Monday, August 2, 2010

Dolores “Lolita” Lebrón, 1919-2010, QEPD (RIP)

Puerto Rican Nationalist Dolores “Lolita” Lebrón Sotomayor was born in Lares, Puerto Rico, on November 19, 1919. She passed away in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on August 1, 2010.

I do not abide violence as a matter of principle, even to promote Puerto Rican independence. I further object to the acts of Nationalist violence in which Lebrón participated on practical grounds because they were used to justify a disproportionate police response that only undermined Puerto Rico’s hopes for political status change.

But I have respect for the dedication and sacrifice of some of the nationalists, and for Lebrón in particular, since she did not cause injury and was disproportionately singled out for a politically-long sentence (she was thirty-four at the time of the attack on congress, was sentenced to fifty years in jail, and spent over twenty-five years at the Federal Women’s Prison in Alderson, Virginia). She conducted herself according to principle and with dignity in prison and upon her release. After her sentence was commuted by President Carter, as explained below, she became a non-violent political activist, and a potent symbol of Puerto Rican desire for fair treatment by the U.S. and of the desire of some of us for an independent island nation.

Lebrón reportedly became politically aware and active as a result of the Masacre de Ponce (Ponce Massacre), which I describe in my book: “on Palm Sunday, March 31, 1937, the pro-independence Puerto Rican Nationalist Party marched through the streets of Ponce. The mayor had initially granted a permit for the march but had tried to rescind it at the last minute after Governor Blanton Winship “ordered the chief of police, Colonel Orbeta, to tell the mayor” to do so. After a shot of “undetermined origin,” the police fired into the crowd, killing nineteen people, including two policemen. “A later inquiry by the American Civil Liberties Union “concluded that there had been a ‘gross violation of civil rights and incredible police brutality.’” The incident is known in Puerto Rico as the Masacre de Ponce (Ponce Massacre). (Pedro A. Malavet, America’s Colony: The Political and Cultural Conflict between the United States and Puerto Rico at 91 (NYU Press 2007) (citing Arturo Morales-Carrión, Puerto Rico: A Cultural and Political History (New York: American Association for State and Local History, 1983)).

Lebrón took part in the attacks carried out by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in Washington, D.C. “The nationalists … staged two attacks in Washington, D.C., during the 1950s. Coinciding with the uprising in Puerto Rico, on November 1, 1950, nationalists “Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, attempt to assassinate President Harry S. Truman at Blair House in Washington. Torresola is killed and his partner and three police officers are wounded. . . . [White House Police Officer Leslie Coffelt died of his wounds in hospital later that night.] On March 1, 1954, four . . . nationalists [Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores, Andrés Figueroa Cordero, and Lebrón] fire 30 shots from the U.S. House visitors’ gallery, wounding five congressmen.” (Id. at 92, citing “Blast Rips World Trade Center in N.Y.; 5 Dead, Hundreds Hurt,” Los Angeles Times, February 27, 1993, sec. A, 1 (includes a timeline of attacks tied to Puerto Rican nationalists)).

Lebrón was carrying a weapon but fired only one shot into the air before displaying a Puerto Rican flag and reportedly yelling that she had not come to kill anyone, but rather to die for Puerto Rico that day. I am glad that she lived and had the opportunity to die in her own country, even if it is not yet free.

Emma Brown wrote for the Washington Post:

Lolita Lebron, a Puerto Rican nationalist known to some as a terrorist and to others as a near-mythic freedom fighter for her violent attack on the U.S. Capitol more than a half-century ago, died Aug. 1 at a hospital in San Juan of complications from respiratory disease. She was 90.

Ms. Lebron was called both fanatical and fearless for her efforts to draw attention to the cause of independence for her home island, claimed by the United States as spoils after the Spanish-American War and made an American commonwealth in 1952.

LeBron bought a ticket from New York to Washington on March 1, 1954. She and three fellow nationalists lunched at Union Station and then walked to the Capitol. They made their way to the House gallery. A security guard asked whether they were carrying cameras; they were not.

But they did have pistols. And in a crusade for Puerto Rico’s independence that Ms. Lebron saw as no different from the uprising by America’s 13 colonies against England in the 18th century, the four nationalists opened fire in the House chambers as more than 240 members of Congress debated an immigration bill.

“Viva Puerto Rico libre!” Ms. Lebron screamed. Chaos swirled as she unfurled a Puerto Rican flag. Five congressmen were struck by bullets, including 35-year-old Alvin Bentley, a Republican from Michigan who was hit in the chest.

