Copyright 2001 Gale Group, Inc.
Contemporary Women's Issues
Copyright 2001 Journal of Women's History
Journal of Women's History Spring 2001

SECTION: Vol. 13, No. 1; Pg. 157; ISSN: 1042-7961

HEADLINE: "ABORTIONS UNDER COMMUNITY CONTROL": Feminism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Reproduction among New York City's Young Lords [Part 1 of 5]

BYLINE: Nelson, Jennifer A.

Introductory comments and statement of thesis includes "Origins of the Young Lords Party"

Nelson, Jennifer A.

This study of New York City's Young Lords reveals that a multiracial group of Puerto Ricans developed a unique radical politics during the early 1970s that encompassed both feminism and nationalism. Furthermore, the Young Lords' singular brand of politics produced an inclusive reproductive rights agenda that influenced (socialist) feminist politics later in the decade. The Young Lords' list of reproductive freedoms included demands for legal abortion and contraception, an end to sterilization abuse, prenatal and postnatal care for poor women, affordable day care, and an end to the poverty that prevented poor women and women of color from bearing all the healthy children they wanted. Although heated conflict between male and female Lords accompanied the organization's development of a feminist ideology, the Young Lords Party (YLP) successfully integrated feminism into their nationalist perspective.

Eighteen days after a new abortion law went into effect in New York State--on 1 July 1970--the heart of a thirty-one-year-old Puerto Rican woman, Carmen Rodriguez, stopped during a saline-induced second-trimester abortion at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. She was the first woman to die from a legal abortion after the reformed New York State abortion law--legalizing termination up to twenty-four weeks--became effective.(1) This tragic event immediately became a lightning rod for criticism of both national and local reproductive policies and the conditions of public hospitals serving the poor in New York City. It also helped to crystallize an original reproductive rights discourse--combining both feminism and nationalism--stridently put forth by women in the Young Lords Party (YLP), a New York City-based Puerto Rican nationalist organization.

YLP leaders pointed to Rodriguez's death as evidence that Puerto Ricans and other people of color were targets for mass genocide through population control. For example, after Rodriguez's death, Gloria Cruz, YLP health captain, warned that the new state abortion law, in the context of New York City public hospitals' dangerous medical environment, was an essential part of an attempt to reduce the population of low-income Puerto Ricans. Cruz announced: "A new plan for the limitation of our population was passed--the abortion law. Under this new method we are now supposed to be able to go to any of the city butcher shops (the municipal hospitals) and receive an abortion. These are the same hospitals that have been killing our people for years.(2)

When Cruz stated that city hospitals would become genocidal butcher shops, she agreed with many other activists of color involved in such nationalist organizations as the YLP, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party. The belief that people of color were being subjected to a genocidal plot was a popular political position in nationalist circles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This view was extreme, and no evidence confirms that population control reduced the numbers of people of color in America. But the realities of inadequate health care at Lincoln and other public hospitals--long waits for emergency room care, exhausted and hurried interns as medical staff, lack of provisions for drug treatment or prenatal and postnatal care, run-down accommodations, and Rodriguez's death--provided a context for the dire warnings Cruz and other people of color espoused.

At the same time, the YLP distinguished themselves from other contemporary nationalist organizations by demanding a broad reproductive rights agenda, which included the right to legal abortion. Most nationalist organizations of the early 1970s, including the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam, were staunchly opposed to abortion or any other form of reproductive control, even if voluntarily chosen. These nationalists insisted that by increasing their numbers, people of color would gain political power. They called upon women to bear children as their contribution to the Black Power movement. By contrast, the Young Lords' pro-fertility control position developed as a result of the actions of a few very outspoken and powerful women within the organization. These women were sympathetic to radical feminist thought espoused by women's liberation organizations proliferating in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Several Young Lords women participated in women's liberation organizations, although their primary definition of themselves was as Young Lords. These women ensured that feminist demands for safe, legal contraception, abortion, and other reproductive rights were an integral part of the Young Lords' politics. Although initially women were not taken seriously by most male members, by 1970--the one-year anniversary of the group's existence--they had radically altered the political ideology of the group. For the first time, a nationalist and multiracial organization, composed of people of African, European, and native descent, made an explicitly feminist position central to their political ideology.

