By JONATHAN TILOVE
November 25, 1998
c. Newhouse News Service
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico _ If Puerto Rico were to become an independent nation, Lolita Lebron would be a national hero.
And if Puerto Rico were to become the 51st state, well, says Lebron, “the nationalists will never permit Puerto Rico to become a state. It would be the negation of ourselves as a people, as a nation.”
“I love your country,” says Lebron. “It’s just that we are we and you are you, and it cannot be otherwise.”
Lebron, now 79, most memorably expressed herself on this point on March 1, 1954, when she rose from her seat in the Ladies’ Gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives, wrapped herself in the Puerto Rican flag, cried out in English “Free Puerto Rico Now!” and opened fire. While Lebron aimed at the ceiling (“I wanted to bring the roof down”), by the time she and the three other nationalists she led that day were through, five members of Congress lay wounded.
Today, after 25 years in prison, a grant of clemency by President Carter, and nearly 20 years back home, Lebron is a living reminder of how determined at least a few Puerto Ricans are to see that their island not be incorporated into the United States.
But Lebron, who now disowns violence, is more than that.
With a plebiscite Dec. 13 that will measure sentiment for statehood, independence or continued commonwealth status, Lebron is a popular icon of Puerto Rico’s deep sense of national identity. And therein lies a puzzle.
Come Dec. 13, few will vote for independence. But few would describe Puerto Rico as anything other than “mi pais,” my country, or “la patria,” the fatherland. It is, in sense and spirit, a nation, inhabited by a distinctive people, a mix of Spanish, African and Indian blood with 500 years of shared history, culture and language. And, with the centennial this year of America’s seizing Puerto Rico as a prize of war from Spain, they have also shared 100 years of successful resistance to Americanization.
Can a people petition for statehood even as so many among them revere a woman responsible for bullet holes that still riddle the citadel of American democracy?
And, even more simply, can a nation become a state?
“Terrorists Given Heroes’ Welcome in Puerto Rico,” read the front page headline in The Washington Post the day after Lebron and her comrades returned home after a quarter-century in prison. “Their loudest cries,” the story noted, “were `Lolita! Lolita!”’
“She’s a female Mandela,” says Ricardo Alegria, director of the Center of Advanced Study of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in Old San Juan. “Everyone in Puerto Rico _ though many don’t believe in her political ideals _ everyone has respect for her.”
“She’s become a living symbol of Puerto Rican nationhood,” says Julio Muriente, a political scientist at the University of Puerto Rico who heads the New Puerto Rican Independence Movement. “You should see people when they see her in the street.”
Just the other day a stranger approached Lebron and asked if it were she, and if she would permit an embrace.
“I am your Lolita,” she replied. As they hugged he cried, telling her, “This is the greatest moment of my life.”
“The man was not a nationalist,” says Lebron.
Jose Fonseca, 47, grew up in Caguas, south of San Juan, watching Roy Rogers and Davy Crockett in English with Spanish subtitles.
“I guess we believed more in cowboys than we did in our countrymen,” says Fonseca, who has spent his life, like many Puerto Ricans, divided between the United States and Puerto Rico. (The population of Puerto Rico is about 3.8 million, with another 2.5 million Puerto Ricans in the United States.) Before recently retiring to the island, Fonseca was a deputy sheriff in Tampa, Fla. His wife, Aida, still works as a social worker for the Veterans Administration.
Of Lebron, Fonseca says in his very American English, “I would never agree with any kind of violence to accomplish anything.” But, he adds, “I respect her.”
“Because she dared.”
Rafael Cordero Santiago, the mayor of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, and a supporter of a strengthened form of commonwealth, agrees. “Even though I consider her to be a peaceful person, I have to say that when the moment came to defend her ideals, she was not afraid to do what she considered right,” he says.
Lebron was certain she would die that day.
It was a dreary March 1, says Rosa Meneses Albizu-Campos, the granddaughter of Pedro Albizu Campos, the Nationalist leader who ordered the attack on the Capitol. “The others said, `Let’s leave it for tomorrow because it’s raining.’ She said, `No. I am going. You don’t have to but I am going.’ She started off and they followed her.”
She had been a beauty queen, Queen of the Flowers of May, in Lares, a town in the heart of Puerto Rico mournfully celebrated yet today for the Grito de Lares _ the Shout of Lares _ a failed rebellion against Spanish rule in 1868. Her father labored on a coffee plantation. Lebron went to school through the eighth grade. She wrote poetry, and still does.
At 22, unmarried, she left Puerto Rico for New York, leaving behind a baby daughter to be raised by family, and seldom seen by her again. She bore a son in New York, where for more than a decade she worked and burrowed into Nationalist politics.
She was 35 when she led the attack on the Capitol, “a Puerto Rican heroine of sublime beauty” in the words of Pedro Albizu Campos.
There were 243 members of Congress on the floor when the Nationalists opened fire, Lebron aiming up but two of the men with her aiming down (the third man’s gun jammed).
None of the congressmen shot were killed. None are alive today.
After being tried and convicted for the attack, she was tried and convicted of conspiracy, but not before she moved the jury to tears telling her story.
It was Lawrence E. Walsh’s first case as a federal judge, and Walsh (who would gain fame as the Iran-Contra special prosecutor) recalls her fondly. “Give her my best,” he says, pleased to hear she is alive and well. “Tell her I feel sorry we both were in the positions we were in.”
