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When Puerto Ricans attacked Washington, DC

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.

Puerto Rican Nationalist and leader of the 1954 shooting plot, Lolita Lebrón. ©Associated Press

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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kwvywfjl9ds&w=480&h=390]

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.

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To learn more about Julio,
visit Franky Benitez.

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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.

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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.

Comments

  1. Julito,

    I think you are right on spot in being Puerto Rico’s darkest moments since the persecution of anyone who had the Independence Ideal lasted to late into the 70′s.

    My father being part of the Nationalist movement was persecuted and profiled as many other Puerto Ricans where just because they wanted our Island to have the same independence the U.S. is able to have.

    Pedro Albizu Campos was one of our greatest minds and he was killed by the U.S. Government with radiation.

    One of the things that contradicts was that Puerto Rico was part of the U.S. but nobody could have freedom of speech since once somebody did not go with the U.S. Interests they where profiled as a terrorist no matter if they where violent or pacific protests.

    I admire Lolita for fighting for what she believed in the same way when the U.S. Forefathers wanted to be independent from England they took arms and drove out the British.

    Puerto Ricans where tarnished because of one event but the U.S. on the other side sees the people that lead their independence as heroes. A good example on the many interest the U.S. has in Puerto Rico to this date.

    The Gabby Giffords shooting attacker did not have anything close to what Puerto Rico was living when till this day we are treated as second class citizens to the point we can vote for the President but on the other side we a territory that recruits (and in Vietnam drafted) soldiers to go to combat.

    We can fight for the U.S. but no right to vote for president.

    For some like me Lolita is an example to follow. For others it might be the other.

  2. I agree with you, Raul. Many members in my family were independentistas (some very vocal) and the after affects of this event plus the paranoia of Castro’s Cuba turned our beloved island into a very reactive world. The paradoxes of our identity as a country (the “isla como víctima” the “island victim”) has hounded us for over 100 years.

  3. @ Raul, you speak the truth!

  4. What are you trying to say with this article?

  5. Frances Montalvo says:

    Well said Raul.

    I don’t know exactly how that day was the darkest in Puerto Rico’s history though, Look through history books and you see countless stories of oppressed and marginalized men and women who do what must be done to be heard or to change their circumstances. This was 1950s america, It wasn’t like many people of color were freely walking around and being heard, it wasn’t until Brown vs. the Board of Ed in 1954, that segregation ended in public schools and a decade later in the civil rights act that it ended segregation on state and local levels, the 1970s saw the Black Power Movement. Do we look down at all those people who acted with aggression toward the aggressors? Or so many Afrikan countries that had their wars for independence? Perhaps, some of you do, but I surely don’t. It wasn’t like america didn’t have any dirt on their hands in regards to Puerto Rico, for example, the sterilization program that was in place from the 30s to the 70s, that was geared towards poor and uneducated women, 1/3 of which were sterile by the end of this horrendous act. And most of these women had no idea that it was permanent!

    It’s a shame that the Independence Movement didn’t gain momentum, but if it had and Puerto Rico wasn’t a commonwealth (pretty name for colony) but and independent country, would you still think that it was Puerto Rico’s darkest day? Would Lolita Lebron and the others not be heroes? For me, i look up these freedom fighters and to all those that fight oppression and demand to be heard and truly believe they can fight for a better life for their people.

  6. Julio, this is great. It is posts such as this that can open up more dialogue on subjects related to the status issue of Puerto Rico. It is something I continuously touch on in my blog. I wish more people would pick up history books that detailed the history of Puerto Rico and truly would take the time to learn and understand the relationship Puerto Rico and the U.S. have had for over 100 years. Gracias.

  7. Great article – very interesting!

  8. I am trying to report an event that happened in 1954 and that was not mentioned as an incident in the mainstream media as an example of US Congressmen being shot.

    I am also trying to say that this act, although justified in the eyes of many at the time, did more harm to the PRican independence movement, which has been repressed ever since. The video I mention here does a great analysis of the entire incident.

    This is also a significant moment in PRican history since it created more negative vibes than intended especially on the island.

  9. Thanks.

  10. eileenrivera says:

    I keep hearing my great-grandfather telling us that his brother left Puerto Rico, for Cuba, rather than become a US citizen in 1917.

  11. Michael Rodríguez says:

    I will add my two cents to some of the critical comments above.

    Given the paucity of discussion about Puerto Rican politics in the U.S., I appreciate the effort to draw historical connections and stimulate debate. However, it is in this regard that the essay most fails. Unfortunately, it cannot stimulate genuine debate because it lacks historical contextualization, a problem most evident in the unsubstantiated attempt to link the 1954 Nationalist attack on Congress and the recent Arizona tragedy. Rather simplistically, anyone could suggest these are similar events, as they both involve congresspersons, guns, shooting, and violence. But what do we really gain from such generic commonalities? How does this help us understand these events in their historical specificity? What details must we ignore to make such a connection?

