A Terrorist in the House
by Manuel Roig-Franzia
In her battle against America, Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebron has traded guns for flaming visions from God. It's hard to say which is more frightening
Out there in the squinty midday shimmer of a Puerto Rican sun that never seems to cool, the old woman takes slow, careful, mincing steps. She is too far away for her face to come into focus in the refracted glare. But a little boy in the doorway of the suburban community center pegs her by her gait and by her unmistakably robust pile of hair. It is a perfectly tailored snowcap, and she holds it high.
"Here she comes!" the boy says in revved-up Spanish as he ducks back into the building. "Here comes Doña Lolita!"
Doña Lolita. Instinctually, he chooses a term of utmost respect -- doña. No last name is necessary.
As la doña eases forward, conversations trail off and the crowd pinches toward the doorway. Oblivious to the heat, 84-year-old Lolita Lebron has chosen an ankle-length black velvet gown and matching jacket.
This is her way. Always formal, almost always in black. Appearances matter. She has given just one set of instructions to the waitresses who will serve guests at her annual festival del maiz, or corn festival, her December celebration of indigenous workers and the crop that sustains them: Put on a nice dress, and you better not forget to wear lipstick.
The applause starts before she reaches the door, building to a climax as she steps inside and opulently spreads her arms with the casual ease of a woman accustomed to making entrances. "Besos y abrazos. Besos y abrazos," she calls out. Kisses and hugs.
At the back of the room, the granddaughters of a long-dead freedom fighter smile and clap. A graying man in a fedora, a veteran of bygone struggles, creakily rises and calls out, "Viva Puerto Rico!"
They have come to this modest stucco hall in Rio Piedras, on the outskirts of San Juan, to be near her, to touch Lolita. Soon she and the people who revere her will gather again to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the day -- March 1, 1954 -- when she led a quixotic attack against the U.S. Congress in hopes of making a grand political statement. (Her doting husband, physician Sergio Irizarry, frequently nudges her gently to say "commemorate," but she usually says "celebrate" instead.) On that long-ago day, Lolita and three other Puerto Rican nationalists fired a volley of pistol shots from the Capitol's upstairs Ladies' Gallery during a session of the House of Representatives. In the pandemonium, five congressmen were hit.
The exotically beautiful leader of the assault would spend a quarter of a century in prison, untangling fiery religious visions, and emerging to acclaim as the Joan of Arc of Puerto Rico. She is, at once, an aged, beloved freedom fighter and an unrepentant 1950s terrorist, a label freighted with far more sinister connotations for Americans in the post-September 11 world.
But there is not a hint of menace as Lolita weaves from table to table at the festival, sometimes saying "God bless you" to her guests. She talks of God, these days, more than politics, a revolutionary turned religious mystic. It is a transformation that has only heightened her connection with Puerto Ricans.
Emeli Vando, a San Juan artist, quietly weeps as Lolita passes by, overcome by emotion. Across the room, Hector Miranda, a poet, is watching her hands. They are soft and small and speckled with age spots. They tremble constantly, a condition that she has had since childhood and doctors cannot explain.
"Imagine, those hands, created by God for all of us, took up arms,"
Miranda says dreamily. "It's almost unimaginable." He turns, and Lolita
is standing there beside him. Her cheeks are glowing. She takes his face
in her hands, then embraces him.
Later, she looks out at three children, giggling a few feet away from her, and turns reflective. "I would have liked to have been a nun," she muses, "to help the little children, whom I love so much. But I had other things to do . . ."
SHE CAME FROM THE MOUNTAINS and from a tradition of futile rebellion. Lolita Lebron was born in 1919 in Lares, a tiny town in the interior of Puerto Rico, far from the beaches and hotels of San Juan. Her father was a coffee plantation foreman, too busy feeding five children to bother with politics.
In 1868, five decades before Lolita's birth, the men of Lares rose up against the Spanish colonialists who ruled their island homeland. Their rebellion became known as El Grito de Lares, "the cry of Lares." The Spaniards needed little time to quash the hopelessly outmanned rebels. But the act of defiance became the stuff of legend and inspiration.
Each year, Lolita returns to Lares to celebrate their valor. She returns as a woman shrouded in mysteries, heightened by her absolute refusal to talk about most details of her personal life.
