Llana Barber

If it takes riots then let it take riots… we can no longer be ignored.

–Latine resident in Lawrence, Massachusetts after the unrest of 1984

Rebellion defines the era of urban crisis, from the uprisings in Harlem in 1964 to Los Angeles in 1992. Segregation, discrimination, disinvestment, and especially police violence created explosions of frustration and fury in cities across the nation. In America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s, Elizabeth Hinton recounts the unrest that shook hundreds of Black neighborhoods. These insurgencies were a form of political rebellion against the structural violence of racial capitalism and the concrete violence of the police. Calling them riots, Hinton argues, was a way to strip them of their protest power, to dismiss them as merely crime or delinquency. The rebellions were a powerful message that residents of the “ghetto” would not suffer silently, that the disenfranchised and dispossessed would fight back. Understanding these uprisings is important, as they show us the shape of systemic racism in the second half of the twentieth century, as well as the fierce struggle against it. These rebellions remind us that politics are made not only by politicians, lawyers, and professional advocates, but also by working-class and poor people defiantly claiming their right to the city: its public spaces, its resources, and the power to shape its future.

These uprisings are an essential element of Black history, and thus of American history. What is less well known is that rebellions are also a part of immigration and Latine history in the era of urban crisis. Puerto Rican, Mexican American, Dominican, Central American, and mixed Latine communities also “rioted” throughout this period. Like African Americans—and often alongside them—they rebelled against police violence, racialized unemployment and poverty, substandard housing and displacement, residential segregation, neighborhood disinvestment, inadequate public services, political marginalization, rampant and unchecked discrimination, and quotidian bigotry in U.S. cities. Latine uprisings, too, show us the shape of systemic racism and the struggle against it. In addition, they illustrate the ways that racism and resistance interwove with U.S. intervention abroad, im/migration, and complex processes of racial formation and identification.[1] The Latine presence in U.S. cities was the result of accelerating migration from Latin America during the second half of the twentieth century—migration that ultimately transformed Latines into the largest “minority” in the nation. Many Latin Americans were pushed to migrate by the long history of U.S. domination in their home countries. Once in the United States, however, they confronted a highly segregated and unequal landscape.

In the decades after World War II, U.S. cities were transformed in response to Black urban migration and activism. The growing Black presence in many cities, along with white resistance to integration, provoked white flight to the suburbs, including public and private investment in segregated suburban growth, and the relocation of industry, retail, office, and leisure enterprises beyond city boundaries. The movement of white people and capital to the suburbs resulted in a population and tax-base decline in many U.S. cities, particularly in the older industrial corridor of the Northeast and Midwest. Many city populations became more Black and Latine, while living-wage jobs for these groups became scarce. Fiscal disasters and/or unequal spending severely undermined education, healthcare, sanitation, recreation, transportation, and public safety services (such as fire departments) in “inner-city” neighborhoods. Contained within radically under-resourced spaces, urban communities of color often faced criminalization and repression, subject to an increasingly militarized police force and an increasingly punitive carceral state.

Latines were incorporated unevenly into this racial landscape as they im/migrated. Some predominantly light-skinned and well-resourced Latine groups, like early Cuban arrivals in Miami in the 1960s, carved out positions of distinct privilege vis-à-vis African Americans. Others, especially working-class or poor Latines and Afro-Latines, found themselves in shared circumstances with African Americans, indeed sometimes even in shared neighborhoods. Many Latines, even those partially of African descent, were reluctant to identify with or embrace the struggle of Black Americans, given the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness both in the United States and in Latin America. Others, however, came to recognize that urban Black and Latine communities were facing similar obstacles in the crisis era and began to embrace Black struggles and solidarity. This solidarity was particularly evident among Puerto Ricans in New York City, many of whom had long been sharing neighborhoods, communities, and survival strategies with African Americans, and the darker of whom had felt the bitter sting of both anti-Puerto Rican and anti-Black bigotry. As Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán, one of the founders of the New York Young Lords, articulated it, “before people called me a spic, they called me a n—–.”[2]

