Art, For Our Sake
By Jacqueline Lazú
It’s not just what you say, it’s often how you say it that determines the
effect it’ll have on your audience. That’s a lesson I learned as I worked my way through graduate school. Now, as a member of the most recent generation of minority junior faculty in the United States, I try to impart that concept to my students. You can use your artistic voice to express your philosophy. Your philosophy, in turn, can help propel you in whatever cause you feel is important.
In my work, this has translated to combining my interest in theatricality — particularly the images and actions that people respond to — with academic research on unwritten histories. At a very early age, I realized that I loved theater. I love to watch it, write it and perform in it. I decided that it would probably play at least some role in everything I do, whether academically or socially. I have researched and written about traditional theater practices in Puerto Rican communities. Most recently, this interest also inspired my work with the Chicago Young Lords, the 1960s street gang-turned-activists that essentially pushed forth the U.S. Puerto Rican role during the civil rights movement.
Coincidentally, DePaul University’s Richardson Library houses an extensive collection of oral histories and written documents about the activities of the Young Lords, as well as other interesting and important information about the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago, where the Young Lords were based and where the university now resides. The papers offer themselves not only as primary source historical data, but also as source material for novelesque and dramatic texts. Instinctively, I wanted to find and share the most dramatic moments of this group. With the help of a grant from the DePaul Humanities Center, as well as the support of the Center for Latino Research, I wrote a play based on the previously unexamined documents and additional interviews I conducted with former Young Lords.
In the play, “The Block/El Bloque,” I emphasize the importance of urban renewal as an issue that sparked the political mobilization of the Young Lords. Every dramatic public moment belies the intimate drama of a family that is constantly uprooted and displaced, but whose story is never told. In another layer, a writer is mentally blocked by a responsibility to find the truth about the Young Lords beneath all of the myths and legends. The writer also deals with the issues of her responsibility to her readers and her university, which is adversely related to the Young Lords. The play summarizes a personal, internal response to the interlocked forces of artistic voice, civic responsibility and institutional commitment. The play reflected my voice and vision about this important part of history.
My research on the subject included hundreds of pages of newspapers, government reports, private correspondence and court and police records. Whether taken individually or as a whole, they represent a preface to the story of the group. The research has also led to my most recent book project based on oral histories about the Young Lords. I play the role of a facilitator because I realize that the success of those with a space in popular narrative is often more in the power of storytelling than in the degree of action. Thankfully, the Young Lords do both to help me fulfill what I see as my responsibility toward the larger community.
The Young Lords foresaw a city where the poor and people of color would have no living options in the city’s East Side. While they treated the issues locally, usually at the neighborhood level, they always did so in coalition with other groups. Ironically, by emphasizing the issue of urban renewal, the Young Lords may have sealed their own anonymity in the already largely ignored history of the Puerto Rican civil rights movement. The adage is correct. The victors do indeed write the history books. But sometimes even the victories are misidentified and mislabeled. I consider it a victory for the Lincoln Park community that the story of the Young Lords is finally being told.
— Dr. Lazú is an assistant professor of modern languages at DePaul University.
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