Puerto Rican New York has traditionally been split between two areas: East Harlem or El Barrio, and Alphabet City and the The Lower East Side, otherwise known by the ‘Spanglish’ name Loisaida. In the second half of the 20th Century the El Barrio became associated with socialist and anti-imperialist organizations such as the Young Lords and El Comité, and Loisaida with the Nuyorican cultural movement. However, this is too simplistic. After all it was in Loisaida that the Young Lords themselves were formed.
The Young Lords began in Chicago as a street gang reformed by Cha Cha Jiminez into a political movement. In early 1969 Puerto Rican activists from New York travelled west to meet Jiminez and were inspired by both the level of community organisation and the links made with groups such as the Black Panthers. On their return they decided to transform the Sociedad Albizu Campos – formed two years earlier at the State University of New York – into a local branch of the Young Lords.
This had all taken place in March and April but the organisation was formally announced to the public on July 26th. At a rally held in Tompkins Square Park to mark the Cuban revolution Felipe Luciano took the microphone and proclaimed the formation of the Young Lords in New York. Despite this Micky Melendez, a member of the organization, recalls where their focus lay; ‘Without an office, platform, or program, we went back to El Barrio to start the revolution’. There would be future Young Lords rallies in Tompkins Square but it was Harlem that they called home. Unsurprisingly it was the corner of East 111th Street and Lexington Avenue that was this year renamed ‘Young Lords Way’.
In Loisaida streets have also been renamed. Avenue C has been given the Spanglish name for the area but also of interest is the alternative name for East 3rd Street; Reverend Pedro Pietri Way.
Pietri was a playwright, poet and activist who was born in Puerto Rico but lived the majority of his life in New York. He was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War but returned radicalized and joined the newly formed Young Lords. In 1969 Pietri first performed his epic poem ‘Puerto Rican Obituary’ at a Young Lords rally. In ‘Puerto Rican Obituary’ Pietri documents the emptiness of the American dream and the struggle of Puerto Rican migrants who ‘died never knowing what the front entrance of the first national city bank looks like’. The same Puerto Ricans who ‘died yesterday today and will die again tomorrow’. Geographically the poem finds its home in Spanish Harlem where Pietri’s protagonists live and die, and Long Island Cemetery where they are buried. However, Pietri would soon shift the focus of his work to Loisaida and in 1994 displayed his most ambitious theatrical piece ‘El Puerto Rican Embassy’ on East 2nd Street.
On Reverened Pedro Pietri Street you can also find the Nuyorican Poets Café. The term Nuyorican was originally an ethnic slur but from the 1960s was re-appropriated into New York Puerto Rican identity. As the Young Lords and other organizations fell into decline it became a by-word for a new form of cultural nationalism and Pedro Pietri was one its founding members. The Nuyorican Poets Café is today decorated with a mural of Pietri’s image and inside continues his legacy in the arts. As both a Young Lord and a Nuyorican, Pietri remains a good example of how the political and cultural divide between El Barrio-Loisaida divide is not as large as it is often made out to be.
Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City by Lorrin Thomas
We Took the Streets: Fighting for Latino Rights with the Young Lords by Micky Melendez