The Revolutionary Latinx Who Brought Feminism to a 60s Leftist Group
Photo courtesy of Iris Morales


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The Revolutionary Latinx Who Brought Feminism to a 60s Leftist Group

In 1970, 22-year-old Iris Morales fought for the liberation of women in the Young Lords, a notorious Latinx leftist militant group.

A cursory Google search of the Young Lords will produce a slew of black-and-white images that hark back to the prototypical male revolutionaries of yesteryear. Modeled after the Black Panthers, the leftist militant group started by young Puerto Ricans in Chicago branched out most notably in New York and radically demanded reform in health care, education, housing, employment, and policing the late 60s through the early 80s. They staged sit-ins, had garbage-dumping protests in East Harlem, tested residential areas for lead poisoning, provided breakfast to schoolchildren, and demanded a “13 Point Program” call for an end to discrimination, police brutality, and mass incarceration.


But what is often left out of the conversation, like with one too many historical accounts, is the integral component of and indispensable contributions by women.

When the Young Lords established a branch in New York circa 1969, Iris Morales was close to entering her junior year at City College, an institution then palpably dearth of any Latino professors, Latino studies, or Latino associations. Morales grew up in New York City and was already reading Malcolm X writings from a young age; she subsequently became a tenants’ rights organizer in her neighborhood and marched to protest the Vietnam War before joining the Young Lords.

Photo by John Pedin/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

“I joined the Black student organization, faced with the choice of white or Black. That was a turning point for me,” Morales told Broadly, holding court in the very East Harlem neighborhood that raised her, a block marked by the memory of when she organized a tenant movement that would grant adequate housing to many like her.

Before the 22-year-old Morales joined the Young Lords in 1970, women served in domestic roles as cooks, clerks, the support system for men. As The New York Times reported at the time, "the strong Latin tradition known as 'machismo' created a constant need for the males to assert their masculinity" thus excluding women from social work.

A political science major, Morales held a job as a teacher at a community academy for Black and Latin education, while assembling the building blocks of the first Puerto Rican student organization on campus. Years later, she would go on to attend NYU Law School to become the first Puerto Rican to receive the Root-Tilden-Kern Program, the nation’s premier public service scholarship, and to earn her Juris Doctorate degree. She received her Master of Fine Arts in Integrated Media Arts at Hunter College, thereafter.


Photo by Meyer Liebowitz/New York Times Co./Getty

But not without literally changing the face of a revolutionary nationalist organization.

After meeting the Young Lords founder Cha Cha Jimenez at a conference in Denver, Colorado, Morales — already a budding community activist — joined the Young Lords in Harlem. “At that time, we used to say there were armchair revolutionaries that sit around and talk but don’t do anything. I was attracted to the Young Lords because they were doers; they were militant with direct action.”

Historically, the Young Lords would hold sit-ins in the places most charged with showing great humanity: at local churches and hospitals. These young militants once seized the Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx for over 12 hours, demanding a complete renovation of the medical center, a daycare facility for maternal patients, urgent priority on testing for drug addiction, and door-to-door preventative care.

Morales quickly became a leading Young Lord as an education captain, bringing forward an agenda that staunchly concerned feminism and the oppression of all women.

“I started out by tutoring the members, you know because I was already in college. Many of our members—some of them didn’t know how to read and write,” Morales said. “Eventually, I became part of the education ministry with Juan Gonzalez, who was in charge,” she explained, adding that she was also “one of the first women in the education ministry, tasked with designing all the political education classes for the community and for the members.”


Everything had to change… the language of how the brothers addressed us had to change. The caucus had to change. The curriculum had to change. We wanted women’s history included. So we had to research it because nobody had taught it to us. We learned a lot from Black feminism, too. Influenced by the African American liberation struggle and Black Panther Party, we were able to learn from them and their experiences; they were actually the theoretical and practical leaders—just like today.”

The Young Lords newspaper, Pa’lante, also had to be revised to include women writers and narratives. “We wanted women to be writing about what was happening in the world,” she reiterated, “down to the very security we had. Women initially weren’t allowed in the Young Lords’ defense ministry, which provided security for the organization as protectors of its members, but also the community.” After petitioning they be allowed to participate in the Young Lords’ defense program, they did.

As a grassroots activist, Morales fought for better housing and schooling in her community. With fellow colleagues, she organized protests and successfully improved the living conditions for many in her native barrio. Together with the Young Lords, she helped establish a free breakfast program for inner-city youth, the first New York City lead poisoning prevention program, and daycare so that Puerto Rican and other Latin women could seek employment opportunities.

Today, Morales’ writings about her Young Lords experience appear in various publications, among them, The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, The Young Lords: A Reader and Palante: Young Lords Party. A continued activist for women and people of color, well after the decline of the Young Lords, Morales founded the Red Sugarcane Press, an independent agency dedicated to publishing works concerning the Puerto Rican and Latinx Diasporas in the Americas.

While a lifelong Harlem resident, Morales has traveled to places like Cuba and Ghana, to both deepen her education and broaden Red Sugarcane publications. A recent trip to Puerto Rico saw the political educator, author, and filmmaker conduct extensive research and interviews for a new book she promises will strengthen the education she offers young men and women around the United States.

“You can’t have a revolution without two things,” she notes. “Racial equality and the equality of women.”