Not all Latine communities faced the segregation, disinvestment, and police abuse that plagued urban Black neighborhoods in the crisis era, but those who did often responded with rebellion. Aaron Fountain Jr. has counted eighty-one civil disturbances in Latine communities between 1966 and 1992.[3] This history is still being excavated, so the number of uprisings is likely higher, especially if we include Latine participation in predominantly Black rebellions. The type of unrest that would gain news coverage as a “riot” in this era usually consisted of mass public expressions of anger and “disorderly” conduct. Crowds would take to the streets and refuse to disperse, frequently shouting at, fighting with, or throwing rocks and bottles at the police. Protesters often smashed windows, looted stores, or started fires. Sometimes the unrest included incidents of violence against civilians. Upheaval in the streets was generally part of a larger community protest that also involved nonviolent demonstrations, meetings with government officials, press conferences, and an array of other formal and informal types of resistance. Below I offer just a handful of examples to give a sense of the scope of Latine insurgencies.

In Chicago in June 1966, a white police officer shot a young Puerto Rican man, Arcelis Cruz, right after the Humboldt Park neighborhood celebrated its first Puerto Rican Parade. Thousands of Puerto Ricans responded with three days of rebellion in the Division Street Uprising. The protests reflected Puerto Rican anger not only at repeated incidents of police abuse, but also at miserable housing conditions and high rates of poverty and unemployment. Historian Lilia Fernández documented the successive waves of displacement that Puerto Ricans faced as urban renewal projects frequently targeted their neighborhoods. This displacement often pushed them into declining white neighborhoods where they encountered bigotry and racial violence from white Chicagoans. Sociologist Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz recalled the experiences of his Puerto Rican family members who lived in Chicago at the time and “recounted being racially profiled and roughed up by white police officers, having doors slammed in their face by white landlords, and put in closets by white teachers for speaking Spanish.” White neighbors also set his family’s building on fire.[4] The rebellion was a broad demonstration against the array of abuses Puerto Ricans were facing in Chicago. In 1977, the neighborhood erupted again in a second rebellion, after the police killed two young Puerto Ricans.

In July, 1967, the same day as a massive Black uprising was beginning in Detroit, Puerto Ricans rebelled in East Harlem for four days, with the protests spreading to the South Bronx on the final day. After a police officer shot and killed a Puerto Rican man, Reinaldo Rodriguez, a crowd of hundreds of Puerto Ricans and African Americans quickly formed, throwing rocks and bottles at the police while residents hurled objects from tenement windows. The second night’s crowd was even larger than the first, as thousands of young people battled with the police in defiance of the NYPD’s brutal tactics. Puerto Ricans in NYC faced extreme segregation and impoverishment, as well as a stigmatizing discourse that painted them as criminals and welfare abusers. Along with African Americans, they had witnessed white New Yorkers’ virulent opposition to school desegregation and were hyper aware of bigotry in the city. Many Puerto Ricans in East Harlem and the Bronx were also partially of African descent and found themselves under the combined pressure of anti-Puerto Rican and anti-Black racism in the profoundly racialized city. Over the course of the unrest, four people were killed, and historian Johanna Fernández noted they were all shot by the .38-caliber bullets used in police guns.

In the Albuquerque Rebellion in June 1971, Mexican American youth rose up for two nights in response to police abuse. On Sunday, June 13, police had attempted to arrest a small group of young Chicanos drinking in Roosevelt Park. Fed up with police harassment, people in the park turned on the cops. As the crowd drove back the police officers, the number of protesters grew and they took to the streets, armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails. As one participant explained, Mexican American anger at the city’s police was longstanding, “The people are oppressed, hassled all the time.”[5] Las Gorras Negras (the Black Berets), a local Chicano group modeled after the Black Panthers, argued that they had been warning the city of the deep frustration in Albuquerque’s Mexican American community over police abuse as well as over unemployment. “Our people are being harassed, brutalized and murdered,” they had told the City Commission.[6] By the end of the unrest, after the New Mexico National Guard was sent in to quell the protest, the rebellion had done approximately $3 million worth damage and shattered storefront glass littered about five miles of the city’s main drag, Highway 66.

In Lawrence, Massachusetts, a small postindustrial city north of Boston, hundreds of Latine and white rioters faced off in the streets for two nights in August, 1984. While their rage initially seemed directed at each other, the larger context for the rebellion became evident whenever police or firefighters attempted to quell the conflict, as both sides joined together to pelt the advancing forces with rocks and beer cans. Puerto Rican and other Latine migration to the city had been dramatically increasing in the years leading up to the protest, at the same time as Lawrence’s economy was collapsing due to deindustrialization and suburban competition. Latine participants, mainly Puerto Ricans, were adamant that the rebellion was a protest against more than just the bigotry of their white neighbors; it was also about their exclusion from city governance, extreme Latine unemployment rates, inhuman living conditions in the city-run housing projects, and degrading police harassment. For example, several Latine Lawrencians told the New York Times that the police had been conducting public strip searches.

