In the 19th century, as Puerto Rico was trying to shake-off the colonial grip of Spain alongside Cuba, a women from San Germán, Lola Rodríguez de Tió, wrote a poem that was more of a call to arms against oppression and the valiant spirit of her people. The poem, also called La Borinqueña, began with a forceful call for “Puerto Ricans to wake up from their sleep, because it is time to fight.” Interestingly enough, even the subversive poem experienced a bit of historical revisionism. The line, “…las mujeres indómitas, también sabrán luchar…,” (“the unconquerable women also know how to fight”) was conveniently left out when converted to an anthem. However, despite such erasure, de Tió was right – Puerto Rican history is full of women who were afraid of neither death nor prison. And no other Boricua woman, living or dead, exemplifies that undeniable reality than Dolores “Lolita” Lebrón Sotomayor, a revolutionary who was supposed to be erased by history, but would not allow it.
Revolution was sown into the very fabric of Lolita since her birth on November 19, 1919. The town of her ancestors, Lares, was where islanders rebelled against Spanish colonialism and slavery in 1868. Nonetheless, her life was a difficult one. When she went to find work in New York City in 1941, she faced racism wherever she went. She later commented that “this was no paradise” as many of her fellow jíbaros assumed before leaving the island. Her experiences in the United States soon helped her put into context the colonial relationship that Puerto Rico had (and still has) with the U.S., which has held tight control over the island since 1898. By 1946, she had joined the Nationalist Party chapter in the U.S.
By 1952, Puerto Rico officially became a U.S. “Commonwealth,” or “Estado Libre Asociado,” which is legally a colonial façade. Nonetheless, this was argument enough to remove Puerto Rico from the colonial possessions list at the United Nations and to try to placate the Puerto Rican population. Two years earlier, the Nationalist Party led a rebellion on the island that began in the town of Jayuya, which was driven by a woman, Blanca Canales. Thus, on March 1, 1954, the stage was set for Lolita to further a cause she dedicated her life to, prior and henceforth.
Chosen by the leader of the Nationalist Party Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos to lead a mission to wake up the world to Puerto Rico’s political situation, she organized three men, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores, and Andres Figueroa Cordero to ascend the U.S. Capitol building while Congress was in session, and enter the Ladie’s Gallery for a mission they believed they would not leave alive. There, Lolita unfurled a Puerto Rican flag, yelled “Long Live a Free Puerto Rico,” and, along with her compañeros, shot automatic pistols across the building, which ricochet and wounded five congressmen. Across the U.S., headlines showed the Nationalists in front of the Capitol, being gripped by police – Lolita, stood out, elegant and defiant. Later, in a videotaped interview with the police, she said, “the purpose of the shooting was…freedom for my country… I’m not sorry to come for an act of freedom….” She was sentenced to 57 years in prison.
And in prison she stood, for 25 years, more than any other woman political prisoner in the Western Hemisphere. She even rejected a possible parole offer, because she believed that she had done nothing wrong. A campaign emerged in the 1970s in Chicago for the release of her and her fellow patriots – “The Nationalist Five” they were called (Oscar Collazo was in prison since 1950 for his assassination attempt of then-President Harry S. Truman). By 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter had no choice but to offer an unconditional pardon to the Nationalists. Their first stop after their freedom: Chicago, where they were greeted by thousands of Boricuas on Division Street. They subsequently traveled the U.S. and Puerto Rico, welcomed by thousands more, and were guests of honor of Fidel Castro in Cuba. Of course, Lolita could have decided to descend from the limelight and lead a comfortable life, but she chose to continue to advocate for Puerto Rican independence well into her 80s, even being arrested and jailed for weeks for protesting the presence of the U.S. Navy on the island of Vieques in 2001.
In 2007, at the age of 21, I, along with some compañeros from Chicago, had the immense honor of meeting Lolita in her home in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico. Although nearing 90, she was not a fragile, old woman, but a continuously confident and strong lady, emitting a spiritual calmness through her bright, blue eyes while reading us poetry (she wrote several well-received books). All I could think was the reply of my grandmother when, at age 16, I asked her who was “Lolita Lebrón” – “una patriota” – “a patriot.” I’ll never forget the ecstatic Lolita, standing straight, waving goodbye to us through her garage gate while her birds chirped in the background and a light-blue Puerto Rican flag waved in front of her home; age had befallen her but her spirit remained young. When she died on August 1, 2010 and the day after her coffin was carried to the Ateneo Puertorriqueño, the intellectual center of the island, hundreds of people raised their fists into their air and sang La Borinqueña. But more poignantly, was when, at the end of the anthem, two people yelled “¡Qué Viva Lolita!,” prompting the crowd to reply “¡Qué Viva!” Even in death, Lolita lives.