Jose Cha Cha Jimenez
José (Cha-Cha) Jiménez (born August 8, 1948) is the founder of the Young Lords as a national human rights movement. It was founded in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago on September 23, 1968. Cha-Cha was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico to Jíbaro parents, Eugenia Rodríguez Flores of San Lorenzo and Antonio Jiménez Rodríguez of the barrio of San Salvador in Caguas, on August 8, 1948.
His mother Eugenia Rodríguez arrived from Puerto Rico in 1949 and took José to New York City, then to a migrant camp near Boston where they were reunited with José's father, Antonio Jiménez. They rented a work cabin from the Italian family-owners of the migrant camp. However, in less than two years, the Jiménez family moved to Chicago to be near other relatives. There, his mother worked in a candy factory and did piece-work in several TV factories. Doña Genia also volunteered and contributed to the organizing of the Catholic Daughters of Mary (Damas de María) in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.
José lived with his family near Holy Name Cathedral, on the Near North Side, in one of the first two Puerto Rican barrios in Chicago. It was named la Clark by Puerto Ricans. Orlando Dávila, who later founded the Young Lords street gang, graduated from one of Doña Genia's neighborhood catechism classes and became one of José's best friends.
The original mission of the Young Lords street gang was protection, recognition and reputation. It was intertwined culturally with gaining respeto for Latinos from white Lincoln Park gangs. When the Young Lords initially formed, the white gangs viewed Hispanics as a disruption to the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Most of the new Hispanic children in Lincoln Park were forced to join some form of a street gang or neighborhood "club."
Lincoln Park urban removal
During the 1960s, the city's urban renewal program, which originally pushed Puerto Ricans into Lincoln Park, began to force them out again. City planners argued that it was necessary to make Lincoln Park an inner-city suburb, in order to attract professionals and increase tax revenues and to profit from housing turnover.
The urban renewal, promoted by Mayor Richard J. Daley, began in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. Next to Lake Michigan and near downtown, it became a showcase and one of the richest neighborhoods in the world. Neighborhood associations like the Lincoln Park Conservation Association never included the voices of the poor residents. These neighborhood associations assisted Mayor Daley by changing zoning laws, calling for building inspectors to pressure small owners to sell and assisting real-estate agents and bankers with neighborhood housing group tours.
The bankers, building inspectors and real-estate agents who supported Richard J. Daley's master plan for Chicago were caught illegally redlining, but were still able to keep African Americans south of North Avenue. Hispanics moved north to Lakeview or west to Wicker Park and Humboldt Park. Whites moved further northwest and north. The few winning court rulings were too little too late as families were once again forced out of their homes in the Lakeview, Wicker Park and Humboldt Park neighborhoods.
The Young Lords organization and Human Rights
When the Young Lords were a street gang, they respected and looked for guidance from major African American gangs like the Egyptian Cobras and the Almighty Vice Lord Nation as well as the Black P. Stones, a large, new group from the urban-renewal-designated area of 63rd Street.
In 1967, most of the white areas of Lincoln Park had become mostly Hispanic. Many whites joined the white flight to the suburbs. The Young Lords were now in their late teens and lacked gang wars and organized meetings at the YMCA, so they ceased to exist as an organized gang. They still hung around together in certain locations, but now there was no structure. Many then chose a chaotic, drug-filled, purposeless life. Many got married and moved away without any contact. Many were on active duty in Vietnam. Others, including Cha-Cha Jiménez, were still on street corners, in and out of jail, or incarcerated for different gang and drug-related crimes. The youth of Lincoln Park were now involved in car thefts, purse-snatchings, burglaries, armed robberies, drugs, stabbings, shootings and disorderly conduct. Cha-Cha and a few Young Lords turned to hard drugs like heroin and cocaine. Others were pushed out by urban renewal, moved to different neighborhoods and joined larger "super gangs." Some became heads of these gangs, but never opposed the Young Lords.