In May 1991, Latines protested for three nights in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C. in response to the police shooting of a Salvadoran man, Daniel Enrique Gomez. Tens of thousands of Central Americans had immigrated to the neighborhood during the 1970s and 1980s, many fleeing the civil wars and U.S.-sponsored violence in their homelands. In the nation’s capital, however, they had found unequal and inadequate services, little economic opportunity, and substantial discrimination. One neighborhood resident explained that Latines rebelled “because we were sick and tired of the harassment by D.C. cops.”[7] This police harassment ranged from demanding immigration papers when conducting routine traffic stops to outright violence. Salvadorans made up a large proportion of those in the streets, but Latine anger in the city was widespread, and other nationalities participated as well.

In April 1992, the four LAPD officers who had been captured on video brutally beating a Black motorist, Rodney King, were acquitted, and residents of Los Angeles took to the streets in rage. The massive uprising ultimately resulted in fifty-eight deaths and more than $1 billion worth of damage. Typically considered an African American rebellion, the reality is that many Latine people also participated; indeed, more than half of those arrested were Latine. As Abigail Rosas has documented, South Central L.A., the epicenter of the uprising, was a longstanding Black neighborhood that had experienced substantial Central American and Mexican immigration in the 1980s, and was 45 percent Latine by the 1990 census. Many Latines in South Central experienced the grinding racialized poverty and disinvestment of the urban crisis era. Concerns over police abuse and discrimination also drove Latine participation in the uprising. In August 1991, a few months after the video of King’s beating had circulated, an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy had fatally shot a Mexican American teenager, Arturo “Smokey” Jimenez, in East L.A.’s Ramona Gardens housing project, and 300 residents rose up in a small-scale rebellion that foreshadowed the coming insurgency. Public hearings in response to Jimenez’s death revealed widespread police abuse of Latines in Los Angeles. As one Salvadoran teenager announced to reporters during the 1992 uprising, “F— the police! They diss us just as much as the Blacks.”[8]

In July, 1992, a plainclothes NYPD officer shot and killed a young Dominican man, Jose “Kiko” Garcia. In response, Dominicans in Washington Heights rose up in protest over the course of six days. Community members condemned police violence, harassment, and corruption, including NYPD’s extortion of cash from drug dealers, and officers’ seizing of drugs and weapons for their own personal use. Police abuse had triggered the uprising, but the rebellion had even deeper roots. Substandard housing and overcrowded schools plagued Washington Heights, as did a debilitating Dominican poverty rate. Disinvestment and being treated as criminals fueled Dominican anger. Protesters drew attention to these linked issues. In one march during the multifaceted uprising, residents shouted, “We want jobs, not killer cops!”[9]

The diversity of these rebellions is noteworthy. Big cities and small; rust belt and sunbelt; Caribbean Latines, Central Americans, and Chicanos; immigrants, colonial subjects, and U.S. Americans; across the country, and throughout the urban crisis era. While the conditions and treatment provoking these Latine uprisings were not universal, it is obvious that they were both widespread and persistent. More than two-thirds of the Latine rebellions that occurred during this period involved Puerto Ricans, even though they were not the largest Latine group in the mainland U.S. This should not surprise us; Puerto Ricans were colonial subjects, often Afro-Caribbean, who settled mainly in NYC and other Northeast and Midwest cities as these cities were rocked by white flight, deindustrialization, and fiscal crisis. As a result, Puerto Ricans encountered segregation, discrimination, stigma, and poverty to an extreme degree. They were also, among Latine groups during this era, most likely to share neighborhoods and circumstances with African Americans, and to develop shared resistance strategies. Yet Puerto Ricans were not alone in resorting to rebellion; diverse Latine communities who experienced sustained bigotry, economic despair, political marginalization, and/or police violence rose up against these conditions.