Even as a child, there were hints of special qualities. When she was 9, her brother Augustin says, she stood in the doorway of their tiny home as a hurricane was descending on the island. She announced that the family should leave. Her parents -- who had planned to ride out the storm in the house -- took the advice of their young child. They moved to another house, at Lolita's direction, and their original home was destroyed by the storm.
She was known for her captivating looks and her shyness. She was a teenage beauty queen, crowned "Queen of the Flowers of May." She became a single mother, but left her daughter with her mother to sail for the United States, part of a 1940s wave of Puerto Ricans seeking a better life in New York. Most were grindingly poor.
In New York, Lolita lived in what she would later describe as a ghetto. She was married briefly and had another child, a boy, but returned to Puerto Rico to leave him with relatives. She took night classes and worked as a seamstress in New York, even sewing insignia onto the military uniforms of the "imperialist nation" whose actions she came to revile. She remembers seeing signs that said: "No blacks, no dogs, no Puerto Ricans."
"They told me it was a paradise; this was no paradise," she says.
It was in New York that she became a follower of Pedro Albizu Campos, the Harvard-educated nationalist leader who considered America a rogue occupier of his homeland, a 110-mile-long, 35-mile-wide island that was colonized by Spain, then offered up to the United States as a prize after the Spanish-American War.
Albizu Campos was imprisoned for plotting a 1950 attempt to assassinate Harry Truman while the president slept at Blair House, but his eloquence and passion continued to inspire. His most fervent followers, including Lolita, held furtive meetings in New York's Puerto Rican barrios. They knew they were being watched. The FBI had been monitoring nationalist sympathizers since the assassination attempt, which left a White House policeman and a Puerto Rican gunman dead.
Then, in 1952, Puerto Rico's first elected governor, Luis Muñoz Marin, signed the island's commonwealth pact with the United States, creating the much-debated political structure that still exists today. Nationalists were furious, and their anger only grew when the United Nations removed Puerto Rico from its list of colonies the following year. Puerto Ricans, says Rafael Cancel Miranda, who, with Lolita, is the last surviving member of the group that attacked Congress, were being portrayed as "happy slaves." He punctuates his recollection by pounding his heavy fist into his palm.
The prospect of an independent Puerto Rico was all but disappearing. The nationalists wanted, they needed, to do something dramatic. They began plotting another attack on the United States. Albizu Campos chose a leader, a woman he'd been corresponding with from prison, but had never met: Lolita Lebron.
LOLITA NEEDED INFORMATION to map out the attack. She says she sent Cancel Miranda from New York to Washington to do some scouting. It was a "military operation," she remembers, and she was responsible for every detail.
"I had all the secrets, all the plans," she says. "Me and me alone."
On March 1, 1954, she and two other nationalists -- Andres Figueroa Cordero and Irving Flores Rodriguez -- bought one-way train tickets from New York to Washington and joined Cancel Miranda. They did not expect to return alive.
They spoke little on the ride down. Lolita looked out the window, she says, and was at peace. "It was an enjoyable trip," she says. "I looked at the animals, the vegetation. I was going to give my life for my country . . . I was going to give the shout of liberty."
It would be her own Grito de Lares.
They had lunch at Union Station. Then, according to newspaper accounts at the time, they got lost. After a pedestrian gave them directions, they ended up in the Ladies' Gallery, where the security guard asked if they had cameras, which were not allowed, but didn't bother to check for guns.
More than 240 House members were debating an immigration bill when a congressman rang for 16-year-old page Paul Kanjorski, one of the army of young aides who run errands on the House floor. Just as Kanjorski stood, he heard a noise. He thought it was firecrackers. Something fell down on him.
"I felt the spray of marble," says Kanjorski, now a 66-year-old Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. Bullets whizzed overhead, slamming into marble columns, splintering wood. Everywhere, House members were sliding under desks and running for exits.
Witnesses said they could hear Lolita's voice above the commotion, and it was a shrill, chilling sound. "Viva Puerto Rico Libre!" Long live free Puerto Rico, she yelled as she and her compatriots unfurled a Puerto Rican flag and blasted away with Lugers and an automatic pistol.
Rep. James Van Zandt, a salty Navy veteran accustomed to the sound of gunfire, fell to his knees and crawled into the House cloakroom, according to newspaper accounts at the time. From there, he ran up the stairs to the gallery. By the time he got there, a 41-year-old spectator from Takoma Park named Frank Wise had wrestled one of the shooters into the corridor and pulled away a pistol.
