Dolores "Lolita" Lebrón Sotomayor
(born November 19, 1919) is an active advocate for Puerto Rican independence
. She was born and raised in Lares, Puerto Rico
, where she joined the Liberal Party
. In her youth she met Francisco Matos Paoli, a renowned Puerto Rican poet, with whom she had a relationship. In 1941, Lebrón migrated to New York City, where she joined the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party
, gaining influence within the party's leadership. Within the organization she promoted ideals based on socialist
In 1952, after Puerto Rico's official status was changed to "Commonwealth", the Nationalist Party began a series of revolutionary actions, including the Jayuya Uprising. As part of this initiative, Pedro Albizu Campos ordered her to organize attacks in the United States, focusing on locations that were "the most strategic to the enemy". She became the leader of a group of nationalists, who proceeded to attack the United States House of Representatives in 1954. Lebrón remained imprisoned 25 years, when Jimmy Carter issued pardons to the group involved. After their release, the nationalists returned to Puerto Rico, where independence movements received them with a celebration. During the following years she continued her involvement in pro-independence activities, including the Navy-Vieques protests. Her life would be subsequently detailed in books and a documentary.
Lebron was one of five siblings born in Lares, Puerto Rico to Gonzalo Lebrón Bernal and Rafaela Soto Luciano, the other four were Aurea, Augusto, Gonzalo Jr. and Julio. Lebrón was raised in Hacienda Pezuelas
in Pezuelas, a barrio
in Lares. Gonzalo Lebrón worked as the hacienda's foreman earning a salary of 30 dollars a month and was allowed to live in a "small house" where he was also allowed to plant produce for his family. In Pezuelas Lebrón began her education in a small community school. Early in her life, Lebrón contracted pneumonia
when she accidentally fell into a gutter that was full of water, as a consequence she grew with a frail body and was unable to keep up with the constant activities of her brothers without feeling fatigue. She developed an introverted and contemplative personality, often spending her time admiring nature around the hacienda. From Pezuelas the family moved to Mirasol, also in Lares, where Gonzalo Lebrón administered an hacienda owned by Emilio Vilellas. There she received a better education, attending a local public school. When Lebrón completed the sixth grade she attended the Segunda Unidad Rural
, a middle school located in Bartolo, an adjacent barrio. She concluded her formal public school education in the eight grade. Lebrón had uncommonly good looks and when she was a teenager won the first place in the annual "Queen of the Flowers of May" beauty contest held in Lares. Although her father was an Atheist
, Lebrón was baptized in the Catholic faith when she was fourteen years old along with her other siblings. During the baptism celebration she met Francisco Matos Paoli, who became her first boyfriend. Paoli and Lebron wrote letters to each other where they exchanged the poetry which they wrote. Paoli's family opposed their relationship because they considered Lebrón a jíbara
(peasant). Her father also opposed this relationship and ordered her to stop writing to Paoli. However, they both continued to write to each other until he moved out of the city. Lebrón eventually moved to San Juan, where she studied sewing and while she continued to look for Paoli. She felt obligated to return to Lares because her father was severely affected by tuberculosis
. The family was forced to abandon the house in the hacienda, but was later received by Ramón Santiago who provided them with a new house. Lebrón took it upon herself the responsibility of taking care of her father. She would travel to a nearby town to buy medicines for her father which she gave him every seventy minutes. For seven days she didn't sleep or eat while attending him. Following his death Lebrón began working by weaving clothes.
Although Lebrón was a member of the Liberal Party
from a young age, she didn't display any interest in politics. However, her posture changed after March 21, 1937, when a group of militants from the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party
were killed during a peaceful protest which became known as the Ponce massacre
. Lebrón who was eighteen years old at the time, developed a nationalistic ideology following this event. During this timeframe, Lebrón had a relationship with a local engineer, following the advice of her family. When she was twenty-one years old she gave birth to her first daughter Gladys, who was left in Rafaela Luciano's custody after Lebrón was separated from her husband and moved to New York City
. After she arrived in New York City, she started to experience problems finding employment, mostly because of the fact that she didn't fully understand English. Lebrón worked as a seamstress in several factories. She was fired from some of her jobs because she was considered a "rebel by her bosses" after she protested against the discrimination which she witnessed against Puerto Rican workers. This influenced her nationalistic views even further and she eventually established contact with members of the Puerto Rican Liberation Movement. She enrolled at George Washington College, where she studied for two years during her free time from work. She married again when she was twenty-two years old and gave birth to her second child, whom she would send to Puerto Rico to live with her mother, a year later. Lebrón decided to divorce her husband because she felt that he was oppressing her. In 1943, there was a massive migration
of Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico to New York, composed mostly of jibaros seeking employment. Lebrón grew increasingly frustrated when she observed how they were forced to live in poverty and under social decadence and she increased her work within nationalist circles. In 1946, she formally became a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, following the advice of a friend. During this time she developed an admiration for the Party's president Pedro Albizu Campos
, studying and memorizing his biography and ideals. After joining the party, Lebrón inadvertently included some of her own initiatives within the organization's ideals, these were influenced by socialist
ideals. Seeking more involvement in society and politics for women, new economic systems and social reforms that would protect women and children. Her constant involvement in the party's affairs earned her several high-ranking positions, among them being named secretary, vice-president and executive delegate of its delegation in New York. On November 1, 1952, following a series of uprisings in Puerto Rico which included the Jayuya Uprising
, Oscar Collazo
and Griselio Torresola invaded Harry S. Truman
with the intention of "drawing attention to the fact of Puerto Rico's continued colonial status", as well as to directly give Truman a letter written by Albizu Campos. A shootout erupted between the duo and the guard stationed there, killing Torresola. Collazo was badly injured but survived and was sentenced to death by an American jury. Following this sentence, Lebrón quickly joined the "Committee for Oscar Collazo's defense", participating in numerous public manifestations which eventually led to a presidential pardon. On July 25, 1952, Puerto Rico's status was officially changed to Estado Libre Associado
(commonwealth of the United States), following Luis Muñoz Marín
's election as governor. In 1954, Lebrón received a letter from Albizu Campos, in which he declared his intention to order attacks on "three locations, the most strategic to the enemy".
