Chicago, June 14, 2020: Hundreds of cars form a caravan in the Humboldt Park neighborhood to express Puerto Rican pride Photo credit: Antwon McMullen / Shutterstock.com
Steven Spielberg’s new rendition of the musical West Side Story is now in United States movie theaters. Long anticipated, and delayed by the pandemic, attendance will be bolstered by rave reviews from eminent critics like A.O. Scott of the New York Times. Already, during previews, the film boasts $800,000 in box office receipts: current post-release estimates for the first week are $17 million.
Yet, as with the original movie directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins in 1961, a cloud of suspicion about the film’s depiction of Puerto Rican youth rises. And as with this earlier film version, and the original Broadway hit, the true sources of inspiration for this retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story in Cold War New York—Puerto Rican youth themselves—seem to have been silenced and erased.
But they don’t have to be. Hollywood could tell the story of Chicago’s Young Lords Organization (YLO).
In college, circa 1990, a stage production of West Side Story turned me from a cautious fan into a picketer. I was lured by the possibility of seeing my Puerto Rican, inner-city life portrayed at the Ivy league institution that I had infiltrated, but the decision to cast yet another white woman in the lead, and no Latinos, let alone Puerto Ricans, led some of us to protest the production. Not coincidentally, at that time, similar issues were being raised about another musical, David Henry Huang’s Miss Saigon, an adaptation of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly set in post-World War II French-occupied Vietnam.
For many, West Side Story is simply an iconic musical with catchy tunes. For me, however, it became a critical entryway into political consciousness about when and how Puerto Ricans matter in United States history, and why popular representations are instrumental to that. The lack of historical and cultural attention to Puerto Rico and its citizens is notable—or rather, it should be. The island has endured over 120 years of colonization, occupation, neglect, and mass migrations, as well as social, political and economic exchanges.
Yet, West Side Story is still Hollywood’s only major response to this history.
Those stories exist. It was a Puerto Rican gang influenced by the 1961 film that presented me with my first major historical counter-narrative about Puerto Rican street youth. In 2001, I was a bright-eyed new professor in Chicago unknowingly standing at the bluntly inconspicuous birthplace of the Young Lords Organization, the former gang turned political organization that marked the entryway for Puerto Ricans into the civil rights movement. As a Puerto Rican historian and cultural critic, I was invited to join a project being planned by members of the Young Lords and university partners to shed light on the origins of the movement in Lincoln Park. To my surprise, I was sitting at a table with the founders of a movement that I thought I knew about, and had been profoundly inspired by, but that I had always associated with New York, and never associated with Chicago gang culture.
That first meeting opened a portal to history, and I committed to never again allowing it to close.
That YLO was initially attracted to West Side Story is an important historical fact: it is not uncommon that subcultures style themselves on Hollywood representations. While Italian American civic organizations (one founded by crime boss Joseph Columbo) protested Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 hit, The Godfather, real-life gangster Henry Hill later claimed that he and others adopted language and styles from a film that claimed to portray their world.
Similarly, although West Side Story’s original creative team claimed that the musical was drawn from real life, the Young Lords said the opposite: they often credited the unprecedented visual impact of the fictional West Side Sharks for their cool look during their gang years, soon abandoned for their iconic Black Panther Party-inspired style when they became a political organization. Nevertheless, they kept the Sharks’ royal purple as their distinctive beret color.
As political leaders, the Chicago Young Lords influenced subsequent generations of young activists. Yet, their history has been fossilized, historic sites demolished, their memories filed away. Despite community efforts, the Armitage Avenue Church, once the headquarters of the organization, was demolished in 2012 to make way for a three-story Walgreens. In 2016, after several lawsuits and decades of denial, surveillance records exposing the covert tactics of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and the New York Police Department aimed at infiltrating and dismantling the Young Lords in New York were unearthed in a Queen’s warehouse. The Young Lords’ resistance movement has been inaccessible to audiences; instead, the entertainment industry has produced yet another version of a show with a wildly popular songbook. It is one that has always been criticized as racist, and that touts the misery of being Puerto Rican.
The story that we might tell about the Young Lords does, in fact, center the racial conflict at the heart of West Side Story. They were a group of middle-school boys when they first came together as a gang in Chicago to protect themselves from other white, ethnic gangs in 1959. Even though the Young Lords always had some members who were not Puerto Rican, migrants from the island dominated the group.
Furthermore, in the 1950s and 1960s, the influx of Puerto Ricans into the United States mainland created anxiety in economically pressed cities. It triggered violent responses to increased Puerto Rican visibility in a society already tuned to state-sanctioned racism against African Americans and Mexicans. The Young Lords looked up to the older urban gangs like The Paragons, The Continentals, The Flaming Arrows, Imperial Aces, and The Black Eagles. And they observed that gang members had often infiltrated, and become powerful, in Chicago politics.
