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In 1970, Julio Roldan, a member of the Young Lords, a leftist nationalist Puerto Ricanorganization that originated in Chicago, was found dead in a Rikers Island prison cell following his arrest. His alleged suicide drew suspicion from friends within the group, so they collected his coffin from the funeral home, and paraded it through the streets to the First Spanish Methodist Church on 111th Street. They had previously renamed this the People’s Church when they had taken it over once before, and proceeded to take it over for the second time, stationing armed guards on either side of Roldan’s coffin.
A new exhibit at the Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, “¡Presente!The Young Lords in New York,” highlights the death of Roldan, and the activism and ideology of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican organization similar to the Black Panthers that began in the 1960s in Chicago. They opened a chapter in New York City in 1969. The exhibition highlights their campaigns for consistent trash collection in East Harlem, a free breakfast program, and better health care, as well as their advocacy for independence for Puerto Rico.
The exhibit couldn’t be timelier.
Last month, Puerto Rico's governor announced that the island's roughly $73 billion in public debt is not payable. The economic crisis in Puerto Rico is complicated by the island’s unusual geopolitical status; it’s neither a state, nor an independent country. It is a U.S. territory, with an import-export law called the Jones Act that many Puerto Ricans have accused of handicapping their economic opportunities in favor of U.S. interests.
Puerto Rico’s status as a territory was foremost in the minds of the Young Lords in the late 1960s. The first point of their Thirteen Point Program and Platform read: “We want self-determination for Puerto Ricans — liberation on the island and inside the United States. For 500 years, first Spain and then the United States have colonized our country. Billions of dollars in profits leave our country for the United States every year. In every way we are slaves of the gringo.”
Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, who curated the exhibit at El Museo del Barrio, believes Puerto Rico's financial crisis is a manifestation of the problems the Young Lords protested decades ago. “I think that’s a perfect example of the legacy of colonialism, and the imperialism that the Young Lords and many people way before them were already fighting,” he said.
“¡Presente!” highlights social campaigns the Young Lords organized in East Harlem, including a garbage offensive in which they blocked traffic by building up piles of uncollected trash in the street, and a takeover of a tuberculosis testing truck, which they hijacked and drove to a different location to serve more people.
The exhibit spans three cultural centers in New York City — The Bronx Museum of the Arts, El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem, and The Loisaida Center on the Lower East Side — all neighborhoods where the Young Lords were active. The Harlem exhibition features political posters from the museum's permanent collection, commissioned artworks, and photographs of the Young Lords from Hiram Maristany, a Young Lord himself who served as their official photographer.
“As an artist, as a photographer, I had to remove myself from the activity. I had to document it,” Maristany told Al Jazeera. “They would scream at me, ‘Why are you taking pictures when we’re getting beaten up?’ I said, ‘One day you will understand this.’”
More than 40 years later, his commitment is getting its due.
“It’s still speaking to generations of young people," Maristany said. “And it’s showing that the poorest people, people of color, people who have been disenfranchised, people that people look past, do not respect, can do some extraordinary things given the opportunity.”
Shellyne Rodriguez, who contributed artwork to “¡Presente!,” doesn’t see the same political organizing within the Nuyorican community today that the Young Lords embodied in the late 1960s. She notices a disconnect between Puerto Ricans in New York and Puerto Ricans on the island.
“Puerto Ricans in New York have more in common with African Americans in New York. My parents, my grandparents, came up through the civil rights struggle,” said Rodriguez. “I would say that Nuyoricans today are really aligned with Black Lives Matter.”
The Black Lives Matter movement, born out of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has gained momentum over the last year after high-profile police killings of African Americans, with cases like Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in New York, and Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. Most recently, echoing the death of Roldan, Sandra Bland was found dead her jail cell in Texas after she was arrested during a traffic stop, prompting protests.
Edgar Garrid, who attended the “¡Presente!” show on Tuesday night, sees activism taking place today, but often within social media rather than on the street level. “Word spreads faster now, but before there was more community [before] when it came to really spearheading movements," he said. “But nonetheless people are fighting for their rights.”
“¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York” runs at The Bronx Museum of the Arts July 2-Oct. 18, El Museo del Barrio July 22-Oct. 17, and The Loisaida Center July 30-Oct. 10.