Assault on the House of Representatives
Albizu Campos had been corresponding with 34-year-old Lebrón from prison and chose a group of nationalists who included Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores and Andrés Figueroa Cordero to attack locations in Washington D.C. Upon receiving the order she communicated it to the leadership of the Nationalist party in New York, although two members unexpectedly disagreed, the plan continued. Lebrón decided to lead the group, even though Albizu Campos didn't order her to directly take part in the assault. She studied the plan, determining the possible weaknesses, concluding that a single attack on the House of Representatives would be more effective. The date for the attack on the House of Representatives was to be March 1, 1954. This date was chosen because it coincided with the inauguration of the Conferencia Interamericana
(Interamerican Conference) in Caracas
. Lebrón intended to call attention to Puerto Rico's independence cause, particularly among the Latin American countries participating in the conference.
On the morning of March 1, Lebrón traveled to Grand Central Terminal, where she rendezvous with the rest of the group. Once they arrived to the United States Capitol, Rafael Cancel Miranda suggested that the attack should be postponed because it was late and rainy. Lebrón noticed preoccupation in that statement, but responded by saying "I am alone" before continuing towards the building's interior. The group followed, considering the attack a coup d'état, the most important revolutionary act in the history of the Puerto Rican independence movement, the third uprising after the Grito de Lares and Jayuya uprising. The other members of the group seemed serene and optimistic while rushing towards the legislative chamber.(p.136)
When Lebrón's group reached the visitor's gallery above the chamber in the House, sitting in preemptive action while the representatives discussed Mexico's economy. Shortly after arriving, Lebrón gave the order to the other members, the group quickly recited the Lord's Prayer and then she stood up and shouted "¡Viva Puerto Rico Libre!" ("Long live a Free Puerto Rico!") and unfurled the flag of Puerto Rico. Subsequently the group opened fire with automatic pistols. Lebrón claimed that she fired her shots at the ceiling, while Figueroa's pistol jammed. Some 30 shots were fired (mostly by Cancel, according to his account), wounding five lawmakers; one representative, Alvin Bentley from Michigan, was seriously wounded in the chest. Upon being arrested, Lebrón yelled "I did not come to kill anyone, I came to die for Puerto Rico!".
Trial and imprisonment
Lebrón and her comrades were charged with attempted murder and other crimes. She was imprisoned in the Federal Correctional Institution for Women
in Alderson, West Virginia
.The trial began on June 4, 1954, with judge Alexander Holtzoff presiding over the case, under strict security measures. A jury composed of seven men and five women was assembled, their identities were kept secret by the media. The prosecution was led by Leo A. Rover, as part of this process 33 witnesses testified. Lebrón and the other members of the group were the only defense witnesses, as part of her testimony she reaffirmed that they "came to die for the liberty of her homeland". During the early part of the process she remained calm, communicating through her lawyers discontent with the manner that the flag was being handled while presenting the evidence. However, she vocally protested when the defense suggested that the group might have suffered from mental instability while performing the act. On June 16, 1954, the jury declared the four guilty. On the morning of July 8, 1954, Lebrón was notified of her son's death, minutes before attending the presentation of their sentence. She was quiet early in the audience, but was unable to contain her emotions and became hysterical at one point. Rover pursued death penalty, but Holtzoff decided to implement the maximum imprisonment penalties. In Lebrón's case this was between sixteen and fifty years, depending on her behavior. Back at the prison, she fell in shock upon receiving official notice of her son's death and remained silent for three days. On July 13, 1954, the four nationalists traveled to New York, where they declared themselves not guilty on the charges of "trying to overthrow the government of the United States". Among the prosecution's witnesses was Gonzalo Lebrón Jr., who testified against his sister. On October 26, 1954, judge Lawrence E. Walsh found all of the accused guilty of conspiracy, sentencing them to six more years in prison.