Rep. James Van Zandt (R-Pa.) and a gallery spectator managed to wrestle away the assailants’ guns. Arrested and handcuffed, the four nationalists were photographed outside the Capitol in an image splashed across newspaper front pages.

In the photograph, a striking Ms. Lebron wears a set jaw and a stylish skirt and jacket. She had expected to die that day, and police found a note in her purse along with a tube of lipstick and Bromo-Seltzer pills.

“My life I give for the freedom of my country,” the note read. “The United States of America are betraying the sacred principles of mankind in their continuous subjugation of my country.”

‘I am a revolutionary’

The shooting and its aftermath captivated Washington for weeks. Ms. Lebron and her fellow attackers had unleashed 29 bullets, leaving scars still visible at the Capitol, but none of the five injured congressmen died.

Ms. Lebron sat quietly during most of the trial, breaking her silence to tell the jury in a fiery 20-minute speech that she was “being crucified for the freedom of my country.” She was sentenced to more than 50 years in prison.

In a move widely suspected to have been part of a prisoner swap to release CIA agents jailed in Cuba, President Jimmy Carter granted clemency to Ms. Lebron, two of her co-conspirators and a nationalist who had tried to kill President Harry S. Truman.

Released in 1979 after serving 25 years in prison, Ms. Lebron embarked on a tour of Puerto Rican population centers in the United States. She was also received in Havana as a guest of President Fidel Castro.

The attack came four years after a failed attempt by Puerto Rican nationalists to assassinate Truman. It gave Ms. Lebron a place among the most famous of Latin American revolutionary figures, including Che Guevara and Pancho Villa.
“I am a revolutionary,” she said at the time. “I hate bombs, but we might have to use them.”

Lolita Lebron was born Nov. 19, 1919, in Lares, a Puerto Rican village where, in 1868, local men rose up against Spanish colonists in a legendary rebellion known as El Grito de Lares, “the cry of Lares.”

Her father was a coffee farmer and her mother was a homemaker. Ms. Lebron, crowned “Queen of the Flowers of May” as a teenager, left Puerto Rico for a better life in New York in 1940. She left behind a baby daughter, who later died. Ms. Lebron’s granddaughter is writer Irene Vilar. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

Working as a seamstress in the garment district, Ms. Lebron lived in grinding poverty and found herself the object of racial discrimination. “They told me it was a paradise,” Ms. Lebron said in a Washington Post interview in 2004. “This was no paradise.”

She began corresponding with Harvard-educated Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos after he was jailed for his part in the 1950 plot against Truman. Albizu Campos reputedly tapped Ms. Lebron to lead the siege against Congress as a last-ditch effort for independence.

Ms. Lebron in turn inspired other nationalists to violence. Between 1974 and 1983, Puerto Rico’s Armed Forces of National Liberation set off dozens of bombs in Chicago and New York, killing six people and injuring more than 100.

But the independence movement did not gain momentum in Puerto Rico. When voters were asked in 1998 whether they wanted the island to become a state or an independent nation or retain their semiautonomous status, the prevailing response was “none of the above.” Independence won 2.5 percent of the vote.

Renouncing violence

After returning home to Puerto Rico, Ms. Lebron became a symbol of nationalist pride. She continued to protest U.S. involvement on the island, but she renounced violence, saying her change of heart was rooted in religious revelations she had while she was in jail.

In 2001, she was arrested at age 81 while protesting the U.S. military’s use of Vieques, a neighboring Caribbean island, as a bombing range. She was sentenced to 60 days in jail for trespassing. The bombing range was later closed.

Her pledge of nonviolence was tested in 2005 when the FBI shot and killed Filiberto Ojeda Rios, the Puerto Rican leader of a paramilitary pro-independence group. Ojeda Rios was wanted in connection with the 1983 robbery of an armored-truck depot in Connecticut. As angry crowds gathered in the streets, Ms. Lebron spoke out.

“She had a tremendous impact,” Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua told the Chicago Tribune in 2006. “Young people were protesting in the streets, and there was talk of getting revenge. But Lolita told people, ‘No violence!’—and there was none.”

Emma Brown, A fervor for Puerto Rico's freedom led her to violent act at U.S. Capitol, The Washington Post, B-4, August 2, 2010.

See also Sara M. Justicia Doll, Lolita Lebrón se Armó por Valor por su Ideal, Primera Hora, 2 Agosto 2010.

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