Puerto Rican Political Movements

In 1969, members of the growing Puerto Rican community came together with the African American community to select Kenneth Gibson as their candidate for mayor of Newark during the Black and Puerto Rican Convention. The convention supported Puerto Rican leader Ramon Aneses as a candidate for councilman at-large. He was appointed as deputy mayor by Mayor Gibson after he failed to win a seat in the 1970 election. However, the election of Gibson itself would not mark the ascent of the political visibility of Puerto Ricans; instead, it would take another violent public disturbance to do so.

In 1970, Puerto Rican people made up approximately 12 percent of the population of Newark, with most settling in the predominantly Italian North Ward. Like African American migrants to urban centers, the process of assimilation was uneven for Puerto Ricans in Newark. In the United States, where racial tension is usually understood in a binary way, between white and Black, Puerto Ricans have occupied a unique racial middle-ground. Moreover, they often faced a language barrier, and their cultural practices set them apart as well. Emphasizing that very point, in 1966 a group of eighty residents, Jose Rosario, Hilda Hidalgo, and Zain Matos, called for the formation the Field Orientation Center for the Underprivileged Spanish (FOCUS) after their own research revealed that the Spanish-speaking community was not being adequately served by the United Community Corporation (UCC), which headed the War on Poverty programs in Newark. While FOCUS was formed and granted some federal money, the amount they received, $24,000, was one-tenth of what they requested. Additionally, their repeated demands for the UCC Board of Trustees to have more representation from the Puerto Rican community and for more financial support for programs that benefited the Puerto Rican community were met with resistance by the mostly Black leadership of the UCC.

In response to a general lack of representation in the city’s social, economic, educational, and political sectors, Newark’s Puerto Rican communities continued building their own organizations for collective empowerment. In early 1969, ASPIRA was formed by a group of educators and professionals to support the development of Puerto Rican community leaders. That fall, the Young Lords established an office at 75 Park Ave. in Newark’s North Ward (now the office of La Casa de Don Pedro). Inspired by Puerto Rican traditions of anti-colonial struggle, the revolutionary nationalism of the Black Power Movement, and the militancy of the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords evolved from a street gang to a grassroots movement in Chicago to fight for self-determination in Puerto Rican communities. Young Lords organizations quickly emerged around the country, most notably in New York City. The Newark Young Lords formed in October 1969 through the leadership of Ramon Rivera, then in his early 20s.

Through Rivera, the Young Lords built relationships with Black-led organizations like Amiri Baraka’s Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN), signing a mutual defense pact against police brutality and joining the planning committee of the Black and Puerto Rican Convention. In early 1970, the Newark Young Lords began a free breakfast program for children, modeled after those operated by the Black Panther Party in cities around the country. Announcing the program in their newspaper Palante, Young Lord Juan Garcia explained: “we, the people, manage to serve the children that the congressmen promised to, that the businessmen write memos about, that the churches say prayers for, that the schools ignore. The YOUNG LORDS PARTY is not promising, writing memos, praying, or ignoring. We’re doing, and we will continue to do–HASTA LA VICTORIA!”

By 1970, the Young Lords had drawn the target of notoriously racist North Ward vigilante-turned politician Anthony Imperiale and the Newark police. During the hotly contested 1970 Newark Teachers Strike that February, the Young Lords joined with community members to help keep open McKinley Street Elementary School in the North Ward, where over half the student body was Puerto Rican. In response, then-Councilman Imperiale and his supporters reportedly showed up with dogs to intimidate students, parents, and community members while blustering that there “would not be any old lords” if the group violated a police order to leave. In early July, Imperiale’s supporters reportedly firebombed the basement of the Young Lords North Ward office and two weeks later, Newark police on horseback and motorcycles attacked Young Lords during the annual Puerto Rican Day parade. “The situation in Newark is extremely tense,” a column in Palante warned that summer. “The city is about to explode.”

