Charlyne Martínez-Villegas came to Grand Rapids, Michigan from New Jersey where she loved it because there were many Puerto Ricans. In Grand Rapids she was only one of a few. Another reason that she loved New Jersey is that that is where her mother and father were still married. She explains that as soon as their family arrived in Grand Rapids, her parents divorced. Her mother worked hard trying to make ends meet, preparing homemade pasteles that people would order from her ahead of time and then she would have to have them ready at all hours of the day or week. Eventually her mother’s homemade business led to opening up a small restaurant on Grandville Avenue which is always filled with patrons. In Grand Rapids, Ms. Martínez-Villegas began to get in trouble at school and in the neighborhood on the southeast side of the city, by Garfield Park. She missed her friends back in New Jersey and in school “she just did not fit in…the kids were mostly white, or black.” She explains that she could relate a little better with black children because they shared a lot of things in common. She also missed her father. The Young Lords were passing out flyers door-to-door. But they did not use the name “Young Lords” publicly. Instead they called themselves the “KO CLUB.” And they had a way with words. She explains that they had to read some pledges and phrases and everything began with KO: “Keep Open Your Hearts” or “Keep Standing Up for Yourself” or “Keep Open Your Mind.” Their meetings were held in a United Methodist Church, and the heads of the KO Club were Pastor Marge Berman, who was of Mexican descent, and Mr. José “Cha-Cha” Jiménez. Members of the Club were also shown several videos about the Young Lords.The young people who participated in the Club and the small congregation were supportive. But there were a few within the church who did not like the Young Lords, who had taken over Methodist Churches in New York and Chicago. Those same individuals also did not like Pastor Berman, who was new and wanted more interaction with the community. Pastor Berman had read a newspaper article about the Young Lords while Mr. Jiménez was working as a substance abuse counselor for Project Rehab. She contacted him by phone. And when they met for the first time, Pastor Berman told him that he was sent by God. To which Mr. Jiménez replied, “Did God send any money? Because I have bills.” Mr. Jiménez did want to organize and help youth, but he wanted to do so around issues related to the Young Lords. Pastor Berman just wanted to save souls. It was a good understanding, but Mr. Jiménez would have to work incognito because using the name Young Lords name would be like saying the word “gang” in Grand Rapids. The KO Club worked well because it was not an after school program. It was an “in the neighborhood program.” It was focused on youth like Ms. Martínez-Villegas who did not want anything to do with school. And while others were saying to all youth who got in trouble, “Lock them up and throw away the key.” the KO Club had their own public slogan: “Support Youth For A Change.” Parents had to get involved, because the KO Club would visit them in their home and let them know that they were not babysitters. Once a month parents would attend amateur night where the KO CLUB members would perform for them and the rest of the community. Organizing was constantly being done door-to-door. KO CLUB was like a good gang and everyone was a member. Their colors were black and purple, but their symbol was a heart with KO in the middle and a cross above the heart. Once a year there was an annual dinner with the community where many members of the United Methodist Church attended including the Bishop. It was cost effective as it was run more like support groups divided by age: pee wee, juniors, and seniors. They would all have a chance to express themselves in a variety of ways, including discussion, with music, or in sports. The only problem came from the adults. Some wanted to make it more ecumenical to include the community at large and others wanted the organization to be more faith-based. Still others wanted control. And Pastor Berman was moved to a church in Los Angeles, California. Mr. Jiménez was left alone, fighting church elders who were paranoid that Mr. Jiménez might want to speak for the church. Mr. Jiménez understood their fears and resigned in an amicable way. The youth program continues today and it is being run more privately within the church. Ms. Martínez-Villegas says that it is what she needed then with the loss of her father, and that participating in the KO Club turned her life around.
Jiménez, José, 1948-
Grand Valley State University. University Libraries. Special Collections & University Archives