Iris Morales

Latinx and feminist activist

Iris Morales (born 1948) is an American activist for Latino/a civil rights, filmmaker, author, and lawyer based in New York. She is best known for her work with the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican community activist group in the United States and her feminist movements within the organization.


  • It is important for us to know the history of third world women who fought and are fighting for the freedom of our peoples. We usually don't know anything about yhem because even today people believe women have no role in revolution. The world and especially the vietnamese have shown that revolution is the duty of both men and women.
    • "Madame Dinh", (February 1971) in Young Lords Reader
  • The Puerto Rican Nation must continue. We must open our eyes to the oppressor's tricknology and refuse to be killed anymore. We must, in the tradition of Puerto Rican women like Lolita Lebrón, Blanca Canales, Carmen Pérez, and Antonia Martínez, join with our brothers and, together, as a nation of warriors, fight the genocide that is threatening to make us the last generation of Puerto Ricans.
    • "Sterilized Puerto Ricans" 1970 article from Palante, included in Through the Eyes of Rebel Women: The Young Lords, 1969-1976 (2016)
  • Puerto Ricans don't like to talk about racism or admit that it exists among Puerto Ricans. Boricuas talk of an island free from racism, or they say that the amerikkkans brought it. Although the amerikkkans did make it worse, racism in Puerto Rico began with the Spanish. According to them, one drop of white blood meant you were white and better than your Black compatriot. Acceptance was given according to the "degree of whiteness."
    • "Puerto Rican Racism" 1970 article from Palante, included in Through the Eyes of Rebel Women: The Young Lords, 1969-1976 (2016)

Through the Eyes of Rebel Women: The Young Lords, 1969-1976 (2016)



  • Seeing the society that the Cuban people were attempting to build inspired me to believe it was possible to arrange a nation’s priorities to meet the needs of the majority of its people instead of just those of its corporations and super rich
  • At its best, the Young Lords offered revolutionary ideals and examples of movement-building strategies and tactics, and tough, hard-hitting, and painful lessons from its setbacks and failures.
  • We believed that the women’s struggle for equality was the ‘revolution within the revolution.’
  • The demands of the Young Lords could have been written today. We believed in the power of the people and in community and personal transformation. We demanded the redistribution of economic and social resources. We fought for racial justice and the equality of women. As internationalists, we condemned all political, economic, and military intervention by one nation against another. We battled proudly against exploitation, social injustice, and colonial domination. It was a call for revolution!

"Women Organizing Women"

  • Machismo was highly compatible with these ideas. Traditional Puerto Rican society relegated women to the private sphere: taking care of men, children, siblings, and the elderly, and accomplishing all domestic chores, including cooking and cleaning. Machismo was a complex set of beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors passed down by families from one generation to the next. Men exercised total control over the family; verbal and physical violence to keep women "in their place" was condoned. Manliness, defined by sexual virility, fostered a double standard of sexual freedom for men and monogamy for women.
  • We identified as revolutionary nationalists' committed to ending exploitation and colonialism. We were inspired by the herstories of women activists in Puerto Rico. We learned about Lola Rodríguez de Tió and Mariana Bracetti, early fighters for the abolition of slavery and the island's independence from Spain; Luisa Capetillo and Juana Colón, working class organizers and women's rights advocates; and Lolita Lebrón and Blanca Canales, Nationalist Party militants imprisoned for their actions to free Puerto Rico. We studied the lives of African American women such as Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women's rights activist, and Harriet Tubman, who freed slaves through the Underground Railroad. Our sisters in the Black Panther Party were diversifying the image of the revolutionary, and we joined the protests to demand the release of Angela Davis from a California prison, and of Afeni Shakur and Joan Bird in New York. The long line of women activists, from contemporary social justice movements, became our role models and mentors.
  • Excited to be part of a revolutionary movement, the Women's Caucus reached out to build solidarity with other women activists during 1970. We met with visionaries such as Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American living in Harlem whose family had been imprisoned in US concentration camps during World War II, a mother of six children, a friend of Malcolm X's, and a fighter for human rights. Through our coalition work, we met women in the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, and I Wor Kuen as well as members of other Puerto Rican organizations such as the New York chapter of the Movement Pro Independence (MPI) and El Comité. We quickly discovered the similarity of our experiences as women activists. Within the revolutionary ranks, we were all struggling to be treated as equals.
  • There could be no unity without struggle. "Unity, struggle, unity,” we said.
  • Although not all male members engaged in overt sexist behavior, the actions of those who did were generally overlooked or ignored. The womens caucus members demanded that such conduct stop and that men face organizational consequences for it. Another main concern was the absence of women in leadership.
  • On all levels, women were changing the politics, practices, and image of the Young Lords...Among the most important activities spearheaded by women in the Young Lords were reproductive rights campaigns. We demanded access to birth control options, safe and legal abortions; an end to sterilization and experimentation on our bodies; and access to affordable and quality health care.
  • In reviewing the history of sterilization in Puerto Rico, we learned that Native American, African American, Chicana, and Puerto Rican women across the United States were also being sterilized in great numbers. In New York City, Puerto Rican women were sterilized at seven times the rate of white women and twice the rate of black women.
  • Restrictive laws had not prevented or reduced the incidence of abortions; instead they forced low-income women to resort to unsafe, clandestine, and fatal procedures. Thousands of women of color died through botched or self-induced "hanger" abortions.
  • In September 1970, when the Young Lords Party opened a branch on the Lower East Side, several lesbian and bisexual members joined the organization. An informal Gay Caucus formed and a couple of the Central Committee leaders met with the women, collectively and individually, to discuss issues of sexual identity and orientation. However, these topics were not brought into the YLP's general political discourse. Members neither discussed nor hid their sexual orientation; it was an in-between space of coexistence. The truth is that the idea of equality with gays was less acceptable to the community than women's equality.