Conditions came to a boiling point under the Ken Gibson Administration. On September 1st of 1974, during the annual La Fiestas Patronales when some 6,000 Puerto Ricans gathered in Branch Brook Park. La Fiestas Patronales is an annual festival celebrated in Puerto Rican communities both in Puerto Rico and abroad that honors Puerto Rican culture. An event that promotes group solidarity, the festival originated as a celebration of each town’s patron saint. As members of the Puerto Rican community played games and ate, mounted police patrolling the festival served as a constant insult and reminder of their oppression in the city. For example, Ramon Rivera had been targeted by the Newark Police Department in the early 1970s with arrests, suppression, and brutality—highlighting a broader pattern of police harassment of the Puerto Rican community. Thus, as police officers on horseback aggressively tried to break up what they believed was a dice game (but may have simply been a game of dominoes) happening at La Fiestas Patronales, a quarrel between the police and community members ended with a little girl being trampled by a horse.

As the crowd of people outraged by the violence of the police swelled, more police armed with nightsticks and shotguns gathered at the park. Although Anthony Imperiale urged the police to clear the park, which would have almost certainly led to massive bloodshed, Mayor Gibson managed to de-escalate the situation. Gibson led a march downtown with members of the Puerto Rican community and called for a delegation of leaders to meet with him at City Hall the next day to discuss plans for dealing with the situation. The next day, however, as angry demonstrators returned to City Hall, police surrounded the crowd and attacked when protestors threw rocks and bottles at the building. The ensuing rebellion would last several more days and included dozens of arrests and the police killings of two more people, Fernando de Cordova and David Perez.

Confrontations between the police and the growing crowd outside City Hall escalated, and another battle was waged inside City Hall. A delegation of leaders from the Puerto Rican community, including the Tony Perez and Jose Rosario, director and presidents (respectively) of FOCUS, Sigfredo Carrion, the leader of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, and Ramon Rivera, the former head of the Newark Young Lords, went to meet the mayor. Amiri Baraka also joined the delegation as an act of solidarity. Some Puerto Rican leaders were concerned that Baraka’s presence might shift attention away from their demands, which included housing, employment, and healthcare. During negotiations, a rift emerged between the older and younger generations of leaders. This confusion seemed to upset the mayor, who reacted to the demands of the Puerto Rican community by saying he had no control over unemployment. According to Robert Curvin, Gibson even called some of the issues the group wished to discuss “stupid.”

After the rebellion and the negotiations, many leaders in the community recognized the need to form and invest in organizations geared towards providing the services the community needed. One of these organizations, the People’s Committee Against Police Brutality and Repression, was founded by Sigfredo Carrion to address the demands of Newark’s Puerto Rican communities for police reform. In the aftermath of the rebellion, La Casa de Don Pedro, which sought to improve the living conditions of Puerto Ricans in Newark, also increased its profile.

Founded by Ramon Rivera, Alphonso Roman, and several other organizers, the services provided by La Casa de Don Pedro included creating affordable housing, employment training, providing childcare services, and healthcare services. Furthermore, disaffected by their treatment at the hands of Gibson, the Puerto Rican community was vigorously recruited by Stephen Adubato Sr. to sure up his political base in the North Ward as large portions of the Italian community moved out of the city. Over time, with the support of members of the Puerto Rican community Adubato was able to continue his growth as one of the most powerful non-elected political operatives in Newark and New Jersey. Through the support of the Adubato political machine starting in the mid-1970s, Puerto Ricans received more political jobs, appointments, and influence throughout Essex County.

Ultimately the rebellion resulted in the emergence of a more activated Puerto Rican community with more political visibility. Additionally, the rebellion helped to usher in changes to police protocol. The police officer accused of shooting Fernando de Cordova, one of the people killed during the rebellion, was acquitted. It was alleged that his identity could not be verified, even though there was a video recording of the incident. The Gibson Administration mandated that police officers wear name tags and file reports whenever they discharged their weapons. Thus, as the first term of Gibson’s tenure gave way to the second, the political activism of the Puerto Rican community of Newark grew despite their belief that “Under Gibson, we got nothing.” “The only thing that can solve your problem is that well organized, well educated community that can mobilize itself in self-defense,” Rivera later reflected on these years. “It’s people getting together and doing it. All that is done is usually done by a few people who care and take their time and have the commitment to be collective and cooperative.”