Urban uprisings sometimes involved heartbreaking levels of destruction and violence; even Black and Latine activists often grieved the impact of the rebellions on their communities. Why insist on remembering this unrest? First, as Hinton argues, one of the main lessons of these rebellions bears constant repeating in our present era: police violence leads to community violence. Second, these uprisings transformed their cities in countless and often immeasurable ways. Latine community leaders were frequently able to leverage the upheaval to win concrete improvements for their communities: formal recognition and increased funding for Latine organizations, expanded hiring of Latine people in city positions, greater bilingual services, state or federal intervention into local governance in an effort to advance Latine political incorporation, improved conditions in city-run services like public housing or youth recreation, and more. After the uprising in Chicago, for example, the Committee on Urban Opportunity opened a bilingual social service center on Division Street. While the unrest was often dismissed by city elites and the media as inarticulate spasms of rage or delinquent troublemaking, Latine activists and organizers wasted no time harnessing the disturbances to advance concrete demands, taking advantage of the media spotlight to amplify their critiques of the status quo. In the wake of these rebellions, many Latine communities saw either increased political power in their cities or, at the very least, increased political organizing to sustain the demands advanced during the rebellion.

Yet, these insurgencies also generated tremendous backlash. Like African American rebellions, Latine uprisings were viewed by many whites as conclusive evidence that cities had become unlivable—home to hordes of criminals with no respect for life, law, or property. This perspective prompted a dual response: accelerated white flight to the suburbs and a law-and-order crackdown in the cities. While federal support for suburban homeownership had long been a siren call for many white urbanites to abandon the cities, urban rebellions were often the final straw. Lawrence, for example, lost a full quarter of its white population during the 1980s. As one resident explained, shaking his head, “This used to be a good city… but I think it’s time to move.”[10] Shocked by having lost control of their cities, government officials frequently countered by strengthening law enforcement. In Albuquerque, the rebellion provoked white vigilante responses and an increased police presence in Mexican American neighborhoods throughout the state. The bilingual newsletter El Grito del Norte reported that 250 National Guards had been deployed to patrol Santa Fe (more than sixty miles away) in the days after the rebellion, and had been issued live ammunition. Historian Pedro Regalado has argued that backlash to the Dominican uprising in Washington Heights contributed to the election of Republican Rudy Giuliani as NYC mayor in 1993. In the wake of the rebellion, Giuliani campaigned on a pro-police, law-and-order platform, and successfully painted his rival, Mayor David Dinkins, as being anti-police and too sympathetic to the rioters.

Beyond each rebellion’s local impact, uncovering and incorporating the history of Latine insurgency has broader significance. Ignoring Latine uprisings during the urban crisis era makes it seem like Latines were absent or passive during one of the most tumultuous and transformative moments of the twentieth century. The marginalization of Latine history contributes to a popular discourse that portrays Latines as perpetual newcomers to the United States. Yet the reality is that two-thirds of Latines are U.S. born, and Latine communities have deep roots in this country. Latines were indeed present during the urban crisis era, and the majority were concentrated in US cities. Like African Americans, they struggled to shape, survive in, and revitalize cities suffering from segregation and disinvestment, and this struggle should not be erased. The myth of Latine passivity is equally pernicious and enduring. Periodic massive protests, like the immigrant rights demonstrations in 2006 that drew millions into the streets, regularly generate clichéd reports about the imminent awakening of the Latine “sleeping giant.” But Latine communities were far from passive during the urban crisis era, and that is evident not only in the rebellions listed above, but in countless instances of formal political organizing as well.

Finally, ignoring Latine rioting throws African Americans under the proverbial bus. Conservatives, and many liberals, seized on Black uprisings as putative evidence of a cultural predisposition to lawlessness among urban African Americans. Black rebellions were met with a massive infusion of funding into “law and order” politics, militarized policing, and mass incarceration. In contrast to African Americans, Latines were (and often still are) portrayed as a more law-abiding and less rebellious group. As a prominent Cuban scholar and activist in Massachusetts noted after the Lawrence unrest, “Riots among Hispanics are highly unusual… Things have got to be extremely serious when rioting breaks out among Hispanics.”[11] This statement aimed to bring attention to the major issues that had drawn Latines out into the streets, but it also implied that other groups, presumably African Americans, would riot over more trivial matters, subtly dismissing Black rebellion as a form of racial over-sensitivity. The scores of Latine uprisings that occurred during the urban crisis era remind us that all humans have the potential to fight back when faced with abuse. Black and Latine rebellions reflected oppressive conditions and treatment, not—as critics alleged—some type of cultural affinity for violence or disorder. But it is also important to note that the riots were not just about shared victimhood; urban Black and Latine communities also shared critical analyses of these conditions, as well as resistance strategies. Black protest was massively influential during the crisis era, and we can see that clearly in these Latine uprisings.

