On July 25, 1969, a group of young activists officially announced the formation of the New York chapter of the Young Lords in Tompkins Square Park. In the following years, they fought for the rights of underserved communities of New York with a radical style reminiscent of the Black Panthers. They piled high and then burned trash in the streets of El Barrio in East Harlem to protest the failure by the city to attend to sanitation there and brought free medical services to those neglected by the health care system.
But as the Lower East Side gentrified, the Young Lords and many of the cultural spaces that were created alongside them disappeared. Now, just two blocks away from where the Young Lords made their debut, Loisaida Inc. explores what remains of the Young Lords’ legacy with a multi-media exhibition, “¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York.”
At the Latino-based community center on East 9th Street, curators Libertad Guerra and Wilson Valentín-Escobar seek to explore how the Young Lords helped create institutions that formed a lasting refuge for Latino people even in the face of demographic shifts in the Lower East Side. “We give the example of institution building and the importance of it,” Guerra said. “Because if not, that’s how you get erased.”
The exhibition opened July 30 and is the final installment in a series that has slowly sprawled across the city with concurrent exhibitions happening at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem and the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
The entranceway of the exhibit is a short hallway dubbed the Theater of Struggle, an homage to public displays made by the Young Lords to allow Puerto Ricans to “articulate dissatisfaction and celebrate their marginalized identities in a manner that resemble theatrical political drama.” Photos by Hiram Maristany, the official photographer of the Young Lords, show members marching with Black Panthers as well as archival materials from the era, such as articles and fliers, which are are assembled in a binder for visitors to peruse.
The remainder of the exhibit is dedicated to the wider and more indirect impact the Young Lords had on the community in the Lower East Side. “What we want to show is how the Young Lords were involved in community making,” said Valentín-Escobar in his remarks on opening night.
One of the major contributors to the exhibit is photographer Maximo Colón, who moved to the Lower East Side in his twenties to attend the School of Visual Arts. Colón worked with the exhibit’s curators to sift through his personal archive of thousands of photographs from the last forty years housed at his apartment on the Upper West Side. Many of the photos selected for this exhibit have never been displayed before.
The photos of young activists, artists and everyday people in the neighborhood show Colón’s integration into the thriving scene in the Lower East Side at the period that the Young Lords were operating there. “I was photographing stuff, but I was a participant,” he said. “I was an activist in whatever demonstration.”
Subjects of the photos include leaders in the arts and activism who went on to greater fame. One photo shows Tato Laviera, the Puerto Rican poet of the Nuyorican movement, dancing in a street festival he helped to organize with Young Lords founding member and member of the civil rights group The Last Poets, Felipe Luciano. Another photo shows a young Luís Guzmán, now known for his roles in Boogie Nights and Traffic, on stage in baggy clothes and an afro at an event staged by CHARAS, a community and cultural organization.
Visual artist Adrián “Viajero” Román also contributed an installation special for the exhibit, a recreation of a geodesic dome in the center of the Maximo Colón exhibition room. CHARAS built many of these domes throughout the Lower East Side during that period as symbols of the possibilities of alternative housing. “In that era, LES was burnt to the ground,” said Guerra. “But you could see these futuristic structures in vacant lots.”
Across the hall is an interactive homage to the New Rican Village, an arts and performance space founded at 101 Avenue A by former Young Lord, Eddie Figueroa. Although only open for a brief four years before rising rents forced them to close their doors, the New Rican Village quickly became a refuge for Latino artists who sought to forge a new form in traditional musical genres, according to Valentín-Escobar, who is writing a book on the subject.
Among those who performed at the New Rican Village when it was at its height were jazz trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie, Paquito D’Rivera (winner of fourteen Latin Grammys), and brothers Andy and Jerry González, who helped transform Latin salsa and jazz with a series of bands.
Nestor Otero, a graphic designer who regularly visited the New Rican Village after he moved to the Lower East Side in his twenties, remembered what it was like to be Puerto Rican at that time. “I’ve always felt like a New Yorker, but the Puerto Rican part of me was ostracized,” he said. “As soon as I was associated with my cultural background, I was an outsider.” Figueroa believed the purpose of the New Rican Village was to not just serve as a brick and mortar institution but to help build up the mentality among Puerto Ricans and artists of other marginalized groups that they can be free express themselves, said Valentín-Escobar.
Within the New Rican Village, Figueroa created the Puerto Rican Embassy, a space for artists and others to connect to their Puerto Rican identity and colonial relationship with the United States. According to Valentín-Escobar, Pedro Pietri and Adál Maldonado, acclaimed Nuyorican poets and friends of Figueroa, used the concept of the Puerto Rican Embassy to create mock state institutions like a currency, religion and space program called “Coconuts in Space.”
The exhibition room at Loisaida Inc. seeks to recreate the atmosphere of the New Rican Village with cafe-style tables and chairs set up where visitors can sit and examine archival material while a projector displays photos by Maristany and Colón. It’s a chance to soak in the vibe of an institution that made a lasting impact but now physically ceases to exist. When the New Rican Village closed down as the Lower East Side began to gentrify, the Pyramid Club opened up in the space it once occupied, and the Puerto Rican Embassy ceased to have a fixed location. “It became more of a concept,” said Valentín-Escobar. “But really that’s where it should be. It should be a concept. It’s a conceptual space of refuge that continues.”
“¡Presente! The Young Lords” in New York will be on display at Loisaida Inc. at 710 E. 9th Street until October 10.