When art meets activism

“¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York,” an exhibition at The Bronx Museum of the Arts and two Manhattan venues, is a cultural and artistic review of the group’s complex history, featuring photographs, videos, posters and publications.

Visitors to the Bronx Museum of the Arts' show Presente
Visitors at the Bronx Museum of the Arts’ show “Presente! The Young Lords of New York!”

Exhibition at Bronx Museum of the Arts highlights achievements of the Young Lords

In the late 1960s in the South Bronx, people used to joke that if you got stabbed on one side of the street, the best thing to do was to “crawl over to the other side, so the ambulance wouldn’t take you to Lincoln Hospital,” recalled CBS reporter Pablo Guzman, who grew up in the area. People called Lincoln “the butcher shop,” he said.

Then in 1976 a new hospital rose on 149th Street to replace the butcher shop. Today, after a $24 million expansion, the Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center serves the South Bronx as a well-kept facility with a modern emergency room.

Believe it or not, this transformation happened largely through the efforts of the Young Lords, a revolutionary group of Puerto Rican idealists inspired by the Black Panthers.

If you didn’t know that, “¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York,” a multi-venue exhibition at The Bronx Museum of the Arts, partnering with El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem and Loisaida Inc. on the Lower East Side, will show you how it happened. The exhibition is a cultural and artistic review of the group, and it features photographs, videos, posters and publications from the era, including the Young Lords’ newspaper, Palante (a Spanish contraction for “para adelante,” or “Forward”), a lesson in radical social activism laced with a great deal of humor.

Also in the show: vibrant and rebellious pieces by contemporary artists, some of them born years after the demise of the group in 1976, but whose work is strongly inspired by it.

It’s easy to see why. At a discussion panel with the artists, Baruch College Professor Johanna Fernández, one of the show’s curators, explained: “The Young Lords were the first group who, in collaboration with workers, doctors and nurses at Lincoln Hospital, came up with the idea of the Patient’s Bill of Rights which is now part of New York State law.”

And it certainly does not stop there.

The Young Lords took over the First Spanish Methodist Church in Harlem, and ran a free breakfast program for children. They seized an X-Ray unit truck from New York City’s Health Department to drive it closer to the community. They held a month-long protest for better sanitation, the “East Harlem Garbage Offensive,” putting garbage on blocked streets then setting it aflame.

But perhaps their most dramatic accomplishment was the takeover of Lincoln Hospital in 1970. Helped by doctors and nurses who were working at the time, in the dawn hours of July 14 dozens of Young Lords stormed in, barricaded the doors and took control of the hospital. They held a press conference listing their demands, and Pablo Guzman, who was one of the founders of New York City’s Young Lords, dressed the part: “It was kind of cool,” he remembers, “to wear a lab coat.” He also had a “big afro and shades… And I put a stethoscope around my neck and I took over the press conference.”

After 12 hours of negotiations, the group decides to stand down and exit peacefully. But City Hall got the message: The crumbling facility earned a place on the priority list, and a new Lincoln Hospital opened in 1976.

The Bronx portion of ¡Presente! draws attention to the radicalism of the Young Lords, the esthetic of their activism and how it still inspires artists today: Brooklyn-based painter Sophia Dawson shows three pieces dedicated to the “sisters” of the movement, made in collaboration with Young Lords women. French filmmaker Ceacilia Tripp’s Music for (Prepared) Bicycles, Score Two New York is a 14-minute video that takes you on a bicycle ride tracing the history of the Young Lords, riding through the streets of The Bronx, East Harlem and the Lower East Side. Machetero Air Force Ones, a customized pair of Nike sneakers by artist Miguel Luciano, plays with the idea of colonialism and globalization, as he transforms the brand’s Swoosh logo into a Machete.

Curators have reconstructed the group’s Bronx office in the lobby, and films featuring the Young Lords and their work play constantly in a separate room.

In many ways the Young Lords were ahead of their time. In the usually male-dominated world of guerrillas and revolutionary ideas, exacerbated by inborn machismo , they eventually opened the door to women and gay rights activists, as shown at the East Village portion of the show. (El Museo del Barrio’s part focuses on the group East Harlem’s activities, such as the epic Garbage protests on 3rd Avenue.)

By revisiting and reimaging the Young Lords’ era, “¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York” captures the essence of their activism through artistic expression. On display at the Bronx Museum of the Arts until October 18 (until October 17 at El Museo del Barrio and October 10 at Loisaida Inc.), the show is an important reminder of how advocacy and radicalism can bring significant social reforms to a community.

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