Lolita Lebrón: Puerto Rican nationalist who launched an armed attack on the US House of Representatives

When an exotically beautiful, elegantly dressed woman stood up in the public gallery of the US House of Representatives on Washington's Capitol Hill on 1 March 1954, no one batted an eyelid. When three men stood up alongside her and all four started shooting from 9mm semi-automatic Luger pistols, all hell broke loose. After 30 bullets were fired and five congressmen or their aides fell wounded on the House floor, the woman, Lolita Lebrón, unfurled and waved a Puerto Rican flag and shouted "Viva Puerto Rico Libre!" (Long Live Free Puerto Rico).

To the post-9/11 generation, the date 1 March 1954 may seem trivial, but Lebrón's assault on the heart of US democracy sent shock waves through the United States at the time and was front-page news for weeks. The Puerto Rico-born New Yorker Lebró*and her three co-conspirators were branded as "terrorists" and jailed for up to 75 years. She herself got a maximum 50 years because the jury believed her story that she had not intended to kill anyone and had shot only into the ceiling. In line with the anti-communist paranoia of the 1950s, newsreels said the four were "linked to communists, their arsenal was believed to have been supplied by Reds."

The former teenage beauty queen may have been a "terrorist" to most Americans, but she became an almost mythical hero, a kind of Joan of Arc, to many Puerto Ricans both on her native island and in their large New York community. Some, however, felt such violence was a step too far. Others compared her to legendary South American revolutionaries such as Mexico's Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa or later to the Argentine-born hero of the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara. Stylised Che-style portraits of Lebró*began appearing in New York galleries and Che himself said he had been inspired by the gun-toting lady in the silk scarf, dangly earrings, bright lipstick and high heels.

The islands of Puerto Rico, with a population of four million, are in the Caribbean, more than 1,000 miles from Florida, located between the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands. They went from Spanish colonial rule to US control after the Spanish-American War of 1898, maintaining a unique status within the Union, its people gaining US citizenship but unable to vote in US presidential elections. Puerto Ricans have been split ever since over whether they should maintain the status quo, become a US state or, as Lebró*believed to her dying day, push for full independence as a Caribbean nation.

One of Lebrón's co-shooters, Andres Figueroa Cordero, was freed in 1977 because he was suffering from cancer. He died in 1979 shortly before Lebró*and the other two, Rafael Cancel Miranda and Irving Flores Rodriguez, were also released by President Jimmy Carter for what he called "humane considerations". Press reports suggested they might have been part of a swap deal for CIA agents jailed in Cuba and, indeed, Fidel Castro released the agents soon afterwards.

After the Puerto Ricans were freed on 10 September 1979, they were feted as heroes during a tour of Puerto Rican communities in New York and Chicago. They were welcomed by tumultuous crowds, with banners proclaiming "Welcome Lolita!" when they flew into the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan. For the rest of her life, saying she did not regret her action but had renounced violence, Lebró*was known respectfully by her compatriots as Doña Lolita.

One of five children of a coffee plantation foreman, Dolores "Lolita" Lebró*Sotomayor was born in Lares, western Puerto Rico, on 19 November 1919. It was a small mountain village far from the sun-bleached beaches and upmarket hotels of San Juan frequented by the wealthy from the mainland United States, but Lares had a history of rebellion. Its menfolk had risen up in what became known as "El Grito de Lares" (the Cry of Lares) against the Spanish colonialists in 1868, a brief and futile uprising but one which inspired other rebellions in the Caribbean and southwards through Latin America.

As a teenage single mother in 1940, she left her baby daughter, Gladys, with family and sailed to New York to seek a better life. She briefly married and had another child, Félix, but took him back to Puerto Rico, too, to live with relatives. While working as a seamstress in Manhattan's garment district, she worked long hours for a pittance, lived in extreme poverty in a ghetto and experienced for the first time full-blooded white-American, and even black-American racism against "spics" (Hispanics). She never forgot the signs outside bars that read: "No blacks, no dogs, no Puerto Ricans". "They told me it was a paradise," Lebró*recalled in a 2004 interview. "This was no paradise."

She became increasingly radicalised as a Puerto Rican nationalist, became an active New York delegate of the islands' Nationalist Party and was increasingly influenced by Harvard-educated nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos. Albizu Campos had been jailed for allegedly masterminding a 1950 assassination plot against US President Harry S Truman in Blair House, Washington DC, used as the presidential residence while the White House was being renovated.

In 1952, Puerto Rico's new status as a "commonwealth" of the US, with the American President still head of state, further radicalised Lebró*and, after corresponding with Albizu Campos, she agreed to lead the attack on Congress. She, Figueroa Cordero and Flores Rodriguez bought one-way tickets from New York to meet Cancel Miranda in Washington DC. They did not consider return tickets. They fully expected to die.

On Capitol Hill, a security guard asked them if they were carrying cameras. He did not mention guns. They ended up in the ladies' section of the public gallery of the House of Representatives. (Nowadays, Congress is protected by anti-car bomb barriers and metal detectors, and members' seats have bullet and bomb-proof plating).

After the shooting, police found a handwritten note in Lebrón's handbag suggesting she had expected to be shot by police or security guards: "Before God and the world, my life I give for the freedom of my country. This is a cry for victory in our struggle for independence," the letter read.

In a Washington DC prison cell the night after the attack, Lebró*said "Jesus came to me", and she became deeply religious for the rest of her life. During the rest of her 25-year term at Alderson prison, West Virginia, she said she had disturbing visions, so much so that she was sent to a psychiatric hospital for eight months.

In her later years, she insisted: "I want to be remembered for promoting peace. That includes raising questions about why so many of my Puerto Rican brothers are being sent off to die in Iraq. I've learnt that true change comes only through peaceful means. So when I see the Lord, it will be with a pure heart. It will be a good ending."

In 2001, Lebrón, already 81, was jailed for 60 days for trespassing, after she and others cut through the fence of a US naval base on Puerto Rico's smallest island, Vieques, to protest at its use as a bombing range. When freed, she walked from prison hand-in-hand with another protester, Hollywood actor Edward James Olmos. The bombing range was later closed down.

Lebrón's niece Linda Alonso Lebró*said her aunt believed in independence from the United States until her dying day. "Shortly before she passed away, she asked me, 'is no one doing anything for the independence of this country?'"

Lolita Lebró*died in hospital of heart failure after respiratory problems. She is survived by her husband of 23 years, Dr. Sergio Irizarry, and a sister. Her son and daughter predeceased her.

PHIL DAVISON

Dolores "Lolita" Lebrón Sotomayor, political activist: born Lares, Puerto Rico 19 November 1919; one son, one daughter, both deceased; died San Juan, Puerto Rico 1 August 2010.

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