Interview with Puerto Rican Historian Mervin Mendez
The Young Lords and
Early ChicagoPuerto Rican Gangs
|[This is an interview with
Chicago Puerto Rican historian Mervin Mendez. It was conducted by UIC student
Erika Rodriguez for the Chicago Gang History Project.In it Mendez explains
the context for the development of Puerto Rican gangs in Chicago. Soon we
will be adding other pages on the Latin Kings and other Chicago gangs from
many different perspectives. ]
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT: PUERTO RICO
Puerto Rican migration to Chicago is actually a very unique migration, different from that of New York. It begins during the period corresponding with Puerto Rico changing political status from a colony to a commonwealth. This period between 1948 and 1950 is when Puerto Rico for the first time in its history has an elected government. What the transition really symbolized was Puerto Rico changing from a colony whose people were subjected to whoever, to the whim of the United States in terms of who the governor would be, to actually having some participation in a democracy where we would be able to elect town mayors and we would be able to elect a governor and a representative in the Congress (albeit a voice that doesnt have a vote).
So you have some places in Puerto Rico that are rather large, for example San Juan, theres a part, portion called Santurce, or Ponce which is another large town. These towns in Puerto Rico, these urban sectors, were a place where people learned how to deal with an urban environment, urban reality. The Puerto Ricans who came to Chicago were totally oblivious to any urban reality; this was their first urban reality. The Puerto Rican migration to Chicago is also a response to the employment opportunities in New York becoming saturated. So while you have Puerto Ricans coming directly from the island to Chicago from these rural parts you also have Puerto Ricans that are coming from New York to Chicago because again Chicago is seen as the place where there are employment opportunities.
Those employment opportunities were initially doing migrant work,
and subsequently entering into some of the heavy industries that Chicago
was very well known for such as steel and the pipe fitting industry in
particular, the very initial migration of Puerto Ricans to Chicago were
migrant workers, and in fact in an interview Mr. Jose Cha Cha
Jimenez has done there is talk about the little tomateros the tomato
pickers. A lot of people dont realize that Puerto Ricans in very
much the same tradition as Mexicans have historically been migrant workers,
and participation in migrant work was facilitated by collaboration between
the US Department of Labor and the newly established Commonwealth Office,
Commonwealth Government of Puerto Rico. They set up offices in various
parts of the United States, in places such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut,
and Chicago. The purposes of these offices were to facilitate the transition
of the Puerto Rican migrant from Puerto Rico to the United States.
PUERTO RICANS IN CHICAGO
So you had you know blacks of the south side, they were people from San Sebastian, or people from Vega Baja, or people from Lares, but there was not one community area, one enclave you could call the Puerto Rican community. In fact, this period of the 1950s its very well characterized by the institutions that were created by this early Puerto Rican community, and to characterize these organizations, if you read the work of Felix Padilla, he talks about the town clubs. There were very many different town clubs established throughout the city. The early Puerto Rican migrant since he and she they were coming from the rural parts, these were what wed call Puerto Rican hillbillies <chuckle>
They had a very strong affinity, a strong consciousness associated with the town they were from, and not so much Puerto Rico. Its interesting that this whole notion of a Puerto Rican consciousness is something that really bubbles up in the period of the 1950s but before that because of the lack of transportation, the lack of communication that existed from town to town, people had a consciousness that was very Salsa la Tiago oriented, Vega Baja oriented, Bolsa oriented, but there was not necessarily an expression of Puerto Rican consciousness remember were a colony at this moment in history and they just changed the label on us and gave us a few more rights but thats who we were. And a lot of critics feel that explains why the Puerto Rican independence movement, the nationalist movements failed to obtain independence in the 1950s. This town consciousness was so strong that it prevailed over a Puerto Rican consciousness. And you could see this happening throughout the history of Puerto Rico, for example in 1868 when the town of Lares declares independence from Spain. It was the town of Lares declared independence from Spain; it was not the nation of Puerto Rico. It was the town of Lares, and it was the flag of Lares that stood on its own. So this whole notion of a town consciousness is very real in Puerto Rico, and we brought it with us to Chicago.
