As I approach the closing of my 34th year on this earth, I reflect on the actions of another 34 year old, the global impact of those actions back in 1954 and their continued impact. Her life and work has always inspired me. 6 of my paintings are dedicated to her legacy. Today I reflect on Lolita Lebron in memory of her long, accomplished, dedicated, fierce and valiant 90 years on this earth! Below is the revised version of an article I wrote several years ago, contextualizing Lolita Lebron’s experience within Puerto Rico’s position as a colony. These words helped me to consider how Lolita could be anyone of us. In the end, she wasn’t. She was a special brave breed, but certainly we all have her in us. What we choose to do with that inner Boricua and how we choose to use it is up to each of us.
detail, “Mothers of the Motherless,” 2008, Yasmin Hernandez
Commissioned by the Edmonia Lewis Center for Women and Transgender People, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio
Dolores “Lolita” Lebron
*November 19, 1919- August 1st, 2010
Que en paz y libertad descanse!
On March 1st, 1954, four Puerto Ricans arrived on the steps of the US Capitol. Their commander was 34 year-old Lolita Lebron. Dressed in a tailored, skirted suit, velvet hat, peep toe pumps and pearl earrings, no one might have suspected her of being a revolutionary. With Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores Rodriguez and Andres Figueroa Cordero by her side, from the Ladies Gallery they stood over a session of the US House of Representatives. A separate space for visitors, Lolita subverted the Ladies Gallery when she unfurled a Puerto Rican flag, shouting "¡Viva Puerto Rico libre!" The group opened fire. Several Americans were injured from bullets that ricocheted. When questioned, Lolita simply stated: Yo no vine a matar, yo vine a morir. (I did not come to kill, I came to die.) They all seemed to have the same intent as they each had purchased one-way tickets to Washington, never expecting to return. Lolita’s purse contained what would have been a suicide note. It read:
Before God and the world my blood calls for the independence of Puerto Rico. My life I give for the freedom of my country. This is a cry for victory in our struggle for independence. I say that the United States of America is betraying the sacred principles of mankind with its continuous subjugation of my country, violating our right to be a free nation and a free people with its barbarous torture of our apostle for independence Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos. I take responsibility for everything.
Lolita Lebron and her comrades succeeded in bringing global attention to the cause for Puerto Rico’s independence. Their intent was to protest the US occupation of Puerto Rico since 1898, but more specifically, to denounce the disguising of the colony with the new so-called commonwealth status that was approved in 1952. This new status allowed for the United States to have Puerto Rico removed from the list of global colonies that the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization had been reviewing. The United States claimed the island was no longer a colony, yet the US president still has veto power over any law passed by Puerto Rico’s government. In addition, the colonial government criminalized the desire for the natural right to independence. The 1948 Law 53, la Mordaza or the Gag Law illegalized any public expression of pro-independence sentiment in Puerto Rico. Lolita Lebron and her comrades were charged with seditious conspiracy or the attempt to overthrow the US government. They served a total of 25 years in prison before their release in 1979. Andres Figueroa Cordero’s sentence had been commuted two years earlier because of his failing health due to cancer.
Revolutionary sentiment in Puerto Rico has always been nurtured in Lares. It was in this mountain town that on September 23rd, 1868 people took up arms against the Spanish colonizers, claiming Lares as the Republic of Puerto Rico. Although colonial authorities managed to end the rebellion, that revolution is credited with having cemented the Puerto Rican nationality in the hearts and minds of Boricuas. In 1919, a half century after the insurrection, Lares was the birthplace of another light in the struggle for liberation, only this time the struggle was against a new oppressor.
Dolores "Lolita" Lebron was born in Lares on November 19th, 1919. Not only was her birthplace significant, so was her birthday. It was on November 19th, 1493 that the first imperialist, Christopher Columbus, arrived on the shores of Boriken, the land of braves, as called by the native Taino people. The Taino were among the most recent civilizations at the time of the European’s arrival. They were descendants of thousands of years of indigenous peoples to have inhabited the Caribbean islands. November 19th 1493 marked the beginning of Boriken’s battles against the Spanish colonizers who changed their homeland’s name to San Juan Bautista and then later to Puerto Rico. It was a battle to save their lands, their culture and their people, all under siege by foreigners who came to exploit and enslave.
