You may know him as a popular talk show host, but before Geraldo Rivera was on TV, he was a Puerto Rican activist on the streets of New York City.
The year was 1969, and the voices leading the revolution were the Black-Panthers-inspired group called the Young Lords. Geraldo Rivera was their lawyer.
“…[A]lthough in their announcement of their existence they were very revolutionary, to me their biggest emphasis and the reason they were so unique is was they were the first Puerto Rican activist group whose focus was not primarily the status of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the independence of Puerto Rico, but rather the social condition of the people living in Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side and the South Bronx,” he told MetroFocus Host Rafael PiRoman. “The Puerto Rican, the Latino community here in the five boroughs.”
Rivera says he first connected with the Young Lords when the members announced the group’s founding in July 1969, the same month he took the bar exam.
“And I just said, ‘you know something, you’re the Puerto Rican activist group, I’m the Puerto Rican lawyer, I’m your lawyer.’ They already had fine activist attorneys, all the typical lawyers guild and all the others and I said, ‘nope, I’m your lawyer,'” Rivera said.
About six months later, the Young Lords took over a Bronx hospital to demand better care for low-income and minority residents in the area. When the police responded and encountered the group’s leader Felipe Luciano, Rivera threw himself in the middle of the action.
“Stop!” he shouted at them. “I’m his lawyer!”
The takeover wasn’t the group’s first nor would it be its last attempt to accomplish what Rivera called “common-sensical” goals including free testing for lead-poisoning, free breakfasts, universal day care and improved trash pickup.
“That was such a vital, vibrant time but later many went to jail for draft evasion, trespass, resisting arrest, assault on police officers,” Rivera said. “The system dragged them down with a thousand cuts and the idealism that fueled that initial energy where they wanted to do great things.”
In mid-1970, Rivera was offered an reporting job at a local station. He went on to report for and host talk shows on national networks and contemplated a run for a U.S. Senate seat. Others affiliated with the Young Lords also went on to successful journalism careers.
On MetroFocus, Rivera discusses the founding of the Young Lords, his time representing the group and what he thinks about friend and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants in the U.S.