LINCOLN PARK — When Professor Jacqueline Lazú started teaching at DePaul University 20 years ago, she wasn’t aware of the rich Puerto Rican history behind her office building.
A researcher of Latinx social movements, Lazú’s office was in McGaw Hall, a library building that was attached to the university’s School of Music building until McGaw’s demolition in 2016. What she didn’t know was the School of Music building her office was attached to was once the site of a week-long occupation by members of the Young Lords, a street gang-turned-social movement that was protesting gentrification and displacement in the neighborhood.
“So I was right there, as a Puerto Rican faculty member and scholar, feeling shocked to learn my building had this rich history,” Lazú said. “And I realized at that point it was a problem I didn’t know that.”
Under Lazú’s leadership, DePaul took steps toward commemorating that history by unveiling plans Monday to decorate the stone building at 804 W. Belden Ave. with a plaque honoring the Young Lords’ history on the campus.
The event, which included remarks by several Young Lords members and music from a Puerto Rican Bomba group, was also a celebration of the social movement’s 55th anniversary. It also marked El Grito de Lares, the Sept. 23 holiday marking the first major revolt against Spanish rule in Puerto Rico.
The plaque, expected to be installed in the spring, is a step toward “institutional reconciliation and repairing history,” Lazú said.
“It’s amongst the most special gestures I’ve been able to witness in my time here,” Lazú said.
The Gentrification Of Lincoln Park And Occupation Of The Music Building
The Young Lords staged the occupation of what’s now the School of Music Building in 1969 to protest the urban renewal policies pushing Puerto Rican people out of Lincoln Park.
The neighborhood became home to one of Chicago’s first Puerto Rican barrios in the 1960s, Lazú said. The Puerto Rican community settled in the west and northwest sides of Lincoln Park, near what’s now DePaul University’s campus.
“It was a really important first stop for the first wave of migration from Puerto Rico into the city of Chicago, and it was special because they really built roots and a social fabric there,” Lazú said. “There were businesses and a thriving community, but what they didn’t know was there was this Central Area Plan that would uproot the community very quickly.”
The Central Area Plan, issued in 1958 by the city and implemented in the 1970s, sought to transform parts of the city close to Downtown through urban renewal.
That plan pushed the Puerto Rican community out of Lincoln Park in favor of a more gentrified community, Lazú said.
“But before that, this incredible movement grew out of it,” Lazú said. “The Young Lords had first organized as a street gang but around 1968, primarily through the leadership of Chairman José “Cha Cha” Jimenez, they became a national political organization.”
On May 15, 1969, 10 days after the assassination of Young Lord Manuel Ramos, the Young Lords convened a group of community organizations under the banner of the Poor People’s Coalition and took over the the School of Music building, which at the time was the administrative offices for McCormick Theological Seminary.
The coalition demanded the university and its seminary invest in low-income housing, a Puerto Rican cultural center, a daycare and a leadership program for the communities being pushed out of the neighborhood.
From the five-day occupation, the Young Lords won many of their demands, including seed money for two free health clinics, funds to support the People’s Law office, which still operates today, and $650,000 to be invested by the seminary in low-income housing, Lazú said.
Although the Young Lords ultimately lost their battle against gentrification in Lincoln Park, the action was “an important gesture of resistance” that inspired Young Lords chapters in New York and lifted the group to a national organization, Lazú said.
“From that point on, everybody knew who the Young Lords were, and this became a protracted movement,” Lazú said. “It was the entryway into the Civil Rights movement for Puerto Rican people and to this day, it holds a lot of symbolic power.”
A New Era Of Young Lords
The commemorative plaque builds on Lazú’s decades of research at DePaul since 2001, when the university received a collection of newspaper clippings, photographs and protest flyers from the Young Lords’ active years.
Lazú, who moonlights as a playwright, first engaged with the collection by using it to write a play about the Young Lords’ history in Chicago, she said.
She’s also hosted talks on the Young Lords history, including a 50th anniversary panel with Jimenez and Oscar Lopez Rivera, a former political prisoner and Puerto Rican activist, Lazú said.
Lazú is currently working on two books about the Young Lords, including an anthology with Jimenez and a monograph that will be the first history of the Young Lords in Chicago, she said.
Lazú also hopes to continue expanding her focus on the women of the Young Lords movement. She recently collaborated on an exhibition, named “Encendidas: Women of the Young Lords,” at the Honeycomb Network in Humboldt Park that shared personal photos and newspapers to share the women’s stories.
“It’s one of the most special things I’ve done because if the Young Lords of Chicago were neglected and marginalized, the women were even more marginalized,” Lazú said.
A new wave of Puerto Rican activists also come out of the movement, Lazú said. The New Era Young Lords formed a few years ago as a way to honor the movement’s legacy and pick up the torch.
Paul Mireles, a DePaul student and chairman of the Chicago Chapter of the New Era Young Lords, said it’s important to honor the group’s contributions and sacrifices while continuing to stand against oppression.
“It’s crucial to recognize the weight of this history,” Mireles said. “This building we’re honoring, for example, bared witness to the displacement and struggle of an entire community, and this marker signifies the initial step in remembering that community, acknowledging that struggle and honoring those who dared to stand up for their people.”
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