Someone took Lolita's flag, and she screamed, "It's the flag of my country. Give it to me!" a doorkeeper said. Van Zandt grabbed a lanky gunman, presumably Cancel Miranda, the only 6-footer in the group, and snagged his weapon. "He didn't resist much," the combat-seasoned lawmaker later said. The next gunman put up more of a fight, Van Zandt said, but the congressman kicked him in the back and someone else pried the gun from his clamped fingers.
On the floor, five congressmen were down. The worst injured was a 35-year-old
Republican from Michigan, Alvin Bentley, who took a bullet to the chest.
One congressman looked over and said his complexion had gone gray. He looked
On the floor, Kanjorski and another page picked through the chairs, listening for moans. Someone passed them a heavy metal gurney and they started hauling out bleeding men. A photograph of Kanjorski -- the adrenaline of the moment so clear in his wide-eyed, breathless expression -- and another page who became a congressman, the late Bill Emerson, a Republican from Missouri, still hangs in the House cloakroom.
"Bentley was in such bad shape," Kanjorski recalls. "We jumped into the ambulance and went to the hospital with him." Doctors gave the congressman a fifty-fifty chance of coming out of the hospital alive. It took hours of surgery to save him. But, Kanjorski says, Bentley "was never really the same" after the attack.
While sirens wailed, a clutch of police officers walked Lolita and the others out onto the Capitol steps. An Associated Press photographer captured the image that would be spread across the front page of The Washington Post and the New York Times the next morning. It is a striking, unforgettable tableau that has come to define the day and has been replicated by artists for decades.
Lolita is in front, her right arm clasped firmly by a police officer, her hand balling up, just short of a fist. She is 34, disarmingly attractive, her brightly lipsticked mouth set defiantly. Her shoulders are thrown back. She wears high heels, dangly earrings, a stylish skirt and jacket, a kerchief around her neck. She looks straight ahead with dark, captivating eyes. No fear.
Police found a handwritten note in her purse, alongside some lipstick and Bromo-Seltzer tablets:
"Before God and the world, my blood claims 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 . . . The United States of America are betraying the sacred principles of mankind in their continuous subjugation of my country . . . I take responsible for all."
THE HEADLINES SHOUTED "terrorists" attack Congress, but the shock of the shooting seemed to wear off quickly. It was a time when America was much more preoccupied by the Red menace of communism than the specter of terrorism on American soil. The newspapers weren't quite sure what to make of Lolita; they alternately called her a "terrorist leader" and a "trim divorcee."
Within days, as it became clear that none of the injured congressmen
would die, Washington -- remarkably -- began to laugh a little about the
attack. Frank Boykin, a Democratic congressman from Alabama, told reporters
about being stopped by a colleague who asked where he was going as he ran
off the House floor on March 1.
"For my shotgun," Boykin said.
"Where is it?" his friend asked.
Rep. Clifford Davis (D-Tenn.), who was shot in the leg, and Rep. Ben F. Jensen (R-Iowa), who was shot in the back, argued about whether to listen to "The Lone Ranger" on the radio in their shared hospital room. Jensen persuaded Davis to stick with music. "I've had all the shooting I can take for one day," Jensen quipped to a Washington Post writer.
News of the attack and the subsequent trial transfixed the city for weeks. But even on the day after the shooting, stories of the attack shared space on The Post's front page with such pressing headlines as: "18-Year-Olds; Are They Smart Enough to Vote?"
Police officials briefly made a case for installing bulletproof glass in the galleries, but their proposal was roundly rejected. Members of Congress said they didn't want to lose contact with the public. Metal detectors would not be installed until the mid-1970s, a few years after a bomb went off in a Senate restroom.
But such measures are mild compared with the post-September 11 Capitol. Now the building is almost an armed encampment, buffered from attack by tasteful, yet imposing, barriers to prevent car bombings. Police roam the halls. Lines form behind checkpoints. Everything, everyone is suspect.
"If you take the effect it has on the openness of the system," Kanjorski says, "it has been very destructive."
IT IS A QUIET WINTER AFTERNOON in Washington, one of those days when Congress is not in session and you aren't distracted from the gilded beauty of the Capitol by the white noise of dealmaking and speeches.
Pull out the drawer in a big mahogany table still used by the Republican leadership -- the same table Majority Leader Charles A. Halleck of Indiana was standing by in 1954 -- and you can stick your thumb through the jagged hole left by one of the bullets fired 50 years ago. A groove seared into the opposite side of the drawer shows the bullet's trajectory, left there to preserve history.
