The Origins of the Young Lords Organization

The Chicago Young Lords, founders of this Latino movement, were the sons and daughters of the first Puerto Rican immigrants. They successfully built a national grassroots movement for self-determination within the Barrios of the United States. It all began when Mayor Richard J.Daley decided to create an inner city suburb in Lincoln Park and, in the process, displaced the entire neighborhood of the first Puerto Ricans.

Jose (Cha-Cha) Jimenez was one of seven founders of the Young Lords street gang and the founder of the Young Lords as a national human rights movement. The original members were Orlando Davila the founder;  David Rivera; Fermin Perez; Benny Perez; Angel Del Rivero and Joe Vincente.

Cha-Cha was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico, of country mountain folk or Jíbaro parents on Aug.8,1948. His father brought the family to the mainland when he was two, and while he worked as a “Tomatero” or migrant farmworker, from 1946 until 1950 for Andy Voy Farms (Campbell Soups), near Concord, Massachusetts. They moved to Chicago where his father worked 16 years as a meatpacker while they lived near downtown at Chicago’s dilapidated Water Hotel, on Superior and LaSalle streets. This semi-skid row area, from Ohio to North Avenue along LaSalle, Wells and Clark Streets became known as “La Clark”

When Mayor Richard J. Daley first took office in 1955, expanding downtown became his campaign program. It soon became the Chicago 21 Plan. By 1957, all of the La Clark community had fallen victim to the Urban Renwal wrecking ball.  

 Puerto Ricans were then  pushed to the Wicker Park or Lincoln Park neighborhoods. Lincoln Park was seen as a move up, divided between the affluent “gold coast” on the east, along the lake and the white working class section, on the west. However, the displacements from La Clark and La Madison and subsequent relocation into Wicker Park and Lincoln Park also led to tensions among residents. 

Lincoln Park became inundated with white street gang youth. It was where the mostly Puerto Rican Young Lords gang originated in 1959, for protection and “respeto.”  Jose (Cha-Cha) Jimenez, whose residence was a block from Orlando’s but who practically lived in juvenile homes (with other Young Lords, for gang related offenses) was elected president in 1964 after several presidents since the first president; Joe Vincente.  Jimenez frequented jail, now more often due to drug related offenses. In the summer of 1968, he was picked up for a possession of heroin charge and given a 60-day sentence at Cook County Jail.

An opposing black gang in jail told guards that Jimenez and five other Latinos were planning an escape. All were questioned, strip-searched and transferred to Maximum Security or “the hole.” Jimenez started reading The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton, about a Franciscan monk; then about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Black Nationalism and the organizing of the Black Panthers for self defense.

These experiences made a secluded and captive Cha-Cha Jimenez realize a need to fight for social justice. He was determined to duplicate a Black Panther Party for self defense, within the Puerto Rican and Latino communities. It was now also his intention to give up useless gang fighting and time consuming drugs in order to devote all of his time to this new People’s Movement.

During this same period, the Puerto Rican section of Lincoln Park was being stripped of all city services to the poor. The Trina Davila Urban Progress Center was being relocated from the Armitage Avenue Methodist Church (later Young Lord’s People’s Church and their national headquarters) in Lincoln Park, to the Humboldt Park neighborhood. 

Mayor Richard J. Daley wanted a new inner city suburb in Lincoln Park.  Rents increased 400 percent within only one month’s time. Churches, hospitals, police and fire houses were being expanded or renovated or new ones built for the new returning suburban white flight which fled when the poor and minorities moved into Lincoln Park. This biased housing plan was the main part of the Chicago city sponsored master plan. Entire city blocks were bought up by conglomerate developers furiously feasting, on a modern day land grab.

On Armitage Avenue between Fremont and Bissell streets, three real estate offices opened up for business on the same city block, about the same time. Homes of Puerto Ricans and the poor were targeted and pirated for pennies by these and other real estate agents, working directly with investors and city developers. 

Pat Devine and Dick Vision of Concerned Citizen’s of Lincoln Park asked Cha-Cha Jimenez to bring Puerto Ricans to the Department of Urban Renewal Council Meetings, in early September 1968.This council then consisted of about 15 upper class Caucasians. Most were connected to the Lincoln Park Conservation Association.

The Young Lords did not sit down for the meeting. Instead they faced the stage forming a U-shape around and behind the attendees, and without neither verbal nor physical threats to those present; they took over the meeting. Cha-Cha Jimenez quickly adjourned this meeting, informing everyone that no more Urban Renewal Community Conservation Council meetings would be permitted within Lincoln Park, until there was, “Black, Latino, and Poor White representation.”

Everyone left the meeting, but not before this group of youth became angry and “trashed” the place. That night all of the youth got away. Two days later, Jimenez was picked up on the corner for questioning and then arrested, only after police discovered two old warrants for disorderly conduct (or talking and loitering on street corners).

The following six weeks saw Cha-Cha Jimenez being arrested and indicted a total of 18 times as Young Lords transformed themselves into internationalist revolutionary members of a People’s Movement.

They began to organize more community actions and programs, including demonstrations for: welfare rights, women’s rights, against police brutality, and for self determination for Puerto Rico and other Latin American Nations.

Young Lords Oranization

In 1969, Manuel Rabago of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party invited and traveled together with Cha-Cha Jimenez to Puerto Rico to visit the shrine of Nationalist leader, Don Pedro Albizu Campos. Cha-Cha Jimenez also met Blanca Canales, Don Juan Antonio Corretjer, Juan Mari Bras, Ruben Berrios, FUPI activists, Macheteros and other Puerto Rican compatriots and leaders, and marched with them, during
a rainy day in Lares, Puerto Rico, in 1969.