    By framing this essay as a parallel story to the Giffords shooting, the author erases (intentionally or not) the qualitative differences between these events. Once again, the U.S. colonization of Puerto Rico is obscured and acts of Puerto Rican resistance (legitimated by international law) are demonized and criminalized. From my perspective, we cannot make sense of 1954 without an account of U.S. colonialism and its systematic exploitation, cultural imperialism, and violence against Puerto Ricans, as well as the political repression of the Nationalist party and parallel emergence of anti-colonial movements throughout the world. To the present day, the U.S. Congress holds plenary, in other words total, power over the fate of Puerto Rico – ELA notwithstanding. The ‘attack’ on Congress, which Lolita reminds us, was not designed to kill but to proclaim the world that Puerto Rico was still a colonial possession of the U.S.

    Clearly, there are many ways to interpret this complicated history. But this article does us a disservice. It washes away the broader historical context of 1954 all for the expediency of making generic connections.

  12. I see it as the darkest days because anyone who had a different ideal was harrased and oppressed to the point that Lolita had to take these extreme measures.

    Their is still time to build momentum with the Independence movement we are still a Colony.

  13. Thanks for your support! Viva La Colonia Mas Importante del Mundo… :)

  14. Ok.. If you are independent that that is fine then…

    My father was part of tbe Socialist movement with a few well known leaders. Till this day he is frustrated with how he was treated.

    When I told him I was going to serve in the U.S. Army that was like a kick in a bad place. The U.S. Army actually made me realize how more we need to fight to have our independence.

    Once again very thought provoking post.

  15. Very valid arguments Michael. The one thing that I must say is that I don’t necessarily believe that this article does a disservice in its entirety since, genuine or not, it still opens up this medium for discussion and allows for points of views and corrections to be made. Unfortunately, not enough people of Puerto Rican descent care to learn about Puerto Rico’s history, historical figures, events, etc. It is quite simply so much easier to yell at the top of their lungs once a year for about a month, Boricua, Puerto Rico.

    I would hope that instead of simply running around once a year with flags as adornments and trinkets, that this type of posting would stir some people enough to be motivated to search the historical significance of this event and the many more that have occurred throughout Puerto Rican history.

  16. I posted this on the Being Latino site as a response and I will do so here. To Michael, I think your grossly misinterpret this blog. My only point is that the mainstream media said thy the last US congressman shot before Giffords was in the late 1800s, and that is just not true. In no part of the article did I say that 1954 was connected to Loughner or was I making a connection between those two incidents. Also, am curious if you saw the 4-minute video I embedded in the blog post which presents a very rich and historical analysis of the event in a historical context. As a student of Puerto Rican history with a BA in that area, I am very aware of the historical context, which you eloquently state in your comment. In fact, future Being Latino blogs will be focusing on the many events in Puerto Rican history. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Gracias mil por tus comentarios. Viva nuestra querida isla.

  17. I love Social Media and the quickness that it delivers content for intelligent discourse and mature discussion of every relevant issue that the blogger has identified through his daily experiences within his local, regional , national, international or even UNIVERSAl both of a personal and even spiritual nature.
    My kudos to my son Julio Ricardo for entering into a world that few would dare to even consider immersing themselves in, for fear of reprisal, condemnation, disdain or even plain ridicule.
    Let’s start with the idea that everyone is RIGHT in every single comment that they write about or eventually act upon. All of the emotions and feelings expressed in every single writing are all based in the facts available to that person in that specific time and space in which they respond with a comment. This is everyone’s reality and their truth, thus they hold this to be RIGHT. Who are we but to celebrate the freedom that we have in our dear USA to be able to do so and more so now in the Internet to propagate what we hopefully intend to be our GIFT to the world, our unadulterated dose of truth of what we consider it to be the RIGHT thing to do to help others.
    I welcome one and all to continue to express themselves and to participate in sharing whatever there is that they consider their TRUTH to be. Their writings are creating a transformation not only of themselves, as they progress to encounter the views of others, pros or cons to what being RIGHT means to others, but more so how it will help to get ALL the majority of the people that just want to read, to also start questioning themselves and also firing up their willingness to come into the arena of discourse thus starting a transformation of their own.
    Pro-peace always, I remain at your service…papijulio

  18. An excellent, informative and thought-provoking post, Julio. I’d never even heard of this shooting before reading your post, the TIME article and watching the video. These are exactly the snapshots into Latino history we need to be examining, whether to make connections or simply build awareness and stimulate discussion within our communities. Thank you for writing it.

  19. El Profe says:

    ” By framing this essay as a parallel story to the Giffords shooting, the author erases (intentionally or not) the qualitative differences between these events. Once again, the U.S. colonization of Puerto Rico is obscured and acts of Puerto Rican resistance (legitimated by international law) are demonized and criminalized.”
    Por supuesto!

    The two incidents ARE IN NO WAY parallel ! Many of the comments that talk about a “sad day in Puerto Rican history”
    are, I would surmise, from writers who view events ahistorically and are disconnected from the liberation struggles of
    colonized people. They are undoubtedly postmodernist, post racialist, post-alities. Now THIS is what’s SAD, if there
    ever was sadness to be had!

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