In 1969, Iris Morales became the first mujer to join the New York chapter of the Puerto Rican nationalist group the Young Lords, bringing fierce feminism to the racial-economic revolutionary party. In 1996, the community activist-educator directed a documentary, “¡Palante Siempre Palante!," chronicling the Young Lords, from the Puerto Rican history that sparked the group to the legacy it left behind. Two decades later, in 2016, that movie was selected as one of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Black Power 50, a yearlong exploration of the 50th anniversary of the Black Power Movement.
Morales, who continues her fight for Puerto Rican and racial justice, spoke with us about “Palante Siempre Palante,” how she feels having the film recognized 20 years later and the need for Black and Latinx solidarity.
What inspired you to direct this film about the Young Lords in the mid-‘90s?
I was just doing the documentary for young people because I felt the void in the telling of history and in the telling of our story. The history that was told about the ‘60s was very white when talked about activism. Of course, you couldn’t deny the Black Panther Party, but everyone else was erased. I was working with young people at the time, running video production trainings. The Latino students felt they had no history, so, when they heard mine, I was telling them to produce their story, they turned it on me and told me to produce my story. I learned by doing, and everything, the point of view, the material, the person I selected as a narrator, was geared toward making sure it had relevance to a younger generation.
As you mentioned, you did some youth media training and worked with advocacy groups on media portrayals of Latinos for sometime. How does this film, and others on the New York Public Library's Black Power 50 Films roster, challenge racial and ethnic stereotypes?
First of all, we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party, and the Black Panther Party was the leading force of the ‘60s social movement. They influenced all of the other movements in the U.S. and had an international influence. The Black Panthers raised the issue of self-determination, imperialism and colonialism. We, the Young Lords, considered ourselves internationalists: we were influenced by the Black Panthers and the war in Vietnam, and we also collaborated domestically. The Rainbow Coalition was not founded by Jesse Jackson but rather by Fred Hampton, and it included the Young Lords in Chicago as well as Black, brown and white folks coming together to fight poverty and racism.
I was honored to be part of this presentation, because so often when stories are told about movements, the Latino and Puerto Rican parts are not told. And we were part of the Black Liberation Movement, with our connection to Puerto Rico but also through our members, which included African Americans, mexicanos, domincanos and a range of others. We had to deal with the question of racism in society and internally. The Young Lords was one of the first to talk about AfroLatinos. We wrote about it and talked about racism in Puerto Rican and Latino communities. On all levels, we fought racism. So these films, especially at this moment in history, when young people are on the move and are dynamic, it connects us to past histories because, after all, we are just part of a continuum, and history is connected. Learn from our mistakes, and make your own. Don’t make ours.
Why is it essential to have films, or any form of media, about our people and movements told by us?
Who else is going to tell it? From my personal experience, when I started finding my own identity in the late ‘60s, there was one book in the library about Puerto Ricans, and it was the stories of Jesús Colón. I read it and reread it. There were few books in English about Puerto Rican history, and those that existed had a very colonial perspective, pathological views like those of Oscar Lewis. Either way, we were victimized and our humanity was stripped out of us. When we tell ourselves about activism and justice and freedom, we bring our humanity and our full selves into the pubic discourse, giving other generations a sense of integrity and knowledge and pride. It’s important for a people. We nurture by what we eat and think and whom we relate to.
(Photo Credit: NYPL's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture | Bob Gore)
What does is mean to you to have your film selected as part of NYPL's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Black Power 50. Films?
It’s a great honor because we were a part of that moment and had a tremendous respect for the Panthers. They were our brothers and sisters, so we are happy to be included in the celebration and to bring our particularity to an audience who is interested in Black liberation history. Through this, we can also raise issues of the colonial status of Puerto Rico and bring it up currently to what’s taking place today.
How was the Young Lord’s fight simultaneously a Puerto Rican, Latinx and Black fight?
We learned from each other’s history. We all have different particularities and relationships to the oppressor, but, nonetheless, these stories enrich us. So it’s great to be broadening audiences and camaraderie with the Black Liberation Movement. Many of us U.S.-born or -raised Latinos are more familiar with Black history. Personally, I knew Malcolm X before Pedro Albizu Campos. But, also, this is our history, too. We are Black. There are Black Latinos, Black caribeños and Black Americans. Our history in the Caribbean is layered and complex. In the U.S., we lived next door to each other, worked in the same factories and went to the same schools. As Pablo Guzmán said, before they called me “spic,” they called me “nigger.” We experience blackness as well, so I think this expands the conversation to the Black Latino version of struggle in the ‘60s and makes the connections that are relevant for today in terms of what we need to do to build a mass movement.
The screening took place at the Schomburg Center. Alturo Alfonso Schomburg, of course, was himself an Afro-Puerto Rican man and activist. What parallels do you see in his work and in those you highlight in your film?
As I mentioned, our first central committee was made up primarily of Afro-Boricuas, and we studied Black history, from Africa, the Caribbean and the U.S. Really, we just got dropped off in different places, and, as a result of that, we have a different history. In Puerto Rico, we mixed with the indigenous people, and the Europeans came without women and raped the Taino women, and out of that mixture we developed. We are all children of racists. What is most incredible is the people who have experienced this history are able to create. You look at Puerto Ricans. For that little island, we produce a whole lot of stuff in every field. And that’s a continuation of this man Alturo Schomburg’s work. Schomburg talked about racism, and his issues are some we still deal with today. But he moved the bar, and each generation has to move it forward or die trying.
For more information about the Schomburg Center, visit their webiste.