"New Directions to Shattered Dreams"

  • The 1960s were revolutionary times. Across the world, people demanded national independence, racial equality, women's rights, and more humane societies. Their actions gave birth to radical changes in politics, culture, and social relations that influence our lives to the present day. Specific events and individuals moved the hearts of Puerto Ricans living in the United States. The African American struggle for freedom and justice led the way. Malcolm X's powerful speeches about self-determination and self-defense taught us that revolutionary change was in our hands. When Malcolm was assassinated in 1965, we mourned the loss of a great spokesman and leader. Two months later, don Pedro Albizu Campos, Puerto Rican freedom fighter, died after being imprisoned for twenty-six years in the United States where he was subjected to radiation experiments. Again, we cried and grieved a national hero. The war in Vietnam dominated global attention. In 1968, the Tet Offensive a series of attacks by North Vietnamese forces on South Vietnamese cities, including on the US Embassy grounds in Saigon-shocked the world. The American command retaliated swiftly causing heavy casualties, and live television coverage brought the war's reality into our homes. Worldwide protests intensified. A year earlier, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken out against the war, calling it an enemy of the poor among other things. Emphasizing the relation between the war machine and poverty, Dr. King organized the Poor People's Campaign urging black, white, brown, and Asian people to camp out in front of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. until either a job or a living income was guaranteed for all. When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, thousands took to the streets in more than two hundred uprisings in 172 cities. Many had lost faith, and no longer believed, that America could be reformed via elections or demonstrations. A new wave of grassroots militancy surged.
  • By the late sixties, Puerto Ricans had settled across the United States with the vast majority living in the Northeast. The passage of time, cold winters, and freezing snowstorms dimmed memories of the Caribbean sun. Puerto Ricans built new lives, established homes, raised families, and developed another language, "Spanglish." Growing up "in the belly of the beast,"13 we witnessed the exploitation and suffering of our parents as they worked hard to survive and create opportunities for us. We also experienced poverty and racism as Puerto Ricans and as blacks. In school, we were reprimanded when our parents could not speak English and were met with contempt when we spoke Spanish. We faced societal disdain in neglected neighborhoods where government services were almost non-existent. We were a new generation living side by side with African Americans, developing internationalist perspectives, and we joined with others in similar circumstances to fight for human rights.
  • We considered ourselves "revolutionary nationalists." This idea expressed the intersecting and complex histories of Puerto Ricans exploited both in a US island colony and in the urban ghettos of the United States. Puerto Ricans suffered colonialism, class exploitation, and racism, and the Young Lords pointed to the US capitalist-imperialist system as the source of the problem. This view was distinct from that of other nationalists, who did not necessarily focus on a class analysis or on organizing the most economically disenfranchised, and from that of cultural nationalists, whose concerns were to promote and preserve Puerto Rican culture rather than transform the socio-economic-political system. For the Young Lords, revolutionary nationalism also meant internationalism-collaboration with people similarly exploited in the United States and throughout the world. The first point of the Young Lords' Thirteen-Point Program and Platform declared, "We want self-determination for Puerto Ricans: liberation on the Island and inside the United States." These were dual and simultaneous demands. The Young Lords not only organized for the rights of Puerto Ricans in the United States but also mobilized thousands to support the decolonization of Puerto Rico
  • Opinions about the responsibility of US Puerto Ricans to the island's liberation struggle had been the subject of debate for some time.
  • The idea of "divided nation" insisted that, in spite of the transformative impact of the Great Migration, Puerto Ricans were still one people. It charged the United States with creating the economic conditions that forced Puerto Ricans to migrate and families to separate…"Divided nation" merged ideas of identity and national liberation to advance the proposition that the primary duty of every Puerto Rican was to decolonize the island.