Lebrón has stated that the first two years in prison were the most difficult, having to deal with the death of her son and mother. Communication with her siblings was non-existent, with Lebrón refusing to receive mail from her sister because only letters written in English were permitted in the institution. Communication with the external community wasn't allowed, only being established after several inmates participated in a hunger strike which lasted three and a half days. Due to her participation, Lebrón wasn't allowed to perform work outside of her cell for some time, eventually being allowed to work at the infirmary. While in prison, a group of judicial officials offered her a "conditioned liberty" in exchange for a public apology, which she rejected, considering it an insult. After completing the first 15 years of the sentence, Lebrón's social worker told her that she could ask for parole, but she didn't display interest in the proposal, never signing the required documentation. Due to this she attended a meeting before a penitentiary committee, where she presented a written deposition expressing her position about the parole proposal as well as other subjects including terrorism, politics and the United States' use of the atomic bomb. Following this the other inmates reacted with skepticism over her intentions to refuse the offer, which made her distance herself from them and focus her attention in studying as well as writing poetry. During this timeframe, Lebrón's interest in religion grew. Lebrón's daughter Gladys died in 1977, while she was in prison.
In 1979 President Jimmy Carter
pardoned Lolita Lebrón, Irving Flores, and Rafael Cancel Miranda after they had served 25 years in prison. Andrés Figueroa Cordero was released from prison earlier because of grave health. Governor of Puerto Rico Carlos Romero Barceló
publicly opposed the pardons granted by Carter, stating that it would encourage terrorism and undermine public safety. Lebrón was welcomed by various independence groups as a hero upon her return to the island.
Lebrón is married to Sergio Irizarry Rivera and continues to participate in pro-independence activities. The couple met while she was in prison, when the Nationalist Party ordered him to monitor her health. Eight years after meeting they married, moving to a small house in Loiza, which possessed few distinctive traits, mostly composed of religious iconography and a large flag of Puerto Rico in the living room. On September 4, 2005, the couple was transported to a hospital, after a fire affected part of their house, causing $14,000 in material losses.
On May 22, 2000, she erroneously filed charges of verbal assault against Nívea Hernández, the mother of Kenneth McClintock who subsequently served as Minority Leader, and later President, of the Senate of Puerto Rico, after a discussion ensued between her and an unidentified woman at a pharmacy in San Juan. The case was reported after an employee of the establishment identified the instigator as Hernández, who was recuperating from surgery at the moment.
She continued to be active in the independence cause and participated in the protests against the United States Navy's presence in Vieques. Lebrón appeared as a witness at the "International Tribunal on Violations of Human Rights in Puerto Rico and Vieques" held on November 17-21, 2000 on the island of Vieques. According to the local newspaper El Vocero, her audience applauded when Lebrón said at the end of her deposition "I had the honor of leading the act against the U.S. Congress on March 1, 1954, when we demanded freedom for Puerto Rico and we told the world that we are an invaded nation, occupied and abused by the United States of America. I feel very proud of having performed that day, of having answered the call of the motherland".
On June 26, 2001, Lebrón was among a group of protesters that were arrested for trespassing in the restricted area in Vieques. On July 19, 2001, she was sentenced to 60 days of prison on the charge that she was trespassing on a Navy property in Vieques. Lebrón had already served 23 days in jail since her arrest in June, leaving her to serve 37 additional days. On May 1, 2003, the Navy left Vieques and turned over its facilities to the government of Puerto Rico. Following this, she continued her participation in other pro independence activities. Lebrón was among the political leaders that opposed the Democratic Party's primary that took place on June 1, 2008. The group anticipated the low voter turnout in the event, while declaring that Puerto Rico "deserves sovereignty".
On June 10, 2008, Lebrón suffered a fracture in her hip and a wrist after accidentally falling in her house. She underwent surgery at a hospital in San Juan, where the fractures were corrected using bolts and a metal plaque.
Among the homages received by Lebrón are paintings, books and a documentary. Mexican
artist Octavio Ocampo
created a poster of Lebrón, which was exhibited at the Galería de la Raza
in San Francisco, California
. In Chicago's Humboldt Park
there is a mural
depicting Lebrón among other illustrious Puerto Ricans. Among the books written about Lebrón are The Ladies Gallery: A Memoir of Family Secrets
by Irene Vilar (Lebrón's granddaughter), translated by Gregory Rabassa (earlier published as "A Message from God in the Atomic Age") and Lolita la Prisonera
by Federico Ribes Tovar. Writer, director and film producer Judith Escalona
is planning to make a film about Lebrón's life.