Published Aug 13, 2010
Expressing the sounds of her beloved Puerto Rico, hundreds of people
singing plenas and chanting about her valiant character accompanied
independence fighter Lolita Lebrón to her final resting place in the
Old San Juan Cemetery. She was buried close to her dear Maestro, Don
Pedro Albizu Campos. As she had requested, the burial took place just
over 24 hours after her death.
"Lolita Lebrón, ejemplo de valor" (example of courage) and "Se
siente, se siente, Lolita está presente" (You can feel Lolita's
presence) were chanted mostly by women. On several occasions they
took the weight of the casket from the men carrying it.
Not only pro-independence Puerto Ricans from all parties and
organizations attended, but people of all political affiliations
honored Lebrón. The breadth of support attested to Lebrón's nurturing
and humane nature and her relentless call for unity to defend Puerto
Rican identity. She made friends across party lines.
Lebrón was as fierce defending independence as she was humble in
appreciating all who fought for Puerto Rican values. One example was
her friendship with Norma Burgos, a pro-statehood senator, present at
the funeral, who shared jail time with Lebrón for opposing the U.S.
Navy occupation of the island of Vieques, which it used for bombing exercises.
Lebrón's death immediately aroused a steady stream of heartfelt
messages, poems, videos and songs across the internet. Both
alternative and corporate newspapers ran obituaries, including an
article in the Washington Post that spoke for the ruling class of the
city where Lebrón was arrested in 1954. The Post's author compared
Lolita to revolutionaries like the Argentine/Cuban Che Guevara and
Mexican Pancho Villa. The international community, especially Cubans
and Nicaraguans, sent many messages.
Lolita Lebrón's life, both personal and political, represents the
history of Puerto Rico during the consolidation of U.S. colonial
power on the island and the fight against that domination. Lebrón was
born on Nov. 19, 1919, in the city of Lares, where in 1898 people
rose up against Spanish domination in what is known as the Grito de Lares.
The event called "the Ponce massacre" marked Lebrón's teenage years.
On Palm Sunday March 27, 1937 colonial police surrounded a
peaceful demonstration by members of the Nationalist Party in the
city of Ponce. Under the direct orders of U.S.-appointed and
U.S.-backed Gov. Blanton Winship, police opened fire, killing 22
unarmed people and wounding 200.
In 1941, leaving her daughter under her mother's care, Lebrón left
Puerto Rico for New York City. As did thousands of Puerto Ricans in
the 1940s, she sought a job that was better than the unstable, poor
existence facing them on the island. She worked in the garment
industry and formally joined the Nationalist Party in New York,
becoming an important leader. Lebrón was jailed for a brief period
along with other Nationalists after demonstrations in front of the
U.N. against "Free Associated State" status that the U.S. imposed on
Puerto Rico in 1952.
In 1954 Nationalist leader Don Pedro Albizu Campos suggested an
action in Washington, D.C., to call international attention to the
island's status. The year before, the U.S. government had convinced
the U.N. to approve a resolution that took Puerto Rico off the list
of colonial territories. This resolution allowed the U.S. to withhold
information about Puerto Rico from the U.N., clearing the way to
intensify the island's exploitation.
On March 1, 1954, Lebrón led the operation in the House of
Representatives with Nationalist comrades Rafael Cancel Miranda,
Irving Flores and Andrés Figueroa Cordero. Shouting "Viva Puerto Rico
libre" and unfurling a Puerto Rican flag, she was the first one to
shoot at the ceiling.
Except Flores, who was able to escape, the other three were
immediately arrested. Hundreds of Nationalists were arrested for
"prevention detention" in New York, Chicago, Washington and all over
Puerto Rico, including Albizu Campos. Lebrón was sentenced to 56
years in prison, and the rest to 81 years for "assault with a weapon."
In 1979 after a great deal of pressure particularly from the Puerto
Rican Political Prisoners Committee President Jimmy Carter pardoned
them along with Nationalist Oscar Collazo who had been imprisoned
since 1950 for the attack on Blair House. They were all freed
unconditionally. Figueroa Cordero had been freed in 1978 because of
ill health. Carter pardoned them along with Nationalist Oscar Collazo
who had been imprisoned since 1950 for the attack on Blair House.
They were all freed unconditionally. Figueroa Cordero had been freed
in 1978 because of ill health.
In an Aug. 4 interview with the Puerto Rican weekly Claridad, Cancel
Miranda remembers Lebrón's courage: "[S]he went up the stairs [in
Congress] and I saw this woman and I do not get tired of saying it,
she was carrying not only our flag, but our dignity. ... There was
this Puerto Rican woman from Lares, going up these stairs knowing
that she was going to die; because she went to give her life [for our
Once free, Lolita continued tirelessly in the struggle to liberate
her homeland: going on tours, giving speeches, writing poetry, but
mostly joining others in demonstrations in Puerto Rico. She was a
visible figure in the struggle against the Navy presence in Vieques
and was arrested at age 81 for crossing into restricted shooting grounds.
In spite of great suffering during her incarceration in federal
prisons in the U.S., where she was cruelly mistreated and mentally
tortured, coupled with her own personal losses both her children
died while she was in prison Lebrón kept unwavering commitment to
the struggle for independence. Her contributions are many writings,
poems, but, above all, her work assuring that women are active
participants and leaders in the struggle. She is an example of Albizu
Campos' famous pronouncement: "La Patria es valor y sacrificio"
(Homeland is courage and sacrifice).
Lolita Lebrón, ¡Presente! ¡Viva Puerto Rico Libre!
The writer participated in the movement to free political prisoners
in Puerto Rico and was part of a team of progressive physicians who
examined Lebrón, Cancel Miranda and Flores upon their return to
Puerto Rico in 1979.