My Personal Experience With This Corner
In 1970, I was 18-years-old and had just graduated from Aviation high school. I was beginning to learn a lot about my Puerto Rican roots, something I was never taught in school. I was learning about Puerto Rico, an island that I was born in, but had left when I was four-years-old when my family came to the streets of the South Bronx.
Growing up poor and in the streets with a single parent was not easy, but I thought that was how everybody lived. It was not until I picked up a flyer on my way home from a military camp in Staten Island that read, "FREE PUERTO RICO NOW" with a picture of an AK-47 assault rifle that I had seen the word, "PUERTO RICO" written anywhere in public. That was a Young Lord flyer that was being handed out at the bus terminal. They were also selling and, in my case, giving away a newspaper called, PALANTE.
I read the newspaper on my long subway ride up to the Bronx and was immediately converted and wanted to learn more about this organization.
That was how I became involved with the Young Lords on Longwood Avenue in the South Bronx. I have many other stories about my involvement with the Young Lords delivering the newspaper to different locations, selling the paper and helping to do work organizing on my block, Cauldwell Avenue where we did TB testing and other community work. However, I will leave those stories for another time and place.
Today, I want to share the experience of the armed church takeover that I was somehow involved in without any knowledge of what I was getting into. That was one major experience that has stayed with me forever.
On that day, I was in the church on 111th Street and Lexington Avenue for a rally protesting the death of another Young Lord, Julio Roldan, who was arrested and then found dead in his cell -- supposedly, he hung himself. No one believed that story and the rally at the church was the culmination of a march that we had throughout the streets of El Barrio.
Suddenly, after the speeches from many of the Young Lord leaders of the time, they stated that they were going to take over the church and that anybody that was not "down" should leave. I was too young and naïve to know what was about to take place. Since I was what they called a "lord in training," meaning a new recruit I had no clue that those that stayed were going to participate in an armed take over. I wanted to fit in, so staying was an easy decision. Besides with no brothers and sisters and only one parent who was always working, I was always in the streets. No one was going to miss me at home.
The next thing I knew was that I was assigned to go with another brother (who I did not know) to guard the side entrance door on 111th St. Once we got to our post, he was given a rifle and told "No one comes in through that door."
When I saw that rifle in that brothers hand I went into immediate panic mode. However, I could not show my true feelings of wanting to get out of their ASAP. I was a street kid and had seen many shootings in my hood and have had bullets wisss by me, but never because of me holding a gun. The majority of the times that I had experience a shootout, or saw a gun was as a bystander on a street corner, or running from police, or street shootout. But here I was in a church with a guy holding a gun that made him feel as if that was his mission in life, to possibly die shooting a "pig" (that's what police were called in those days) trying to get into the church through this side door.
If I had left the religious teachings of my catholic faith, boy did I quickly become a born again catholic as I began to silently pray for God to protect me from what was about to happen. I also remember praying a special prayer that my father had taught me to recite every time that I was in trouble, or needed protection. It's strange how the brain can remember certain forgotten things at a time of impending crisis.
At about 3 a.m. someone did try to get in and rattled the chains that were rapped around the door. Both of us jumped up and my partner immediately pointed the rifle to the door and said to me that if he was shot, that I should pick up the rifle and shoot any pig that tried to get in. That was what he was saying, but that was not what my brain was registering. My brain was quickly reciting my father's prayer again and trying to find a way for me to deal with wanting to run, but I had to stay and not appear that I abandoned my post, something that could be worst and that would never be forgotten.
Luckily the rattling stopped, my partner lowered his rifle and we both just sat there until morning and I could not wait for the sun to shine so that I could get out of this situation that I had never intended to be in. Morning came, we were fed breakfast and a change of guards took place and that is when I took the opportunity to go home and face my father with a story of why I had not slept in my room.
That was my short experience with the church on 111th Street and Lexington Avenue that I had never visited again until Saturday July 26, 2014 when I was there, in that same block for the renaming of the street corner, "Young Lords Way."
I was there with my wife, some, friends and my oldest grandson, Julian. For me this was like putting closure to an extreme experience that perhaps could have taken me out of this life at the age of 18. However, it did not and perhaps can give a new beginning to many young people today that action has to sometimes be risky and go beyond Twitter and Facebook and Instagram.