References:

Robert Curvin, Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion, and the Search for Transformation

Darrel Enck-Wanzer, The Young Lords: A Reader

Michael Knight, “Young Lords and Police Clash At Newark Puerto Rican March,” New York Times, July 20, 1970

Mark Krasovic, The Newark Frontier: Community Action in the Great Society 

Palante Digital Archives, The Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University

Ramon Rivera interview with Vivian Lanzot, October 26, 1988, Newark Public Library

Nicole Torres, “Newark’s 1974 Puerto Rican Riots Through Oral Histories”

“Hispanic Leaders Won’t Back Gibson in County Exec Race,” Star-Ledger, April 10, 1988 

Walter H. Waggoner, “Young Lords Get Newark Warning,” New York Times, February 7, 1970

Puerto Ricans in Newark (1969)

Puerto Ricans in Newark (1969)

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“Puerto Ricans in Newark (The Case and the Call For Action),” by Hilda Hidalgo, May 1969. In this report, Hidalgo analyzes the social, economic, and political conditions facing Puerto Ricans in Newark and recommends a course of action. –Credit: New Jersey Hispanic Research and Information Center

A 1994 interview with organizer and educator Hilda Hidalgo, conducted for the America’s War on Poverty documentary series on PBS. –Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

Young Lords Breakfast Program (1970)

Young Lords Breakfast Program (1970)

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A poster advertising the Young Lords Organization’s free breakfast program for children in Newark. The program was modeled after the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program. –Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Palante (July 1970)

Palante (July 1970)

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Palante, the newspaper of the Young Lords Party, July 31, 1970. See pg. 6-7 for the article “Pigs Declare Race War in Newark, N.J.!” –Credit: The Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Puerto Ricans and Police Clash

Puerto Ricans and Police Clash

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An article in the New York Times detailing the clash between police and members of the Puerto Rican community in Branch Brook park in September 1974. –Credit: The New York Times

Grizel Ubarry and Miguel Rodriguez discuss the 1974 Puerto Rican Rebellion. –Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Mayor Gibson Statement on Rebellion (1974)

Mayor Gibson Statement on Rebellion (1974)

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Draft of a statement issued by Mayor Ken Gibson on September 5, 1974 in response to the Puerto Rican Rebellion. –Credit: Newark Public Library

Explore The Archives

Clip from an oral history interview with Newark resident William Sanchez, in which he describes his memories of the 1974 Rebellion. –Credit: New Jersey Hispanic Research and Information Center

The Puerto Rican in New Jersey

The Puerto Rican in New Jersey

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A study published in the 1960s by the Newark Human Rights Commission on the experiences of the Puerto Rican community in Newark. The report also includes a map of Puerto Rican neighborhoods in the city. –Credit: Newark Public Library

F.O.C.U.S Report

F.O.C.U.S Report

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Report outling the goals and programs of Field Orientation Center for the Underprivileged Spanish (F.O.C.U.S). F.O.C.U.S was founded in 1968 to address the needs of the growing Spanish speaking coomunity in Newark. –Credit: Newark Public Library

A Black and Puerto Rican Union?

A Black and Puerto Rican Union?

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This 2018 article explores the 1969 Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention. Lauren O’Brien, “Venceremos! Harambee! A Black and Puerto Rican Union?,” New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 4, no. 1 (Winter 2018): 130-146.

Puerto Rican Day Parade (1970)

Puerto Rican Day Parade (1970)

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Four women dance on the hood of a car during the 1970 Puerto Rican Day Parade. –Credit: Newark Public Library
Palante (July 1970)

Palante (July 1970)

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Palante, the newspaper of the Young Lords Party, July 3, 1970. See pg. 9, 16 for an article on the Young Lords free breakfast program in Newark. –Credit: The Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Newark Young Lords Office (1971)

Newark Young Lords Office (1971)

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A look inside the office of the Newark Young Lords at 75 Park Avenue in 1971. –Credit: Carmelo Colon/The Puerto Ricans in Newark, NJ
Young Lords Button

Young Lords Button

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A button from the Young Lords Organization from the late 1960s or early 1970s. The button features an outline of an AK-47 gun over a Puerto Rican flag. –Credit: New Jersey Hispanic Research and Information Center
Letter from Hildago to Gibson (1972)

