Garbage Fires for Freedom: When Puerto Rican Activists Took Over New York’s Streets


“Hiram Maristany laughs when I call to ask him about the famous Garbage Offensive. ‘Like so many things with the Young Lords, you got to go backward to go forward,’ he says as the sounds of East Harlem rise around him: kids yelling, the cackling bochinche of old ladies, the heavy sighs and squealing brakes of the M103 bus. Mr. Maristany is talking about the summer of 1969, when he was a teenager taking photos of his friends and neighbors, black-and-white images that captured joy amid the challenges of life in Spanish Harlem, and would one day, many years later, grace the walls of the Smithsonian. His pictures of proud, angry, exuberant young Puerto Ricans taking over Third Avenue as flames rose from a barricade made of trash became emblematic of a global outcry from young people who were finding a voice for their rage as the ’60s drew to a close. I saw the photos decades later, and for me and so many others working in the nonprofit world in the early 2000s, those images spoke of a movement that refused to ask permission or wait for grant money, one truly invested in its own freedom. Like Fred Hampton, the Black Panthers leader who would be killed by the police later that year at age 21, Mr. Maristany and his fellow activists were young. He taught a photo workshop on 117th Street, and at 18 he was considered one of the elders in his cohort. Inspired by the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers, the youth of East Harlem were starting to think of themselves in terms of revolutionary political movements. ‘It was a real awakening to find someone was standing up, because we were getting our asses kicked,’ Mr. Maristany tells me. ‘We became very aware that we were colonized.’ But it was another radical group of Puerto Ricans who finally gave them a sense of how to organize themselves. In Chicago, a former street gang called the Young Lords had recast itself in the mold of the Panthers, with tactics both militant and community-based. The Lords set up a dental clinic and a day care center; their outlook was both global and local. They demanded independence for Puerto Rico and an end to the Vietnam War, and fought for equity in resource allocation, demonstrating at urban renewal meetings. When they heard of what the Lords were up to in Chicago, Mr. Maristany and a few others got in the car, drove to the Midwest, secured permission to start a New York chapter and turned immediately back around to begin organizing. …”
NY Times


About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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