The House floor looks much the same as it did in 1954. But there are subtle signs that this is a place far more attuned to danger than it once was. Behind the leather backs of the members' chairs, there are sturdy metal plates to ward off bullets and impede the spread of a bomb blast. Beneath the chairs, in the brass cubbies once used for copies of bills, there are "escape hood" gas masks, constant reminders of what happened on September 11, 2001, and what could happen in the future.
Kanjorski was returning to his office in the Rayburn Building after getting his teeth cleaned at the House dentist's office when he heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. When Lolita and the other Puerto Rican nationalists attacked Congress, he says, the significance of the moment didn't seep in until hours later. But on September 11, he knew immediately that "the world had changed."
Police were everywhere. They wouldn't let Rep. Kanjorski into his office for a time. The Capitol was being evacuated. Jet fighters roared overhead, and the president was being flown from one secret location to another. Kanjorski gathered his staff and decamped for Pennsylvania, but they changed their minds about halfway there and returned to Washington. Soon, he found himself on the Capitol steps, singing "God Bless America" with dozens of fellow members of Congress in a spontaneous, symbolically rich moment.
The Capitol steps, where Kanjorski sang on September 11 and where Lolita stood defiant nearly half a century before, are mostly empty on this day. Upstairs in the gallery, Kanjorski leans over the railing, near the spot where Lolita unfurled her flag.
About a dozen people wander onto the House floor. Just 20 feet or so below him a woman in a bright red coat seems to stand out from the rest, appearing, from this vantage point, like the easiest target in the world. "Look at these people walking in," he says. "You could aim and take out any one of these people . . . It's like shooting fish in a barrel."
Indeed, from this perspective, it seems almost impossible that Lolita and her accomplices did not kill anyone. Most of the 29 shots fired were directed at the farthest reaches of the chamber, rather than directly below, where the shooters would have had the best chance of hitting lawmakers.
At her trial, Lolita testified that she aimed her gun at the ceiling, and the jury believed her. Of the four Puerto Rican nationalists, she alone was acquitted of the most serious charge they faced: assault with intent to kill. To this day, Lolita does not regard herself as a terrorist. She says she was horrified when planes slammed into the World Trade Center. This was an attack so different from the one she led, she says. An attack meant to kill.
She did not go to the Capitol to take anyone's life, she insists; she went to die. She envisioned herself a martyr for Puerto Rico. But God, she says, had other plans. "God didn't want us to be killed," she says. "I thank God we didn't kill anyone." And God has told her she did the right thing in 1954.
"I was the servant of my God and my country," she says. "I am proud of what I did."
Kanjorski, of course, sees Lolita's actions differently. He measures Lolita against Rosa Parks, another woman who made a bold political stand in the 1950s, and Lolita comes up sorely lacking. Less than two years after Lolita attacked Congress, Parks attacked segregation by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, a sublime moment of courage that inspired millions to join the civil rights movement. The teenage Kanjorski was enthralled with what Parks accomplished, and the way she accomplished it.
"Rosa Parks didn't get on the bus and throw a grenade," he says. He wonders what might have been if Lolita had followed a similar path.
"I understand that she can be revered [by some] for her actions," he says. "But I don't know that we should reward her for her actions, because she had a choice."
JESUS CHRIST CAME TO HER, and He was huge. From her bed in a Washington jail cell, just hours after her assault at the Capitol, Lolita watched the luminous vision -- the first of her life -- transfixed. Jesus was tall and thin and dressed in radiant clothes.
Before she could comprehend the scene, a horse came into view. An immense horse. It began to stomp Jesus. She was horrified, overcome by emotion. "I came to understand that Jesus was being attacked by the powers of the world," she says.
Later, after she was shuttled to a prison cell at Alderson, W.Va., to serve a 56-year sentence, she built an altar and waited for nighttime, when the visions returned. She began writing them down, first on toilet paper, then in notebooks that years later would be transcribed into volumes of poetry. She calls it "her period of light."
She tells of her prison cell bursting into Messianic flames, of presidents' faces magically lifting off coins and bills, of silk flowers speaking to her. God told her to fight to abolish nuclear weapons. She produced a manifesto -- "A Message From God in the Atomic Age" -- condemning the United States for its nuclear arsenal and sent it to President Dwight Eisenhower. It resulted in an eight-month stay at St. Elizabeths, a psychiatric hospital in Washington. But her visions persisted. "When I slept, I slept with angels, the music of angels," she says.