THE FIRST PUERTO RICAN GANGS
We experienced a lot of ethnic conflict among Eastern European, Irish people, and Italian people throughout our experience and our lives in the south side of Chicago. One of the earliest manifestations of what you would call a gang is the group called La Hacha Vieja, the Old Hatchet. La Hacha Vieja was the first turf gang that to my knowledge can be attributed to Puerto Ricans living in Chicago. I dont know how this coincides with the history of the Latin Kings or other groups but La Hacha Vieja was really a Chicago group and it was adults. It was adult men that formed La Hacha Vieja. You have to remember that the migration, the early migration tended to be very male, tended to be males between the ages of 15 and 34 years of age. So these were adult men, and many of them had families, and La Hacha Vieja was basically a turf gang that was formed as an expression of solidarity to confront the ethnocentric discrimination that we were receiving from our white ethnic neighbors, the tinahuacos.
So what happens between 1958 and 1960 is that we see a big population shift. Interestingly enough this is a period of the civil rights movement, many things are happening in communities such as Woodlawn. The Puerto Rican community failed to see its commonalities with African Americans at that moment in history. I would argue that it took decades for us to see our similarities with the African American struggle.
However regardless of what happens at that, what was happening politically in the United States at that time, what we do experience is a tremendous population shift, and perhaps by a tabulation of the population shift and also of an influx in the Puerto Rican migration from the island but between 1958 and 1960 we see the bulk of the Puerto Rican population instead of being concentrated in the south side of Chicago we see it begin concentrated in the north side of Chicago. In communities like Lincoln Park, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Lakeview, Uptown, these become the sites of the new Puerto Rican population.
Two of these communities can be characterized as an ethnic enclave, and one is, we call La Division and the division is along Division Street between the communities of Lincoln Park and Humboldt Park. Its pretty much the flagship of Puerto Rican enclaves even to this day. And the second was Armitage Street in the Lincoln Park vicinity. What was different about the south side and the north side was that the housing stock differed greatly. The supply of large apartment buildings was much greater, and since large apartment buildings were run by businesses as opposed to renting done by single-family holders, these buildings were less likely to subject people to housing discrimination. Apartment buildings were practically a magnet for the new Puerto Rican migrant immigrant. (Notice Im using that migrant a lot, thats because of the political status. Ill use it because you know if Puerto Ricans are coming here as citizens, they dont have to worry about the issues of immigrants but at no time do I mean to disregard the fact that we are a people and a nationality unto ourselves.)
This growth of the Puerto Rican community is also accompanied by a lot of other social problems. The institutions of the city do not know how to respond to our needs or to who we are and the institutions that respond the most ferociously and aggressively against us is the Chicago Police Department. The accounts of people that lived in Chicago at this time indicate that it was very difficult for two Puerto Rican men to have a conversation out in the open, on the street, or in front of a bus stop without being stopped by the police. There were language barriers, language was a big problem. We would use our mothers maiden name when we say our name. So you know if somebody asked me what is your name I would say Mervin Mendez Rodriguez. Well to an Irish cop that was like oh this guy is messing with my mind, hes not being straight with me, hes giving me two last names. What is this jerk doing to me? And so that was an excuse to batter the person, that was an excuse to arrest the person, you know, to accuse the person of resisting arrest or not cooperating with the police.
There were many instances where communication was a big problem, especially when it came to Puerto Rican and police relations. That coupled with the fact that early accounts of Chicagoans living in this town, point to the fact that the Chicago Police Department colluded with street gangs that already existed in Chicago. Organizations that have existed for many years, that had origins that go back to the 1930s and 1940s, gangs such as the Gaylords for example. They basically saw those gangs as doing their work while they were committing acts of aggression against these new immigrants.
