The Puerto Rican independence activist Lolita Lebrón died on Sunday August 1, 2010. She was 90 years old. Lebrón commanded a group of Puerto Rican independence advocates who attacked the Congress of the United States on March 1, 1954 to denounce the Island’s colonial situation under the US.
That day, nationalists Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores, and Andrés Figueroa Cordero opened fire in the US House of Representatives and unfurled a Puerto Rican flag and Lebrón shouted “¡Viva Puerto Rico libre!” (Long Live a Free Puerto Rico!). Lebrón reportedly fired at the ceiling. Five congressmen were wounded but no one died. Upon being arrested Lebrón declared: “I did not come here to kill anybody. I came to die for Puerto Rico.” Lolita Lebrón spent 25 years in a federal prison in the United States. President Jimmy Carter granted her clemency in 1979.
Lolita Lebrón remained steadfast in her beliefs. In June 2001 she was arrested for performing non-violent civil disobedience to protest against the US Navy military presence in the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. After years of intense activism and massive civil disobedience acts, the US Navy withdrew from the island of Vieques, which they had used as a military base and bombing range for 60 years. Later in her life, Lebrón publicly said that she had come to believe that non-violent methods were more effective than armed struggle.
On the day of her death, last Sunday, Lebrón was honored by hundreds of people in a memorial service in the Ateneo Puertorriqueño. Hundreds of mourners assisted the mass in the San Juan Cathedral on Monday and her burial in the Old San Juan cemetery, where other important independence fighters lie, such as the leader and President of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party Pedro Albizu Campos.
Lolita Lebrón earned the respect of people from different political ideologies. But she still stirs controversy within some circles. For some she is a freedom fighter, while others condemn her for using violence. Most bloggers from Puerto Rico honored her memory. Feminist blogger Nahomi Galindo convened a group of women to write about Lebrón and then posted their texts in her blog Poder, Cuerpo y Género. One of the participants, feminist activist, journalist, and scholar Norma Valle Ferrer describes Lebrón as a symbol of independentista women:
Lolita Lebrón ha sido la heroína emblemática de las mujeres independentistas de Puerto Rico durante décadas. Esto es así sin menoscabo de sus compañeras del nacionalismo, el independentismo y el socialismo, desde Mariana Bracetti hasta las lideresas universitarias de nuestros días. El desempeño de su tarea revolucionaria y la imagen pública de Lolita no fue mediatizada ni por el sexismo histórico ni por los medios de comunicación. No pudieron hacerlo. Su acto heroico y la foto que la convirtió en un ícono la marcaron como líder de un comando armado, como mujer a quien nadie calla, como decidida en la lucha por su patria.
Lolita Lebrón has been the emblematic heroine of independentista Puerto Rican women for decades. It is safe to say so without diminishing the importance of her nationalist, pro-independence, and socialist compañeras, from Mariana Bracetti to today’s student leaders. Her revolutionary work and her public image were not obscured by the sexism of the time or mass media. They could not do it. Her heroic act and the photograph that made her an icon marked her as the leader of an armed commando, as a woman who cannot be silenced, determined to fight for her country.
In the same blog, lawyer and activist Eva Prados describes Lolita as human rights activist:
Lolita fue y será una de las grandes líderes femeninas de nuestro país. Ella nos (re)afirma el papel protagónico que han tenido las mujeres en la historia de éste pueblo, aunque nuestra historiografía oficial tienda a resaltar las figuras masculinas. Pero lo que la mantendrá viva por siempre en mi recuerdo fue su valor y entrega por el respeto a los derechos humanos de todos y todas con su lucha por la libertad y libre determinación del pueblo puertorriqueño, derechos humanos del más alto rango a nivel internacional, y el cual nuestra Lolita no renunció a reclamar hasta el final.
Lolita was and will always be one of the most important women leaders of our country. She is an example of the leading role women have had in the history of this country, although our official history tends to highlight men. I will remember her for her courage and commitment to human rights of all men and women through her struggle for freedom and Puerto Rico’s self-determination. These are human rights of the highest order on the international level, which Lolita fought for until the end of her life.
One of the biggest mistakes people make in the United States is to say that Lolita was representative of a fringe group of Puerto Rican nationalists. To be a nacionalista in Puerto Rico is to believe that we as a country have the right to our own cultural identity on the way to winning our right to being a political and economic sovereign nation.
Nacionalismo in Puerto Rico is the social, cultural and political reaffirmation of our sovereignty as an independent culture, an independent nation and an independent country. I will be damned if you would find many Puerto Ricans willing to deny that they have those rights.
If you polled Puerto Rico and asked the simple question, “Do you consider yourself culturally a Puerto Rican or an US American?”, you would get a resounding Puerto Rican on that question because from a social and cultural standpoint we are all nacionalistas.
Lolita Lebrón wasn’t an outlier in a sea of colonized Puerto Ricans chanting “Oh Hosay Canyu Sí”. Lolita was an outlier in terms of being willing to open fire on the US Congress and maybe die while doing it for the cause of Puerto Rico’s independence.
And that’s why she is a terrorist to many US colonialists while being a sheroe to many Puerto Ricans like me.
Feminist blogger and lawyer Verónica Rivera Torres remembers how her parents admired Lolita:
De niña, crecí escuchando la historia de cómo mi papá y mi mamá (antes de yo haber nacido) fueron a recibir a Doña Lolita Lebrón, cuando ella, Irving Flores y Rafael Cancel Miranda fueron liberados. Habían pasado más de 25 años en prisión por haber disparado en el Congreso de los Estados Unidos. La esperaron en la Avenida Baldorioty de Castro y, en caravana, la acompañaron hasta la tumba de don Pedro Albizu Campos. Hoy Lolita ha fallecido. Mi madre ha encendido dos velas en su nombre. Todas aquellas y aquellos que soñamos con otro país estamos de luto.
As a child I grew up listening to the story of how my father and my mother (before I was born) had gone to welcome Doña Lolita Lebrón when she was released from prison, along with Irving Flores and Rafael Cancel Miranda. They had spent more than 25 years in jail for opening fire in the US Congress. They waited for her at Baldorioty de Castro Avenue, and they followed her to Pedro Albizu Campos’ grave. Today Lolita has died. My mother has lit candles in her honor. All of us who dream that another country is possible are in mourning.