She talks of all this matter-of-factly, unspooling recollections of apparitions and cosmic messages as if she were talking about the latest television show or a trip to the beauty parlor. God still speaks to her, she says, leaning across a table in a musty Old San Juan library. God tells her what world figures will be assassinated, who will win political elections in the United States, presenting her with strange, sometimes apocalyptic visions.
"You know, she predicted the assassination of Anwar Sadat?" her husband says. "Oh, yes. And Martin Luther King, Malcolm X." She just nods. Sometimes, Sergio Irizarry adds, he walks into their bedroom and Lolita is glowing, as if she were fitted with neon lights. "It illuminates," he says, deadly serious, "but there is no heat."
At the prison in Alderson, Lolita says, her whole body would be consumed by flames from time to time. She grew accustomed to it. Years passed, and she became the oldest prisoner at Alderson. She scrubbed floors when she first arrived, then worked making hats with flowers, veils and feathers for other inmates, drawing inspiration from fashion magazines.
She'd been there for more than two decades when her keepers approached her with news from Puerto Rico, 1,700 miles away. Her daughter, Gladys Mendez, the baby she'd left behind in Puerto Rico, was dead at 36.
The official police account said she had died in an automobile accident,
tossed from an open car door as she returned from her half-brother's wedding
in the winter of 1977. But Lolita's granddaughter, Irene Vilar, who was
8 at the time and a passenger in the car, wrote in her critically acclaimed
book, The Ladies' Gallery: A Memoir of Family Secrets, that the death was
a suicide. She says her mother flung herself out of the moving car.
Lolita says the book is "full of lies," though she hasn't read the whole thing, and declines to discuss her daughter's death. Vilar did not respond to interview requests.
Lolita was granted a furlough from prison to attend her daughter's funeral, arriving in San Juan to the shouts of demonstrators demanding her release. Armed guards shuffled her into a waiting car. Her trembling fingers moved across the beads of a white rosary. Mysteriously, friends claim, the bells in San Juan's oldest church clanged after she touched down, though no one was in the bell tower.
Vando, the San Juan artist who wept at the sight of Lolita during the corn festival, says her mother was in the crowd that turned out to glimpse the famous nationalist. "She appeared like she was in a cloud," Vando says. "Like she was elevated, like a Virgin elevated above the ground. It was a beautiful sight, for my mother . . . Lolita is an offering from God, from the cosmos, from Heaven."
SHE THOUGHT SHE WOULD GO TO HER GRAVE a prisoner. It would be fitting, she said. "It would be a purer thing, a more beautiful thing, for me to die in prison," she told the Nation magazine. She refused to apply for parole, even though she'd been eligible since the late 1960s. Then in 1979, word came that she would be granted clemency.
Lolita was 59; prison had consumed 25 years of her life. But she expressed no gratitude to President Jimmy Carter, whose authority she did not recognize, for her impending release. News accounts said Lebron, Cancel Miranda, Flores and Oscar Collazo, one of the two men who'd tried to assassinate Truman, would be freed as part of an elaborately crafted prisoner swap to secure the release of American CIA agents jailed in Cuba by Fidel Castro's government. (Andres Figueroa Cordero's sentence had been commuted two years earlier because of his deteriorating health, and he died of cancer several months before the others were released.) The nationalist movement in Puerto Rico had long had an affinity for Castro, in part because both shared a common enemy: the United States. The Carter administration denied the reports of a swap, saying it was making a humanitarian gesture, but when Castro released the jailed agents, the reports resurfaced.
Regardless of whatever political imperatives may have been at work,
it is hard to imagine any terrorist being granted clemency today, in this
era of "enemy combatants" and dirty-bomb plots and shadowy al Qaeda cells.
At the mention of the word "terrorist," Lolita's voice, which can be lilting
and almost girlish, lowers to a raspy grate.
"Who calls me a terrorist?" she says. "The most terrorist country in the world! What other country dropped the atomic bomb? And they call me a terrorist. I went to the U.S. in a fight against terrorism."
When the four prisoners finally were freed on September 10, 1979, they
raced through a kind of victory tour, appearing over the course of several
days before cheering crowds at rallies in Chicago and New York, the epicenters
of Puerto Rican migration to the United States. A quarter-century behind
bars had not tempered them. They emerged utterly defiant.
