Power to the People: An Interview with Paul Ortiz and Johanna Fernandez

Photo: Black Lives Matter, (Wikimedia Commons)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. Although COVID-19 interrupted the CBFS program for this season, CBFS presents this timely interview to share with our readers in lieu of the in-person discussion. 

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies: Can you each tell us a bit about your book and how you came to write this history?

Paul Ortiz: I wrote An African American and Latinx History of the United States to create what activist scholar Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez calls a “New Origin Narrative” of US history. The idea is to place the Black Freedom Struggle with Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center of US History from 1776 to the present. This book is rooted in my upbringing as a Chicano working class kid growing up in the era of White Backlash as well as my experiences deploying to Central America in the 1980s as a soldier with US Special Forces. These experiences gave me a first-hand understanding of racial capitalism, imperialism, and the fraudulence of the ideology of “American exceptionalism.”

Chicanos, African Americans, and Asian Americans caught hell in the East Bay where I lived in the mid-1970s. There were running battles in the streets as powerful developers and homeowner associations sought to keep cities east of Oakland as white as possible. Early on, I learned about the unity of oppression, the importance of solidarity, and how corrupt and chaotic US society is to working class people especially. 

The ways that I have interpreted my own experiences in the labor movement have determined my approach in thinking of US History as a narrative where slaves, agricultural workers, and immigrant laborers are the central protagonists of the story. This gives me the capacity to explain major events in modern American history from a different vantage point than traditional, Eurocentric perspectives. For example, in the last chapter of the book, I argue that the struggles of Latinx and immigrant workers to unionize in Las Vegas, Nevada in the 1990s are decisive in the election of Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States two decades later.  

Johanna Fernandez: I’ve written a history of the rise and fall of the Young Lords, the radical sixties organization led predominantly by poor and working-class Puerto Rican youth in Chicago and New York. It consciously fashioned itself after the Black Panther Party (BPP). The group formed part of the New Left — the political, cultural and intellectual movement that ended racial segregation, made racism and sexism unpopular, and transformed the socio-political standing of people of color and women in the US. The New Left also challenged hetero-normativity and made the questioning of foreign policy acceptable in US society. 

The Young Lords called themselves revolutionary nationalists and socialists. They are important for exposing the United States’ quiet colonial project in Puerto Rico and for building the socialist tradition in poor and working-class neighborhoods in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and beyond, where Puerto Ricans and Black Americans settled in large numbers after World War II. The book amplifies political currents and ideas that fueled the Young Lords’ work, such as Third World Socialism, Marxism, revolutionary nationalism, the Lumpen Thesis, and the colonized mentality. It also analyzes their dramatic, smart, even humorous neighborhood campaigns, strategic use of media, and class-based approaches to organizing against oppression and inequality. The book shows how and why certain issues became focal points of Young Lords and Black Panther activity, including healthcare-for-profit, public health, permanent unemployment, prisons, housing, and dilapidated neighborhoods. 

My interest in the Young Lords is rooted in my personal history. I have long felt echoes of my own experience and self-definition in theirs. I’m a Bronx-born child of small town, non-English speaking, working class immigrants from the Dominican Republic, part of a larger wave that settled here in the late 1960s following the US military campaign and occupation of the island in 1965. Like the children of NAFTA, who migrated from Mexico and other parts of the Caribbean and Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, the Young Lords were the sons and daughters of a vast migration from Puerto Rico fueled by US-led economic policy called Operation Bootstrap. They came to cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Their history inspires because they gave their generation the language and analysis to make sense of the trauma produced by large-scale U.S. economic and political forces that massively displaced their parents from their homeland.

CBFS: Can you share a story of a particular campaign or a figure from your book that our readers might not be familiar with?

PO: In the immediate wake of the end of the US Civil War, African Americans decided that emancipation in one country was not enough. When the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison proposed to close down the American Anti-Slavery Society, The Christian Recorder, the national journal of the African Methodist Episcopal church dissented: “Although we love Mr. Garrison as much as ever, and feel that he will work as faithfully in our cause as ever, we by no means endorse his opinion that the Anti-Slavery Society should be disbanded…Disband the Anti-Slavery Society when Cuba, with over half a million of slaves lies at our gates! Disband the Anti-Slavery Society when Maximilian’s government may be permanent, and be made slaveholding…when Brazil still sells human flesh, and old Spain Countenances the trans-Atlantic traffic! It may be said ‘These are out of the United States.’ But these men—slaves, are our brothers.” African Americans subsequently organized a nationwide campaign to provide support for the Cuban War of Independence as well as the abolition of slavery throughout the world. This is one of the great moments of emancipatory internationalism in the Americas. 