Letter from Hildago to Gibson (1972)

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Letter from Hilda Hidalgo to Mayor Ken Gibson, March 9, 1972, concerning the inequitable treament of Newark’s Puerto Rican community during Gibson’s administration. –Credit: New Jersey Hispanic Research and Information Center
Socio-Economic Profile of NJ

Socio-Economic Profile of NJ's Puerto Ricans (1972)

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A report titled, “Socio-Economic Profile of N.J.’s Puerto Ricans,” published by the Puerto Rican Congress of New Jersey, Inc. around 1972. –Credit: Newark Public Library
Political Inventory: The Puerto Ricans in Newark (undated)

Political Inventory: The Puerto Ricans in Newark (undated)

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An undated report titled, “Political Inventory: The Puerto Ricans in Newark,” by Hilda Hidalgo. The report offers important insights into the political issues, representation, and organizations of Newarl’s Puerto Rican communities during the 1960s-70s. –Credit: New Jersey Hispanic Research and Information Center
Black New Ark (Sept. 1973)

Black New Ark (Sept. 1973)

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Sept. 1973 edition of Black NewArk, the local newspaper of the Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN). See pg. 8 for coverage of the police beating of Ramon Rivera. –Credit: NYU Tamiment Library
Unity and Struggle (Oct. 1974)

Unity and Struggle (Oct. 1974)

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October 1974 edition of Unity and Struggle, the national newspaper of the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP). This edition includes coverage of the 1974 Puerto Rican Rebellion. — Credit: NYU Tamiment Library
Inquiry into Death of Puerto Ricans

Inquiry into Death of Puerto Ricans

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Article in the New York Times describing the effects of the 1974 Puerto Rican rebellion on the policing policies in Newark. –Credit: New York Times
Newark

Newark's 1974 Puerto Rican Riots Through Oral Histories

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This 2018 article explores the 1974 Puerto Rican Rebellion through oral histories from Sigfredo Carrion, William Sanchez, Gustav Heningburg, and Raul Davila. Nicole Torres, “Newark’s 1974 Puerto Rican Riots Through Oral Histories,” New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 4, no. 2 (Summer 2018): 212-229.
Thorough and Efficient Public School Education For Puerto Rican Children in NJ (1974)

Thorough and Efficient Public School Education For Puerto Rican Children in NJ (1974)

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A report titled “Thorough and Efficient’: Public School Education For Puerto Rican Children in New Jersey,” published by the Puerto Rican Consortium for a Thorough and Efficient Education in 1974. –Credit: Newark Public Library
Ramon Rivera at Rally

Ramon Rivera at Rally

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Community organizer Ramon Rivera stands atop a platform to address a rally in this undated photo. –Credit: La Casa de Don Pedro
NHRC Hearing on Conditions in the Hispanic Community (1976)

NHRC Hearing on Conditions in the Hispanic Community (1976)

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The conclusion of a report based on public hearings on “Conditions in the Hispanic Community,” held by the Newark Human Rights Commission on March 24, 1976. –Credit: Newark Public Library
La Casa de Don Pedro Annual Report

La Casa de Don Pedro Annual Report

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Annual report from La Casa de Don Pedro in 1990 describing the organization’s history and accomplishments. –Credit: Newark Public Library
Newark

Newark '74

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Digital copy of an exhibit, Newark ’74: Remembering the Puerto Rican Riots-An Unexamined History, done by the Newark Public Library exporing the history of the riot. –Credit: Newark Public Library
Explosion in Newark (1974)

Explosion in Newark (1974)

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An article published in the New York Post on September 7, 1974 covering the 1974 Puerto Rican Rebellion. –Credit: NYU Tamiment Library
Rain and Curfew Cool Off Newark (1974)

Rain and Curfew Cool Off Newark (1974)

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An article published in the New York Post on September 4, 1974 covering the 1974 Puerto Rican Rebellion. –Credit: NYU Tamiment Library
Article on Death of David Perez (1974)

Article on Death of David Perez (1974)

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An article published in the New York Times on September 6, 1974, covering the police killing of David Perez during the 1974 Puerto Rican Rebellion. –Credit: NYU Tamiment Library