the same way. You didn’t have to search for the Young Lords Part, rather they found you. You and several other youths met representatives including, Pablo Guzman, Minister of Information, Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez, leader of the Chicago based Young Lords Organization1. They spoke about a revolution that aimed at fighting for the liberation of all oppressed people. Your heart raced as you felt more and more that it was your duty to fight for your people.
The phrase “self-determination” kept coming up, what did it mean, what does it look like, how does one reach it, and how do you know when you had it, were some questions you kept asking yourself. Leaders spoke of programs created by the Young Lords to serve their community because no other institutions of power would assist without doing it out of self-interest or to maintain the status quo. An example of a program would the Breakfast Program, many of the young children in East Harlem lived in conditions that managed to push them away from getting the things they needed, the things they deserved to live a healthy lifestyle. Because much of East Harlem lived in poverty, many couldn’t afford the luxury of coming home with bags full of food. Plus, many children were suffering from lead poisoning in the walls due to the building owners’ refusal to clean up the living conditions because it would cost more money on their behalf. The Young Lords had many modes of communication that kept the community aware on current social issues along with what the Young Lords had been doing. In a newspaper by the Young Lords called Palante , you read…

“We believe that asking the congressmen, the businessmen, the churches, and the schools have gotten us nowhere, an absolute zero. So, we’re not asking anymore. We are taking what is rightfully ours. The age of compromise is over”2

This breakfast program was a big deal, not only was it a demonstration of youth organizing for the love of their community, but it also provided the opportunity for youth who wanted to do something -like you- to become involved. It was a reminder that it didn’t take a lot to become a revolutionary. The newspapers were a constant reminder of why it was important to mobilize, because if no one did anything, things would just get worse. It starts with taking what’s rightfully yours and using it for good. It meant denying any help from the government because that help was probably poisonous. It also meant referring to your community members as sources of knowledge, something that you had never thought of. The stories told by your elders and others that had lived in East Harlem longer that you have, demonstrate the extent to which this abuse reached and how it affected the way they saw themselves and each other. You saw as youth woke up before the sun did to prepare the things needed to put food in the mouths of young ones. You understood this as a form of self-determination.
However, you knew it wasn’t just something physical, self-determination wasn’t something that just appeared in front of you. It was something that you fought for. There was a conscious part to it, you had members of the Young Lords teach youth and the community about the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. You had understood what imperialism meant, what colonialism meant, capitalism etc. It was like you had been asleep this whole time, this history that was never taught in schools. You were upset, not just by these hidden secrets, but by the truth they uncovered. You learned about how Puerto Rico had become a colonized colony and that those who migrated here were treated as second hand citizens because they weren’t white, English speaking or rich. You learned about the disproportionate amount of drug use in neighborhoods of color, the amount of brown and black bodies unfairly targeted by police, as if being brown were a crime. You came to have a decolonized consciousness, a radical way of thinking that continues to question and be critical of systems of domination all around you. This too became a version of self-determination.

“In their newspaper, radio program, and in their discourses, the Young Lords assembled what Meylei Blackwell has called, “retrofitted memory”…she means practices of “drawing from both discarded and suppressed forms of knowledge” to generate “new forms of consciousness customized to embodied material realities, political visions, and creative desires of societal transformation. As a technique of delinking, retrofitted memory functions as a direct challenge to the coloniality of knowledge that crafts new ways of imagining collective pasts, presents, and futures.”3

That was when you understood the concept of self-determination. It meant the ability to see the strength in community, the power that everyone holds as a body of knowledge that when put together is unstoppable. It meant being aware and critical of systems of domination, it meant fighting for what’s yours out of love for your people and the generations to come. It meant risking your life, not because you were told to but because you knew it was the only way to get what you demanded. It meant creating avenues for people to create their own tools of resistance, whether it be reading about Marx, protesting on the streets, serving food to your community, or creating a collective of students at your school and organizing for a more transparent institution. It wasn’t just control over your own life, it was a principle that meant that if one person was oppressed everyone was, and the fight for liberation continued.

1Morales, Iris. Through the eyes of rebel women: The Young Lords: 1969-1976. (New York: Red Sugarcane Press, Inc., 2016.), 15

2 Enck-Wanzer, Darrel. The Young Lords: A reader. (New York: New York U Press, 2010.), 220

3 Wanzer-Serrano, Darrel. The New York Young Lords and the struggle for liberation. (Philadelphia Temple U Press), 35