In the summer of 1968, Cha-Cha was picked up for possession of heroin and was given a 60-day sentence at Cook County Jail, then called the Bradwell or House of Correction. It was in this jail experience that Cha-Cha Jiménez decided to turn himself around and to devote his life to the cause of human rights. The Catholic Thomas Merton’s book that he read in the "hole" of Bradwell jail had a strong impact on Cha-Cha Jiménez, who had once contemplated becoming a priest. He reflected on his past and decided to quit drugs and the gang. Cha-Cha then asked for a priest and knelt down, and between the steel bars of this old Civil War-era jail cell, he confessed his sins. He received books from the inmate librarian, an African-American Muslim, who traveled down the galleries with a cart filled with books. Secluded on the third-floor gallery, he continued his readings about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Black nationalism and about the organizing of the Black Panthers for self-defense. The librarian at first looked at Cha-Cha Jiménez with scorn due to Jiménez's light skin and blue eyes. A cousin of Cha-Cha Jiménez, who was a Jiménez of dark complexion and locked up in the same "hole" explained to the librarian that most Puerto Ricans are a mixture of three races, African, Spanish European, and native American and that even families were multi-racial.
Meanwhile, rioters were being brought en masse into the jail after the King assassination. Undocumented Mexican workers were also rounded up in yearly raids by immigration authorities. They passed through the north maximum-security cell-house for processing. Some white and African-American guards mocked and manhandled the Mexicans. Cha-Cha Jiménez requested and was given permission to translate for Mexican detainees. But he was only allowed to yell questions and answers from the third-floor bars of his cramped cell. These experiences made Jiménez realize the need to fight for human rights. He was determined to duplicate a Black Panther Party for self-defense within the Puerto Rican and Hispanic communities. He intended to give up gang fighting and drugs so that he could devote his time to this new people's movement.
Under the leadership of Jiménez, the Young Lords transformed into the Young Lords Organization and staged a series of grassroots actions on behalf of the poor people of Lincoln Park. They disrupted Lincoln Park Conservation Association meetings in Lincoln Park, confronted the real-estate brokers and landlords, created the Peoples Church and the Peoples Park, and forced the McCormick Theological Seminary to provide resources for the community. In response to the police killing of Manuel Ramos they marched against police brutality, and contributed the seed money for the creation of the Peoples Law Office in Chicago. The Young Lords Organization also developed plans for low-income housing in Lincoln Park in an effort to prevent the displacement of Hispanics. With the slogan “Tengo Puerto Rico en mi Corazón”, the Young Lords advocated and marched for the independence of Puerto Rico from the United States. The original Chicago Young Lords became the national headquarters and provided leadership and grassroots guidance to other Young Lords chapters in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee.
The Young Lords cooperated with other Hispanics working for change elsewhere in Chicago. In Wicker Park, they connected with the Latin American Defense Organization (LADO) and supported their demonstrations for a welfare-caseworkers union and for dignified recipient rights. The Lakeview Citizen's Council, with Hilda Frontany as its leader, became proactive, well-organized and supportive of the Young Lords. David Hernández and his La Gente Organization, also in Lakeview, was an ally in their fight against gentrification. In Humboldt Park, it was Mecca Sorrentini and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP), the Spanish Action Committee (SACC), Puerto Rican Organization for Political Action (PROPA), West Town Concerned Citizens Coalition, and Allies for a Better Community (ABC). They all cooperated with the Young Lords and were proactive in downtown marches against Mayor Richard J. Daley.
The Young Lords were already allied in Oakland, but were recruited by Chairman Fred Hampton into the original Rainbow Coalition with the Young Patriots and the Black Panther Party. Several survival programs modeled after the Black Panther Party were instituted by the Young Lords at the Chicago People's Church and in other cities. These included a free breakfast for children program, the Emeterio Betances Free Health Clinic, a free dental clinic and the first free community daycare center in Chicago. The day care center was put in place to facilitate the involvement of women in the Young Lords' organizing activities. It was like a co-op with male and female parents taking turns baby-sitting their children. There were many large demonstrations organized by the Young Lords in Chicago and in other cities for welfare dignity, women's rights, against police brutality and racism, and for self-determination for Puerto Rico and other Latin American nations.