  • In Puerto Rico, the Young Lords Party came under intensified scrutiny by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
  • Out on the city streets, the police routinely stopped Young Lords as we passed out flyers, sold Palante, or attended demonstrations. Members were regularly picked up, harassed, beaten, arrested, and put in jail on any number of charges ranging from felonious assault, obstructing government administration, and resisting arrest to inciting to riot or carrying a deadly weapon.
  • The move to Puerto Rico was the biggest political mistake, not only flawed in conception, but also paternalistic and arrogant toward islanders. Puerto Ricans had fought against US imperialism since 1898 and Spanish colonialişm before that. The Young Lords Party from its East Harlem headquarters would not be the savior. The proponents of the Puerto Rico project failed to appreciate the difference between providing support to Puerto Rico's national liberation movement and trying to take it over.
  • The Young Lords represented a new chapter of Puerto Rican militancy in the United States-a powerful activism that championed a people and roused a generation. Although we did not have the Internet, cell phones, or the social media tools of today, we utilized every available resource and strategy to build a people's movement. We mobilized our communities through door-to-door canvassing, street protests, civil disobedience, mass demonstrations, takeovers of institutions, the building of coalitions and networks, and legal, political, media, and cultural work. Determined to change the deplorable living conditions of our people, we organized at the grassroots to confront powerful elites.
  • Still, others emerged committed to the principles we had embraced as Young Lords. In 1977, former members together with other activists brought international attention to the plight of Puerto Rican Nationalists in US prisons since the 1950s by occupying the Statute of Liberty and placing the Puerto Rican flag on her crown. Two years later, President Jimmy Carter pardoned the Nationalists who returned to Puerto Rico to a triumphant welcome. Former Young Lords also organized for the freedom of another generation of political prisoners, who were released in 1999. Many former members joined to expel the US Navy from Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico's east coast used for bombing exercises. Countless others helped to form the National Congress of Puerto Rican Rights in the United States, and several built educational institutions and women's organizations. Former Young Lords organized grassroots movements against police brutality, demanding justice and supporting victims' families. Others became labor organizers providing leadership to national campaigns for a living wage and immigration reform, or become health care workers. A few became journalists or reporters. Many former women members became educators and professors in public schools and universities, or lawyers, judges, and doctors. Former Young Lords also continued to organize public events to commemorate important dates in Puerto Rican history and celebrate Puerto Rican culture.
  • I took the journey with the Young Lords from the group's beginning in New York through its painful decline and saw the organization crumble. We cannot forget that those in power-the ruling class, the exploiters, those who oppose justice-strike not just for one day, but relentlessly and remorselessly to incapacitate generations to come, using all their resources-every tactic imaginable or not, with no shame or trace of humanity of any kind-to annihilate and obliterate all who resist their control and domination. Silence will not free us. For us to remember and exchange experiences is to bring healing to reinvigorate the movements for social justice to take action and fight again another day.
  • The Young Lords were first- and second-generation Puerto Ricans in the United States, also African Americans, Cubans, Dominicans, and Mexicans primarily from working class homes-people marginalized and scorned by mainstream society. Yet we dared to imagine a civilization "where the needs of the people come first, and where we give solidarity and aid to the people of the world, not oppression and racism." I end where I began, believing in rebel imagination, freedom dreams, and the power of the people to achieve human liberation. Our dedicated actions in pursuit of these ideals as Young Lords are the legacy that continues to inspire new generations.

