Street-Beat Confidential

Journalist Juan González has been writing about wrongs for thirty-five years. What's he got today?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2013
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González hangs up the phone, bites into his donut. It’s past 11:00. Ready or not, he steps out into the newsroom and walks over to Jill Coffey, the morning editor at the city desk.

“Hey, Juan!”

“Hey, how’s it going?”

González sits beside Coffey, who asks González what he’s going to write. “I have no idea yet,” González says. He mentions the Texas explosion and pitches a piece on workplace deaths.

“Yes, I like that,” says Coffey.

“The other possibility, more local, is another Success charter thing.”

After González’s spiel, Coffey says, “I always like the charter-school stories, because I feel that they affect a lot of people. To me, that’s the one.”

The summer of ’69: not your hippies-in-the-mud-LSD-rock-festival ’69, but a health/education/housing crisis in El Barrio that drove twenty-one-year-old González and a group of young, educated, media-savvy Puerto Rican nationalists to form the Young Lords. Not a street gang, as in their Chicago antecedents, but a multiethnic squad of community-focused, Black Panther–influenced revolutionaries, young men and women in purple berets with pins that said “Tengo Puerto Rico en Mi Corazón,” who over the next three years pulled off a string of spectacular direct-action gambits. They burned garbage on Third Avenue to protest a chronic lack of sanitation services, procured urine-testing kits to detect lead levels in children in tenements (bringing national attention to lead poisoning), obtained TB screening equipment and training from supportive doctors and then politely commandeered a city x-ray truck to perform follow-up chest x-rays, reentered a local church (where they’d previously been assaulted by the police) and turned the structure, briefly, into a community center with a children’s free-breakfast program. Later, they slipped into the decrepit city-owned Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx at 3:00 a.m., took over a wing, and, with willing medical staff, turned it, also briefly, into the People’s Hospital, providing testing for anemia, TB, and lead poisoning, as well as drug treatment for addicts.

“From July 1969 to 1971, the Young Lords developed a fascinating and compelling way to frame the issues and act on them,” says Frances Negrón-Muntaner, director of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. “The community didn’t have access to the resources necessary to create well-being, and the Young Lords dramatized that by specializing in what you could call the victimless kidnapping of buildings, calling attention to resources that were available but not being offered to the community.

“They were superheroes in a way, and no one ever got hurt, which was a key part of their strategy,” she says. “Every target they selected had to do with producing a healthy Puerto Rican political and physical body that could fully participate in the city. Sometimes they were arrested, but they were never tried. And if they were arrested, the people running the institution would drop the charges and say, ‘They are right!’”

Ray Suarez, senior correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, has known González for twenty-five years. The two met through the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which González cofounded in 1984.

“Juan has been a friend of the little guy throughout his career, crusading for powerless, voiceless people,” says Suarez. “And all he’s doing through journalism is what he was doing through activism in the Young Lords.”

In 1972, the group, aiming to organize Puerto Rican labor, changed its name to the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization. Members moved to cities where Puerto Ricans worked in industry. González got a job at the L. W. Foster Sportswear factory in Philadelphia. In 1973, the year of the last major national garment workers’ strike, he organized Foster’s five hundred employees. But as the reconfigured Lords became “increasingly extreme and Maoist,” González left the organization and got a job at a newspaper printing plant.

Late in 1978, he enrolled in a journalism course at Temple University. Two weeks in, the instructor, who was an editor at the Philadelphia Daily News, encouraged González to apply for a job at the paper. González did, and in December, the paper hired him as a clerk. By early 1979, González was a full-time reporter.

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