The role of Chicago gangs in politics marked the early history of the YLO. Chicago’s Puerto Ricans seemed to be politically mute: systematically marginalized in slum neighborhoods, relegated to low wage work, and ignored in the political structure. But in 1966, they surprised everyone. That year, in the Division Street Uprising that followed the police shooting of Arcelis Cruz, residents of the Humboldt Park neighborhood produced the first Puerto Rican insurrection in the United States. They were reinforced by another politicized gang, the Latin Kings: representing the North and South Side of the city, the two gangs, Puerto Rican and Mexican, followed the cross-neighborhood model of political collaboration begun by Black gangs.
As with their response to Black activism, Chicago authorities emphasized gang structures and ignored the politics. Led by the famous six-term mayor Richard J. Daley, Chicago city officials used the language of gang violence to promote and preserve segregation, and justify police violence against a community-based movement. Furthermore, consciously politicized gangs of people of color offered a deep threat to the status quo. Corrupt Chicago politicians were historically dependent on the protections offered by ethnic, white organized crime.
The YLO challenged this alliance by demanding political representation for the whole community. Led by its dynamic founder and chairman, José “Cha Cha” Jiménez, the YLO demanded change, raising the political profile of Puerto Ricans in the city. The group recognized and advocated on behalf of global issues and resistance movements, advocating for an end to the enduring colonial status of Puerto Rico. It advocated for an end to federal “urban renewal” that displaced people of color and poor whites by handing their neighborhoods over to real estate developers. In Chicago, Mayor Daley’s Chicago 21 plan, which imagined “a suburb within the city,” meant that Puerto Rican neighborhoods faced community divestment, rising rents and taxes for homeowners, increased crime, and blight—all tactics that put them in the way of the bulldozers.
By the mid-1960s, where Puerto Rican neighborhoods had once thrived, white, upwardly mobile professionals settled into freshly remodeled homes in the lakeside community of Lincoln Park and its surrounding neighborhoods. In response, the YLO launched a series of actions that would make history and gain national attention in 1968 and 1969. They included the May 1969 occupation of the McCormick Theological Seminary administration building. During the occupation, they renamed it the “Manuel Ramos Memorial Building” to call attention to a 20-year-old Young Lord murdered by a Chicago police officer.
Like the Black Panthers, during these actions, the YLO demonstrated what communities supported by the city could look like. When they occupied and renamed The Armitage Avenue Church as The People’s Church, they established a free health clinic and daycare center for the community. McCormick administrators met some of their financial demands and pledged to work on low-income housing plans for the neighborhood, initiatives the Chicago City Council ultimately rejected. Later that year, the pastor of Armitage Church, Rev. Bruce Johnson and his wife, Eugenia, both YLO allies, were mysteriously assassinated.
Urban renewal also helped to ensure that there would be few memorials to these political events. The Stone Building of McCormick Seminary, currently the site of The DePaul School of Music, is the last standing building that quietly recalls this history. Still, professors, students, and visitors are today often seen standing in front of the building discussing the 1969 occupation. Sometimes, a member of the Young Lords or the Rainbow Coalition can be spotted among them giving a witness account.
People made history here, and instead of another version of West Side Story—a tragic romance that centers a star-crossed love affair—we need monuments, tributes, memories, stories, and actions that engage the community that once existed, as well as ones still fighting displacement in quickly gentrifying neighborhoods, like Humboldt Park—the site of that first historical Puerto Rican uprising.
These erasures speak to the moral dilemma of colonialism and colonial mentality, one that Americans are reluctant to face in 2021, even as the Movement for Black Lives continues to raise public awareness about anti-Black violence and the need to genuinely engage with Black history. As US citizens and as people of the African Diaspora, we also have something to learn from the Young Lords’ strategic solidarity. We can honor their past by recognizing and supporting the history and liberatory struggles of all oppressed people as passionately as our own.
Resources do exist to energize that project. Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies was founded in 1973 in New York City in response to the advocacy of faculty, students, and community leaders, including the New York chapter of The Young Lords established in 1969. Although it is still the only university research center entirely dedicated to the study of the Puerto Rican experience in the United States, in the early 1990s our initiative to build The Young Lords Collection at DePaul University came to fruition and is currently the most frequently visited archive in the Richardson Library.
We didn’t need another version of West Side Story: what we need is more Puerto Rican history, and greater public acknowledgement of the place of Puerto Ricans in American politics, culture, and social movements. To that end, the Chicago Young Lords and Chicago Puerto Ricans must be remembered for their place in the history of the civil rights movement.
Dr. Jacqueline Lazú, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Modern Languages, and Affiliated Faculty Member of African and Black Diaspora Studies, and Latino and Latin American Studies at DePaul University. Her forthcoming book is Stone Revolutionaries: The Chicago Young Lords and the Origins of a Movement. She is a Public Voices Fellow at The OpEd Project.