The Young Lords: Honoring Their Legacy & Fighting for Justice in Health Care

By Madison Allen

National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates and recognizes the contributions made to American society by individuals tracing their roots to traditionally Spanish-speaking nations, including Spain, Mexico, and countries in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. I prefer the term “Latinx” rather than Hispanic or Latino to be inclusive of all gender identities as well as indigenous and other non-Spanish speaking people. I don’t identify as Latinx but have spent most of my career advocating for improved access to health care for Latinx and immigrant families more broadly. When I consider my role in this space, I recognize that to meet the needs of individuals and communities, policy priorities must include the full participation of those who are directly impacted. In doing policy work, centering community leaders is essential, and Hispanic Heritage Month provides a great opportunity to celebrate the pioneers of this work. The Young Lords are among the Latinx leaders who have carried the torch for health justice, and we can learn much from their legacy of activism.  

The Young Lords started as a street gang in Puerto Rico and transformed into an advocacy group in Chicago and New York in the 1960s and 70s where they fought against poverty, police brutality, and racism. They showed that the fight for liberation requires an intersectional approach and a diverse team of advocates willing to take direct action in the face of oppression. While predominantly Puerto Rican, members of the Young Lords also included Black, white, and Latinx individuals from the United States, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, and Mexico. Inspired by the community-centered approach of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords focused on initiatives to meet essential human needs and “serve the people.” 

The group advocated for community involvement in promoting access to care and developed a 10-Point Health Program denouncing profit-driven health care. Among the 10 points was this: “We want free, publicly supported health care for prevention and treatment. We want an end to all fees.” The 10 points also refer to what advocates and researchers now call social determinants of health, including environmental conditions, jobs, and other factors that affect wellbeing. In Chicago, the Young Lords set up a free dental clinic, a free health clinic, and a community child care center. In New York, the group established free testing sites for tuberculosis and lead poisoning, and they took over a floor of Lincoln Hospital to demand adequate health care for people with low incomes. 

I wonder how the Young Lords would respond to today’s stark inequities that persist in access to health care, 50 years after taking direct action to fight for their vision of a society where everyone has access to basic needs, regardless of where they were born or how much money they have. I also wonder what they would recommend to address the fact that Latinx individuals are almost 3 times as likely to be uninsured as whites. Access to public health insurance coverage for Latinx families who migrated to the United States remains highly inequitable due to restrictive immigrant eligibility policies authorized by 1996 Welfare Reform legislation and reinforced by provisions of the Affordable Care Act. In Puerto Rico, the Medicaid program design makes it much harder for Puerto Ricans (who are U.S. Citizens) to access health care than individuals who live in the mainland United States. Even when eligible, Latinx families facing anti-immigrant policies are deterred from accessing public health insurance due to fear of immigration-related consequences

Thinking about how far we have come and how far we still must go, I have been reflecting on my role in the fight for equity in access to health care that spans generations. Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month means acknowledging all that Latinx communities have accomplished, but also recognizing how they have been held back by decades of discriminatory policies. These policies remain in effect today in a health care system that continues to deny coverage to millions of Latinx individuals based on immigration status. 

During Hispanic Heritage Month, we can honor the legacy of the Young Lords by taking a multicultural, community-centered approach to transforming health policy. We must acknowledge that this advocacy is a shared responsibility and work together to actively pursue policy changes that address decades of systemic injustice. Out of frustration about inequities, the Young Lords mobilized and took over an entire floor of a hospital; now it’s our turn to demand change.