Revisiting a heated chapter of Bx history

By Shant Shahrigian for the Riverdale Press

A large banner with an AK-47 silhouetted in front of a cutout of the Puerto Rican flag greets visitors to the Bronx Museum of the Arts’ latest show, conveying something of the shock New Yorkers might have felt when the Young Lords took the city by storm starting in the summer of 1969.

The exhibit offers a sympathetic history lesson on the group’s rise and fall by way of the posters, publications, paintings and other artwork that members used to fight for better conditions for Latinos and others in the Bronx, Manhattan and Puerto Rico. A recreation of the group’s Bronx office includes a wall covered in photocopies of FBI files on members, illustrating the police infiltration that contributed to the Lords’ disintegration in the early 1970s.

“¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York” also features items ranging from a list of the group’s 13 socialist goals to a sofa scorched during a 1961 work of performance art.

“A lot of the imagery is very violent. It’s obviously of its era,” said Yasmin Ramírez, an adjunct curator at the museum. “If we look at it at a broader level, I think it’s resonating with people in the community because these issues are still occurring, unfortunately, to this day.”

While the City Council continues to debate free lunch for all public school students, works documenting the Lords’ effort to provide free breakfast for children show the idea is an old one. There are also photos of the group’s one-day occupation of Lincoln Hospital and of demonstrations against the filming of “Fort Apache the Bronx.”

A wall covered in silkscreens by the still-functioning artists coalition Taller Boricua shows the Lords’ roots in Puerto Rican culture. One image is a vibrant homage to Puerto Rican labor organizer Luisa Capetillo, while another protests the death of Young Lord Julio Roldán while in NYPD custody.

Large collages commissioned for the exhibit emphasize the role of women in the movement, who demanded that the Young Lords’ 13 goals said “Down with machismo and male chauvinism” along with battle cries like, “We want self-determination for Puerto Ricans—Liberation of the Island and inside the United States.” Sophia Dawson’s  “Women of the Young Lords” incorporates a photo of activists Iris Morales and Denise Oliver-Velez. Her “Sistahz” references a 1970 poster protesting the sterilization of Puerto Rican women.

Organizers said the exhibit was five years in the making and incorporated lengthy discussions with original Lords members. Some of them, like Ms. Oliver-Velez, continued work as community organizers while others, like Juan González, have made their mark as journalists.

A long with Young Lords banners and the wall of FBI files, the recreation of the group’s Longwood Avenue office includes a table map of all five boroughs. Little blue flags mark the locations of demonstrations like the 1970 Lincoln Hospital takeover and a protest for greater minority representation at the Museum of Modern Art in the same year. Visitors to the free museum are invited to plant white flags and write causes that are important to them.

“What does struggle mean to you, and where can we map it?” said education curator Hatuey Ramos-Fermín, who made the office recreation. “It’s really open-ended.”

“¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York” runs at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, located at 1040 Grand Concourse, through Thursday, Oct. 15. Admission is free. For hours and more information, visit www.bronxmuseum.org.