The struggle continues
The December 4, 1969 assassinations of Chairman Fred Hampton and Mark Clark demonstrated the determination of the FBI and the Chicago police to prevent young people from building unity and addressing poverty and exploitation in their communities. This was preceded on September 29, 1969, with the unsolved murders of the United Methodist pastor of the National Young Lords People's Church, Rev. Bruce Johnson and his wife, Eugenia Ransier Johnson. Cha-Cha Jiménez was persecuted for his political beliefs and his organizing abilities. After going underground in 1970 and running an underground training school for two and a half years, he rendered himself to serve one year in Cook County Jail for a charge of petty theft of lumber, related to court-imposed fines for daycare-center code violations.
Upon his release from Cook County Jail, Jiménez ran for alderman of the 46th Ward and garnered 39% of the vote, becoming the first Hispanic to run and oppose the Cook County Democratic political machine. In September 1973, Jiménez announced his campaign in Pastor Fines Flores' United Methodist Church. The campaign followed the Black Panther Party's example. Chairman Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers was also running for mayor of Oakland. It was also a "Rainbow Coalition" of activists, relating back to Chairman Fred Hampton. Remnants of the Uptown Young Patriots also worked within the campaign. Walter "Slim" Coleman re-organized white supporters of the Black Panther Party’s Intercommunal Survival Committees. They opened up the Uptown Community Service Center and supported the Young Lords and Cha-Cha's aldermanic campaign.
The campaign became more citywide in its reach, but was fought locally. To Cha-Cha Jiménez, the election was not about his personal career, but about the lives of the people of his neighborhood fighting a protracted struggle for community empowerment. It was about the the city government's destruction of Hispanic and poor communities to increase the tax base. Throughout the campaign, it was not the machine's liberal candidate, Chris Cohen, who was assailed for housing discrimination and the displacement of Hispanics and the poor from the lakefront and downtown, but Mayor Richard J. Daley. Without much of a budget, campaign workers organized many "cafesitos" and rallies. In a ward with only 1000 Hispanics registered, the final tally was 39% for Jiménez. An absolute majority was needed to win. Because a loss was expected and it was his first campaign and it was a significant Chicago Hispanic event, it was considered a victory. Some even said that the election was stolen. But Cha-Cha conceded and vowed to continue the struggle. The campaign opened doors in Chicago for Hispanics, especially in the local political arena as the Democratic machine attempted to co-opt and to silence this grassroots movement.
Soon after the aldermanic campaign, the former drug abuser relapsed into substance abuse. Then, Cha-Cha, for the first time, sought help and spent seven months in an inpatient substance-abuse program in Tinley Park, Illinois. It housed 120 residents, primarily African American, and moved patients through a graduated course of treatment. The residents themselves ran the program as they progressed from lower levels to higher ones. Cha-Cha rose from the bottom to the top and ran the internal program for several months. He left and, with help from a former resident of Tinley Park, got a job as a janitor and then as an entry-level substance-abuse counselor for BASTA Inc. After a year, he studied and passed the requirements to become a credentialed substance-abuse counselor. Much later, in Michigan, he became an assistant to the program manager or Senior Counselor of a Hispanic residential program.
Still, Cha-Cha's passion has always been the Young Lords and neighborhood organizing. In 1983, Cha-Cha reentered Chicago politics to campaign for Harold Washington, who became the first African-American mayor of Chicago. The Young Lords were the first Hispanic group to publicly support Harold Washington for mayor. After volunteering and becoming the North Side precinct coordinator for the Harold Washington mayoral campaign, Cha-Cha Jiménez held the first Hispanic rally for him in Humboldt Park at North West Hall. More than one thousand people attended. Headquartered at Fullerton and Western Avenue, the Young Lords-managed precincts gave Harold Washington 73-90% of their votes. Newly-elected Mayor Harold Washington initiated a series of neighborhood festivals. The first was held in Humboldt Park. The Young Lords helped to organize this first June, 1983 festival by working together as new representatives of the mayor, with the office of Special Events and the Puerto Rican Parade Committee. On stage, Cha-Cha introduced Mayor Washington to a crowd of 100,000 Puerto Ricans in Humboldt Park. The first 30,000 of them were wearing Young Lords buttons that read "Tengo Puerto Rico en mi Corazón." Jiménez introduced Mayor Harold Washington with the words:
You, the youth of our community. Some of whom have been misunderstood, forced to live under inhumane conditions, beaten by police, manipulated by everyone, and then blamed by all. You, the youth of our community are our future leaders and you will get us what we want. And what do we want? Auto determinacion para los Puertorriquenos: self-determination for the Puerto Rican People. And please stop treating our freedom fighters who have martyred their lives for our rights as animals. The Puerto Rican Diaspora Coalition will not tolerate it. If the People of El Salvador can ask for self-determination, if the People of Nicaragua can ask for self-determination, if the People of Ireland can ask for self-determination, if the People of Poland can ask for self-determination, if Black People in America can stand up and demand self-determination, then Puerto Ricans demand self-determination. Y con eso en mente le presento el mejor alcalde en toda la historia de Chicago, Mayor Harold Washington.
