Last Friday evening, less than 48 hours after Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló resigned in the wake of a series of unprecedented mass protests in the streets of San Juan, several hundred people jammed Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to celebrate Puerto Rican activism from another era.
The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the New York Young Lords, and the timing could not have been more apt. After all, young people made up the bulk of the protesters in Puerto Rico the past two weeks—including the July 22 march of more than half a million—and the audience at the Schomburg instantly understood the connection.
Back in 1969, a few dozen young Puerto Ricans, all children of post–World War II working-class migrants from the island, gathered in Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side, sporting purple berets and green field jackets, and we announced to the world that the Young Lords were here to start a revolution.
Over the next few years, the Lords became a household name in more than a dozen Northeastern and Midwestern cities, with our militant and often theatrical protests against inadequate city services, our free breakfast and free clothing programs, and our occupations of churches and hospitals that were aimed at spurring reforms by local officials.
Along the way, we taught ourselves Puerto Rican history and politics, sparked a cultural renaissance among a generation of Latinos, changed our ways of relating to each other—including launching one of the earliest lesbian and gay caucuses among people of color—and controlled our own narrative through our newspaper, Palante, and our own local radio show. And we somehow managed to receive more favorable news coverage in the mainstream media than virtually any other radical group of that era.
But the most important lesson from all this was how young we were when we did these things. At age 21, I was the oldest member of the first Young Lords central committee, while the average age of our entire membership was 17. For a brief few years, we became convinced that nothing could stop us, that the revolution was around the corner.
But then came the response by those in power, as it always does. Police repression and the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign of the Nixon era took a big toll. It fueled sectarianism and infighting that turned us against each other. That was soon followed by the counterrevolution of the Reagan-Bush era, with attempts to bury the memory of everything that the Young Lords or the Black Panthers, or other New Left groups, had represented.
At the center of our movement, though, was always Puerto Rico, as reflected in our main slogan, Tengo Puerto Rico En Mi Corazón (I have Puerto Rico in my Heart). It was a homeland most of us barely knew; still, we were convinced the island’s poverty and misery stemmed from its being a US colony. At one point we even embarked on a misguided and ultimately disastrous effort to spread our conception of independence and revolution there by starting Young Lords branches in Puerto Rico. At the time, we talked of Puerto Ricans’ being a divided nation, one-third in the United States and two-thirds in Puerto Rico, and of the role those of us here could play in the island’s future. Today, five-eighths of all people of Puerto Rican descent live in the United States, just three-eighths remain on the island, and the role of the diaspora is greater than ever.
The Lords and other advocates of the small independence movement on the island were right about something else: The commonwealth model of local self-government that Congress authorized for Puerto Rico in 1952 was a sham, just a dressed-up form of the colonialism of old.
It took until 2016, and Puerto Rico’s default on some $74 billion in Wall Street bonds, before Congress and the Supreme Court publicly acknowledged what we had been saying for decades—that Washington still dictates the affairs of Puerto Rico, that the United States still wields sovereign power over the island’s 3.2 million people. As for that debt, much of it was corruptly and illegally foisted on Puerto Rico’s government and public agencies by Wall Street banks and their local accomplices in the island’s financial elite. It is the oldest trick in the book of imperialist domination—sell countries loans you know they can’t repay, then move to seize their land and other public assets when they default.
But when Puerto Rico stopped paying its debt, Wall Street went into an uproar. The creation by Congress of a financial control board to solve the crisis (Puerto Ricans dubbed the board la Junta) spelled the effective end of the commonwealth experiment. A board of outsiders appointed by the president now runs island affairs, approving any major expenditures and budget decisions and overseeing a devastating austerity program.
Then came Hurricane Maria, and the devastation and tragic loss of thousands of lives, all made worse by the inept response from both the Rosselló and the Trump administrations, and the months without water, electricity, and phone service. The people of Puerto Rico and we, their relatives in the diaspora, were driven to a despair we had never experienced before. That was followed by the rampant corruption of the so-called recovery.
Through it all, the people persevered and organized their own grassroots self-help efforts. The mass upheaval of the past few weeks was the inevitable response to all the blows and disrespect island residents have suffered for decades from their own elite and from Washington. In a territory still nominally part of the United States, the people toppled their local government. Not the press. Not the courts or prosecutors. The people did it.
Ousting a governor, however, does not assure substantive change in peoples’ lives. In the short term, Washington and the junta will likely feel more emboldened to dictate Puerto Ricans’ affairs. Leaders of the old discredited political parties, the New Progressive Party and the Popular Democratic Party, are already competing with renewed frenzy to fill the vacuum created by Rosselló’s fall.
The protesters still celebrating last week’s victory would do well to reflect on the many examples of heroic people’s movements that ousted despised leaders only to see change for the worse. There was, for example, the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak by the young people of Tahrir Square in 2011, or of Ferdinand Marcos by the youth of the Philippines in 1986, or of the Shah by the young rebels of Iran in 1979. In each case, when the smoke cleared, the counterrevolution had triumphed and more autocratic leaders ended up asserting control.
To avoid such a turn, Puerto Rico’s young people will need to seize this moment and bury the politics of old, to discard the discredited major parties and look for new political forces that are truly accountable to the people, and they must constantly choose unity over division.
As for progressives and independentistas, we, too, must reimagine how Puerto Rico can reach not only real sovereignty but social justice and better conditions for all island residents. We need to grasp how the evolution of global capitalism has rendered historic conceptions of national independence almost meaningless. You no longer need foreign armies to occupy a country when you can read everyone’s e-mail, tap everyone’s phone, monitor everyone’s social media accounts, and empty a nation’s coffers and paralyze its economy from afar through satellites, instant wire transfers, and simple cancellations of bank credit lines. Such advances in the mechanisms of social control demand more creative and flexible tactics to defend freedom and democracy, to protect the very existence of small nations against foreign domination, to assert national sovereignty in an increasingly interdependent world.
Fifty years after we launched the Young Lords, I have more questions than answers about the way forward, yet I am confident that those tens of thousands of young Puerto Ricans who poured into the streets of San Juan the past two weeks with such courage and fervor will persevere, for I know exactly how they feel.