by Julio Ricardo Varela
During the recent news coverage about the Gabby Giffords tragedy, I was surprised to see that no mention was made about one of the darkest moments in Puerto Rico’s history: March 1, 1954, when three members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Movement (pro-independence) opened fire in the U.S. House of Representatives and injured five U.S. Congressmen.
The tragedy, which was vividly reported in TIME magazine, 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.”
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 video presents a very detailed account and analysis of the tragedy:
Also, as the news reels suggests, Puerto Ricans were still “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.
The shooting did very little to further the cause for Puerto Rican independence. In fact, this violent act, along with Fidel Castro taking over Cuba in 1959 and forcing many Cubans exiles to arrive in Puerto Rico, solidified a more conservative acceptance of the island’s political status and relationship with the United States. More than 50 years since the ELA, Puerto Rico still struggles to finalize its political status, as both the pro-ELA and pro-statehood parties have support, while the Nationalist movement has never gained momentum.
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 Castro’s Cuba.
To learn more about Julio,
visit Franky Benitez.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.