Young Lords organizing sets example for youth now
Jenny Brown
October 1997

Students learned about the Young Lords on October 11 at a program sponsored by the Unión de Estudiantes Puertorriqueños Activos.

For eight years in the late '60's and 70's, Olguie Robles-Toro worked with the Young Lords, a multi-city organization based in the Puerto-Rican community which fought for better treatment for the community, health programs (including successfully winning a hospital for the South Bronx and a community-controlled drug detox program), tenants rights and workers rights, against racism and sexism, and for cultural rebirth. Following the example of the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords provided concrete services like breakfast programs, and political education for the community in who had the power and what people had to do to change that.

Currently Robles-Toro works as a drug counselor in Jamaica, Queens.

The presentation included a showing of the film "Palante Siempre Palante!" about the Young Lords. The film is available for check out from the Civic Media Center (373-0010.)

I talked to Olguie Robles-Toro after her presentation.

Q: How did you get into the Young Lords? What made you start to want to organize?

When I was nine years old I served as a translator for my family. I started learning how impoverished my family really was and how hard they worked and how little they earned and that gave me a sense of indignation for my mother and my aunts and uncles. So by the time I was 13 I wanted to make a difference but I didn't know how, so I joined the youth leadership program with United Bronx Parents.

I began seeing that poverty is not just an economic problem it's a social and economic problem and a political problem the anti-poverty programs, although they exposed a lot of the ills they didn't really resolve any of the ills.

By the time I hit 16, I got really frustrated with the fact that I worked three years in an (anti-poverty) agency that didn't make any real change and that my neighborhood was still facing police brutality, a lot of the buildings were being burnt up so the landlords could collect the insurance, there was a big drug problem, heroin being the dominant popular drug, and alcohol.

I read the newspaper for the Young Lords, and I went to the office, and I guess I fell in love with the idea that maybe we can make revolutionary change. I joined the Young Lords and I gave 8 years of my life from the age of 16.

Q: What were some of the things you were proudest of that the Young Lords accomplished during that period?

I'm proud of everything. We brought people together with a purpose and a goal. A lot of people who were drinking and drugging stopped and got active; gangs stopped fighting one another and were actively doing something. The Serve the People programs brought people together.

We elevated the level of awareness. Our people got their culture and their history and they understood their role in making changes. So instead of being the victims, they were empowered to know that they can stop the victimizers and be the survivors and the triumphant ones.

Q: Do you see changes today that came from the Young Lords?

The community changes that I've seen that the Young Lords helped initiate: There are breakfast programs in the city schools where there weren't any; there's lead testing citywide, and there's also TB testing citywide where we had to fight to get it done before. There's drug programs and the Lincoln hospital drug program...takes a holistic approach to drug treatment. That would never have happened there.

There is and there will be a sense of pride as a people. The thing is Puerto Ricans, they lost their culture while being here. They had no idea who they were and they didn't feel like they belonged. They didn't feel like the belonged with the Anglo-Saxon whites, they didn't feel like they belonged with the African Americans. And they weren't accepted easily. The African Americans were afraid they'd lose their jobs to cheaper labor and the Anglo Saxon whites said "You know, these foreigners don't need to come here, we don't need to support them." And we have an identity now, we have people running for office...

Q: And that would never have been true before?

I wouldn't say it would never have been true, because you know wherever you have oppression there's going to be resistance and people will develop organizations, whether it's a Puerto Rican-based organization such as the Young Lords, or another organization would have developed out of the misery.

We managed to make that history and that we have left something for the youth to look at and know. Had we not been a success, we would not have been attacked as heavily as we were.

The biggest threat is that when you have knowledge of what your rights are and you understand what your role is, and you're not escaping that through drugs, alcohol, religion, any other form of escape, then you can move in a direction to solve the problems that are effecting you.