If a Boricua is a person hailing from Boriken—land of braves, then being Boricua is being brave. Lolita was most definitely born to continue the legacy of braves like the Taino caciques Agueybana, Guarionex and Cacimar, or Anacaona, a woman warrior from Bohio/ Ayti, Boriken’s neighbor. Lolita was born into struggle. At the time of her birth Puerto Ricans had either witnessed first-hand the transfer of their land from one imperialist to another or had to face the brutal realities of a new colonial authority. In 1917, two years before her birth, without their consent, all Puerto Ricans were made US citizens with the Jones Act. This law coincided with the US entering WWI, subsequently allowing for the drafting of Puerto Ricans to fight in WWI and every US war thereafter. These soldiers, through a second-class US citizenship ultimately served a foreign government within which they had no voting representation. To this day, soldiers from Puerto Rico, their families or anyone in Puerto Rico for that matter, are not able to vote for their supposed commander –in-chief.
In response to these colonial injustices, unlike the parties that came before it, el Partido Nacionalista de Puerto Rico (Nationalist Party) was founded with the specific purpose of liberating Puerto Rico. In 1929, when Lolita was 10 years old, Don Pedro Albizu Campos born in Puerto Rico to a woman of African descent and a Spaniard of Basque descent, was elected President of the Nationalist Party. Albizu transformed the Party into a liberation movement to free Puerto Rico from US colonial control by any means necessary.
In the Puerto Rico of Lolita’s youth, children were among those serving as first-hand witnesses to the hardships under a new colonizer. Lolita and all the other Spanish-speaking children were required to recite the US Pledge of Allegiance in class and read textbooks written in English. She remembered the young children who resisted by refusing to speak the imposed English language and others who were forced to wet their pants for not requesting permission in English to use the bathroom. Her adolescent years were marked by intense battles between Puerto Rican Nationalists and the colonial authorities. Innocent Boricuas died at the hands of colonial police and Nationalists responded with armed resistance. In 1936 they assassinated the Chief of Police in retaliation for the colonial injustices suffered. The US response was to arrest the leadership of the party in 1937, including Albizu Campos who was imprisoned for the majority of his adult years in a government attempt to smother the Nationalist movement.
By the time Lolita reached her adult years, a massive sterilization campaign was being launched in Puerto Rico. Women were encouraged to get their “tubes tied,” but not informed that this procedure involved the permanent severing of their fallopian tubes, resulting in their infertility. Promoted as an anti-poverty campaign, the plan seemed to serve a more genocidal agenda to de-populate Puerto Rico of Puerto Ricans while keeping the island itself under US colonial control. One disturbed American doctor even injected Puerto Ricans with cancer as a way to eliminate a people that he considered to be inferior. As Albizu said, "The Yankees want the birdcage without the bird". In addition, Puerto Rican women were used as lab rats on which to experiment the contraceptive foam and contraceptive pill. The unhealthily high levels of hormones in these early pills tested in Puerto Rico led to the long lists of warnings and side effects included on today’s package inserts.
During this same time, the colonial government initiative "Operation Bootstrap", aided in destroying the island's agricultural economy by putting an industrial one in its place. Its aim was to provide more jobs for Puerto Rico, however in diminishing agricultural production across the island, Puerto Ricans no longer produced their own food. They now had to import all their food from expensive US markets. What was being produced in Puerto Rico was controlled by foreign corporations who took their products and capital elsewhere. Consequently, the women of Puerto Rico, Lolita Lebron included, became part of a plan to develop an island-wide sweatshop that would craft a new generation of workers to exploit. The new dollar-driven economy required the cheap labor of both Puerto Rican men and women for the benefit and profit of foreign corporations. Having less mothers and less pregnant women meant more cheap female labor, which is why factories heavily supported the sterilization campaign, even giving women special days off to get sterilized. Additionally, thousands of Puerto Ricans were encouraged to migrate to the US in pursuit of the "american dream". In the earlier part of the century they were forced to do oppressive agricultural work in the racist, segregated south, in California and in Hawaii, among other places. By the 1940s many women arrived in large cities like New York only to learn that they could not change employers, residence or even go back home to their families until they had lived/ worked out a contract with an employer who controlled their every move. So only decades after the 1873 abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico, young women found themselves as indentured servants in the "land of the free". Farmers in Puerto Rico were forced to sell their land to foreign corporations because they could not compete with the rich invaders. As a single mom, Lolita Lebron was forced to leave her child with her family and move to New York to try to earn a living as migration campaigns promised.
