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Rethinking the Young Lords: New Book on the Legendary Organization

When the Young Lords Organization emerged in Chicago, first as a local street gang in the 1950s, to their evolution into a critical community based collective in the 1960s, they situated themselves as a collective challenging the growing discontent and socio and political disparities limiting the opportunities available to Puerto Ricans in the diaspora. Improving the living conditions of Puerto Ricans (as well as other communities of color) became the motivation behind the organizations mobilizing as they sought to challenge the educational, labor, housing, health, and political realities they contended with in their daily lives, not only in Chicago, but through the expansion of the group in sites such as New York. In The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation, Darrel Wanzer-Serrano offers both an important contribution and intervention to Puerto Rican, Latina/o, and Communication Studies, by further contextualizing “the critical engagement of the Young Lords’ grassroots rhetoric and political actions” (Wanzer-Serrano 2015: 8). Although other important works on the Young Lords exist, what Wanzer-Serrano is careful to offer here is not merely another historical analysis of the ways in which activism is performed (or enacted) but how decoloniality emerges, is imagined, and is lived through the words and actions of the Young Lords. Through extensive archival research, oral histories, and theoretical unpacking, Wanzer-Serrano’s book situates the critical importance of the rhetoric behind the organizing work of the Young Lords and how affective strategies became central to their struggle for community control. To be sure, Wanzer-Serrano’s contribution is an important one, and very timely, as we are again witnessing a rise in community based activism in these very communities.

Wanzer-Serrano begins with not just a linear account of the history of Puerto Rico and its colonial relationship with both Spain and the United States, but more importantly, Wanzer-Serrano, decenters that history as the privileged sole historical account of Puerto Ricans. Doing so, allows the Young Lords to retell the history of their community as an essential challenge to the colonial discourse that has framed their daily lives. In Puerto Rican Studies, as well as Latina/o Studies, the historiography on the Puerto Rican experience tends to focus on colonial narratives on the lives of the community, without situating how they move beyond operating within master narratives on their lives, and instead employ new ways of juxtaposing their lives and actions under their own terms. By utilizing Walter D. Mignolo’s work, Wanzer-Serrano turns to delinking as “a key technique for resisting modernity/coloniality” (Wanzer-Serrano 2015: 19). In doing so, Wanzer-Serrano argues, it allows the Young Lords to craft a “decolonial collective agency altering the space in which they engaged social and political work” (2015: 22). Important to Wanzer-Serrano’s narrative is the political/historical disconnect at times internalized by the Young Lords from earlier radical Puerto Rican movements and groups. Even in the assessment of some Young Lords members of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico under Pedro Albizu Campos, critiqued the elitism and classism ramped in Campos’ organizational ideals of a free Puerto Rico, situated outside of the socio, political, historical, and racialized reality of the new Puerto Rican activists in the diaspora. Wanzer-Serrano reminds us that “retrofitted memory functions as a direct challenge to the coloniality of knowledge that crafts new ways of imagining collective pasts, presents, and futures” (2015, 35). What Wanzer-Serrano and the Young Lords also remind us, is that how we remember is just as important as to what we remember, and even why we remember.

Again, although other works on the Young Lords exist, Wanzer-Serrano takes us a little further. In his chapter, “Origins and Optics: Remembering Colonialism, Nationalism, and Radicalism with the Young Lords,” we are offered a very textual analysis of the genesis of the New York chapter of the organization. Careful not to erase the development of the Young Lords Organization in Chicago (which others have done), Wanzer-Serrano offers an important narrative on the initial relationship with the Chicago based organization and their ultimate separation. Similarly, Wanzer-Serrano highlights the collaborative relationships between the New York Young Lords and other community based groups that were also challenging the marginalization and violence faced by the poor and communities of color. Understanding these collaborative relationships as well as the simultaneous and previous membership of Young Lords members with and in groups, such as the Real Great Society (RGS), La Sociedad de Albizu Campos (SAC), Movimiento Pro Independencia (MPI), as well as the Black Panthers and others, aids the reader in situating the activism the Young Lords engaged in into a broader movement, yes, but also how members who came from other collectives ultimately sought to organize on behalf of barrio Puerto Ricans. As Wanzer-Serrano reminds us, some members were increasingly dissatisfied with other organizations and desired to “engage Puerto Rican social justice issues” (2015: 47).

In reconstructing (or re-theorizing) the Young Lords contributions and how they confronted the injustices their communities endured, Wanzer-Serrano is careful to not resist the urge to turn the gaze on the organization and their own internal struggles. Included in the text is a very much-needed critique of the gender inequality embedded in the organizations early days, and the multiple strategies utilized by the women of the Young Lords as they were denied access to leadership roles within the organization. Women, despite their contributions to the group (organizing, community liaisons, communications specialists, and so on), were rendered invisible within the organizational structure, and in many ways continue to be invisible in the scholarship on the Young Lords (in particular in the little that has been written on Chicago). Putting theory into practice, in particular on his inclusion of decolonial love practices, Wanzer-Serrano is very mindful in exercising care practices in both the listening and the writing of these stories. The inclusion of Young Lords member (and later leader) Denise Oliver’s story on the physical violence endured by the women as they confronted the sexist ideologies and practices of some of the men is an important narrative that has been silenced in previous works on the Young Lords. Wanzer-Serrano reiterates, “such stories must be retold, however, lest we risk romanticizing some revolutionary past and never correcting mistakes in our activist presents and futures (2015: 101).

As Darrel Wanzer-Serrano reminds us in The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation, “Puerto Rico, like any nation, is an invention” (2015: 31). And like any nation, its collective memory is imagined, depended on a social hierarchy that further silences those living and remembering on the margins. For the Young Lords, their collective mobilization was not only a struggle for liberation and community control but also one to reshape the historical significance and reality of the Puerto Rican people. Just as the population has historically been and continues to be underserved and further marginalized, as Wanzer-Serrano reminds us “the discourse and activism of the Young Lords remains drastically understudied to this day” (2015: 5). Further, written accounts on and from the Young Lords underscores the critical importance of the rhetorical significance of not only the actions of the organization but their collective discourse, and the ways in which this discourse allows us to reconstruct a community memory. Darrel Wanzer-Serrano’s The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation forces us, whether rhetoricians, Puerto Rican or Latino Studies scholars, to not merely recount how the organization evolved and ultimately dissolved, but to contextualize the ways in which the Young Lords both imagined their own history and reshaped how the Puerto Rican community can reposition itself amidst racial and political turmoil. An important contribution of Wanzer- Serrano, and where he is careful and thoughtful to remind us, is that he does not seek to discredit nor erase the origins and contributions of Chicago’s Young Lords Organization (which others have unfortunately done in the past), but instead calls out to scholars in the field to pick this challenge up. The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation is a welcomed contribution to our fields, and further, a new way to reclaim the history of our communities.

The book:
The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation
By Darrel Wanzer-Serrano
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4399-1203-4
244 pages; $29.95 [paper]
To order the book from the publisher click here.

© Mirelsie Velasquez. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 18 December 2015.