Darrel Wanzer-Serrano's The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation
Reviewed by Lauren Lefty
The Young Lords have been enjoying their own nuevo despertar in the last few years, as a number of the city’s cultural institutions from El Museo del Barrio to the Bronx Museum hosted exhibits on the late sixties radical Puerto Rican organization. Darrel Wanzer-Serrano’s The New York Young Lords and the Struggle for Liberation is a welcome addition to this reawakening as the first book-length treatment of the East Coast branch of the party, which also had bases in Newark and Philadelphia in addition to its founding chapter in Chicago. The New York Lords only existed for a brief moment from 1969 to 1976, as a “revolutionary nationalist, antiracist, anti-sexist group who advanced a complex political program featuring support for the liberation of all Puerto Ricans (on the island and in the United States), the broader liberation of all Third World people, equality for women, U.S. demilitarization, leftist political education, redistributive justice, and other programs [that] fit into their ecumenical ideology" (5). Yet as Wanzer-Serrano notes, quoting Raymond Williams, they nonetheless provide “resources of hope” for today’s activists and anyone interested in the history and theory of radical social movements. While this book was published before the political upheavals of 2016, it seems all the more relevant for the current moment.
As the opening chapter is careful to note, the Young Lords were not simply a copy of the Black Panthers, as some works wrongly conclude. Rather, they took inspiration from black nationalism in addition to a rich history of Puerto Rican anti-imperialism dating back to the 15th century, when the Spanish colonized the Taíno island of Borinquen, a long-standing island and diasporic nationalist tradition in opposition the U.S., who assumed control of Puerto Rico in 1898, as well as the embodied experience of living as colonial subjects in a deindustrializing New York. They also drew on their identity as Latinxs living in the “belly of the beast” to connect with Latin American and other Third World anti-imperial and anti-capitalist movements, notably the Cuban and Chinese revolutionary models, and drew heavily from the writings of Afro-Caribbean anti-imperial theorist Frantz Fanon in addition to black power leaders such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.
The first two chapters lay this groundwork, setting the Young Lords Party in historical context and detailing their ideological influences and political development from a reading group of college-educated Puerto Ricans, the Sociedad de Albizu Campos, to an offshoot of the Chicago-based Lords, to a political group that became well-known city- and nationwide for theatrical protests and meaningful community outreach. After offering a helpful portrait of the Lords in relation to a long history of Puerto Rican nationalism, and also in the broader ecosystem of New York City activism, he then tracks their eventual demise, as the organization splintered and eventually disbanded due to infighting and external infiltration from the FBI’s COINTELPRO.
The second chapter then provides a rich theoretical analysis of the Lord’s revolutionary nationalism, which brought a specific critique of Puerto Rican coloniality within the larger context of Third World oppression and internal colonialism within the U.S. Wanzer-Serrano also interrogates the multi-directional interchange between the Lords’s work and island-based nationalism. Operating from the borderlands of the colony and the metropole, the diasporic group brought anti-imperial critiques to mainland urban politics, and new anti-racist, anti-machismo, and working class interpretations to island-based nationalism—a phenomenon not always welcome on the island.
With a background in communications studies and insights from Latinx Studies, American Studies, and History, Wanzer-Serrano provides a detailed theoretical reading of the Lords’ political philosophy. As a “born again Boricua,” he is set on approaching his subject from a perspective of and with the Global South, rather than imposing any Western colonizing logics on the Lords, a mistake he admits making in his early work but skillfully corrects in this monograph. He therefore rejects any post-colonial, post-structuralist readings of the group, and instead attempts to engage in the process of “delinking” that the Lords practiced themselves, which he defines as, building on Walter Mignolo’s work, “challenging modern, Western, colonial epistemic privilege through diverse sets of embodied discursive practices” (20).
The next three chapters therefore offer close theoretical reads of some of group’s major actions in this decolonial spirit, including their focus on women’s equality (the best and most novel chapter), a garbage offensive, and a church takeover in East Harlem. Wanzer-Serrano argues that the Lords, through an intersectional praxis of decolonial love—an other-centered politics that accounted for imperialism, racism, and sexism, and decolonizing tropicalization—a way of symbolically restructuring El Barrio to orient it with new attitudes toward social and political life, offered a novel revolutionary theory and praxis to Puerto Ricans and their allies in U.S. urban centers. These readings differ from the few other scholars who have written on the Lords, such as Lorrin Thomas, Johanna Fernandez, and Jeffery Ogbar. Anyone interested in these interpretive debates will find much to like here, as Wanzer-Serrano brings new theoretical insight to bear on the unique nature of Lord’s political philosophy, which went beyond recognition within liberalism, as Thomas argues in her work Puerto Rican Citizen, or “radical ethnic nationalism,” as Ogbar concludes in his article “Puerto Rico en mi Corazon.” Rather, meeting the group on its own terms, he sees a novel ideology that worked to decolonize minds, bodies, and institutions through a decolonial situated public discourse that centered on the Puerto Rican experience.
The conclusion, another high point of the book, reflects on lessons learned, particularly the value of the Lord’s embrace and enactment of community control, a form of decolonized democratic practice outside the Western liberal tradition. Born in the borderlands between island and mainland, community control sought to take back territory, institutions, and minds in U.S. urban centers through such practices as educational projects, church and hospital takeovers, and the claiming of urban space. Wanzer-Serrano calls attention to the “creative tactics, complicitous critiques, radical imaginaries, and challenges to the Manichean world propped up by colonialism and extended coloniality” (167) that community control came to represent, and reflects on its relevance for today for the Puerto Rican community, and marginalized communities more broadly.
Perhaps this betrays the bias of this reviewer, a historian herself, but the best passages of this work come when Wanzer-Serrano lets the Lords speak for themselves, in word, action, and imagery, and then brings theory to bear on those ideas without it overwhelming them. The archival material that draws on the Lords’ periodical Palante!, excerpts from their radio show of the same name, their 13-Point program, oral interviews from former Lords, and their own reflective essays are treasure troves. Like far too much critical scholarship produced in the academy, though, many pages of this work are devoted to lengthy and esoteric quotations by other theorists, an approach that ironically distances the text from its subject and the potential benefactors of this theorizing. This is more a disciplinary preference than Wanzer-Serrano's failings, yet sadly the rejection of postcolonial theory in favor of a decolonial approach only slightly lessens this phenomenon. While the analysis is thought-provoking, and gives the Lords' revolutionary nationalism the careful theoretical attention it deserves, the work may be too opaque for the lay reader. Scholars would do well to take inspiration from the Lords themselves, who often put their political theories in blunt, easily digestible terms. A middle ground would be helpful in critical theoretical scholarship with radical potential for broader audiences, particularly works so insightful as this.
That being said, this book is a welcome addition to the literature on the Young Lords, Puerto Rican/Latinx Studies, and social movements in general, and should be added to the reading lists of scholars, activists, and scholar-activists who recognize our current moment as one in need of political transformation. The Lords, as Wanzer-Serrano reflects, offer an inspiring model for intersectional grassroots activism that, rather than a relic of the Global Sixties, seems frighteningly relevant in the age of Trump. Yet not to be copied, he is also careful to note that the Lords serve instead as a “touchstone of decolonial possibility in a world still marked by coloniality and its wounding epistemology and ontology” (27). As the Lords would say themselves, rather than p’atras, always p’alante.
Lauren Lefty is a doctoral candidate in the History of Education at New York University. She is the recipient of the 2016 National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship for her thesis, "Seize the Schools, Que Viva Puerto Rico Libre: Cold War Education Politics in New York City and San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1948-1975."