THE DIVISION STREET RIOTS
Well the '66 riots is actually one of the very first riots that happen in the civil rights period. And unfortunately because the Puerto Rican community has been invisible to the eyes of historians, when we talk about the Civil Rights period we fail to talk about the 66 riots. Perhaps one of the reasons why we fail to see that is part of the same civil rights period is that the Puerto Rican community refused to have Martin Luther King come in as a mediator between the city and the Puerto Rican community. As I said, it has taken us a long time to see our commonalities with the African American community, and thats attributed to our own legacy of racism in our country, a country that also had slavery.
The cause, the root cause of the riot was white racism. The initial cause was police brutality. Then the police became the metaphor for everything that was wrong with white society and we lashed out for three consecutive days against the police. After these riots, the perception of the Puerto Rican community is very negative. But at the same time the power of the community, of the Puerto Rican community has, had increased tenfold. The clout of the Puerto Rican community had increased quite a bit. For example we were able to change the regulations, the height and weight requirements for police officers and subsequently we eventually were able to get more police officers of Puerto Rican descent and Latino descent in the police department. We were able to get the city of Chicago to advertise its programs to the Latin American community, to really be bilingual, Spanish and English for the first time.
But the price was, the price for fighting back was this perception of being evil, bad people of being that negative element. We became the fearful other. Instead of being the welcomed other, now we were the fearful other. And this happened by about 1966. Lincoln Park is an area that you know again is that second enclave. It booms around the same time as Division Street. And by this time you have a number of different turf gangs and I think that you know the Young Lords who were definitely not the first Puerto Rican turf gang, again point out there was La Hacha Vieja, but there were other groups so Ill make reference to an interview Im gonna share with you with Carlos Flores who talks specifically about those groups.
THE YOUNG LORDS
Ethnocentrism. If you were to go back to the first race riot in the history of Chicago in 1919; it was attributed to a gang. A white Irish gang, I should say white ethnic because it included people that were Jews eventually, called the Hamburgs. The Hamburgs were a social club; they werent called a gang. They called themselves a social club. But then whats the difference? They caused the first race riot in the citys history. So when we look at turf gangs or social clubs, their birth, their existence for being had a lot to do with 2 things one keeping you know things white, and secondly eventually with power, some form of power. These gangs, the Hamburgs were not drug dealers, but they sure as hell knew the value of a vote, and the currency of votes. So it was no accident that out of the blue called the Hamburgs, you have judges come up, you have state representatives come up, you have the sheriff come up which was Daley, you have two mayors come out of the Hamburgs. You have Kelly and Daley. The machine is born later but it really is exemplary of the power of gangs in terms of how Chicago is run right?
The thing to keep in mind though, we talk about gangs in this light is that gangs, in Chicago history, are these relationships, these social contracts with people that occur when the institutions of society fail the people. And the Irish were a group that was disenfranchised from American society in many regards, just starting with the fact that they were Catholic. That was a big obstacle for them. And other ethnic groups have had their struggles as well.
So we come as Puerto Ricans to this society and the institutions of this society are failing us left and right. The turf gang becomes a way of protecting ourselves. Like La Hacha Vieja is a way of protecting your family. It might seem like a vicious way but it was all about protecting your family. The Young Lords when they formed, they formed because there were other ethnic groups, there was another gang called the Roma Boys, which were major rivals to the Young Lords; there was a tremendous amount of conflict between Puerto Ricans and Italians in the Lincoln Park community of that era. And gangs were where that drama played itself out. Played itself out in the hands of the children more so than the adults. But then the adults also colluded. They followed when possible.
The Young Lords become a Maoist organization. Mao Ze Dong wrote this book called the Little Red Book and it was very popular with youth movements in the United States, particularly the Black Panthers. So the Young Lords they were very influenced by people like Fred Hampton. Those influences were direct. They spoke quite often. In the fashion of the Black Panther party the Young Lords developed the Ten point program, they articulated their values. But this doesnt happen till much later.
