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
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
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
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
"They told me it was a paradise; this was no paradise," she
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
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
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
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 like death.
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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.