In May 1970, the Lords seized possession of the block-square building owned by the Spanish Methodist Church on 111th Street and Lexington Avenue in the impoverished, almost exclusively Puerto Rican "El Barrio" neighborhood. I was often their spokesman, and in that role was interviewed then on The Today Show. The church is still there and though the neighborhood has somewhat gentrified, and like many in New York and elsewhere is much more Mexican than in the old days, it retains its rough ghetto edge. Well-maintained public housing faces rehabilitated tenements; larger markets sit side-by-side with the traditional bodegas and there are combination groceries/department stores where you can still cash a check, buy a whole pig for roasting and overpay for almost everything
In nice weather there are scores of mostly poor people on the street; the cops watching the action up and down Lexington Avenue with an eye in the sky crane on which an officer sits in a glass-enclosed perch 30 or so feet up. On the streets below, the legend of the Young Lords is passed down from generation to generation. The seizure of the church almost forty years ago has become the stuff of local lore, one of those seminal events that everybody remembers and many claim to have participated in. Over the years, many strangers have come up to me to say that they were there; although like a Puerto Rican Mayflower, they couldn't possibly have all fit in.
On the air giving interviews during that crisis, my job was to explain the benevolent nature of the group's seemingly hostile act: that the Lords wanted to put the church complex to work for the community. The congregation, many of whom had prospered and moved out of the city, kept the buildings shuttered during the week, only using the sanctuary for Sunday services. The building takeover was not unusual for those turbulent times. The Kent State National Guard shootings had just taken place and the nation was being frequently disrupted by anti-war demonstrations and plagued by urban unrest.
I was spotted on television by Al Primo the founder of WABC's Eyewitness News, who was forging a news team that reflected the diverse community it served. The only other Puerto Rican on television at the time was a local CBS reporter named Gloria Rojas and she recruited me into the business. Primo hooked me up with legendary newsman Fred Friendly for a crash course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
As my urgent ethnicity and radicalism simmered down during a four-decade long public career what remained was a reflex opposition to racial and ethnic stereotyping. That stance has frequently brought me into highly publicized, sometimes-violent confrontation with hate-mongers from the KKK to the neo-Nazis and skinheads advocating white power and terrorizing minorities. There aren't many people in this country who have been called both a "Spic" and a "Dirty Jew" in the same street brawl with neo-Nazis, as I had the pleasure of being in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1992.
Right now in America, the group being singled out for the most destructive negative emotion is Hispanic immigrants, both legal, families who have been in the country for generations; and illegal, people who may have crossed over the border yesterday. All this destructive hostility is the manifestation of what is now a national panic. Despite this hate, I can say that as a proud Puerto Rican, I am proud to be an American.