This summer the world lost an incomparable female warrior whose courageous life and sacrifices for her people’s freedom will long be remembered and honored. Lolita Lebrón, who spent almost 26 years behind bars in U.S. prisons, died on August 1, 2010 at the age of 90, a hero whose total commitment to Puerto Rican self-determination never wavered.
Ms. Lebrón joined the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PRNP) in the 1940s. At that time, the group was deeply involved in labor struggles, including organizing a general strike in the sugar industry that paralyzed the island in 1934. The party also spearheaded a campaign to defend small farmers whose land was being seized by U.S. banks, fought English-only laws, participated in anti-imperialist protests, and mobilized a militia of women and men to counter U.S. government repression. Lebrón quickly became recognized as a party leader in the movement for independence of “Borinquen” — the original indigenous name for Puerto Rico.
In 1954, Lebrón organized a daring attack on the U.S. Congress to focus world attention on Puerto Rican demands to end U.S. colonialism on the island. She led three other independistas into the visitors’ gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives and unfurled the Puerto Rican flag, shouting “Free Puerto Rico!” and firing pistols. Several legislators were wounded and she and her comrades were sentenced to decades in prison.
Years later, in her testimony at the International Tribunal on Violations of Human Rights in Puerto Rico and Vieques, she said:
“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.”
Though she later concluded that civil disobedience was more effective than armed struggle, Lebrón never abandoned the battle against U.S. imperialism and colonialism. In 2001, she joined other demonstrators in entering a restricted area of Vieques — a small Puerto Rican island — to protest the U.S. Navy using it as a bombing range. For this, she was sentenced to 60 days in jail. In 2003, the navy finally succumbed to constant protests and abandoned Vieques.
On International Women’s Day, March 8, 2008, Lebrón led a group of 100 women to protest at the seat of colonial government in Puerto Rico to demand sovereignty. She said:
“We want everyone to know that in Puerto Rico, we women are fighting for our rights as workers, we are fighting for a healthy environment, for poor and marginalized communities, for the freedom of the political prisoners, the well-being of children, for peace, for the defense of our culture and all the rights they intend to take from us. We want everyone to know that women in Puerto Rico support, demand and are fighting for the independence of Puerto Rico.”
Today the island still struggles against a cruel poverty imposed by U.S. imperialism which exploits the island as a source of cheap labor and a dumping ground for U.S. products. Lebrón’s fight is unfinished, but she can best be honored by joining the struggle to finally end colonial rule in her beloved homeland. Nowhere is the need for an independence solidarity movement more important than in the United States, the source of so many Puerto Rican problems and dreams deferred.
¡Que viva Lolita Lebrón y Puerto Rico libre y socialista!