The reproductive rights agenda developed by female YLP members between 1969 and 1974 was inclusive: it encompassed access to voluntary birth control, safe and legal abortion, a quality public health care system, free day care, and an end to poverty among Puerto Ricans and other people of color. It also combined two distinct strands of political thought. The first was a nationalist politics--emphasizing the right of poor people of color to control local institutions, an end to poverty among people of color, and anti-genocide rhetoric--articulated most stridently by the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The second was a feminist politics that demanded a woman's right to control her own reproduction, articulated by women's liberationists during the same period.(3) As female Young Lords pushed feminism to the center of the Young Lords' nationalist political ideology, reproductive rights gained increasing importance. After their first year, the YLP openly insisted in their position paper on women that Puerto Rican women had a right to bear the number of children they wanted and raise them in a prosperous environment.(4)

This study of the YLP reveals that at least one group of the Puerto Ricans developed a unique radical politics during the early 1970s that encompassed both feminism and nationalism. The coexistence of these two political positions within one organization may come as a surprise. There has been a presumption among scholars that nationalism and feminism are mutually exclusive, that a group's nationalism renders any feminist expression insincere. I believe that this perspective, however, is not a product of careful historical examination. Not only did women in the YLP push the group to embrace feminism alongside nationalism, they did so without contradiction, although not without conflict. They drew from both nationalist and feminist political ideologies to forge a liberatory reproductive politics. Their standpoint as Puerto Rican feminists active in a nationalist organization that emphasized the needs of poor people of color allowed YLP women to develop this unique version of reproductive politics. In short, their particular position within the YLP fostered an original and inclusive reproductive politics.

Origins of the Young Lords Party

The Young Lords trace their origins to two groups of activists--one in Chicago and the other in New York City. Cha Cha Jimenez, a young Puerto Rican activist, founded the first group in 1968 with the Young Patriots Organization, a politicized street gang. The Young Lords Organization (YLO) founders drafted a thirteen-point platform that echoed the Black Panther Party's ten-point platform. The first point demanded Puerto Rican independence. Independence for the island was important to Young Lords (both Chicago and New York City) politics for the entirety of the organizations' existence, but became more so after the first three years. Early on, the Chicago and New York City groups focused on improving and empowering poor Puerto Ricans in the barrios. They encouraged individuals with diverse backgrounds to join the group, including people of European, Native American, and African descent. They wanted their organization to reflect the variegated cultural and racial demography of Puerto Rico and the barrios without the prejudice that plagued both the island and the mainland United States.(5)

Meanwhile, in New York City, a group of young New Left and civil rights activists, including Denise Oliver, Robert Ortiz, and Mickey Melendez, all of whom helped found the New York City Young Lords Party, joined an organization called the Real Great Society (RGS)--an antipoverty program funded by the U.S. government's Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). RGS quickly became known as the Puerto Rican radical group in New York City.(6) In May 1969, Oliver, Ortiz, and Melendez, along with a group of students of color at the State University of New York, Old Westbury, heard about Jimenez's success organizing Puerto Ricans into a nationalist party in Chicago and decided to establish a YLO branch in New York City.

The New York YLO created a central committee of five individuals, initially all men: Felipe Luciano, deputy chairman Juan Gonzalez, deputy minister of education Pablo "Yoruba" Guzman, deputy minister of information David Perez, deputy minister of defense and Juan "Fi" Ortiz, deputy minister of finance. With about thirty active members at the beginning, the New York group quickly superseded the Chicago YLO as the most prominent branch and began to call themselves the Young Lords Party. Their journal, Palante, enjoyed a wide readership among Puerto Ricans and other New Yorkers interested in radical and New Left politics.(7)

The New York Lords drew attention to Puerto Rican struggles in two major actions. The first was a July 1969 protest against the New York City sanitation department. According to the Lords, the New York City sanitation department neglected to provide service to poor black and Latino neighborhoods. To address this problem they began a community sanitation project. YLP work groups piled the refuse in heaps in the streets, blocking traffic, to force the city to collect it.(8) The next protest was a takeover of the [] and Lexington Avenue Methodist Church on 28 December 1969. The New York Lords had formally requested use of the church basement to provide such free community services as a breakfast program, health clinic, and day-care center, modeled on Black Panther social programs.(9) When church authorities refused the request, the New York Lords occupied the church. For eleven days after the initial takeover, they used the church for a number of free services, including clothing drives, breakfast programs, a liberation school, political education classes, child care, health care, and evening entertainment. Hundreds of people from the community joined the protest and became involved in the various direct service programs.

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LOAD-DATE: July 27, 2001