This past July, after thousands upon thousands of protestors flooded the streets of Puerto Rico calling for the ouster of former governor Ricardo Rosselló because of his administration’s offensive chat messages and a pattern of money laundering, conspiracy, and wire fraud, they succeeded. Roselló resigned on August 2. However, the saga of compromised and unsure political leadership continued after this resignation with two more governors being inaugurated in succession within a week. Still, in terms of their political leadership, the protestors refused to accept that what they had been served on their plates was what they had to eat. I have some reservations about protest wielded as a tool for compelling changes in public or administrative policy. I find that there is a tendency to valorize large public demonstrations rather than the difficult work of negotiating compromises. But in Puerto Rico, the organizers and demonstrators absolutely had a righteous cause, refused to compromise, and won.
There is a similar spirit revived and reprised in the work of the Mapping Resistance: The Young Lords in El Barrio public art exhibition, which has been assembled by Miguel Luciano (who was born in Puerto Rico). Luciano has long worked in the vein of social practice, emphasizing the participation of members of his ethnic and cultural communities. About a year ago, he and I had talked about what he might do having been chosen as one of two artists to inaugurate the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Civic Practice Partnership initiative. He did what he had hinted at then: created a bridge between the consequential historical actions of artists and activists who were living in El Barrio (New York City’s East Harlem area) and had organized themselves around the material needs of the community, and the residents of the community living there now. Primarily, Luciano uses the Young Lords (as documented by the photographer Hiram Maristany) — a group of Puerto Rican activists who organized for social justice in Spanish Harlem during the late 1960s to 1970s — as the templates for civil action. Maristany’s images are consistently bold, dynamic and heroic. They are presented alongside long captions printed in both Spanish and English that relay the stories behind the historically significant locations where photographs are installed. One of the compelling stories concern the protests coordinated around what has become known as the “Garbage Offensive” of 1969.
In short, according to the caption text, because trash was often left putrefying in the neighborhood, while wealthier communities enjoyed regular sanitation services, the Young Lords accosted sanitation personnel and took the department’s brooms to clean up the neighborhood trash. They swept the trash into a pile that created a barricade in the streets with garbage cans and then set the rubbish on fire, obliging the police and fire departments to respond. They also shrewdly alerted the news media to the endemic problem. Then they returned the brooms once their purpose was served. This protest is documented in a particularly striking photo, “The Garbage Offensive” (1969), which shows a broad avenue choked with rubbish that stymies all potential traffic. Then a few blocks west on East 111th street is an image of the Young Lords marching in formation, from the Bronx to East Harlem, and on to Queens, in solidarity with the Black Panthers. The image, “The Bronx March” (1969), shows the volunteers full of a sense of self-worth.
Walking further west I encountered a trove of images installed across the street from where the original office of the Young Lords was located at 1678 Madison Avenue. Here I see the image of several men pushing a van marked “Chest X-ray Unit.” This photograph depicts a moment when the Young Lords appropriated a mobile unit used to test for tuberculosis during an outbreak. The image “Take-over of the TB-testing truck” (1970) reveals how seriously the Lords took the position that health care is a right, not a privilege, and how they boldly put that conviction into action. Another image of protest includes a famous one of boys walking during the funeral procession for a Young Lords member found hanged in his cell after being arrested: “Children in the funeral march of Julio Roldán” (1970). Their mouths are open in anger and a little bit of despair.
But alongside these images are also images of simple self-possession such as the profile of a woman with a large afro caught in profile, “Denise Oliver, Minister of Economic Development of the Young Lords at the office headquarters” (1970). This photo (along with the one of the Young Lords marching) suggests that the political movement was not entirely masculinist. It suggests that along with anger, despair, pride, and weariness, there was also quiet watchfulness and determination, as shown on Oliver’s face, fueling the Lords’ protests and civil actions.
History repeats — a cliché so well known it might be a bad limerick. But sometimes it doesn’t — not when it is met with a clarity of will and a sense of moral outrage that is allied with disciplined, coordinated, sustained action. This too is our legacy, those of us who recognize we have inherited a legal, political, economic, and social organization system that is categorically and consistently skewed to support the wealthy, the privileged, and an overclass racialized as White. We who recognize the predations of this system can still take the streets. The Young Lords did, and they lit a public blaze that in the intervening years has sometimes died down, but it has never gone out.
Mapping Resistance: The Young Lords in El Barrio is a public project that continues throughout various venues in Spanish Harlem with walking tours available through September 30th. It features the photography of Hiram Maristany, and is organized by artist Miguel Luciano, currently an artist in residence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Civic Practice Partnership.