The crowd appeared stunned and was silent at first, but then started clapping louder, yet remained peaceful, unlike previous years. They appeared more united and friendly. In previous years, violence usually followed Puerto Rican Day parades. Mayor Harold Washington responded, "I agree with everything Cha-Cha said" and vowed publicly to place Hispanics in upper and middle management positions in his new administration. After his speech, the crowd was treated to the free music of Willie Colón. The singer began with "Soy un extranjero en mi propia tierra" ("I am a stranger in my own land"), as a tribute to Cha-Cha. That evening, the event was reported in all local and some national media. The attendees wore the Young Lords buttons for several weeks after the event.
José Cha-Cha Jiménez has given his life to the revolutionary struggle of poor people, people of color, and particularly Puerto Ricans. Now working in Michigan as a gang and youth counselor, he continues to advocate for social change. He still speaks out against the mistreatment of the Puerto Rican Prisoners of War, the military occupation of Vieques, the need for Rainbow Coalition politics, and the displacement of poor communities due to economic development plans. He also continues to share the history of the Young Lords Organization and is a source of knowledge and inspiration for younger people of all backgrounds.
- Padilla, Felix. Puerto Rican Chicago. 1987.
- Perez, Gina M. The Near Northwest Side Story: Migration, Displacement, and Puerto Rican Families. 2005
- Judson Jeffries, “From Gang-bangers to Urban Revolutionaries: The Young Lords of Chicago,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (Autumn 2003)
- Frank Browning, “From Rumble to Revolution: The Young Lords” Ramparts (October 1970)
- National Young Lords, "Brief Notes"
- Padilla, Felix. Puerto Rican Chicago. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987
- Glenda Sampson, “Lincoln Park: A Community in Crisis” Chicago Today Magazine,” August 3, 1969
- Mike Royko, Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, I971
- Arnold R. Hirsch, Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago, 1940-60, 1983
- “The Young Lords and Early Chicago Puerto Rican Gangs” an Interview with Mervin Mendez, http://gangresearch.net/ChicagoGangs/latinkings/lkhistory.html
- Interview with Cha Cha Jimenez
- Lilia Fernandez, Latina/o Migration and Community Formation in Postwar Chicago: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Gender and Politics, 1945-1975 (PhD Dissertation:2005)
- “Fight at Lincoln Park Meeting” Chicago Today, July 30, 1969
- Thomas Dolan, “600 March to Protest Youth’s Death, Chicago Sun Times, May 14, 1969
- Johanna Fernandez, “Between Social Service, Reform and Revolutionary Politics: The Young Lords, Late Sixties Radicalism, and Community Organizing in New York City,” in Theoharis, Jeanne and Komozi Woodard, editors. Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980. 2003
- Jon Rice, “The World of the Illinois Panthers,” in Theoharis, Jeanne and Komozi Woodard, editors. Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside the South, 1940-1980. Palgrave Macmillan, February 2003.
- Brian D. Boyer, “Gangs Day Care Center to Open” Chicago Sun Times, August 22, 1969
- Jeff Haas, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther, 2009
- Young Lords
- “Young Lords’ Jimenez Surrenders” Chicago Sun Times, December 4, 1972
- Alice Klement, “Young Lords’ Leader Jimenez Eyeing 1975 Aldermanic seat?” Lerner Newspapers, March 16, 1974