Each chapter of the book is organized around a historical question. Starting from my first chapter, “The Haitian Revolution and the Birth of Emancipatory Internationalism,” the goal is to establish Black Internationalism and racial capitalism as dueling central themes of US history. I demonstrate that the Haitian Revolution becomes a model and a beacon of liberty for the great Wars of Independence in Latin America as well as nearly all of the early slave revolts in North America. 

JF: Inspired by the Cuban Revolution’s advances in health, the Young Lord asserted that the struggle for human liberation is most significant when we are most vulnerable and most human— when we are sick. To that end, a disproportionate number of the Young Lords’ campaigns focused on the harrowing consequences of a for-profit health care system. To dramatize the crisis of health among Puerto Ricans and Black Americans, the Young Lords rented a U-Haul, packed approximately 100 of their members in it, disembarked at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx early one morning, and barricaded the entrances of one of its buildings. Their occupation had the support of hospital workers —with whom they’d earlier set up an ER complaint table — and had the blessing of a newly recruited, radical flank of medical interns and residents at Lincoln. On the inside they held a press conference, exposed conditions, and impugned government and the city’s for-profit medical empires.

They also put forth a new vision for humane healthcare outlined in their 10 Point Health Program, which included an end to all fees (also known as free healthcare for all), the prevention of disease in the practice of medicine, the decentralization of medical care through the creation of neighborhood clinics, the appointment of health officers on every block, door-to-door medical visits that prioritize prenatal care, children’s health, treatment of substance abuse, and care of the elderly. They also upheld the centrality of public health education and detailed the health hazards of social inequality including “poor sanitation, rats, poor housing, malnutrition, police brutality, pollution, and other forms of oppression.” At Lincoln they created one of the principle acupuncture drug treatment centers in the western world, and drafted the first-known patient bill of rights in collaboration with hospital workers and medical staff. They also pressured the city to begin construction of the new hospital building promised ten years earlier, among other victories.

CBFS: Considering the continuing fight for Black freedom today, the need for coalition building and uniting struggles to win, how does this history help us understand or even act in our current moment?

PO: The alliances that African Americans as well as people in Latin America and the Caribbean have created during struggles such as the Mexican War of Independence, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, as well as the General Strike of 2006, all provide case studies in self-activity, solidarity, and movement organizing designed to create what the Industrial Workers of the World called “a new world in the shell of the old.” We need this history more than ever during this time of global crisis! The book is also rooted in my experiences in classrooms and organizing workshops. So many of the first-generation college students, immigrants, and middle-age adults that I work with lament that they do not see themselves, their families, or their ancestors in American history texts. That’s wrong, and as intellectuals, we need to challenge this.

JF: We can learn much about coalition building from the Young Lords. The Young Lords are important for showing how defying social taboos is integral to building movements. The group denounced the denial of anti-Black racism in Puerto Rico and Latin America, and theorized its root causes. They challenged their parents’ attempts to sever, in the public sphere, any associations between Puerto Ricans and Black Americans. The book explores these themes and analyzes the structural conditions and political orientation that allowed the Young Lords to build a profoundly multiethnic movement: approximately 25 percent of their members were Black American, and between 5 and 8 percent were non–Puerto Rican Latinxs, among them Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Panamanians, and Colombians. The women of the group exposed machismo, the oppressive character of the nuclear family, and the virginal discourse of the church. And like other radicals, they theorized intersectionality before it became a cause de jure, but grounded their analysis in a structural critique of the family, capitalism, and colonialism.

They combined their evangelical commitment to human liberation, with disciplined organization, political education, and a structural analysis of social problems. Their militant and grassroots organizing was designed to paralyze business as usual. They articulated, in clear and compelling terms, what the new society would offer. And importantly, they devised a sophisticated media strategy connected to direct action. Internationalism and political solidarity with Black American revolutionaries and poor and working class people of all races allowed them to speak to broader audiences. And, thankfully, they led with humor, humility, honesty, and creativity.

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