IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Two Latino Activists Divided by Years, Joined By Their Cause

Image: Luis  Acosta and Ruben Sanchez
Luis Garden Acosta, the president of El Puente community group in New York and Ruben Elias Canedo Sanchez, research and mobilization coordinator for the Centers for Educational Equity & Excellence at University of California, Berkeley.Suzanne Gamboa / NBC

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- They sat on opposite ends of the room and didn't know each other. One is considered the old guard, while the other is the fresh young face. One is Puerto Rican and Dominican, born in New York; the other is Mexican American, born in the U.S. but raised in Mexico. One works on the West Coast, the other the East Coast.

Together they were two ends of a half century of activism in the Latino community. When they had the chance to meet for the first time on a stage during the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's America Healing conference held here this week, Luis Garden Acosta, founder of El Puente community organization and Ruben Elias Canedo Sanchez, who heads the Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence at University of California, Berkeley, saw themselves in one another.

"The way he speaks, he would be wearing a beret if he'd been around in the 1960s," Luis Garden Acosta said of Canedo.

Acosta was referring to the signature blue beret worn by the Young Lords, a social activist group of young Puerto Ricans that he helped found in 1969. The group formed to fight discrimination against their community in U.S. cities and pushed for causes in the island of Puerto Rico, too. Investigated by the FBI during their heyday, now, a street in New York bears the group's name.

In return, Canedo said he knew he would not be where he is without Acosta's lifetime of activism and community organizing.

Acosta thought Canedo deserved the blue beret after his "blunt talk" during a panel on racial justice movements across generations. There have been clashes between young and old activists in some of the protests and rallies following police shootings.

Canedo called on the "elders" in minority communities to do a better job of training the young people trying to carry on the work they started.

Too often, Latino leaders or those of other minority communities, want younger people to have to scale the same obstacles they did, Canedo said. They become CEOs or are pioneers in the positions they hold, but then never talk to young people. They should be treating young people as they wish they had been treated, he said.

"It took an entire generation before us to get to the professional level," Canedo said. "What happened to them in the time before us doesn't need to happen to another generation."

Despite the difference in years, Acosta agreed with Canedo. "I cannot stand people pontificating about the past that doesn't work in terms of dealing with the present," he said. "We have major issues of the present." He added that if young people want to know about it, he's happy to tell them about it. But "young people should emerge and see their own vision and we should support them."

Garden Acosta added that he had supportive mentors, who worried about his activism in the Young Lords but still backed him.

"I instantly bonded with Ruben because, you know, it's like me talking, and I'm so happy to hear me," Acosta said with a gentle laugh. "If you have mentors like I had who challenged me, who propelled me, who moved me on, who inspired me to be bold, then it's very different. I know what it meant for me so that's why I can hold a space for young people as they held a space for me ... Every generation must champion and see its own cause and it's the responsibility of elders to act as elders in support of our young people."

Canedo said Latinos are very "intentional" about making sure their culture is preserved, the way his mother taught him to make enchiladas.

"In that same way, that's what I'm asking for on behalf of elders, to get outside of the home and into these ... institutional entities that we are a part of ... I want you to teach me at that level, how to effectively lead a foundation, how to effectively lead a non-profit organization. How to effectively lead in whatever field I'm in," he said.

At Berkeley, Canedo runs programs that work with non-traditional students, ranging from first generation college-goers to student parents and veterans to those who are 25 and older. He said the program defines its success not by only getting the students to graduation but also ensuring they succeed after graduation, either through pursuing higher degrees or moving into successful careers and excelling in them.

"Getting to graduation is not success. It's getting to graduation at the healthiest point of your life, mind body and spirit, getting there with your highest possible academic marks and getting there holistically, professionally developed so when you get there, you know where you are going," Canedo said.

Acosta's activism has been preserved in the documentary film "Pa'lante, Siempre Pa'lante". He and other Young Lords had fought in East Harlem on some of the same issues that are the focal point of social activism today - poor, unhealthy housing and lack of access to health care among other things.

The Young Lords took over a Spanish-language Methodist church that had refused to open its doors to them, to feed breakfast to young children, provide healthcare and daycare and social justice education. Later, they took over a hospital and along with health services started provided drug treatment.

They had been inspired by the Chicago Young Lords Organization, which also had taken over a church to provide services for its community. Nearly 20 years ago, the New York Times wrote that the Young Lords served as a model for Latino movements of the time.

Acosta has gone on to lead El Puente, founded in 1982, a community-based group that develops young people and adults in arts, wellness, education and informs them on scientific research; it also runs a public high school.

One difference Garden Acosta sees is that the movements of his time were not as multicultural as they are today. He said he has noticed the mix of races in marches related to police shootings.

"It's refreshing to me and I know that there's tension. (But) to see this generation - I'm humbled by it. The kind of welcoming they have ... that we, not everybody, so many of us disparaged in the 60s and 70s. We missed a lot."