"On the 40th Anniversary of the Young Lords in Chicago" (2009 speech)

  • Forty years ago, the Young Lords stepped to the forefront. They organized, advocated, took militant action to let the world know about the deplorable living conditions of Puerto Ricans and Latinos, they inspired Puerto Ricans and Latinos to organize and take to the streets in communities across the United States.
  • My parents both arrived in New York City after World War II, at different times but for the same reason the search for work. They left a country they loved, but where they could not make a living. About half a million Puerto Ricans made the same journey fleeing economic despair, the result of the US colonization of the island. Government officials blamed the people for the disastrous economic situation claiming that the problem was "overpopulation." They promoted the mass exodus of Puerto Ricans and implemented policies that sterilized thousands of poor and working women. The Young Lords are the sons and daughters of this Great Migration. As young people growing up in the United States, we witnessed how our parents were exploited, degraded, and humiliated. We felt their suffering, and we too had experiences with poverty and racism. All of this propelled us into action to fight for justice.
  • one of the first acts of the Young Lords in Chicago was to join the Rainbow Coalition-uniting with our allies, our brothers and sisters, in the Black Panther Party, the Brown Berets, the Young Patriots, and Rising Up Angry. The Young Lords understood the importance of collaboration and of building a broad people's movement in order to transform society.
  • In the spirit of the Young Lords and all of our ancestors who have fought oppression and injustice, we must continue to fight for human liberation.
  • We must study and reclaim our past so that we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came to be who we are, and where we are going.
  • When I met Cha Cha Jiménez and other Young Lords, I was impressed with their political ideals and militancy–with their sense of urgency and need for action.
  • I revisit the past to arrive at the present. We are again in an important historical moment, a time to mobilize masses of people in order to transform society for the benefit of poor and working people, for the advancement of all humanity.



in The Puerto Rican Movement: Voices from the Diaspora (1998)

  • In 1998, the United States marks one hundred years of colonial domination of Puerto Rico. I continue to believe that Puerto Rico should be independent, a free country, and I support the right of the Puerto Rican people to self-determination. Within the United States, we have a special responsibility to continue to struggle for Puerto Rico's independence and for the freedom of political prisoners who are still in prisons for fighting for a free Puerto Rico.
  • Not everyone who commits to progressive movements as a young person necessarily sustains commitment for a lifetime. Leadership is determined by practice, by what a person does. Many leaders separate their politics from their personal lives. Yet politics has to translate into one's life in order to truly transform society. "Leaders" who work with youth and who have children must provide for them-financially, emotionally, and with time spent with their children. Leaders have to set an example. We must reevaluate our notions of leadership. Unfortunately, today's ideas of leadership are still quite patriarchal and elitist. The definition of a leader is still the lone charismatic male heading a hierarchal organization. Collective leadership models to include working people, women, youth, gays, and those who are most marginalized need to be developed.

Quotes about Iris Morales

  • When I was little, my hero was Lolita Lebrón. And then growing up, Antonia Pantoja, Iris Morales, Esmeralda Simmons, Marta Moreno Vega, Esperanza Martell… These are all women who, from the time I was in my late teens through now, mentored me and guided me—who would pull my coat, who would give me a different perspective. I try to be to another generation of women what they were to me. Through storytelling, they would sit down with me and walk me through all kinds of scenarios so that I would be able to anchor myself culturally and politically. And I will always be in deep gratitude for them because they were my education. They were so necessary for my political development—and also for my fearlessness. I would add my mom to that. They did that for me as a young woman. Lolita Lebron was a fighter for independence of Puerto Rico. I, as a little girl, wanted to be able to lead a revolution for freedom in Puerto Rico. Little kids have different dreams, but when I was eight-years old, I’m watching the Young Lords on TV, and I’m hearing about Lolita Lebrón, and I was like That’s who I want to be. Antonia Pantoja passed away. She was the creator of a lot of our institutions. Marta Moreno Vega founded a bunch of institutions. Iris Morales was a Young Lord. Esperanza Martell is a healer and a shaman in our community.
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