They stood in front of the Capitol and pondered their next move. The four of them — Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andrés Figueroa Cordero, Irving Flores Rodríguez, and Dolores “Lolita” Lebrón Sotomayor — had traveled by train from New York City and arrived late on a rainy afternoon in D.C. Now the appropriately named Cancel was having second thoughts and suggested that they postpone what they had gone there to do. Lolita would have none of it, declaring solemnly “Estoy sola” as she marched up the steps, her three male companions not far behind.
She was born 34 years earlier in Lares, the same town in which Puerto Rico’s first failed revolutions was launched back in 1868. Having contracted pneumonia as a girl, Lolita would always be physically frail, a condition which forced her to become mentally and emotionally strong. Her political awakening came in 1937 when 19 people were shot and killed during what was supposed to be peaceful, Easter Sunday demonstration in the town of Ponce. By the early 1950s she was a high-ranking member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and corresponding with its imprisoned leader, Pedro Albizu Campos. It was one of Don Pedro’s letters that inspired Lolita’s trip to Washington on March 1, 1954.
Lolita led the group to the House of Representatives where the four of them sat in the visitors’ gallery while congressmen discussed the Mexican economy below. Then, at her signal, they unfurled a Puerto Rican flag over the balcony as Lolita yelled “¡Viva Puerto Rico Libre!” at which time they opened fire with automatic pistols. Representative Clifford Davis of Tennessee too a bullet to the chest while four others were shot in the leg and back, among other places. The assailants were quickly detained by guards, whom were told by the female leader as she was being handcuffed that she had not come to kill anyone but had come “to die for Puerto Rico.”
The next morning, Puerto Rican police swarmed the home of Albizu Campos, who had been pardoned by Governor Luis Muñoz Marín a year earlier. Believing him to be the mastermind behind the attack at the Capitol — though no evidence has ever shown that he directed Lolita specifically — Don Pedro was sent to La Princesa for another 10 years where he would be subjected to continuous blasts of radiation.
For her part in the incident, Lolita would be tried and convicted of attempted murder and seditious conspiracy for “trying to overthrow the government of the United States,” receiving a sentence of 76 years at a women’s prison in West Virginia. President Jimmy Carter would pardon her and the remaining Nationalists in 1979, over the fierce objection of Puerto Rico Governor Carlos Romero Barceló. Over the subsequent two decades Lolita would never apologize for leading the 1954 attack, even going on to become the president of the Nationalist Party and leading demonstrations against the United States’ military presence on the island of Vieques, for which she was arrested and jailed in 2001.
She died on August 1, 2010 at the age of 90.
Remembering Lolita — and that woman’s terrorist is another woman’s freedom fighter — is how we celebrate our heritage.