"I hate bombs," Lolita said at a U.N. news conference, "but we might have to use them."
The statement -- so inflammatory and so contrary to her later talk of sadness about the September 11 attacks -- briefly led to calls for an FBI investigation of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement and the just-released prisoners. But the investigation never got off the ground.
When the four returned to Puerto Rico, a surging crowd greeted them, tearing down barricades and waving signs that read "Welcome, Lolita." Ramon Bosque-Perez, now in charge of archiving recently released FBI surveillance files of Puerto Rican leaders at the City University of New York, joined thousands of others as the returning prisoners paid homage at the grave of Albizu Campos.
"The crowd was huge. It was so big, there was no way to move," says Bosque-Perez. In the chaos, a niece of Collazo -- Truman's would-be assassin -- collapsed and died of a heart attack.
Soon thereafter, the released prisoners were received in Havana as honored guests of Castro. "He gave us a big villa with 40 people to attend us," Lolita says.
Castro's lieutenants courted her politically for years, she says, and
she made several more trips to Havana. Ultimately, she says, she felt compelled
to reject the regime's entreaties because of communism's aversion to organized
religion. But she retains an affection for Castro.
"I love and admire Fidel," she says. "He's the only person who, as a head of state, stood up to the greatest imperial power in the world." But her political activism, while still fervent, was gradually being overshadowed by her talk of God and her persistent visions.
"People were beginning to wonder," says Noel Colon Martinez, a prominent lawyer in the independence movement, "if she'd gone crazy while she was in prison."
THE ROAD TO LOLITA'S HOUSE in the gated old suburban development Villa del Señorial trails through commercial strips filled with familiar fast-food restaurants and Blockbuster video stores, right alongside signs written primarily in Spanish.
Half a century after trying to separate Puerto Rico from the United States, Lolita has developed a taste for what she calls "El Pollo de Kentucky," or KFC. But her real favorite is Church's Fried Chicken. She waits in the car while her husband, whom she married 17 years ago at the age of 67, picks up their meal. But nothing too adventurous will be on the table.
"Lolita no come spicy," she says, splicing English and Spanish to declare
she won't eat spicy chicken.
Lolita speaks English well, but she is more comfortable in Spanish. Her bilingualism isn't shared by many of her neighbors; they speak little English, despite the fact that they are American citizens. This is modern-day Puerto Rico: American fast food, ordered in Spanish, much as it might be ordered in German in Berlin or in French in Paris. American culture, blended with an essence of the Caribbean. Separate from America, but a part of it.
The Puerto Rico that once was riven by fierce nationalist clashes has settled into an uneasy, but seldom violent, limbo. It's a place that can't decide what it wants to be. "None of the above" prevailed a few years back when voters were asked whether they wanted to become a state or an independent nation or retain their commonwealth status. The island's leading political factions -- statehooders and advocates of retaining commonwealth status -- are almost evenly split. The independentistas, once a leading party, have dwindled to somewhere less than 5 percent. The nationalists, Lolita's former party, who eschewed elections in favor of revolution, have nearly disappeared.
These days, American flags fly next to Puerto Rican flags everywhere in San Juan. Students are taught in English and Spanish. But it wasn't always that way. Bosque-Perez remembers being punished at school for wearing Puerto Rican flag pins. His teachers were required to instruct classes in English, but some taught their students only a few boilerplate lines to fool school administrators during visits, then reverted to Spanish when the administrators left, he says.
Juan Manuel Garcia Passalacqua, a leading political analyst and independence backer, calls it "a pattern of cultural resistance. Americans are Americans and Puerto Ricans are Puerto Ricans. We are not hyphenated Americans."
This might be Lolita's most enduring legacy, her admirers say. Somehow
her attack on Congress inspired them, made them feel like she was making
a statement that they had their own identity, gave them a sense of national
pride. "Puerto Rico is different now to an extent," Bosque-Perez says,
"because of the independence movement."
Nevertheless, there are many people in Puerto Rico who do not regard Lolita Lebron as a heroine or freedom fighter.
"She was an attempted murderess who set back the cause of Puerto Rico by many, many decades," says Kenneth McClintock, minority leader of the island's Senate and a longtime statehood supporter. He points out that support for Puerto Rican independence plummeted in the years after the attack on Congress.