For example Obed Lopez was the older brother to another fellow named Omar Lopez, and Omar Lopez becomes a Young Lord when the Young Lords become a political organization. So you have this crossing over of different experiences but the riots definitely did a number of things to awaken the Puerto Riquenos. What? We recognized that we werent here alone. That we were many in number and remember we didnt have a Latino institute at that time to tell us how many of us were around. We just looked around and we saw this ocean of Puerto Rican faces, fighting the police and said to ourselves, wow were here. Weve arrived. Were not a minority group. Were not a small group; were a powerful block. And this small notion that yes we can fight back and live is important.
Cointelpro and the Red Squad
Erika: Of the organizations which we born out of the riots, was the we can fight back and win mentality a staple of their existence?
In the case of Chicago there was a group of the police department called the Red Squads. The Red Squads were former CIA and FBI operatives that were hired by the city of Chicago to do much of the same work that the FBI was doing only Richard the First had control over what happened here. Immediately there is this tight repression and groups within its focus the Spanish Action committee and the Latin American Defense Organization they try to break these groups up from the inside. They bring in infiltrators and the place where the damage is seen the greatest , is the Spanish Action Committee where members pretty much turned on one another and accused one another of being Communists. With this group one of the members reported another set of members as Communists, and the way you proved that you werent a Communist was by cooperating with them and hurting other members of your group.
So they tried to destroy the groups from within. Creating a paranoiac atmosphere and harming relationships that could have been very positive. This actually affirmed what many who believed in the independence of Puerto Rico believed in. So while on the one hand the repression is trying to put us down, the darkness of the repression gives light to a vision for Puerto Ricos independence that is expressed a little more strongly in any other part of the United States than it is in Chicago.
The expressions of this, is the period where the people who just got excarcerated and pardoned by President Clinton were coming up, they were going to high school, were growing up and forming their way of looking at the world. Its interesting when we look at the FALN and that group, and its cause you know some people, you know I wouldnt typify them at all as a gang but they are people that fought for the independence of Puerto Rico, they did what they felt was right. Im not gonna agree or disagree with what they did but whats important to notice is that they never, most of them never lived in Puerto Rico yet they were willing to die for Puerto Rico.
And it was because they saw the darkness here, and the darkness paranoiac. This is the most, one of the most disgraceful periods in United States history is the Cold War and the Communist witch hunts that began with McCarthyism in the 1950s and continued silently trudging along through the '60s, '70s and even to this day. The Soviet Union no longer exists but the repression still does. So this really kind of taught young people like the Young Lords, to be rebellious to, you know, we didnt see ourselves as part of the society and we saw the contradictions of the society and were quick to point them out. Sure at the time we werent as quick to point out our own contradictions and our own flaws but thats part of human nature, thats part and parcel of human nature.
And so that type of story happened to many Puerto Ricans and the Young Lords remember those things happening to their families when they were little children and so in the true tradition of a turf gang, the Young Lords become a political entity but its really an affirmation of being a turf gang. Theyre protecting the neighborhood from the gentrifiers, from those who threaten to displace us. They acknowledged Lincoln Park as their neighborhood. I think that thats another you interesting phenomenon because you know up until that point we had moved around a bit and here were saying wait this is our neighborhood why should we leave?
But the whole spirit of the '60s, it was a tumultuous period. It was a time when people were being very critical of the United States. There was a total resistance of what had come before. Its a rebellion that began in the '50s, its a cultural rebellion in many ways, its a coming of age as a country. Its you know this countrys struggling to heal itself from slavery still, thats not resolved. Its still not resolved but you know its this period of the '60s were you really you know for the first time in the 20th century that we really begin to address the questions of race in the civil rights movement. It was big big part of that.
Its also a period where theres a lot of things going on in Latin America. The Cuban Revolution was another thing that really influenced the Young Lords. See the Young Lords were moving toward the direction of being socialist so Fidel Castro and Guevara being sovereign Latin American leaders were their role models. In fact the Young Lords traveled to Cuba as delegations as part of the Venceramos brigades, the first brigades that there were to Cuba. And this made them all the more threatening to the Red Squads, to those that feared Communism, who feared differences in ideology, who feared the very freedom that this society claims to be predicated upon. Which is freedom of thought.
