By Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
When Anita Christopher, the director of senior programs at the United Methodist Community House, met Jose “Cha Cha” Jiménez, she had no idea he was the man behind Chicago’s legendary Young Lords of Lincoln Park.
And Jiménez did not know any of Christopher’s past which included being a member of Western Michigan University’s Black Action Movement, which shutdown WMU’s Student Center in the late sixties, shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. had died.
However, the two quickly learned they had a lot in common. Both lived in Kentwood. Both had been active with civil rights movements and both shared a passion of preserving their culture’s past.
That passion lead to Jiménez extending his current project of documenting the Young Lords in Lincoln Park through oral histories to residents living on the southeast and southwest sides of Grand Rapids.
In celebration of the two projects is “A Neighborhood Affair to Preserve Community” Tuesday, March 29, from 4 – 8:30 p.m. at Grand Valley State University’s Kirkhof Center, Pere Marquette Room 2204, on the Allendale Campus at 1 Campus Drive. The event features the Young Lords of Lincoln Park oral history project, including a clip from the upcoming documentary, and the release of 46 oral histories from residents living on Grand Rapids southeast and southwest side. The Grand Rapids oral histories will be available through Kent District Library and the Young Lords of Lincoln Park are available at gvsu.edu/younglords.
In 1980, Jiménez had moved to Grand Rapids to take a break from the pressures of the Young Lords, a gang based in Chicago’s Lincoln Park that he helped transform into a civil rights group for the Puerto Rican community. Jiménez eventually enrolled at Grand Valley State University where he decided, as an undergraduate project, to document the Young Lords in Lincoln Park.
When Jiménez began helping at the United Methodist Community House, he saw the same thing that had happened in the Lincoln Park area was happening to those on the southwest and southeast sides of Grand Rapids. The residents – especially the older ones – were being displaced by urban renewal.
“We talk about walkable communities,” Jiménez said. “How can residents walk to the stores or the businesses if they are being pushed further and further to the outer fringes where they have to take a bus to get anywhere?”
In an effort to develop a conversation on how to best accomplish renewal while meeting the needs of those who live in the neighborhood, Jiménez began to record the oral histories of area residents.
The histories provide a view into a portion of history that does not always make it to the school textbooks, Christopher said. To provide a connection to the youth with their elders and to give students of various backgrounds a sense of who they are and where they came from. Both Jiménez and Christopher agreed that having that connection, builds a sense of pride.
“It is like a tree with no roots,” Christopher said of youth without a sense of history. “It is not very stable and with a strong wind, could blow down.”
The oral histories also provide something else – that no matter your background, everyone has faced struggles and challenges that connect cultures and people together. Jiménez and Christopher discovered that as Christopher, who was interviewed for the project, told her story of BAM’s occupation of the Student Center.
The interviews are as diverse as the people. Christopher said she learned from a woman who had been coming to the Community House for the past 10 to 15 years that she had been involved in the march at Montgomery and helped stage a boycott with Rosa Parks. Jiménez admitted he learned some new things as well. “I interviewed one woman who is Anglo-Saxon and she talked about how she was a sharecropper. To be honest, I always thought sharecroppers were mostly Latino families.”
Jiménez added the interviewee said “she had always wanted to write book about her life and I told her that now she had through telling her story here.”
“A Neighborhood Affair to Preserve Community” is free and open to the public. Reservations are requested by Friday, March 25. To reserve a spot, email, email@example.com.