Earlier that March 21, 1969, Young Lords participated with Manuel Rabago in a Chicago radio program, on the Raul Cardona Show, commemorating the victims of the “Massacre de Ponce”. This massacre took place in Puerto Rico on March 21,1937. Police shot with machine guns into a peaceful demonstration, led and organized by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, to promote Puerto Rican independence and protest the continuous harassment and incarceration of Puerto Rican independence leader, Don Pedro Albizu Campos Ph.D. The Puerto Rican police under the direct guidance of the United States, on that day, killed 19 and wounded 100 Puerto Rican protesters.

In June, 1969, the Young Lords dressed up in the Nationalist uniform (in black shirts and white pants) and marched in support with the nationalists, in Chicago’s Puerto Rican parade. 10,000 People led by Young Lords marched and carried Don Pedro Albizu Campos signs – several miles, from Lincoln Park to Humboldt Park – in the summer of 1969.

These Young Lord protests, were the first marches for Puerto Rican self determination, in Chicago’s history. This was after the Young Lords were asked by Chairman Fred Hampton to join in a coalition of three groups: Young Lords, Black Panthers and Young Patriots called the Rainbow Coalition. This coalition’s purpose was more akin to an equal alliance of already proactive groups. The mission was therefore for each group to organize within their own communities as well as to expand the Rainbow Coalition to other diverse neighborhoods and communities. 

Later both RYM 1 and RYM 2  ( Revolutionary Youth Movement) of S.D.S. (Students for a Democratic Society) joined. They were then followed locally by Rising Up Angry and by other groups such as the Brown Berets, Black Berets, Crusade for Justice, MeCha etc.

Original Actions

The Young Lords held protest demonstrations in front of real estate offices; a sit in atGrant Hospital and threatened another at Augustana Hospital demanding that they stop turning away the poor, now being referred by the Young Lords’ Emeterio Betances Free Health Clinic. Three hundred and fifty persons camped out on vacant land, where Puerto Ricans once lived, at the corner of Halsted and Armitage to halt construction of a one block, indoor tennis court which had a proposed membership of $1000 per year.

The Young Lords joined welfare recipients and LADO (Latin American Defense Organization), Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers and activist Maria Porrata (later of the West Town Concerned Citizens Coalition) and together sat in at the Wicker Park Welfare Office, twice. Their demands included a formation of a union for caseworkers and dignified service for welfare recipients. Cha-Cha Jimenez, Obed Lopez and Fred Hampton were all three arrested for mob action at both of these demonstrations.

Architect Howard Alan invited and brought the world renowned architect, Buckminister Fuller, to the People’s Church to meet with Cha-Cha Jimenez and the Young Lords. Soon after the Young Lords and the Poor People’s Coalition of Lincoln Park hired Howard Alan to draw up architectural plans for a multi unit affordable housing complex. The former head of the Department of Urban Renewal; Mr.Ira Bach supported the Poor People’s Plan. However, the plans were rejected by Mayor Daley’s city council. The Young Lords asked the congregation of the Armitage Ave UMC to rent space for: a free day care center,  a free dental and health clinic, a Puerto Rican cultural center, and a free breakfast for children program.

When negotiations led by Cuban American Luis Cuza broke down the Young Lords, Luis Chavez, a Young Lord of Mexican descent and Field Marshall David Rivera led the small group of Young Lords gathered outside of the meeting, and seized the church.

Luis Chavez then signaled from a window to Cha-Cha Jimenez, who was standing outside talking with Pastor Bruce Johnson and let him know that the takeover was complete. The congregation immediately called the police and the church was surrounded with police SWAT teams. To prevent a bloody confrontation, Rev. Bruce Johnson told the police that he had given the Young Lords permission to be inside the Church. By now the Lincoln Park streets near the area were filled with Latinos and the poor. The police fearing a riot, assessed the situation, and wisely chose not to attempt to enter the church.

The very next day, the Armitage Avenue United Methodist Church name was changed by the Young Lords and the remaining congregation to the People’s Church. The Programs were immediately instituted.

When Jose “Pancho” Lind was beaten to death because of his dark skin by a white gang, the Young  Lords marched to the police station that would not arrest the white gang members. They also did this when Manuel Ramos was shot dead by off duty policeman James Lamb to no avail.

Repression was stiff and the entire central committee was forced underground. The Young Lords National Office resurfaced from being underground in Chicago on December 4, 1972. This was the anniversary of the predawn raid where Chairman Fred Hampton was killed by police. The fugitive, Cha-Cha Jimenez walked into the Town Hall District Police Station to begin serving one year and to face the seventeen remaining felony charges. Cha-Cha Jimenez was greeted in below zero weather by five hundred demonstrators. He quietly got out of a cab and walked inconspicuously into the crowd, and was able to shake hands with a few People, before the police could grab him.

In 1973, Jimenez became the first announced Latino aldermanic candidate to publicly oppose the much feared “Daley Machine”. By February, 1975, Jimenez received 39% of the 51% needed to win, in an area where only 1000 Latinos were registered to vote. This was achieved with a coalition of the Independent Precinct Organization and the Intercommunal Survival Front, headed by the now Rev. Walter (Slim) Coleman.

Cha- Cha was arrested for supporting the F.A.L.N. upon their arrest. He had to remain in jail 9 months because his bond was too steep. He won the charges as they were dropped due to no evidence nor witnesses. A few years later in the fall of 1982 he re-organized the Young Lords and they became the first Latino organization to endorsed Harold Washington’s campaign for Mayor and he became the Northside Precinct Coordinator. As soon as the first African American mayor won, Cha-Cha was the only won on stage introducing him before a crowd of 100,000 Puerto Ricans in Humboldt Park.