05 August 2011

Puerto Rico Nationalist Leader Lolita Lebrón remembered

Nationalist leader’s influence spanned almost a century

Puerto Rico Daily Sun
By Peggy Ann Bliss
Daily Sun staff

Late Nationalist leader Lolita Lebrón was remembered Monday at her grave overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the first anniversary of her death.

Students, workers and church and social organizations attended the 10 a.m. commemoration in the St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzis Cemetery in Old San Juan, where the remains of the Lares native are buried.

Born Dolores Lebrón Sotomayor on Puerto Rico Discovery Day, Nov. 19, 1919, in one of the historically patriotic towns, she was a lifelong fighter for the cause of Puerto Rican independence. The daughter of a coffee plantation foreman, Lebrón joined the Liberal Party and became involved romantically with Lares poet and Nationalist Francisco Matos Paoli. Before the end of World War II, however, she set out looking for a better life in New York, where she became a seamstress.

Lebrón died at age 90, having spent 25 of her life in United States prisons for having directed a Puerto Rican Nationalist command of four that on March 1, 1954 conducted a shootout on the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington to denounce the colonial situation after the creation two years earlier of the Commonwealth status.

Today’s activity is organized by the Puerto Rico Nationalist Party, along with the Puerto Rican Independence Party and the Caribbean and Latin American Coordinator of Puerto Rico. Leaders of the three groups will lead the tribute, according to Linda Colón Lebrón, who represents the Nationalist secretariats for Women and International Relations.

In the dramatic shootout, Lebrón and her companions in the spectators gallery shot as many as 30 bullets, wounding five congressmen.

Lebrón, who was the subject of movies, books and paintings, always was proud of her role in the shooting. She said the new status was only more colonization. She fully expected that her participation, brandishing a Luger and shouting Viva Puerto Rico, would cost her her life.

­She remained faithful to her ideals until her death, and served 60 days in jail for protesting the presence of the U.S. Navy base in Vieques. However, she did reject violence in favor of civil disobedience, which she said was more effective.

During the shooting 57 years ago, she wore bright lipstick and appeared like a beauty queen. Later, she wore her hair white and her clothes black. She had fired her eight shots at the ceiling, and therefore received a lighter sentence than the other three men who joined her, Rafael Cancel, Andres Figueroa and Irving Flores. Later, all four were pardoned, and released, by President Jimmy Carter. Figueroa was released earlier because he had cancer. She received a heroine’s welcome, but the pardons were opposed by Gov. Carlos Romero Barceló, who said it would encourage terrorism.

In New York, she joined the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, becoming a follower of Pedro Albizu Campos, and promoting her strong feminist ideals. It was Albizu who got her involved with the dramatic attack on Congress, one of several drastic moves, including the Jayuya Uprising in which another young woman, Blanca Canales, was involved.

In prison, she built an altar in her cell and said she had repeated ecstatic religious visions. She refused to apply for parole because that meant apologizing. Back in Puerto Rico, she turned to religion with an unabashed passion, speaking of her Christian principles at every opportunity. Although some serious wounds were inflicted during her 1954 actions, she never expressed regret for what she believed she had to do.

Lebrón is survived by her husband, Dr. Sergio Irizarry, whom she met when he monitored her health in prison. The couple moved to a small house in Loíza, filled with religious statues and a large Puerto Rican flag, but the house burned down in 2005. Since then, until her death last year, she suffered a number of illnesses, but remained true to her friends and her ideals.

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