Soon after her arrest her young son died, apparently drowned. She read about it in the newspaper.
And on March 1, 1977, her daughter, Gladys Mendez, died after falling out of a speeding car. In her family memoir, Mendez’s daughter, Irene Vilar, who was 8 at the time and who vainly grabbed her mother to try to save her, calls it suicide. (The memoir is written as Vilar navigates her own suicidal tendencies.)
Lebron was released from the prison in Alderson, W.Va., long enough to attend the funeral, which became a worshipful mass rally for “Lolita.”
In prison, Lebron says, God began to talk to her.
“I am that person in the world that claims to have a message of God for the atomic age,” she says.
She sent a letter conveying God’s message to President Eisenhower and was quickly hustled to St. Elizabeth’s, a mental institution in Washington, D.C., where she spent six months. But, she says, God reassured her that her mind was intact. “He said, `Your mind will always be the fire that’s never quenched.”’
Today, Lebron is warmer, rounder, mellower. She is grandmotherly.
“No one looks good at this age,” she says. But it is not true.
She is, as Rosa Meneses Albizu-Campos describes her, “grandiosa” _ grand, splendid, regal in her bearing, commanding in her presence.
Last year, she testified, as then-president of the Nationalist Party, at a congressional field hearing on Puerto Rico’s future. (A San Juan Star editorial congratulated the committee for listening to all sides including Lebron, “whose last exchange with Congress was with gunfire.”)
When a member of Congress began to interject, perhaps to tell her she was exceeding her allotted time, Lebron elegantly upbraided him (like her testimony, in Spanish): “You should not, in my country, command me to silence for defending the liberty of my country.”
The hearing was televised and, says an island poet, there was, for all practical purposes, “a moment of silence islandwide,” and then a collective, psychic whoop of pride, regardless of party affiliation. “My God, she made herself be respected,” says the poet. “Everybody else is so colonized.”
Lebron bemoans Puerto Rican dependence _ on welfare, on drugs, on a United States too many fear they cannot live without.
“The majority of Puerto Rican people don’t want to be free,” says Lebron. “They are afraid of losing their American citizenship, very afraid.”
“We have been a colony for 100 years,” says Rafael Cancel Miranda, her sole surviving accomplice from March 1, 1954. “Do you know what that can do to your mind?”
The statehood campaign, led by Gov. Pedro Rossello, now joins the nationalists in proclaiming Puerto Rico a “colony.” They promise union without assimilation. In the words of one TV ad: “With statehood we will not become blue-eyed blonds; neither will it snow in Puerto Rico; nor will we change our language and culture. With statehood, we will remain as we are … speaking Spanish, eating fritters.”
It is telling that the statehood campaign relies on emotionally nationalist appeals. But Eduardo Morales Coll, president of the Puerto Rican Athaeneum, the island’s oldest cultural institution, says that, diverse as America may be, he does not believe the United States is prepared to junk forever the metaphor of the melting pot and swallow whole as a new state an island where less than 20 percent of the population understands English.
“National unity requires homogeneity,” Pedro Albizu Campos said in 1923, and the United States has never accepted a state where the “Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celt … had not definitively gained the upper hand.”
“We’re too homogenous, too brown, too different,” says Jose Solis Jordan, an education professor at the University of Puerto Rico who is facing trial in Chicago early next year on charges of attempting to bomb a military recruiting center in 1992, charges that he denies and that have made him the newest cause celebre among Puerto Rican independistas.
But Edwin Galarva, the mayor of Guanica, where the United States landed when it seized Puerto Rico from Spain in 1898, believes Puerto Rico is slowly integrating America into its identity.
“Culture is always changing,” says Galarva, who supports statehood. “You can’t stand still.” The important thing, he says, is “to keep the roots of our culture _ to keep our Spanish language, our religion, our 3 o’clock coffee break.”
“We are going to become a state,” says Galarva. But, if not, he says, “Give us a republic. We don’t want to keep this kind of happy medium anymore.”
It is that “happy medium” of commonwealth, in which Puerto Ricans are American citizens, serve in the armed forces but do not pay federal taxes or vote in federal elections, that has carried the day in past plebiscites, barely edging out statehood most recently in 1993. But this time, the commonwealth party, unhappy with how the status quo is described on the ballot, is calling for a vote for “ninguna de las anteriores” _ none of the above.
Statehood will almost certainly place first Dec. 13, but perhaps with less than half of the vote, hardly a decisive outcome. And while the U.S. House, by a one-vote margin, agreed this year to officially sanction the plebiscite, the Senate merely passed a resolution promising to look at the result.
Lebron, who, as a Nationalist, will not vote until Puerto Rico is free (though she says it’s OK with her if others vote for independence), calls on the United States to “repent for the wrong it has done” by extending independence while permitting, for at least a while, dual citizenship.
Her people, she says, must be taught, “Do not fear freedom.”
“I hope to live until my country becomes a free and sovereign nation,” says Lebron, who in the meantime is preparing her message from God for release to the world.
“I haven’t done anything yet. I have much more to do,” she says.
“I am not a political person, but they have made me a political person and I will have to die political,” says Lolita Lebron. “But I fly higher than that.”