Remembering Puerto Rican Activist Lolita Lebron

Lolita Lebron, the Puerto Rican independence activist who led three others to attack the U.S. House of Representatives with pistols in 1954, died at age 90 over the weekend. She spent 25 years in jail for the shooting on Capitol Hill. Michele Norris talks to Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

On March 1st, 1954, a group of Puerto Rican nationalists fired bullets from the public gallery down onto the floor of the U.S. House of Representative.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Unidentified Man: In Washington, scenes of confusion naturally followed news of a shooting outrage. The five representatives injured in the affray were rushed to hospital. The assailants were Puerto Ricans led by this woman, Mrs. Lolita Lebron, said to have shouted free Puerto Rico.

NORRIS: No members of Congress died in the attack, but the group, including Lolita Lebron, was sentenced to 50 years in prison. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter granted her clemency after she'd served 25 years in jail. Her cohorts were also released then, along with another Puerto Rican nationalist who had attempted to shoot President Harry Truman in 1950.

Lebron died in Puerto Rico over the weekend. She had lived to age 90, unrepentant and still fiercely advocating independence for her home island. Here she is defending her views shortly after her release.

Ms. LOLITA LEBRON: (Speaking foreign language)

NORRIS: That was Lebron saying: Puerto Rico will not hesitate and will take the final recourse of every nation and will take up arms if necessary in order to realize its emancipation.

Angelo Falcon is President National Institute for Latino Policy. He joins us from our New York studio to talk a little bit more about Lolita Lebron. How was she regarded back in Puerto Rico?

Mr. ANGELO FALCON (President of the National Institute for Latino Policy): She's very controversial. I'm not going to say everybody thinks she's a hero, but certainly a significant number of Puerto Ricans do see her that way, do see her as a heroine for Puerto Rico.

Here you have the leader of the group being a very petite, well-dressed Puerto Rican woman who was out there, and to me, that was amazing. It's left such an impression.

NORRIS: Did she consider what she did terrorism?

Mr. FALCON: No, no, she was basically - saw herself as a freedom fighter for the freedom of Puerto Rico.

NORRIS: But as you know, one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist. I'm wondering about the people who were injured that day on Capitol Hill or the others who were probably trying to flee to safety, hearing this hail of bullet fire coming down from the gallery. And I can't imagine that they would use that word to describe her.

Mr. FALCON: Oh, I wasn't referring to them. I mean, freedom fighters against the United States. They walked into the central, one of the central institutions of the United States and fired upon that institution.

NORRIS: She never actually repented. As we said, she was unrepentant almost I guess until the end. But did she at some point renounce violence?

Mr. FALCON: Well, she became, you know, a very religious figure and basically began to talk about the importance of civil disobedience. She shifted in terms of the way she looked at the role of violence in terms of political action, yeah.

NORRIS: Back in 1954, those actions, shooting down at members of Congress from the gallery, did that advance or set back the cause?

Mr. FALCON: Oh, well, I think basically it set back the cause, I would say. Because, I mean, to do this day in the elections in Puerto Rico, over 95 percent of the people in Puerto Rico vote for political parties that want to maintain their ties to the United States. So that what you have is this very interesting kind of interplay between this idea of people like Lolita Lebron taking these extreme actions and people who don't support necessarily those types of tactics still being supportive of her mostly around the issue of being proud of being Puerto Rican, the idea that there's this tension, even though being part of the United States, still feeling foreign in a domestic sense.

NORRIS: Angelo Falcon, thank you so much for your time.

Mr. FALCON: My pleasure.

NORRIS: Angelo Falcon is the president of the National Institute for Latino Policy. He was talking with us about Puerto Rican activist Lolita Lebron. She died this weekend at the age of 90.

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