Their journey was marked by constant struggle and displacement from
By Antonio Olivo | Chicago Tribune reporter
9:31 PM CDT, September 5, 2008
The war in Vietnam was killing thousands of Latinos and, in Chicago,
scores of families were being evicted from "renewed" neighborhoods
like Lincoln Park.
It was September 1968, and a gang of mostly Puerto Rican and Mexican
teenagers called the Young Lords had had enough.
The group destroyed a city planning office and briefly took over a
neighborhood church basement and other buildingsinstalling food
programs and other services in what became a rallying call for
community building in Chicago, New York and several other cities.
Their story, captured in a new documentary set to air Tuesday on
public television and a DePaul University photo exhibit being
assembled, is part of several tributes planned in September to
highlight the historical role of Puerto Ricans in Chicago.
After arriving during the 1940s and 1950s to work in steel mills and
other factories, Puerto Ricans have ascended to leadership roles,
with U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Chicago) in his eighth term, City
Clerk Miguel del Valle holding the second-highest office in Chicago
and several other elected officials on the City Council or in Springfield.
The journey was marked by constant struggle, with Puerto Ricans
continually displaced from gentrifying neighborhoods such as Lincoln
Park, Wicker Park and, most recently, Humboldt Park. Two 50-ton steel
Puerto Rican flags on Division Street in Humboldt Park amount to a
last stand for permanence.
"When they came here, Puerto Ricans were treated as if they weren't
legal, though they were U.S. citizens," said Antonio Franseschi,
director of the documentary "Chicago's Puerto Rican Story."
"They were not able to establish themselves to establish any kind of
political clout. Their voice was very small."
In 1968, community frustrations were embodied most aggressively by
Jose "Cha-Cha" Jimenez and his fellow Young Lords of Lincoln Park.
Following the Black Panthers Party of Fred Hampton and Bobby Seale,
the gang transformed itself into militant nationalists who brought
services and a spirit of defiance to areas city officials ignored.
Their doctrine was that of China's communist leader Mao Zedong, which
influenced their fight against tenant evictions, the creation of a
People's Church in Lincoln Park and their partnership with groups
pushing for independence in Puerto Rico. The Caribbean island remains
a U.S. commonwealth.
"There we were at Dayton and Armitage, just hanging out, drinking a
little wine and smoking stuff we weren't supposed to be smoking,"
said Jimenez, who is now a youth counselor in Ohio. "The next day we
were a political movement. We saw we needed to speak out. A lot of
our parents were afraid to speak out."
Before the group disappeared in the early 1970s, about 20 other
chapters were launched in different citiesmost notable a more
successful group in New York that counted journalists, artists and
university students among its ranks.
Members of the Chicago group were mostly from the street. During
demonstrations and sit-ins, their rough style showed in spurts of
violence, including the destruction of a city urban renewal office in
1969 that led to a yearlong jail sentence for Jimenez.
But the group also had some victories. Its People's Church on
Armitage Avenue became a hub for Latino activism and featured a day
nursery for working mothers and a free breakfast program. In 1969, a
weeklong takeover of the McCormick Theological Seminary on land now
owned by DePaul University led to $650,000 in seed money for
low-income apartments, though the city eventually rejected that project.
Still, such efforts helped pave the way for community building
projects, said Jose Lopez, director of the Puerto Rican Cultural
Center in Humboldt Park.
"They were part of an explosion of the Puerto Rican diaspora during
that era where second-generation Puerto Ricans everywhere were
saying: 'We've had enough. We need to be counted as human beings,' " he said.
As part of the group's commemoration this month, the remaining Young
Lords members plan to rally in Humboldt Park to help spur new leaders
into taking up their charge.
"We want to try to at least provide a model for young people," said
Omar Lopez, a former member who is not related to the UIC professor.
"Young people have no models for participation these days, and they
go straight into gangs."