Luis Garden Acosta founded El Puente in 1982. He wanted the massive amount of violence occurring in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to stop. The violence in this Southside community was out of control. To achieve his goal, he assembled community activists, church leaders, educators, artists, and health providers. The majority of the media referred to the area as New York City’s teenage gang capital. Between July of 1979 and June of 1980, 48 youths were assassinated in this area.
The number of deaths was astronomical considering the population was just over 30,000. One assassination occurred every week. El Puente has been making headlines for the last three decades. The group has established many headline initiatives in addition to creating a national model for community development to promote the development of youths. El Puente is based on leadership development through a holistic approach. The idea is to bridge the gap for youths and their families.
This includes the worlds of the arts, education, and health through community empowerment and activism. The key focus of El Puente is seeing, judging, and acting. This motto originated from the Young Lords Party legacy and the Young Christian Worker movement. The result is to inspire the members in addition to their families through a human rights movement to lead numerous community initiatives and campaigns. Four Leadership Centers are operated by the group in North Brooklyn.
The leadership training is based on a holistic approach with a signature Membership Model for community development and creative youths. The program is based on skills integrating bilingual comprehensive and social activities including visual and performing arts, wellness, health, academic enrichment, sports, internships, and one-on-one mentoring. Both the adult and youth members of El Puente Leadership Centers participate in a variety of projects for community development.
National and city campaigns for social justice develop and support program leadership. This has impacted global issues El Puente addressed in his Platform for Human Rights. Luis Garden Acosta recently passed away at the age of 73. He will be forever remembered as the president and founder of El Puente in Williamsburg New York. The enduring legacy he left behind included community organization and activism reaching from Williamsburg, Brooklyn all the way to Puerto Rico.
Condolences on this tragic loss have been sent to the El Puente family and the family of Luis Garden Acosta by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. The story began in Fort Greene, Brooklyn in 1945 when Puis Garden Acosta was born. His father was Dominican and his mother Puerto Rican. In 1937, she ran from the island when her fiance was killed at the Ponce Massacre. Luis Garden Acosta was raised in the Fort Green and Brooklyn Heights, Williamsburg neighborhoods.
He became interested in his community when he was young. This was partially due to the influence of the Catholic church. He was mentored by one of the local pastors serving St. Barbara’s Church. When he reached the age of 15, he enrolled in Pennsylvania’s St. Mary’s Seminar. Once he received a college degree, his intention was to enter the priesthood. He never took his final vows. Luis Garden Accosta stated his decision was influenced by Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1963, he watched the I Have A Dream Speech and everything changed. He went back to Brooklyn and became a part of a Catholic anti-war movement. He also became a member of the Young Lords. He started studying medicine in 1970 and spent the next three years at Harvard. In 1973 he relocated to Amherst, Massachusetts, and began working as a substance abuse counselor. At this time, a five-minute radio program was launched on Latin American news. Within a short period of time, Dr. Salas’s Medicine Show was born and ran for three hours.
The success of this show is the reason Luis Garden Acosta returned to New York City. The year was 1980. While working at Greenpoint Hospital, he became aware of the youth violence taking place in southside Williamsburg. This was the reason he stopped syndication for his radio show. He decided he wanted to help the community instead. He witnessed the death of a young patient in the hospital in the emergency room. This incident was the catalyst that eventually resulted in the creation of El Puente.
El Puente was a bridge between Luis Garden Acosta’s religious and progressive circles. This was the reason he chose the name, El Puente. Louis Garden Acosta, his wife, Gino Maldonado and Frances Lucerna founded El Puente in 1982. Today, the organization is recognized as an institution for community human rights. El Puente promotes leadership for justice and peace by engaging adult and youth members in education, wellness, environmental action, the arts, and scientific research.
In 1996, Luis Garden Acosta, Hector Calderon, and Francis Lucerna, his wife, founded the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice as a high school alternative. In 1999, the couple received an extremely generous award for the work they did with the southside community. This award was granted by the Heinz Family Foundation. As time passed, El Puente became involved in initiatives and programs to combat climate change. In 2013, the Latino Climate Action Network was established in Puerto Rico.
Another recent initiative El Puente launched is called the Green Light District. This ten-year initiative celebrates the Williamsburg Southside community through sustainable green growth. As the Centro Director, a statement was made by Edwin Melendez. He spoke of the passion Luis Garden Acosta had for both the Williamsburg Southside community and Puerto Rico. He thanked him for the support he gave to Centro and for contributing to its mission. Now, as residents sit in the comfort of their homes in front of their electric fireplace, they can rest assured that they are living a life inspired by green growth.
The commitment Luis Garden Acosta made to the organization of social justice and community values will continue through El Puente. The efforts of Luis Garden Acosta helped access the original Palante issues and the conversion to microfilm. The Centro Library was the Young Lords newspaper. Numerous researchers have benefited from this resource over the years. This resource is one of the most frequently requested for information regarding the Young Lords.
The Oral History Project of the Puerto Rican Centro 100 contains an interview with an extensive oral history of the Young Lords, El Puente, and Luis Garden Acosta. The mission of Luis Garden Acosta lives on. He wanted to nurture and inspire leaders for peace and justice.