5 Things the Young Lords Helped Change

The Young Lords Party is often described as a Puerto Rican nationalist group, but they fought for much more than the self-determination and independence of their island.

The Black Panthers-inspired organization, which, while predominately Puerto Rican, included African American, Dominican and Mexican members as well, fought for health care, gender equality, housing, criminal justice, education and more. Here, some of the changes their efforts led to.  

MORE: 10 Ways the Young Lords Fought for Women's Rights

1. Things the Young Lords Helped Change

Improved Garbage Service: After the New York chapter of the Young Lords polled East Harlem residents to hear about their most pressing concerns, the group surprisingly learned that it was the mounting basura that had the community frustrated. Listening to their people, the Young Lords launched the “Garbage Innitiative.” They spent a lot of time cleaning the streets themselves until they realized they needed better equipment. Founding chairman Felipe Luciano visited his neighborhood sanitation depot to borrow higher-quality brooms, but the sanitation officer refused to let the man borrow them. Luciano didn’t give in. He moved the officer to the side and got the broom himself. Unfortunately, throwing litter in trash bags didn’t fix the garbage problem. Sanitation service in East Harlem continued to be substandard. To get the city's attention, the Young Lords piled packed trash bags across Third Avenue, halting traffic. They then lit the garbage ablaze, which definitely got the attention of the firefighters and police officers who had to come. Garbage service, though still unequal to white, wealthier neighborhoods, did improve.

2. Things the Young Lords Helped Change

Brought Better & Safer Health Care to Their Community: Health care was another important issue to the Young Lords. Members often called on physicians to help obtain testing materials for various illnesses. They didn’t stop there. In 1970, the Young Lords hijacked a mobile chest X-ray unit that didn’t frequent high-risk neighborhoods very much. Soon they were operating the vehicle 12 hours a day, seven days a week. That same year, the Party took over the decrepit Lincoln Hospital, which had high levels of lead content in the walls, for almost 12 hours, demanding infrastructural upkeep as well as door-to-door preventative health services, drug addiction care, maternal and childcare services, and senior citizen care. After their “Lincoln Offensive,” the city built a new Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. 

3. Things the Young Lords Helped Change

Brought Feminism to Nationalist Politics: Unlike other nationalist groups of their time, the Young Lords consisted of several women who led the party and ensured that it promote feminism. They revolutionized nationalist organizations by concerning themselves with gendered issues like calling for the end of forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women on the island, demanding safe access to abortion care, requesting safe and legal contraception, offering free child care and challenging gender roles and double standards within their community.

4. man in prison

Prison Reform: In October 1970, Young Lord Julio Roldan was found dead in his jail cell at the Manhattan House of Detention, nicked-named “Tombs” because of its notorious corruption. He was one of many activists and people of color whose prison death was labeled a suicide, though an autopsy later proved it was not an unassisted death. Angry, some 5,000 demonstrators gathered to carry Roldman’s casket to the First Spanish Methodist Church, an iglesia the Young Lords had previously occupied, to demand prison reform. The protest became a success when New York City Mayor John Lindsay negotiated with the Lords that he would give one of the Puerto Rican activists a seat on the Board of Corrections, the body responsible for prison reforms, in exchange for peacefully leaving the church. They did, and Jose Torres landed a gig on the board.

5. Things the Young Lords Helped Change

Encouraged Puerto Rican/Black/Latino Studies in Schools, Demanded Greater Faculty and Student Diversity and Promoted Bilingual Education: Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, the newly established New York chapter of the Young Lords pushed for more Black and Latino faculty and students as well as classes on ethnic and racial studies. The group occupied buildings and named them after famous Black and Latino leaders. Their work helped establish Puerto Rican studies, which later changed to Latino studies, courses across New York colleges. They were also concerned with the need for bilingual courses. When the Young Lords caught wind that Bronx Community College’s Bilingual Program (now switched to Lehman College) – where Spanish-speaking students were supposed to take courses in Spanish (and get credit for them) while they also took classes to learn English – wasn’t actually giving these students credit for the Spanish courses (and in some cases were charging students 5 cents for every Spanish word they spoke), they protested by seizing both Bronx Community College and the Board of Higher Education.