Erasing the history of Latine rebellion can be seductive as a political strategy, however. Virulent xenophobia continues to impact Latine communities – particularly immigrants – and recounting episodes of disorder and protest run the risk of further stigmatizing vulnerable populations. It can seem, on the surface, like there is much to gain by only portraying Latines using the “good immigrant” archetype—hard-working, law-abiding, family-oriented, grateful for the opportunities the United States provides and not the type of people to make demands. It can seem, at certain moments, like there might be potential for Latines to gain a type of “model minority” status, to find some measure of inclusion within the status quo—to evade racism, rather than dismantling it. But history shows us the limits and perils of this type of respectability politics. First, it requires a constant disclaiming or policing of the marginal and oppressed; undocumented, incarcerated, unhoused, radical, or LGBTQ+ Latines are unlikely to ever be truly welcome under the “good immigrant” banner. Second, it narrows the range of permissible protest into the least disruptive (and most easily ignored) forms, as “good immigrants” must perpetually demonstrate their lawfulness and gratitude. Even if such a “model minority” depiction of Latines came to predominate, inclusion on such terms would be fragile, temporary, and reversible. As we have seen with the most recent spate of violence against Asian Americans, even “model minorities” remain outsiders; the structures and discourses of bigotry persist and can be re-activated, particularly in moments of economic or other forms of crisis. Instead of faint and narrow hopes at inclusion and access, Latine rebellions offer instead a radical vision of solidarity, resistance, and transformation. As Martin Luther King Jr. explained, “the riot is the language of the unheard.”[12] If we shy away from recounting these uprisings for fear that it stigmatizes Latines, we silence the voices of those who, with their protests, were showing us both their humanity and the inhuman conditions they were fighting to change.

Author

Llana Barber is associate professor of American Studies at SUNY Old Westbury and the author of Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945-2000 (2017). She researches immigration and Latine history, with a focus on the Caribbean diaspora. 

Notes

[1]The term im/migrate is used as a reminder that Puerto Ricans, as U.S. citizens, are not immigrants.

[2]Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán, “Before People Called Me a Spic, They Called Me a N—–,” The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States, Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores, eds. (2010), p. 235-43.

[3]Fountain notes that Latine rioting continued beyond the early 1990s. Aaron G. Fountain, Jr. “Forgotten Latino Urban Riots and Why They Can Happen Again,” Latino Rebels, May 6, 2016, https://www.latinorebels.com/2016/05/02/forgotten-latino-urban-riots-and-why-they-can-happen-again/

[4]Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz, “Riot and remembrance: Puerto Rican Chicago and the politics of interruption,” CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, 28 (No. 2, 2016), p. 204-17.

[5]Quoted in Frankie McCarty, “Violence in June: The Analysis of a Riot,” Albuquerque Journal, Sunday, July 18, 1971, Page 45.

[6]KUNM, “Riot at Roosevelt Park – 50 Year Anniversary” June 11, 2021, https://www.kunm.org/post/riot-roosevelt-park-50-year-anniversary-0

[7]Quique Aviles, quoted in Darcy Spencer, “Residents Look Back at Mount Pleasant Riots 30 Years Later,” NBC News, May 6, 2021, https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/residents-look-back-at-mount-pleasant-riots-30-years-later/2663285/

[8]Quoted in Elizabeth Hinton, America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s (2021), p. 235.

[9]Quoted in Pedro A. Regalado, “The Washington Heights Uprising of 1992: Dominican Belonging and Urban Policing in New York City,” The Journal of Urban History, 45 (No. 5, 2019), p. 961-986.

[10]Quoted in Boston Herald, “A Tense City Explodes in Violence,” Aug. 10, 1984.

[11]Yohel Camayd-Freixas, quoted in Joseph D. Duran, “The 1984 Riots: Lawrence, Massachusetts” Master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1985, p. 43.

[12] Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America,” The Radical King, edited by Cornel West (2016), p. 239.