And actually thats actually the most, the greatest act of acculturation to American society because when you look at you know one of the milestones for any group in American society, United States society, is the point when people rebel against it and become critical of the society so they could shape the society in much the same way that they needed. The Jewish community did it. Though you dont hear about it much because, but the thing was they held onto the coattails of the black civil rights movement. But that black civil rights movement gave Jews in this country a great deal of power. Many rights. There was a rebellion. You know, they were part of that rebellion. The civil rights movement was a form of rebellion for blacks in this country and for Jews. To be critical of it so they could make it something that gives them freedom.
Women had to do it; they had to rebel. White middle class, upper class women, the womens movement becomes a very classist movement. Its not about poor women; it is about poor women initially and it is started by poor women. But obviously this large sector of women in the United States had not declared their freedom and really it happens with rebellions. And there are all these points of rebellion that make us more American. That might sound like a contradiction but I think that thats what we call growth.
Erika: What were thire accomplishments?
You had the DePaul University, you had the McCormick Theological Seminary, these are Christian and Catholic right? And you know there were Catholic priests that were supposed to live the life of the risen Christ that were not. They were(not as) Christ in the times of Christ; Christ was a man who was associated with the leper, associated with the prostitute, associated with the prisoners of the lowliest station of society because Christ never saw them as lowly. He saw them as beautiful, saw them as human, saw them as part of who we all are.
Well these priests were not like Christ. These priests, these some of these religious men and women were concerned that these people that were different were a threat to the neighborhood, theyre a threat to the community, theyre a threat to the philistine, the stability of the fabric of a place they lived in. And so that justified their, this place in the community. The Young Lords saw right through it. Theres something to be said about the eyes of children. The eyes of children are not hypocritical; theyre very honest, deadly honest. And they just, you know, they just cut right through to the contradictions.
They start you know attacking these organizations and not only do they start you know confronting these organizations but they start doing it with others. They call less with other groups. In addition to the Black Panthers there was another group called the White Panthers which was the white counterpart. Whites they wanted to participate with the Black Panthers and werent allowed to because blacks could only self determine for blacks but that didnt mean that whites couldnt become a part of that struggle because they knew that it was at war with what their parents and their ancestors had been. There was another group called the Poor Peoples Coalition. And between these groups they challenged these institutions.
The Lutheran Church eventually becomes the Peoples church and they create a daycare center out of there. And they create a cultural center out of the Peoples church. I think this was 1969 they take over the McCormick Theological Seminary which is currently the DePauls building on Halstead and Fullerton which is called McGaul Hall. That used to be the library of the McCormick Theological Seminary. They took it over at gunpoint. They took it over. They were armed. Security was provided by a motorcycle gang called Los Hijos del Diablo and they took over the library and they came up with concessions. McCormick Theological Seminary and various institutions gave into a number of concessions. They took over the library, it was for a number of days, it was close to a week. And the threat was that if you come in to get us, well burn it down. And books are very flammable. <chuckle> As much as the Young Lords were a period of awakening there was so much, the cards were stacked against them.
THE VIETNAM WAR
Erika: What about the Vietnam war?
You see, before Vietnam the drug of choice in the United States was alcohol. After Vietnam, its when we see all these, you know other drugs come into the picture. I mean were not talking marijuana. Were talking heroin here. Heroin has probably a 90% plus addiction rate for first time users. That was one of the things that went against the Young Lords. The Red Squads were definitely a force that was threatening to destroy the Young Lords. Fred Hampton was assassinated by a states attorney Hanrihan. States attorney Hanrihan took his orders probably from Mayor Daley himself. It was murder. Hanrihan should have been tried for murder and he never was but he should have been tried for murder. Because when you look at all the forensic evidence at the site of Fred Hamptons killing, the bullets only went in one direction. The man was killed in bed. And it was a miracle that his wife survived the attack. That set the Young Lords into a period of exile. The Young Lords were, had disappeared to Wisconsin, not knowing what to do. They start trying to think of what to do. Whether to, you know how to fight the revolution as they saw and then we were telling you again. Young people can be very romantic. Okay? They were revolutionaries. Everybody wanted to be like Che, you know, right?
