March 1, 1954: When Puerto Rican Nationalists Attacked Washington [Updated]

The following piece was originally published here by our founder, @julito77. We have updated it to remember today’s moment in history.

60 years ago today, members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Movement (pro-independence) opened fire in the U.S. House of Representatives and injured five U.S. Congressmen.

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The tragedy, vividly reported in TIME magazine and The New York Times, left five Congressmen wounded: Ben Jensen (Iowa), Alvin Bentley (Michigan), Cliff Davis (Tennessee), George Fallon (Maryland) and Kenneth Roberts (Alabama). The shooters—Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Miranda, and Andrés Cordero—were apprehended in the U.S. Capitol, while the fourth accomplice, Irving Flores, was arrested at a D.C. bus depot. This was the second time Puerto Rican Nationalists committed violence against the U.S. government. In 1950, two Puerto Rican Nationalists failed at an assassination attempt of President Harry S. Truman.

In 1952, Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth or “Freely Associated State” (“Estado libre asociado”), yet a small group of Nationalists still wanted the island to be free. Lebrón was the mastermind of the 1954 plot, and was reported to have said “Free Puerto Rico!” as the shooting began. In addition, Lebrón wrote a note that police found during her arrest. It read: “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. I take responsible for all.”

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The news of the day described the act as one of “terrorism” and “a criminal outrage almost unique in American history.” On the island, Nationalist leaders, such as Pedro Albizu Campos, were arrested and allegations that the arms used for the shooting came from Communists added to the Cold War mentality of the time. The following newsreel says it all:

Even though Puerto Ricans were American citizens, they were still seen as “foreign” to mainstream America and the image of political terrorists attacking a U.S. institution did not help the perception of Puerto Ricans in the eyes of their fellow American citizens. Such an attitude lead to continuous attempts to silence the island’s nationalist movement.

A 2012 Times piece about the shooting said this:

Puerto Rico adopted its Constitution in 1952 and became an unincorporated, organized territory of the United States with commonwealth status, which angered hardcore nationalists. Mr. Miranda said agreeing to these terms made Puerto Ricans looked like “happy slaves.” According to The Times’s obituary of Ms. Lebron, she had “dismissed that status as only more colonization and demanded complete independence.”

Ironically, the same day the shooting occurred, LIFE Magazine featured Puerto Rican actor Rita Moreno on its front cover:

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As for the 1954 shooters? Cordero was released in 1978, while President Carter freed the other three in 1979 in exchange for the release of several U.S. CIA agents jailed in Cuba. Lebrón died in 2010. She was 90 years old. Here is a user-made video of her funeral day.

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