As with WWI and WWII, the Korean War gave Americans another reason to draft Puerto Rican men into the US military. Draft resisters were arrested, including Lolita's comrade, Rafael Cancel Miranda. Meanwhile, in New York, Lolita endured sweatshop labor, even sewing patches onto the military uniforms of Uncle Sam’s army. She, like Albizu before her who had served in the US military, also came to experience first-hand American racism and segregation. Signs that read "No Blacks, no dogs, no Puerto Ricans" were a common sight for Lolita. She quickly realized that there were no greener pastures on the other side of el charco. Recognizing the injustices Puerto Ricans faced both on the island and in the states, she gravitated towards the Nationalist movement.
During his incarceration, Nationalist Party leader Pedro Albizu Campos was subjected to radiation experiments by the US government. These experiments were part of a global lab that the United States launched after its bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, using the victims as lab specimens on which to test the results of radiation. Other victims of these experiments were prisoners in the US, like Albizu, tortured for his actions against the US government. Unable to withstand the radiation attacks, his body succumbed to illness. The attacks and abuse inflicted on their nation and their leader further convinced the Nationalists to advance their work to break free from imperial oppression. A series of insurrections were launched in Puerto Rico and in Washington in 1950. A few years later, on March 1st, 1954, Lolita Lebron took her turn.
As stated earlier, Lolita and her comrades served 25 years by the time they were released in 1979 in response to a mass campaign launched by the people in support of their release. The cycle within the struggle for liberation continued however when in the following year, 1980, another group of Puerto Rican freedom fighters, members of the FALN, were arrested and also charged with seditious conspiracy or attempting to overthrow the U.S. government. A few years after that another series of arrests were made affecting the Machetero organization. Two political prisoners continue to be held at this time. One of the longest held prisoners, Carlos Alberto Torres was released just a few weeks ago after serving three decades in prison. He arrived to a heartfelt welcome in Chicago and in Puerto Rico. Lolita Lebron passed away the following week.
It is my belief that people can have the power to choose the time of their departure. Lolita chose to go after the wake of pride and accomplishment that swept the nation for the successful homecoming of Political Prisoner Carlos Alberto Torres. However she also chose to go during the time of organizing sweeping the Puerto Rican Diaspora in preparation for the fifth anniversary of the FBI assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Rios, Machetero leader. The event will be commemorated on September 23rd, as the US government knew to violate that sacred, revolutionary date in Puerto Rico’s history by choosing to assassinate one of its most radical and beloved leaders on that day in 2005. These events following one after another are again building momentum to reinvigorate the Puerto Rican liberation struggle. Oftentimes within these struggles repression builds fear and occasional strategic government hand-outs build complacency. Sparks are needed to remind us not to get too comfortable, not to forget that we are not yet free. Lolita Lebron was aware of never getting too comfortable and losing sight of the struggle. After 25 years served behind bars for her nation and her people, one would think she fulfilled her duty. However at the age of 81, she proudly entered a prison cell again in defense of the people and the island of Vieques violated over 6 decades with US Navy bombings.
Lolita fought for her nation to her last breath. Lolita exemplified the title of Boricua which she carried proudly in the legacy of so many brave warriors that came before her. Boricua is a term that has entered the mainstream via pop music. People like Lolita do not just give us access to this name that marks our homeland and ancestral heritage. More importantly, Lolita challenges us to question whether we are living up to the title. Have we earned the right to call ourselves Boricua? Are we walking the brave, fearless, selfless paths of our warrior ancestors?
PS. As this post was too large, part two will include my images inspired by Lolita Lebron
*Note: I find two birth years listed for Lolita, 1919 and 1920. I’m going with 1919 unless I can find proof otherwise.