10 Things to Know About Puerto Rican Hero Lolita Lebrón

On March 1, 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists entered the U.S. Capitol’s House of Representatives chamber shouting “Viva Puerto Rico Libre” ("Long Live Free Puerto Rico") as they opened fire at members of Congress, wounding five.

The nationalists – Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Miranda, Irving Flores Rodriguez and Andres Figueroa Cordero – were fighting for the freedom of their country, which has been under U.S. colonial control since 1898.

The 34-year-old Lebrón was the only woman among the freedom fighters. Dressed in vogue, with a stylish long dress, high heels and red lipstick, she shot her big Luger pistol to the ceiling before tossing it for a Puerto Rican flag she waved.

“I did not come to kill anyone, I came to die for Puerto Rico!" said the revolutionary, whose bold resistance earned her the epithet, “when terror wore lipstick.”

Whether called a terrorist or a solider of liberation, the late Lebrón is a Puerto Rican heroine, and her valor extends beyond that March day more than six decades ago.

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1. Things to Know About Puerto Rican Hero Lolita Lebron

Lolita Lebrón was born in Lares, Puerto Rico on November 19, 1919. Called a jíbara (a peasant), the young Lebrón, who held nationalistic beliefs but wasn’t very politically involved, spent much of her time caring for her sick father and daughter and, later, weaved clothes for a living. 

2. Things to Know About Puerto Rican Hero Lolita Lebron

Seeking a better life, the puertorriqueña moved to New York in the 1940s. But Lebrón quickly realized that the "American Dream" wasn’t as accessible to people from her island. She had difficulty finding a job, mostly because of her limited English. She later did find work as a seamstress in several factories, but she was often fired from her jobs for speaking out against the discrimination of Puerto Ricans. This mistreatment further influenced Lebrón’s nationalist views and inspired her to get involved in the Puerto Rican Liberation Movement.

3. Things to Know About Puerto Rican Hero Lolita Lebron

Lebrón officially joined the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party in 1946. The young revolutionary was driven, reading everything she could about the party’s president Pedro Albizu Campos and introducing new feminist initiatives. Lebrón’s dedication was noticed and well received, helping her reach high-level positions like secretary, vice president and executive delegate in New York.

4. Things to Know About Puerto Rican Hero Lolita Lebron

In 1954, Albizu Campos tasked Lebrón with leading an assault on the U.S. Capitol, which she, along with Rafael Miranda, Irving Flores Rodriguez and Andres Figueroa Cordero, executed on March 1 that year. The four of them walked to the spectators’ gallery upstairs and shot their guns while shouting pro-independence chants. The more than 240 members of Congress ran for cover. Five were injured, and none was killed. The freedom fighters had no intentions of murdering anyone during their attack. Rather, they had prepared to die in their struggle for liberation. Police officers later found a note in Lebrón’s purse, which also carried a tube of lipstick, saying, "My life I give for the freedom of my country. The United States of America are betraying the sacred principles of mankind in their continuous subjugation of my country."

5. Things to Know About Puerto Rican Hero Lolita Lebron

All four of the Puerto Rican nationalists were soon arrested and given lengthy prison sentences. Lebrón, who fired all of her shots at the ceiling, was cleared of assault with intent to kill charges, but she still received a 56-year sentence. She has said that her first two years incarcerated were the worst, particularly because both her son and mother passed away during this time. Later her daughter would die, too.

6. Things to Know About Puerto Rican Hero Lolita Lebron

In 1977, after serving more than 20 years behind bars, President Jimmy Carter granted clemency to Figueroa Cordero, who was dying of cancer. Two years later, the president commuted the sentences of the others, including Lebrón. Upon her release, the independence fighter said, “we didn’t do anything we should regret.” She added: “Everyone has the right to defend their right to freedom that God gave them.”

7. Things to Know About Puerto Rican Hero Lolita Lebron

With no regrets about her 1954 uprising, it’s no surprise that Lebrón, even in her old age, continued fighting for her country’s independence. She was a part of the struggle to oust the U.S. Navy from the island of Vieques, and, in 2001, at 81 years old, she was one of six people arrested for cutting through a fence on the island. She was protesting the 1999 death of a local security guard who was killed by an errant bomb dropped during a U.S. Navy training exercise. She served 60 days in jail.

8. Things to Know About Puerto Rican Hero Lolita Lebron

As she aged, Lebrón began to favor civil disobedience over armed action, even telling El Mundo newspaper in 1998 that “there is no need now to kill for freedom.” Her new position was largely influenced by religion. Black activist and former member of the Black Panther Party Assata Shakur, who was once imprisoned with Lebrón, wrote about the puertorriqueña’s faith in her book, “Assata: An Autobiography.” “Lolita was more revolutionary than [her critics] could ever be, and that her religion had helped her remain strong and committed all those years. … I know that wherever she is, she is praying and struggling for her people,” she wrote. Still, while Lebrón began to prefer a gentler approach for herself, she continued to support violent struggles. "I would not take up arms nowadays, but I acknowledge that the people have a right to use any means available to free themselves," she told the paper.

9. Things to Know About Puerto Rican Hero Lolita Lebron

Lebrón passed away of heart and lung failure on August 1, 2010 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

10. Things to Know About Puerto Rican Hero Lolita Lebron

Lolita Lebrón’s legacy is remembered and celebrated today, with murals across neighborhoods in Puerto Rico, New York and Chicago as well as supporters like Shakur, Angela Davis and the late Yuri Kochiyama. Even Puerto Rican actress Gina Rodriguez hopes to pay homage to the revolutionary. When asked which Latina icon she’d love to play onscreen, the “Jane the Virgin” star said Lebrón. “The Puerto Rican nationalist that my grandma has admired for my entire life. To play her life or a slice of it would make my grandma’s world. And truthfully, that’s one of my goals in life — to make my grandma proud,” Rodriguez said.