"Most people here, by a huge majority, reject violence," McClintock says. "It wasn't justified then, and it's not justified now." He thinks those who try to deify Lolita are, in effect, condoning violence as a form of political expression. "If you spray the House with gunfire, you'll be remembered," McClintock warns. "I don't think that's a message we should be sending."
THE SWAT TEAMS MOVED IN AT DAWN in the spring of 2000 over Camp Garcia, the U.S. Navy installation on the tiny island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico, where American troops had practiced dropping bombs for decades. Protesters had been there all night, moving stealthily about the target range, hiding in the hills.
There were priests and politicians, statehooders and independentistas,
young and old -- all came together in a rare moment of unity to demand
that the bombers leave. Hundreds of people were being led away in plastic
Some were the freedom fighters of old, the ones who spoke with guns and battle cries. Now they walked picket lines and held hands in peaceful protest.
At the main gate, U.S. marshals maneuvered a snowy-haired woman past a fence dotted with white ribbons symbolizing peace. She was instantly recognizable and she turned back to the crowd, seizing the moment as she was led away. "This is a glorious moment," Lolita told them. "Our children deserve peace and the right to develop and prosper. They don't deserve disease, and that's why we're here."
She had marched through the hills with women a third her age, lighted candles and prayed. At each stage of the growing protests, she had talked of peaceful demonstration, of the power that grows from the masses banding together without taking up arms. Her presence rankled some on Capitol Hill, but was greeted by cheers in Puerto Rico.
While activists across the political spectrum embraced civil disobedience to successfully challenge the American presence in Vieques (the United States stopped using the range last year), they still honored the lions of Puerto Rico's violent past. They still honored Lolita.
She was arrested twice for her refusal to budge at Vieques. The second time, at the age of 80, she was sentenced to 60 days in federal prison. There she befriended her political polar opposite: Norma Burgos, a member of the Puerto Rican Senate and an outspoken advocate for statehood.
Burgos does not celebrate March 1, 1954. She is adamantly nonviolent, profoundly religious. She cannot applaud Lolita for firing bullets, and anyone who does, she says, is missing something. But she also cannot turn away from the woman who led the assault on Congress.
"What she did, the attack, did damage to Puerto Rico . . . I cannot condone it," Burgos says. Yet she admires Lolita not because of what she did, but what she became. Like many in Puerto Rico, Burgos can edit out the minute or so of gunfire from the cinematic reel of Lolita's life and focus on all the rest: the years in prison, the religious transformation, the talk of peace.
They had neighboring cells after the Vieques protests. One day, Lolita noticed that Burgos could use some freshening, and she pulled out a lipstick and gave it to her new friend. Burgos never used it (she keeps it as a historic memento), but returned the favor by smuggling a Communion wafer to Lolita when a bureaucratic mix-up prevented the older woman from attending Mass.
She marveled at Lolita's spirit. One day, Lolita argued with the prison's guards, who she thought were being disrespectful. "I told them," she says, flipping over to a lyrically accented English, "take me right away to the hole!"
When Lolita was freed on August 24, 2001, she left the prison alongside actor Edward James Olmos, who had also been incarcerated during the Vieques protests. They walked out holding hands.
THE LITTLE DANCING GIRLS in the frilly dresses are primping for the Puerto Rican flag day ceremonies in Old San Juan when Lolita arrives at the cultural institute, El Ateneo Puertorriqueño. They are small-town girls come to the city, like Lolita.
She was an absentee mother to her own children, whom she left in Puerto Rico while she made her way in New York. Lolita's son drowned at age 9, not long after her arrest; her daughter was killed in the much-disputed car accident. Old-timers question the official accounts of the deaths of Lolita's children, whispering of dark conspiracies, suggesting the deaths may have been a result of Lolita's violent activism. Lolita simply calls her children "martyrs for Puerto Rico."
Lolita and her granddaughter were estranged after the 1996 publication of The Ladies' Gallery, but Lolita says they recently have come to a cautious reconciliation. They were reunited when her granddaughter was married in Puerto Rico recently, Lolita says. But when her granddaughter asked to publish some of Lolita's poems and other papers, she refused.
In El Ateneo, the little girls sense her affection and mass around her, waiting to have their pictures taken with the nice old lady. Surrounded by the little flashing smiles, she beams. The whole pack of dancers streams outside, Lolita giggling in their midst. She straightens one little girl's dress as they all squeeze through the doorway; she fusses with another's hair.