By this time what happens in that the Young Lords become a political group they stop recruiting members into the Young Lords. The process of recruitment stops. Because they actually were their own demise. They saw themselves as a group that mature into a leadership in the community and that would continue working and plugging away at the issues of community but they didnt, they didnt have a vision to continue the Young Lords. I mean listen to the name Young Lords, its a gang. Its a gang name. So there was this, as peoples perception of self changed and what they meant to their community the Young Lords catch, they were their own demise as well. They made that choice to not continue existing.
And its interesting you know for example the Young Lords form
in New York and over there its, it becomes the Young Lords Party
connoting that theres something more political, more advanced in
terms of their thought, that they were more grounded in you know Marxist
thought. They were college students by the way and a very different breed
of people from the Young Lords of Chicago.
Well the Young Lords Party feed off the energy that was created by the Young Lords of Chicago. The Young Lords of Chicago when they become a political organization one of the things they do is they set out to start chapters of the Young Lords in other parts of the United States. So from New York to California. And Puerto Rico as well. And they were successful. The difference is, in the case of New York in particular, and I think that the message of the Young Lords in general really appealed to you know young people across the board and college students are still young people. The only difference is that theyre also the privileged young people and theyre being exposed to a world of ideas that the Young Lords, they werent. The Young Lords pretty much their school was experience. Which was very valuable.
At the same time theres a different theme going on in Chicago. Chicagos a much more Latin American city so a lot of what were doing is revolving around a very Latin American consciousness. And it takes us in a different direction. It allows us to see the beauty in the Cuban Revolution. It allows us to see the beauty in the integrity and life of Che Guevara who at that time had just been assassinated in Bolivia by the time that the Young Lords are being formed. Which actually you know these people become martyrs; not just for Latin America but for all who love freedom and who love humanity.
Erika: Do you think that the whole dynamic of the New York Young Lords, the fact that they are from a different strata, they are educated or becoming educated, they are, they start with the political platform stuff like that, do you think that has something to do with the fact that its always been sort of the New York Young Lords that have been studied? Or have been, they attempt to document them, you know the film that Im sure youre familiar with, the documentary, its kind of addresses New York Young Lords and sort of leaves Chicago out
And you know everybody goes back to the romantic. You know the big
murder figure in terms of those groups was the Black Panthers and
the assassination of all the different Black Panthers throughout the country.
And so New York wanted to affiliate themselves with, they had the people
with the name recognition. People like Geraldo Rivera who for a long time
called himself Jerry Rivers. People like Felipe Luciano who becomes you
know a television celebrity.
Whats different about the Latin Kings and the Young Lords is that the Latin Kings are perhaps one of the first really economically minded gangs. And so whenever you would work with the Latin Kings to conscienticize them, or teach them how to become organized what you were doing was you were helping them build their economic and criminal economic empire. That was their basic mission. The Latin Kings had a very different origin I think in terms of the way they conceived of themselves. Part of it is, if youre looking at the Pontiac Constitution of the Latin Kings for example, what are the Latin Kings holding prayer. What youre gonna find are, this verbage, words that allude to Aztec, Mayan, Taino culture, that you know, this association with being Puerto Rican or Mexican but its not authentic. It, what it reminds me of, is the ghost dancers of the Native Americans. The ghost dancers, you know who the ghost dancers were? These young men, they were stripped, pulled away from their tribes, and stripped away of their culture and they come back and they realize their still Indians and so they have to reinvent themselves.
Well I always saw the Latin Kings as a reinvention of what it is to be Puerto Rican or what it is to be Mexican or Latino. Its a fabrication of a cultural identity. Whereas with the Young Lords, there is no fabrication there. Its very clear who we are and what were about and Puerto Rico comes first before the Young Lords. The Latin Kings, mighty nation of the Latin Kings comes before Mexico and Puerto Rico in the consciousness of its members. Theres a very big difference. I think that, you know and this is my opinion because Im really always trying to understand these groups.
For more information, see DePaul's Center for Latino Research