This 23rd of September is the 153rd anniversary of the Grito de Lares, Puerto Rico’s Declaration of Independence from Spain. While the armed insurrection that followed the declaration failed, the moment still remains today as the enduring aspirational symbol for self-determination and identity of Puerto Rico as a sovereign nation. What follows is a personal memory of one such Independence Day celebration.
“I didn’t come to kill anyone. I came to die for Puerto Rico.”( “No vine a matar a nadie. Vine a morir por Puerto Rico”) These words spoken to me as I concluded an interview in Lares, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 1979 were not voiced by a young radical but by the gray haired 59 year old abuelita (grandmother) seated in front of me. Sixteen days prior to this interview, Lolita Lebrón Sotomayor, who had been jailed for 26 years, was granted an Executive Act of Clemency by President Jimmy Carter, pardoning her for her leadership of the 1954 armed assault on members on the United States House of Representatives then while in session.
Seated next to Doña Lolita are Rafael Cancel Miranda and Irving Flores Rodriguez, who along with the then recently deceased Andrés Cordero Figueroa, had been directed by Doña Lolita in their idealistic March 1, 1954 armed attack; an assault which resulted in five Congressmen being wounded, though non- mortally. Lebrón testified at her trial that she had unfurled the Puerto Rican flag, shouted,” Long Live Free Puerto Rico” (¡Qué Viva Puerto Rico Libre!)and that she had not fired her pistol into floor of the House, but at the ceiling. The three men, however, had fired, though not aiming directly at any Congressmen, into the live session of the House of Representatives. Lolita Lebrón was sentenced to 56 years in federal prison; the three men to more than 80 years each.
This interview took place the night before Puerto Ricans were to gather in Lares, the western central island town where on September 23, 1868 Puerto Rico’s Declaration of Independence from Spain had been made; and where a quixotic, failed rebellion against its colonial power, Spain, had taken place. Lares, considered to be the birthplace of Puerto Rican independence is also the birthplace of Doña Lolita.
The next day, two colleagues and I set up our video camera and sound recorder to tape Lolita Lebron’s homecoming for this emotional celebration of Puerto Rico’s declaration of independence from Spain. Doña Lolita was introduced to the overflowing crowd by Pedro Albizu Meneses, son of Puerto Rico’s Nationalist Party leader, Pedro Albizu Campos. Lares’ small central plaza, was packed with locals and outsiders waving Puerto Rican flags and holding umbrellas to protect themselves from the blistering afternoon sun. Don Pedro concluded his speech telling the assembled throng, that “We now have the honor to present to you this most exalted example of our patriotism, of our womanhood,” and as these words were still hanging in the air, they were drowned out by the assembled Nationalist supporters’ spontaneous rhythmic chanting of the slogan, LOLITA LEBRON, EJEMPLO DE VARÓN(LOLITA LEBRON, AN EXAMPLE FOR ALL MEN).
Then twenty-six years after having been imprisoned for her role in the 1954 attack on Congress, Lolita Lebrón emerged from the protected speakers’ platform that provided shelter from the tropical afternoon sun and moved to the microphone to begin her first public address in Puerto Rico since her return from years of imprisonment. In spite of her more than quarter century in prison, Doña Lolita, moved effortlessly and physically erect to the microphone. The afternoon’s intense heat notwithstanding, she was dressed in the feminine wing of the Nationalist Party’s uniform–a long sleeved black jacket with a black armband crowned with the Party’s White Cross Potent symbol, a long-sleeved white blouse, a black tie and a white skirt.
As the cheering died down, Doña Lolita began speaking, her words forcefully delivered in the slow, emphatic cadence of a preacher, repeating and returning again and again to her own opening remarks, reminding the assembled crowd that, “We must continue the struggle and keep moving forward towards our liberation. We must unite as a people. Our unity is the driving force of our movement just as it was the motivating spirit of the founding fathers of our country.” As she spoke, her right first, wrapped in a rosary, punctuated her words, concluding her brief but fiery words that, “We must continue to emphatically and loudly proclaim our struggle on behalf of the oppressed”
After her U.S. incarceration, Lolita Lebron lived 31 more years following her 1979 return to Puerto Rico. She died at the age of 90 in 2010. Critics of Doña Lolita, consider her to have been a terrorist, unworthy of praise and a figure to be condemned for her appeals to violence. However, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. For her Nationalist supporters, Lolita Lebrón’s revolutionary struggle to free Puerto Rico from foreign domination will never be extinguished. If one needed further proof of her ceaseless combativeness for Puerto Rico, then look no further than her arrest In 2001, at age 81, for protesting against the U.S. military’s use of the island municipality of Vieques as a bombing range. That grandmother, whom some would call a terrorist, spent another 60 days in jail for peacefully protesting on behalf of her patria. That protest was successful.