The Puerto Rican struggle for self-determination has gone through many different forms. In the 1970s, one of the most visible organizations committed to the goal was the Chicago-based Young Lords. Modeling themselves after the Black Panthers, the Lords grew to a significant size and influence. Much like the Panthers, they had to quickly decide on the class orientation of their fight for national and racial recognition. These questions of class and race continue to be central to Latino politics today.
Juan González has been an active participant in and chronicler of working-class Latino struggles since the mid-1960s. He first joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) as an undergraduate at Columbia University, where he helped lead a major student strike and occupation just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The following year, along with other local young activists, González founded the New York City branch of the Young Lords and began orienting his organizing efforts toward the needs and political potential of poor and working-class Puerto Rican and immigrant Latino communities.
Later, after years as a rank-and-file labor organizer in Philadelphia’s light manufacturing sector, González turned his attention to journalism. As a reporter, he has spent decades steadfastly covering the injustices confronting working and oppressed populations in the United States and their resistance campaigns, as well as the inner workings of powerful institutions and ruling elites. González currently teaches journalism at Rutgers University and is the cohost of Democracy Now!
González sat down with Catalyst editor René Rojas to discuss the origins of the Young Lords and their strategy of infusing class analysis and struggle into community-based fights against various forms of ethnic oppression and discrimination. The conversation addresses the political and strategic insights Young Lords activists developed, as well as the shortcomings of an overemphasis on national oppression and other perspectives that alienated the organization from the mass base they had acquired in working-class communities. González ends by linking the perils of identity-based politics to the elite interests and attitudes emerging among growing Latino professional-scholar layers in the United States.