That's I think the biggest threat that this government has, that people talk about the reality and find solutions to it. And the Young Lords initiated that. They initiated that dialog. Who are we as Puerto Ricans? What is our role here in this country? What do we need to do? And is it just us the Puerto Ricans? No. It's all the working people and they're multinational. It's not about race. That's the other very progressive stand that we took as the Young Lords is that we realized it's not about race, it's about class. And the class is multinational. And even in our platform and program we said that the biggest and most profound work that we can do is to fight for a movement that liberates humankind, the human race. So we struggled for women's rights and against machismo, we struggled for human rights against racism and all the other isms.

Q: What would you say to youth who didn't go through that experience and are looking for a way to make a change?

They don't have to repeat history. They can pick up on some of the stories and work that we have done. The "Palante!" documentary is very helpful in showing the youth what it is that we did and where they can follow. There's a Palante photo book that talks about the Young Lords platform, they can refer to that. And they can refer to the other literature and books of people who have struggled before and learned from direct experience and they can pick up from there.

I think it's very important if you really want to organize and do something in the interests of the people, that you struggle with your own self. In this society we're taught competition, but the only real competition we need to have is with the negative side of our own selves. The idea of power and greed goes against the idea of cooperation and community; the idea of individuals as opposed to the family and the community. I mean, it's nice to know that you're an individual and that you have special qualities, but you are not an individual in and of yourself, you are an individual because you developed qualities from your parents, your grandparents, you were nurtured by them. And that's what we lose sight of, that we have to be a community as well understand our individuality. When we set one against the other we're dehumanizing ourselves.

So I think it's important to do that, to do the internal transformation. I look at religious teachings, "Thou shall not steal" and "Thou shalt not kill" and I look at what I learned from Mao Tse-Tung's red book that you shouldn't gossip and you should be hard working and forthright. What I get from all of that is that I need to keep me in check. If I keep me in check I hope to teach other people the better side of me and through my speaking or my deeds I'm being a positive example.

Our people need to understand, working class people are very much suffering today, they're deeply suffering alienation from themselves and from each other. And in that alienation there's a lot of substance abuse, there's a lot of drinking, a lot of Nintendo gaming and movie watching and smoking grass and doing dope and cocaine, sexing it up. And they're not understanding that for the moment you're escaping yourself, but wherever you go you're taking yourself.

You need to be proud that you're working class, you need to be proud that you're a person who sustains yourself with your sweat and labor. And if you're unemployed, don't own it. If you're unemployed, because there's a lot of downsizing and attrition being implemented, you are not the problem.

We need to know how to use the electoral machinery and the constitution. If we don't put pressure on the people who are supposed to represent us, they will not represent us. We don't have a lot of funds to give them to buy them, but we are greater in number. And if we put pressure in that way, they are forced, by virtue of the fact that we're going to be out there in droves voting against them, they're forced to do something even if it's a compromise.

[For example] the Republican party is now reevaluating their line that there will be only English spoken because they are losing the Hispanic vote. And now they're going to say "English plus" because they don't want to lose power. But who puts them in that arena of power? It's the very people they undermine and look down upon, the working class person.

The working class person is multinational, is suffering, is in fear, unstable, feeling very insecure today. And we don't need to be going through all of that, if we just come together and understand that we are greater in number. We don't have to be the victims.

And it's true that it's hard to do extra work when you come home from a long eight hour shift and you're very exhausted and you can't get your mind off of how do you survive to the next day, and make sure that your children get an education so that they won't have to slave the way you're slaving. It's very hard. But we have to do it because we have no other recourse. It'd be a lot less hard if everybody did a little part.

So I'm hopeful that people will become aware, learn from the history of the Young Lords, and take it on from there. I'm very proud of my personal history because I would not be who I am today if I had not experienced [The Young Lords]. ...

I'd rather have a hard life and know I'm doing something to change it than have a hard life and know I'm standing still and doing nothing. The helplessness and hopelessness is sometimes overwhelming. And I don't want it. So I may feel sometimes that I'm rushed and running and tired, but I'm not hopeless. As long as I stay active, there's hope.

Q: What do you think is the next step for the movement?

I'd like to see the working people come together and create their own party.

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