As the ceremony gets under way, she takes her place next to the flagpole. But, surveying the scene, she gravitates from the bottom of the hill to the top. Better. She has a kind of intuitive stage presence. She cocks her head back and claps her right hand against her chest as the other guest of honor, Puerto Rican salsa star Cheo Feliciano, raises the flag.
A tall, muscly man in a tight T-shirt appears out of nowhere with a
chair for Lolita. She declines. Someone else offers to help her up the
steps of El Ateneo after the ceremony. It is as if she is a rare, fragile
piece of china, and they're terrified she'll break. "I can walk alone,"
she says firmly.
In the coolness of El Ateneo's foyer, she looks back at the dissipating crowd. "Everyone wants to shake my hand," she says. "Oh, my country!" Her eyes are filling with tears.
LOLITA AND HER HUSBAND call the coffee shop in the strip mall down the street from their house "the cave" because it used to be dark and cramped. The name stuck, even after the place got an airy retrofit.
She and Sergio Irizarry met when Lolita was a prisoner. The Nationalist Party asked him to check on her well-being, flying him to West Virginia in the 1970s, rather than relying on American doctors to monitor her health. Once Lolita returned to Puerto Rico, Irizarry waited nearly eight years to ask her to be his wife. They shared the dream of a sovereign Puerto Rico before they shared a home.
Settled into a quiet table at the restaurant, Lolita asks if anyone
wants something to eat. After a full meal at the flag day ceremony, her
guests politely say, "No, thank you." She nods and calls the waiter. "Bring
over four croquetas for each of us," she says.
Irizarry smiles and shrugs. It isn't easy to negotiate with a living legend. Nearly a quarter-century after her release, swanky New York art galleries sell oil paintings of Lolita cast in heroic poses; playwrights stage productions celebrating her radical turn in Congress; Puerto Rican nationalists rank her alongside revolutionary legends: Zapata, Che Guevara.
Lolita flips through a sheaf of her poems and begins to read aloud in
"It is the day of the earth / My passion is celebrating / with siempreviva [a flower whose name means always alive] and sandalo [sandalwood]."
She stops and looks up.
"This is not a game," she says. "Poetry is something serious."
She's into it now and continues.
"My forehead is red and flowered / And I am the earth."
Again, she pauses. "This is great poetry."
She turns back to the poem, "And today I celebrate / My first cry / Also my great shout / Is in its beginnings."
She sets down the poems. "Not everyone in the world," she says, "can understand this poetry."
But now she wants to see her dogs, and it's time to go. The little yappers -- Bambi and Maja -- on the porch behind the iron gate are "satos como nosotros," she says. Strays like us.
The house is squat, stucco, aggressively unremarkable. Inside, there are no pictures of her glory days. No glam shots of her on the Capitol steps or newspaper clippings. The living room is lined with religious iconography, dominated by a giant painting of a bleeding Christ in His agony. There is an enormous Puerto Rican flag on the opposite wall.
She walks slowly down the hall, to a back room where hardly anyone is ever allowed. She turns the door handle, and reveals a spare room with chairs against three walls. The back wall has been converted into a shrine covered in bright blue silk, surrounded by flower bouquets. Delicate little statues of the Virgin Mary fill the altar. There is a miniature, brown-skinned friar. Pink china flowers.
"Come here," she says, holding out a trembling hand. "Do you see that rose?" She points at the carpet, where she has placed one of her china roses, cocked at a slight angle. "That is where the Virgin Mary appeared to me," she says. "Her back was turned to me. I said, 'Ay, with her back to me?' "
Then, she says, she realized the Virgin Mary was admiring the little altar. She noticed what the Virgin was wearing, of course, and rattles off the details like a columnist for Vogue: wraparound skirt, tight-fitting blouse, puffy sleeves, a man's handkerchief on her head.
The Virgin Mary visits often, she says, sometimes when she's in the kitchen, sometimes late at night in bed. God comes by just as frequently. She calls their messages, simply, "las palabras," the words.
Lately, they've been talking to her about the United States. They tell her America will always fear terrorism as long as it has nuclear weapons. The fear will never go away. Her visions take her back to the place she went in 1954, to the seat of American power, to the Capitol. She does not have to look hard to see what's happening in her visions, it's as clear as anything she has ever seen: The Capitol is in flames.